"Isaac, called to the Torah as a Bar Mitzvah, July 7, 2012."
These words, printed on cards at my 12-year-old cousin's entrance into Jewish adulthood, marked the beautiful celebration my family and I participated in last week.
"Torah," of course, means the first five books of the Hebrew Bible-- what Christians call "the Law." But it turns out that the word "torah" doesn't mean "law." It means "learning," and Jewish people treat the Torah as a tremendous gift of God to be celebrated with delight and reverence. In fact, they treat all forms of learning with joy, and a person's individual, special learning or talent in any area is called his or her "torah." "Bar mitzvah" means "son of commandment," and it refers both to the ceremony and to the boy undergoing it (a girl would be a "bat mitzvah"). Years of study and preparation go into this one day of joyous fulfillment.
My family isn't Jewish, nor is my husband's-- but each of us has a relative who married someone Jewish. My Jewish relatives have always lived far away, so I had never been to a bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah before. I was deeply impressed.
The bar mitzvah started the evening before, at the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath. We went to the local temple and were led in song by a warm, kind woman rabbi dressed in flowing purple, playing the guitar. She showed us that temple's Torah-- a tall scroll wrapped in cream-colored velvet with gold thread, topped with silver covers for the two poles, kept in a beautiful wooden cabinet called an "ark." The Torah was made of lambskins, sewn together with deer sinews, and written by hand in ancient Hebrew by a scribe who used ink made of oak galls, as Torahs have been made for thousands of years. (My cousin learned to make this ink as part of his studies.) The rabbi seemed lit from within by joy and peace as she sang the ancient prayers in Hebrew, which we tried our best to follow in our transliterated prayer books. The English translations of many of the prayers were familiar, from the Psalms or other portions of what I know as the Old Testament. Shabbat shalom -- peaceful sabbath-- were the words on everyone's lips.
After the service we each drank a small cup of wine or grape juice to consecrate the Shabbat, and then a long, braided rope of sweet bread called "challah" was shared. When the bread was broken, we each reached out and touched the person next to us until everyone was touching someone who was touching the challah. Then we shared the bread by taking a piece, tearing off a small bit, and passing it to the person next to us. I felt a strong sense of community and connectedness as we did this. It made me wish my own church's communion ceremony could be shared more in this way, so that it would be communion not only with the Spirit of God, but also with one another.
The next day we met in the morning at a local lodge, since there were too many of us to fit in the temple. Dressed in our best, we again followed the songs in the prayer books as the rabbi led them. Isaac was introduced as the Bar Mitvah, and was given a new tallit (prayer shawl) and yarmulke (prayer hat) by his parents. Then the Torah, which had been brought to the lodge for the event and placed in a temporary "ark" (a table with blankets over it) was carefully uncovered and given to Isaac's mother. She carried the Torah in procession through the aisles, as people reached out with their prayer books or the tassels of their prayer shawls and touched it, then kissed the book or shawl. I was again struck by all the joy, and the naturalness with which people enjoyed their traditions. Evangelical churches tend to pride themselves on not having traditions (though we have them, just the same-- we just don't call them that), and I couldn't help feeling that we are missing something, or have lost it. The evangelical branch of Christianity originally turned from tradition and liturgy because of a feeling that the traditions and liturgies had become more important than the meanings behind them-- but I felt no sense of that in this ceremony or the people celebrating it. They knew the difference, and they were not afraid of tradition, but let it help them realize the meaning behind it, not obscure it.
After the procession the Torah was brought back to the stage, or "bimah,"and reverently "undressed" by removing its silver caps and velvet cover, then unrolled on the table. Then groups of people were called to the stage-- Isaac's cousins, aunts and uncles, teachers, etc.-- where a representative of the group would read in English a portion of the story being shared (it was the story from Numbers 22 about Balaam and King Balak who tried to get him to curse the Israelites as they passed through Moab). Then a Jewish person would chant or sing a portion directly from the Torah in Hebrew, using a silver pointer to find the words on the scroll. The rabbi would bless each group, which would then leave the stage as the next group came on. As Isaac's cousin by marriage, I was in one of the groups. The rabbi enjoyed very much seeing the multitude of Isaac's family and blessing us all.
Finally, Isaac himself was called to read from the Torah for the first time. He did very well, and I can only imagine his emotion as he performed this rite of passage into adulthood. His parents gave him words of advice from their favorite quotations (his father broke down in tears, which was very sweet and moving), and the rabbi blessed them. Isaac then gave a teaching from research he had done, and then the Torah was "dressed" and rolled up again and given to Isaac to carry in procession though the aisles a second time.
The ceremony concluded with a delightful play, in costume, by Isaac and his friends, re-enacting the story of Balaam, his donkey, the angel, and king Balak. If I tell you that Balak's emissaries were re-cast as mafia thugs, bribing Balaam with a briefcase full of play money, you will get some idea of the tone. We all laughed and laughed.
I was so proud of Isaac; he handled himself confidently and well throughout the whole event, which lasted two hours!
We had a light luncheon of traditional Jewish foods, and later that evening a huge party with feasting and dancing and people being lifted on chairs and carried around. Great fun. There was a cake made to look like a Torah scroll, and cookies with Stars of David on them. My family and I helped clean up, and went back exhausted and happy to the aunt-and-uncle's house where we were staying.
I think the thing that made the greatest impression on me was how easy it was to worship with these spiritual cousins of my own faith. I felt the presence of God in the singing, and I easily entered into the enthusiasm of the praise. The Jewish worshipers so clearly loved God and one another. Also, it was fun! I'll always remember this event as one of mingled holiness and joy, in the celebration of faith and family. I'm honored to have been a part of it.