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Torah Commentary
B'har (May 16, 2015)

Bettijane Eisenpreis

Im behukosai telehu, v’es mitzvosai tismeru v’ahseesem ohtam...

I LEARNED THE FIRST LINE of Parashat B’chukotai (Behukosai in the Ashkenazic pronunciation) many, many years ago, and I never have forgotten it. B’har/B’chukotai is usually a double portion, as it is this year, but it happens that the year I studied it was a leap year. So, the two parashiyot stood alone.

Why did I learn that line, and why do I still remember it?

For nearly 100 years, Temple Emanu-El did not have b’nei mitzvah. To promote gender equality, Reform Judaism initially abolished the bar mitzvah in favor of Confirmation for boys and girls. After World War II, many congregations reinstated the bar mitzvah for boys and in the 1970s added the bat mitzvah for girls — but not Temple Emanu-El. Many members disapproved of the elaborate parties that accompanied some modern bar mitzvah services. Along with one or two other congregations, we remained true to Confirmation in the spirit of Classical Reform Judaism.

And then my son Steven was 12. One day, he came home from Sunday school and told me about a book the class was studying, Once Upon a Lifetime. “It says in that book,” he told me, “that every Jewish boy becomes a bar mitzvah at 13.”

I explained that traditionally a Jewish male was considered a “son of the Covenant” and could be counted in a minyan at 13. “However,” I said, “we don’t have bar mitzvah ceremonies here at Emanu-El.”

“Did Daddy have a bar mitzvah?” Steven asked.

“Yes,” I replied, “but that was in Vienna.”

“Did Pop (his grandfather) have one?”

“Yes, but that was in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.”

“So, why can’t I?”

Good question. I threw out all the standard objections: He would have to learn his portion in Hebrew — and no cheating by memorizing from a tape. We would not have a lot of guests or a big party and, therefore, not many presents. To every objection, Steven said, “Fine.”

Mothers are funny people. They can disagree with their offspring, but, once convinced the offspring is right, they become fierce defenders. So, off I went to do battle.

In those days, the House of Living Judaism, the headquarters of the Reform Movement, was at 838 Fifth Avenue, across 65th Street from Emanu-El. My husband and mother were both on the board of the Union, so we were able to engage their chapel for our ceremony. Furthermore, Rabbi Ronald Sobel agreed to conduct the bar mitzvah service (it was on a Thursday, so no conflict with Emanu-El services), and Dr. Nathan Perilman, the senior rabbi, would deliver the sermon.

Then came the hard work. We needed someone to teach Steven Hebrew, and luckily, we found the perfect person. Stephen Pinsky was a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, where my mother was enrolled in a master’s program for religious school teachers. She recommended Steve, and he and Steven bonded beautifully. (I don’t want to say how long ago this was, but Rabbi Pinsky is now rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth Torah in Wellington, Florida.) But someone had to go over the parashah with Steven when Steve was studying at HUC-JIR, and Steven’s father traveled frequently on business.

I signed up for a Hebrew course at the Jewish Agency, then at 515 Park Avenue. It wasn’t a perfect fit, but I learned enough to study along with Steven. (Except for that first line, I promptly forgot the rest of the portion and had to learn the language from scratch later here at Emanu-El.) Together we learned that, in this portion (Leviticus 26:3 – 27:34), God tells the Israelites that, if they obey His commandments, then good things will happen for them when they reach the Promised Land. Of course, if they don’t follow the commandments, then there will be consequences.

The day arrived. That year, Steven’s birthday fell on a Wednesday, and the next day was the bar mitzvah service. Rabbi Sobel conducted the service, with Steven’s father and grandfather reading blessings and Steven delivering his portion perfectly. Then came the sermon.

The sermon was about milestones. Rabbi Perilman told Steven that milestones once literally had marked every mile of a turnpike but that the word now referred to points in one’s life so significant that you never forgot them. “You will say, ‘Oh, that happened the year after my bar mitzvah, or that was the year before,’” he explained.

And what a milestone it was! The following year, Emanu-El decided to allow boys to have a bar mitzvah service. Dr. Perilman mentioned Steven’s ceremony as one of the events that had convinced him. And becoming a bat mitzvah was allowed as well.

Many years later, Steven stood next to me on the bimah of the Beth-El Chapel as I became an adult bat mitzvah. Learning that one line “Im behukosai...” had whetted my appetite. It’s amazing what one line of Torah will do!

Bettijane Eisenpreis, a freelance writer, is a long-time member of Temple Emanu-El
and a regular participant in our Saturday morning Torah study group.

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