Updated: Oct 13, 2022
Yom Kippur Sermon by Rabbi David Baum
I’m about to begin my fourteenth year as rabbi of our congregation, which means I started thirteen years ago. My bar mitzvah year coincides with another bar mitzvah in our family as our oldest son Avi becomes a bar mitzvah in November at Shaarei Kodesh.
I’ve officiated at many bnai mitzvah over the year, but this one is different for me for obvious reasons.
During our family education courses at Shaarei Kodesh, we ask our Bnai Mitzvah families to write letters to their children as they become Jewish adults.
Now, the teacher becomes the student. I want to share this letter with you, The letter isn’t just for my son, but for all of our children who are about to embark on the journey to adulthood during these precarious times. But it’s also a letter for each one of us who is on that path of Jewish adulthood:
Today is a serious day, it’s Yom Kippur, it’s when we allow ourselves one day to contemplate death, and what comes after.
Today is a day of remembrance, but it is also a day of looking into the future. I can think of no better metaphor than you becoming a bar mitzvah.
At 8 days, you were brought into the covenant with your Brit Milah. We brought you into the covenant, without your consent; thankfully, you don’t remember that day. It was a first for us as parents, to see you laying on the table with your grandfathers holding you as you cried after the ‘procedure’.
To see you in pain was one of the worst feelings we’d ever had - as parents, all we want to do is protect you from pain; maybe we do that a little too much.
At 30 days, you were redeemed by the Cohen for your Pidyon HaBen - and you performed one of your very first mitzvoth by donating money to tzedakah - it was to HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the organization that helped bring your namesake, Abram and his family, including your Grandma Rachel, to this country.
But, again, you didn’t consent.
At 3 years old, we cut your hair at your Upsherin introducing you to Torah as we taught you the Alef-Bet with the sweetness of honey, and the warmth of family and community. At your Upsherin, you gave even more tzedakah to make the world a better place.
But again, you didn’t consent.
And now, at 13, we come to another milestone, you are becoming a bar mitzvah. There’s nothing to cut today, don’t worry, and a Cohen isn’t coming to take you away from us.
As you become a bar mitzvah, you can finally choose the life you want to live. This time, you consent, you will begin your own, unique journey.
During those other days, we gave you the following blessing which we will repeat when you become a bar mitzvah: we bless you with a life of Torah, chuppah, the Huppah/the wedding canopy, and a life of Ma’asim Tovim, good deeds.
First, I want to talk about Torah. Torah is a lot of things, but I want you to think about it as
a chain letter. You’ve had email for a while now; you know when you get an email that says, “you have to pass this on to three people, and you will have good luck, but if you don’t, you’ll have bad luck.” Oftentimes, we don’t really know the people who send us the chain letters. The Torah is like our chain letter, but we know who started the chain.
Like a chain letter, the process of passing it on has a lot of responsibility and a lot of power, and even a small amount of fear. Bad things could happen if we all crumpled up that chain letter or simply delete it.
The Jewish people could cease to exist. But great things could happen as well to the Jewish people and the Jewish faith. There is a saying that everyone should have two truths in their pocket. One truth says, “I am only dust and ashes.” The other truth says, “The world was created for my sake.” Now is the time for you to understand the second truth. The Jewish world was created for the sake of each of our young people, for you.
At your bar mitzvah ceremony, we will say the words: Baruch Shepetrani MeOnshoh Shel Zeh - Blessed be the One who has freed me of the spiritual responsibility for this child, or, literally, Blessed be the One who frees us from the sins of our child.
This might be the hardest thing we will say as parents, maybe even harder than watching you at your Brit Milah.
That prayer means that you are now responsible, it’s the beginning of us letting you go - to make your own mistakes, to heal your own wounds - it’s the beginning of us saying to you, ‘we will not be around forever’ and hopefully, you will be here on earth for many years after we have passed, in a long time from now.
When we say these words, we share our fears for the future.
When I was growing up, we had once in a generation hurricanes - but now, the once in a generation hurricanes are happening once every other year.
The climate is changing and the weather is becoming more and more extreme. Humanity’s future on earth is in doubt like it has never been before. It’s not politics to bring this up, it is scientific fact.
There is so much to fear as we face the future, so much so that there is a growing movement of young people are considering not having children.
But, even though we are facing a world wise crisis like we’ve never faced before, our people have stared oblivion in the face, and we have to look no further than the first Jew, our father Abraham, who is also your name sake.
