The following was from my b(r)at mitzvah, on Friday, November 8, 2019. Some portions were edited for relevancy.
If I haven’t made it known to you, the good folks here at Fairmount Temple, then let me state it for the official record: I am the world’s biggest Rolling Stones fan. (Okay, maybe more like Cleveland’s biggest Rolling Stones fan.) However, what I am about to share with you isn’t from the world’s greatest rock and roll band. It comes from Thomas Earl “Tom” Petty, of blessed memory, and the band he led, called the Heartbreakers.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers released an album in 1991 called “Into the Great Wide Open,” which also featured a song of the same name. In that song, it discusses a high school graduate named Eddie entering Hollywood to become a musician, just to end up being completely destroyed by the music industry. The refrain of the song is what I remember the most of that song:
“Into the great wide open / under them skies of blue / out in the great wide open / a rebel without a clue”
A rebel without a clue. Kind of like the name of the James Dean film, “A Rebel Without a Cause.”
In this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, we meet Abram, “a rebel without a set of idols to worship”. And just how is Abram a rebel like James Dean and Eddie? Abram decided to do something completely radical that no one else before him had ever done in recorded history: he made a conscious choice to follow one God, and not the many gods his family and his village did so freely. In fact, Abram was working as an idol maker in his father’s workshop when Abram made his choice to go, well, Biblically rogue.
At the tender age of seventy-five years old (and yes, that is considered young in Biblical standards), Abram got the call from God, telling him to go forth (“Lech Lecha”) from his father’s house in Haran, to a place where God will take him and bless him, his family, and his descendants thereafter, called Canaan. Abram took his family, including his sister-wife, Sarai, his orphaned nephew, Lot, and their wealth of cattle and humans out into the great wide open.
In the commentary, “Mishneh Torah, Laws of Idolatry,” from Moses ben Maimon, also known by his Hellenized surname, Maimonides, Abram began exploring how the world rotated without a visual device of some sort. “How is it possible,” Maimonides says about Abram’s thoughts regarding the world, “that this orb moves constantly without a mover, or one who causes it to rotate? It is impossible for the orb to rotate itself!” Maimonides eventually points out that Abram, at the age of forty, comes to realize that there is only one possible force to allow the world to rotate, to give it the tools to rotate, and the space to rotate; that force would be God. Based between this revelation and God’s call to go forth to a new land, the time span was about thirty-five years.
It would be yet another twenty-four years before Abram would make, at the age of ninety-nine, the ultimate choice: to make a covenant, or pact, with God by the way of self-circumcision. This choice made Abram became the first convert to worship this God and God alone. God would give Abram a new name, Abraham, as well as give Sarai her new name, Sarah.
When I converted to Judaism back in April 2015, the time span, between wanting to become Jewish and taking the immersion in the mikvah, wasn’t as long as Abraham’s, luckily.
In the online blog series called “Jewish&,” writer Avigail Rivkah Hasofer discusses about her own journey converting to Judaism. Hasofer states that “sometimes your soul knows, before your mind, where it needs to go.” Hasofer’s journey into the great wide open included relocating from Massachusetts to Alabama to help with her son’s family and finding her way of serving God that she couldn’t find in various churches.
What Abraham, Hasofer, and I all have in common with this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, are twofold: the realization of the need for a fulfilling life and the willingness to go through hell and high water (or, as it was told to me growing up, “high hell water”) to achieve a fulfilling life.
In order for me to realize my need for a fulfilling life and the will to do what was necessary to get there, I had two of the biggest challenges in this great wide open vastness of this universe: first, I had to learn how to be a human being, and second, I had to learn how to be a better human being.
When I was in the mikvah during the conversion ceremony, I did a total of three full body immersions in between blessings and prayers. It was in the second immersion that a vision appeared from the light piercing through the waters; a tall person lending a hand to a shorter person, saying: “Come, young Padawan. Let us go together.” That’s when I realized that the voice I heard from the taller person was the grown up version of me calling for me, the shorter person, as a young child. It was like my present self was reconciling with my past self. However, there was a new discovery: the vision I had in the mikvah, I would later come to realize, was a metaphor of what was yet to come in my larger journey; the journey in my so-called life.
In order to fully understand the vision I had in the mikvah, I first took on the task of how to be a human being. For me, this involved granting myself permission to try and err without the fear of the world ending. Some choices I made were good, and some choices I made were not so much as good. The good choices I made, I would learn to keep making them. The not so good choices? I would learn not to repeat them.
I completed the first task to my satisfaction, I took on the second task; how to be a better human being. And during the process of becoming a Bat Mitzvah, I have to admit: I am still working on this task as I stand here before you. In this second task, I had to learn how to improve my social and communication skills, something that I was not gifted with at birth. At times, the words I used were very helpful to fellow human beings. This would become apparent during my times coming to the temple for Torah studies on Wednesday and Saturday mornings as well as attending Friday night Shabbat services. At other times, my words would be very hurtful. I had to process which sets of words and behaviors were appropriate for each situation I was involved in. Sometimes, I got it right. Other times, I got it so wrong, that I ended up losing relationships as a result.
However, that is the beauty of Lech Lecha: we have the opportunity to go and to grow. We as Jews have the ability to go seek out a life more fulfilling by following God’s lead. And when we do sojourn that life, we have the ability to grow from our choices we already made, to make even better choices in the great wide open scheme of things. Abraham did it, Hasofer did it, and now I am doing it.
Case in point, a few months ago, back in August, I had some pretty significant surgery performed on me. The road to get to this surgical destination actually started a few weeks after my conversion to Judaism was complete. In the perioperative area, as I was getting ready to be rolled into the operating room, the surgeon asked me something that struck me as a bit odd at first: “would you like for me to hold your hand?” Without hesitation, I said: “yes.” It was when the surgeon took my hand and stroked it with his thumb, the vision from the mikvah came right back: the grown up me holding the hand of the young Padawan me. The surgeon walked with me, holding my hand, as we went into the operating room together, which the room beamed like a bright light shining through the mikvah waters.
So now this portion of my Jewish adventure is almost over. Once I am done with this here Biblical book report, I get to go read from the Torah itself, marking the end of this portion of my life journey, awaiting the next road into the great wide open.