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Torah Commentary
Mas-ei (July 18, 2015)

Bettijane Eisenpreis

MOST READERS WOULD LOOK at this passage and say, “What has this got to do with me?” And, I don’t blame them a bit. On the other hand, I cannot read the passage without a shiver of recognition. How can words from so many thousands of years ago be so relevant to me?

I was confirmed at Temple B’nai B’rith, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, in the middle of the last century. To illustrate how long ago that was, Temple B’nai B’rith is no longer in Wilkes-Barre; it’s in the neighboring suburb of Kingston, and the site of the temple in which I was confirmed is a parking lot. Confirmation, held on or near Sukkot, was a really big deal in Reform Judaism in those days. We rehearsed for months, fought over who would get to do the Floral Prayer, dressed in our finest (white dresses for girls, blue suits for boys) and celebrated with a dance, to which we were allowed to invite dates.

The service was going swimmingly. I read my part of the service, delivered the Floral Prayer, and then went up to the open Ark, where the rabbi was to bless me. Our oral tradition (not handed down by Moses but by generations of boys and girls) was that you could not tell anybody, not even your parents, what the rabbi said to you in that blessing. It was between the confirmand, the rabbi and God.

In order to understand what the rabbi was about to do, I must explain a little about our congregation. It was the oldest of the three principal Jewish congregations in our town but by far not the richest or most popular. There were seven children in my Confirmation class and easily double that number at Temple Israel, the Conservative synagogue. And there wouldn’t have been even seven children in our class if our temple didn’t accept the children the other temples rejected, namely children of mixed marriages. Three of our seven fit into that category. The rabbi was very concerned — you might even say obsessed — with making sure that those children remained Jewish. It was a valid concern, but he may not have handled it well.

I went up to the Ark for my blessing, and as I turned away from the rabbi and faced the congregation, my father became instantly aware that something bad had happened to me.

“It was if all the light had gone out of your face,” he said to me later. “You looked like a different person from the happy, smiling girl who had approached the Ark.”

Pop was a man of action, determined to find out what the trouble was and, if possible, correct the situation. So as soon as the service concluded, he took me into a relatively quiet spot and asked me what the trouble was.

“I can’t tell you,” I said. “I promised.”

My father had clerked for a lawyer and studied law for a year, before ill health interrupted his plans. However, even if he had had no knowledge of law, Jewish or secular, he was too wise and compassionate to let my objection pass.

“A promise made under duress is not a binding promise,” he explained. “I am sure from your expression that you did not want to make that promise.”

Immediately, the tears I had been holding in came gushing out. “Oh, I didn’t, I didn’t.” I sobbed. “But the rabbi said not to tell anyone, especially my parents.”

My father was not a violent man, but I think that if the rabbi had found us that minute, Pop would have punched him in the mouth. “Tell me,” he ordered gently.

It all came spilling out. The rabbi had made me promise, before the open Ark, that I would not marry “out of the faith.” I was 14 years old. My social life was restricted to birthday parties and heavily chaperoned school dances. I had nothing resembling a boyfriend. But I felt that I was promising my life away. Who knew whom I might meet in the years and decades to come? The weight of the world was on my shoulders.

My father assured me that the promise had no weight. Like the father in our parashah, he took responsibility for my promise and ruled that it was not valid. I always loved Pop, but never up to that time had I loved him as much as I did that minute! I went joyfully to the Confirmation Ball with my date, the son of my mother’s friend from Philadelphia. The weekend was saved!

Although there was definitely a hero in this story (Pop), the rabbi really wasn’t a villain. He made a foolish mistake of trying to fix the future, and the future sometimes isn’t fixable. However, the following year, when one of the girls in that Confirmation class was killed in an automobile accident, he helped our class get through the tragedy in a truly heroic manner.

What happened to the children he was trying to keep on the straight and narrow? I believe the two girls married nice Jewish men, but I know the boy married “out,” as had his father. As for me, I married Alfred Eisenpreis, and we moved to New York, joined Temple Emanu-El and became parents of Steven Eisenpreis. And the rest, as they say, is history.

“Turn it, and turn it again, for everything is in it,” said one of our Sages of the Torah.
And I can’t argue with that!

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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