After he survives a battle but before he has children, he speaks to God, and he shares his fears about the future:
אֲדֹנָ֤י יֱי מַה־תִּתֶּן־לִ֔י וְאָנֹכִ֖י הוֹלֵ֣ךְ עֲרִירִ֑י
“O Lord GOD, what can You give me, seeing that I shall die childless?”
Keep in mind, in the ancient world, not having children to take on your legacy was the end of their world.
God takes Abraham outside of his tent, and God tells him:
הַבֶּט־נָא הַשָּׁמַיְמָה וּסְפֹר הַכּוֹכָבִים אִם־תּוּכַל לִסְפֹּר אֹתָםוַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ כֹּה יִהְיֶה זַרְעֶךָ׃
“Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” And He added, “So shall your offspring be.”
The Midrash says that God didn’t just take him outside, God took Abraham above the clouds - Abraham looked up at the stars above, and on the earth below (Genesis Rabbah 44:12).
In this way, God taught Abraham a lesson: your legacy is bigger than just you. Your job is to see the big picture - to see yourself as part of something larger. Not just what’s in front of you, but what is above you, and below you.
This is why we bless you with Huppah - the wedding canopy. The Huppah might be the most audacious symbol we have. A delicate structure that can seemingly fall at any moment, and yet, we stand under it as couples with confidence that the future will be better than our past despite the challenges we know we will face.
To be a Jew is to take on the task of being future-focused - looking beyond even further than you can see. Our sacred task as Jews is to be dreamers.
One day, a long time ago, a simple Jew named Choni HaMa’agel sought the meaning of one sentence, “A Song of Ascents. When God brings about the return to Zion, we were like dreamers…”
It is a vision of the future that references the past. Choni asked God to show him the meaning of this mysterious text.
The next day, he happened to be walking along the road and noticed an old man, bending over and panting while planting a sapling of a carob tree. Choni goes up to the old man and asks him: “how long does it take for this tree to bear fruit?”
The old man stops working for just a moment and tells Choni:
“This tree will take 70 years to produce fruit, but I’m sorry, I can’t talk right now, I don’t have a lot of time,”
Choni was really confused and asked what anyone else would ask:
“Do you really think that you will live 70 more years to taste from the fruits of this tree?”
The old man put down his shovel, looks at Choni and says:
“I found this carob tree in this world, just as my grandfather planted the tree for my sake, so I’m planting this tree for my grandchild.”
Choni is puzzled, and he still doesn’t know what the pasuk means! He sits down, a deep sleep overtakes over him, and he sleeps for 70 years!
Finally, Choni wakes up, and starts walking around, looking desperately for someone to ask what day it was. He then notices another old man picking carobs from the saplings of the tree that the other old man had planted.
He asks him, “Do you know who planted the tree? He, looks like you, but different, but maybe I was wrong, are you him?”
The old man replies - “No, I am not, this tree was planted by my father’s father, 70 years ago.” And then, he understood what had happened – he became a dreamer, and he realized, dreamers plant trees that will give fruit to our unborn descendants, but not for us.
Dreamers are people that use their past to better shape their future.
Dreamers are influenced by challenges and adversity and know the road ahead is paved by their ancestors, and they walk that path to keep it alive.
To be a dreamer means that you have to think about the future, no matter how daunting.
To be a dreamer, you have to look beyond yourself. Dreamers live with urgency, just like the old man who planted the carob tree – they actively plant seeds for the future.
And I would add, dreamers care more about the future than even the present. They work so hard because they want to leave a better world for their grandchildren – they want their children to taste the fruits that could never have grown in their lifetimes!
As you age in life, you have to come to the realization – you will not see all the flowers of the seeds that you are planting.
As God showed Abraham during his hour of fear: “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars.”
Harriet Tubman, who was born a slave but escaped and led a movement to free slaves in pre-Civil War America once said, “Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.”
At your Brit Milah, and your bar mitzvah, we will bless you with a life of Ma’asim Tovim, good deeds.
When you were born, we gave you a name. Again, you didn’t choose the name, we chose it for you. But now, as you become a Jewish adult, it’s time for you to create your own name. The Midrash teaches the following about our names and our actions:
“Every time a person increases the number of good deeds, Ma’asim Tovim, he performs, he/she adds to his/her good name. You find that a person is known by three names: the name by which their parents call them, the name by which other people call them, and the one he/she earns for himself/herself; the most important name is the one he/she earns for himself.”
You cannot live for our ancestors alone; you must cultivate your own ‘good’ names.
