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Finding Strength in the Light

Just Call Him Bob

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
BOSTON -- We're here to attend the bar mitzvah of my eldest grandson, Aviav, who's named in honor of his other grandfather, the one he never met. By now he's gotten used to spelling out his first name, which is Hebrew for father of my father, but the pronunciation may escape folks. Like the violin teacher he had who tried and tried but just couldn't get her tongue around his name. ("What's that again? Av ... uh, Av ... Avi ...") That's when Aviav, always trying to be helpful, told her: "Call me Bob."

Now he stands before the congregation to chant the ancient prayers, read from the Torah scroll, and finally deliver his own commentary on Nitzavim, this week's designated portion of Scripture -- not that I'm sufficiently learned to appreciate it.

The spirit of bar mitzvahs past, present and future is strong in this modest little synagogue; you can sense it. Surely this place is holy and I, I knew it not.

Looking around, I see ghosts everywhere. They started appearing when we recited the magical words of the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead (Yisgadal v'yiskadash sh'mei rabbah . . .), and were soon shimmering next to us. That's when the realization hit: We were all praying together, the quick and the dead.

Maybe the apparitions had something to do with my hanging a bunch of old pictures in my study back in Little Rock before we left home. Because there were Zeyde Chaim and Bubba Chava (Grandpa Charlie and Grandma Eve, the grand matriarch and mother courage of my side of the family), along with my father as a young immigrant fresh from the old country -- and already an aspiring American businessman complete with fountain pen in his vest pocket. My namesake Pesach the Gritsmaker in his black kaftan peers out from an ornate frame, and other forebears look down from their perches here and there on the walls. Not content to stay where I'd left them in Little Rock, they all seem to have followed me here.

The bar mitzvah boy's mother, my daughter, got that old-time religion while a student at Brandeis years ago and became Shomer Shabbos, one who strictly observes the sabbath, so I can no longer phone her on Saturdays. But now we were all together for the bar mitzvah.

I can remember her Texas born-and-bred grandfather taking me aside at her wedding as all rites were observed in more than full to warn me she was "joining a cult." Which is how we tend to think of any religious practices stricter than our own. But today came the happy ending: the sight and sound of Aviav delivering his own commentary on Nitzavim.

Young Aviav reviewed the commentaries he'd studied so carefully, including that of Rashi, the foremost medieval scholar of Holy Writ, who asked why this portion of the Torah used the verb nitzavim instead of the more ordinary omdim for "You are standing...." And answered: Because nitzavim has the connotation of standing firmly, not just standing. And standing together with others, united, not just for one generation but through all time. Or as Scripture tells the story:

On the last day of Moses' life, as he was preparing to hand the reins to his successor Joshua, he gathered all the people of Israel together and told them:

"You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God. Your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from the chopper of wood to the drawer of water, to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God which the Lord your God is concluding with you this day...."

That is, all the souls who have gone before, who are here today, and will come in the future. What a difference a single word can make.

The spirit of Rashi's interpretation of the biblical verse is not entirely different from Edmund Burke's definition of what makes a continuing nation -- a social contract between past, present and future. Society, he wrote in his "Reflections on the Revolution in France" back in 1790, "is a partnership ... not only between those who are living, but between those who are dead, and those who are to be born."

That contract, compact, covenant or whatever we choose to call it, is violated when one generation runs up debt and leaves others to pay for it. It is violated when one generation fails to conserve its natural inheritance -- fields, forests, mountains, lakes and rivers -- for those who come afterward. It is violated when historic structures are neglected or ancient rights ignored. It is violated when one heedless generation decides it no longer needs to defend its freedom and moves to appease the latest aggressor to come along. And risks the safety and security of all. It is violated when ... well, name your own favorite example and warning. God knows there are enough to choose from among today's headlines.

Here endeth today's lesson. Thank you, Aviav ben David. You made us proud. And hopeful.

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