“Isser, please stay behind with me,” the Rabbi calls out as the cheder ends for the day.
“Yes, Rabbi.” The boy walks over to the Rabbi’s desk. Outside he hears the others get into a run, all heading home. His stomach growls. Mother is waiting at home with stewed cabbage and the usual dark bread. The lantern on the Rabbis desk flickers, throwing shadows on the walls of the cheder.
“Isser, the Rabbi looks at him over the rim of his glasses, “next Shabbos is closest after your thirteenth birthday, is it not?”
“Yes, Rabbi.” Isser pokes deeper into his pockets. He knows he should look forward to this, but he doesn’t.
“So it will be your Bar Mitzvah. Have you talked to your mother about this?”
“No, Rabbi.” What would there be to talk about. Mother cannot afford the customary feast, besides, his father won’t be there.
“Why not, Isser, it is a very important day?”
“I don’t have anything to say about it, Rabbi, Mother has enough to think of without it.”
“You are worried about the cost of the feast?” The Rabbi takes off his glasses. “Or is it something else?”
“Well…it’s that, and then it’s my father.” The boy shuffles his feet. His heart sinks into his feet, he cannot look at the Rabbi.
“What about your father, Isser, he is dead, yes? Oh, I see, you are troubled because you will be up on the bimah alone, without anyone to stand with you?”
“Yes Rabbi.” A hard lump chokes him up.
“I see.” The Rabbi leans back in his chair, stroking his beard. “How would you like it if I stood with you on the bimah on the Shabbos of your Bar Mitzvah?”
“Would you do that, Rabbi?” Isser raises his eyes from the floor and looks at the Rabbi.
“Yes, Isser, and I would think it an honor.” The Rabbi smiles. “have you thought about the Torah Portion yet?”
“No, not really, Rabbi.” He hadn’t thought there would be any Bar Mitzvah, he hadn’t wanted it, so why think about it.
“Which is the Torah Reading on the next Shabbos?” The Rabbi looked at him, a small smile playing in his eyes.
“What is that about?”
“It’s about Yaakov blessing his sons, Rabbi.”
“Yes, Isser, how does the Reading begin?”
“Ya’akov makes Yossef swear that he will not bury him in Egypt.”
“Can you make that fit your own life, Isser? If you are Yossef and your father is Yaakov, how would it be written?” The Rabbi turned to the bookshelf behind him, took out a book and leafed through it.
Isser didn’t know what to do or say. But he doesn’t dare to leave either.
The Rabbi looks up. Frowning.
“Are you still here, Isser. Don’t you have a dvar torah to write? Better run home and do it.” He returns his gaze to the book.
“Rabbi,” Isser draws a breath, “what do I tell my Mother? She will be worried about the feast,” he pulls out his hat and puts it on.
“Oh, yes. Tell her that it will be taken care of, and that she will be proud of her son.” The Rabbi smiles and nods towards the door. “Now hurry home!”
“Yes, Rabbi!” Isser turns and runs all the way home, to his Mother, her stewed cabbage and the warmth of his home.
Isser looks out into the room.The Shul is full. Everyone is looking at him. He recalls that morning as he tries to calm his stomach.
Just before Shul, Mendel the Beadle came to him with a small package in his hands.
“Mazel Tov, Isser!” he says when he gives the package to Isser. Isser opens it. It’s a small pouch, he recognizes it. It’s his father’s Tefillin! “Your Mother gave these to me to have them repaired a month ago. They are yours now.” Mendel the Beadle moves away. While he stands with his father’s Tefillin pouch in one hand and tears in his eyes, Lazar the Weaver touches his shoulder from behind and hands him another package. Isser looks up, sniffles and tries to cover his face behind the Tefillin pouch.
“Mazel Tov, Isser!” he clasps Isser’s shoulder. “I had to sneak this past your Mother, with a little help from your sister, but now it has fresh new Tzitzit.” Isser realizes that he is holding his father’s Tallit. How is he going to get through the Torah Reading and the dvar torah, when people keep making him cry. He beams at Lazar the Weaver, and rushes into the Shul, seeking refuge in the crowd.
“Are you ready, Isser?” The Rabbi takes hold of him. “Shall we go put those on?” he asks and nods to the two bundles Isser is holding. He moves towards the front pews.
“Yes, please, Rabbi.” Isser follows the Rabbi. A short while later he is all ready, wearing the required marks of his adulthood. The prayers rise and fall around him, following an ancient cadence of spiritual intimacy. He tries to recall the words he has prepared as his speech on the Torah portion. He cannot. All he can think of is the feel of his father’s tefillin and tallit wrapping his body. Then his name is called for the First Reading. He gets up, looks for the Rabbi. The Rabbi stands with him, and they walk to the bimah together. Everyone is looking.
He hadn’t thought about that part. Suddenly he feels more shy than usual. He looks towards the mechitza at the back of the small shul. Somewhere behind it is his mother and sister. The chazzan moves the yad over the Torah text, Isser reads, steady and strong without falter to the last letter of the portion. The Rabbi motions him towards the pews. They sit. Six more readings and then he must get up and speak.
As he watches the Torah scroll being returned to the Ark, he runs through his memory, taking hold of all the thoughts he decided to share. The Rabbi nods to him. He gets up and walks up on the bimah for the second time. He looks at the Rabbi, Mendel the Beadle, and Lazar the Weaver in turn. They smile and nod.
“A week ago I feared this day. I had not thought about what to say. The Rabbi asked me about what the Torah says at the beginning of today’s Reading – it says: “And when the time approached for Israel to die, he summoned his son Joseph and said to him, “Do me this favor, place your hand under my thigh as a pledge of your steadfast loyalty: please do not bury me in Egypt. When I lie down with my fathers, take me up from Egypt and bury me in their burial-place.” He replied, “I will do as you have spoken.” And he said, “Swear to me.” And he swore to him.” and then the Rabbi asked me: “If you are Yossef and your father is Yaakov, how would it be written?”
My father, as you all know, is dead. He has already been buried. So how can I promise not to bury him in Egypt? I cannot, can I? Yes I can. Even if my father is dead, who he is, and what he gave me is here with me. If I, as we are commanded by Torah, honor his teachings, that are all our teachings, and accept that the Torah he taught me, is my Torah as much as it was his, then I have already promised not to bury him in Egypt, away from his people, among ideals and ideas that are foreign to him, or to the Rabbi who was kind enough to stand with me today, when my father could not.”
Isser looks out over the faces, finds one that he has dreaded finding there today. He swallows and draws a deep breath.
“Yankel, the green grocer, I owe you the price of a jar of applesauce since last Chanukah. I stole it from you. Today I will pay for it. Will you accept my coin as restitution for my theft?” Every head turns towards the green grocer. Isser holds his breath. Yankel, the green grocer nods and stands.
“I will, Isser, Dov the Tinker’s son, I will, as soon as the service is concluded, I will.”
This is part of the Reflections at the Magick Tree 12 days of Yule Blog Party