The first name is given to us by our parents. This name gives us a sense of responsibility to live up to the good lives lived by our ancestors. We stand on the shoulders of giants - we can see farther than them, but the only reason we can see farther is because of them, and not just them, but because of their ancestors.
The second name is what other people call us by which is sometimes out of our control. I know it’s not easy being the rabbi’s kid, and sometimes people think that you are an extension of me; it can be a tremendous burden that I will never know.
Perhaps this is why the Midrash says that we have a third name, the one we earn for ourselves is the most important name. The third name is the reputation we earn with our good deeds or our regrettable actions. We earn this name on a daily basis by choosing how we act in the world, both in the real world and the virtual world.
The third name builds off of the first two names. We may be known by our ancestors’ names, but it is up to us to ensure that we live lives that would make them proud and to take on the ideals that they strove for in their lives. But we cannot live by their names alone, even if others see us as an extension of that person. The third name is in your hands alone, which is why it is so important.
You will earn your name through the good deeds you will perform in the years to come, in the relationships, you will build, in the lives you will change for the better, and in the positive difference that you will make in this world.
Son, I want to end with something I talked about in the beginning; it’s difficult to hear, but it’s the truth: we won’t be here for you forever. God willing, you will live many years on this earth after we have taken our last breaths.
Recently, a writer named Dan Sullivan devised a question to help people make their future seem bigger than their past: “The moment your past becomes bigger than your future, you die.” This is why our people have lived for so long, and we hope, for much longer.
Your Imma and I, along with generations of parents before us, are passing on our tradition to you. As Jews, we are alive because our future is always bigger than our past. That’s why our people are still here; because we put our hopes and dreams into you.
I taught you about Choni the dreamer in the Talmud. But there’s another dreamer I want to teach you about: your namesake, Abram Musman, your grandmother’s father who you never met, but only hear stories of.
My aunt told me a story of why she gave her son the Hebrew name Betzalel. She had just given birth to her second child, her first boy, and her father had one request: “It is very important for me that you name your son Betzalel. Would you please do me this favor?”
One thing you will learn Avi, if you are blessed to have children; parents will always have an opinion regarding the name of your child. Parents suggest’ names for their grandkids, and then, when you don’t listen to them, they let you know how they feel.
But my aunt told me that this situation was different because he shared a family secret with her. Your namesake, Abram Musman, was born in a town called Opole, Poland, but moved to Warsaw to become a tailor’s apprentice when he was in 2nd grade. We didn’t know much about the time from childhood to when he became a prisoner at the Auschwitz Concentration Camp.
He told her a secret that he held for close to 50 years when his youngest daughter had her first son: "I want you to name him Betzalel after my first son who was murdered in Auschwitz.” For decades, we had no idea that he had a family before he met my grandmother.
It was at that moment, many years ago, that I decided to name my future firstborn son after him. His courage was not just in surviving, but in building a new future, not just for him, not just for me, but for you, the great-grandchild he would never meet. Survival is not enough; we must also dream for the future, and journey forward.
Rabbi Donniel Hartman, the head of the Hartman Institute in Israel once said, “The deepest lesson of the Holocaust is in the responsibility it places on all of our shoulders. As Jews, we are all survivors. As a people who survived, we did not choose the path of bitterness and despair. We chose the path of recommitment to life, its challenges, opportunities and responsibilities. When we remember the Holocaust and all of our Jewish tragedies, we mourn those who died, and give new respect to those who survived and the ways they survived, and commit ourselves to walking in their path.”
We pass this legacy to you - a heart of hope that has beaten for generations - and when you’re in trouble, and we’re not there, put your hand on your heart, and feel it beat. That beat is your mother and me. It is the heart of Bnai Israel who were taken from slavery to freedom and to Torah; it is the heart of the great prophets and kings of Israel; the heart of Choni who learned the importance of planting seeds for the future.
You have the heart of Abraham, the first Jew, who looked beyond the present to gaze to the future that we will never see with our own eyes, and the heart of your great-grandfather Abram who bravely decided to bring new life into the world after his world, and the entire world, was almost destroyed.
And I hope and pray that you continue on our legacy, but also build a legacy of your own, and make your own name great. And I hope that you dream, that you dream so big, that you reach so high that it changes the world, not just for you, but for those who will come long after you.
May you journey in peace and with purpose,
Imma and Abbah, and all of your ancestors who signed this book of life, our Torah that we pass on to you today.