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Originally offered as a commentary on Kedoshim (Leviticus 19:1-20:27) May 3, 2008.
I had one of those wonderful rabbi moments that reminded me of the amazing privilege that I have to do what I do in life this morning while walking into my synagogue to start the day. One of my members who happened to come by to pick something up at the Kehillat Israel office stopped me in the lobby and as she started to speak, she began to cry. Naturally my initial reaction was to ask if she was OK and if there was something wrong that I could help with. She looked up at me through her tears and I saw a broad grin begin to emerge on her face as she grabbed on to my arm and exclaimed, "Oh my God, Adam's bar mitzvah was the most amazing moment of my life. I have thought of you every single day since and I am so incredibly grateful for how that experience touched everyone who was there. I will never forget that moment. It will be with me forever."
She then went on to talk about how her cousins from the East had changed their travel plans so they could stay an extra couple of days because the ceremony was so powerful for them that they just didn't want to leave the magic glow of the experience too soon. She told me that since her husband isn't Jewish of course it was the first Bar Mitzvah experience that his family had ever had, and that his mother was so touched by the power of the service that she hasn't stopped talking about the beauty of Judaism and what a gift it has been for her to be able to share in it. "And what it has done for my son is just impossible to express," she said. "Here he is, a 13-year-old adolescent, and he was so moved by being part of this ancient tradition that he emerged with a profound sense of gratitude for his life, his friends, the privilege to be part of it all and the gifts and blessings that so many people shared with him. I don't even know how to express the power of this transformation in all our lives and I will cherish it forever."
What better way could a rabbi ask to start his day than this? It literally brought me to tears as well. It's not that people aren't often grateful for how powerful a bar or bat mitzvah service can be in the life of their family, for I have had the blessing of watching hundreds of such families over the three decades that I have served as a rabbi thank me for being part of something wonderful in their family's life. But there was something different about this one. Perhaps it was because this family had been through so much trauma and so many personal struggles over the years. During the entire bar mitzvah service I couldn't help but remember sitting day after day in the hospital years ago holding the wife's hand and doing what I could to bring comfort and strength to the husband after he almost lost a limb from being hit by an out of control driver who drove his car right through the wall of the Department of Motor Vehicles while he was there just to renew his own license.
As someone who worked in the technical side of television production, his entire livelihood was totally dependent on the vagaries of which TV show would be picked up that year and whether he was lucky enough to be part of the crew. Sometimes the answer was yes, and sometimes the answer was no. And like so many in similar lines of inconsistent work, they never knew whether the money would be there to pay the mortgage, put food on the table or take care of their family's needs.
As a synagogue rabbi I have the spiritual privilege to be in a position to make sure that this wonderful, loving family could at least always be part of an extended, caring religious community. No matter what else might come and go in their lives, no matter how insecure so many aspects of their economic lives might be, our synagogue could always be something they could count on, something that could forever be a strong spiritual, social and communal foundation for them and their children. So to see how touched they all were by the power of this age-old Jewish life-cycle experience was a gift worth more than I could ever describe.
This is what community is truly all about. To be there for each other and be able to provide and share in a life-changing spiritual memory that links each of them to thousands of years of Jewish civilization. This, to me is where we discover what "holiness" really means. This week in the Torah we are commanded to "Be Holy." It is declared by God as a fundamental goal of life, a personal commandment to act in such as way as to bring God's very presence into the world. This morning with those tears were her gift to me as Lisa shared the impact that Adam's bar mitzvah had on so many of her family and friends. And ultimately it was made all the more powerful because they are an interfaith family who because of our communal acceptance and embrace has been able to experience Judaism as something meaningful that helps give a sense of purpose to their lives. This too is what I understand "holiness" to be about. It is the moments we create together for those who otherwise might never find that power and beauty and sanctity that being part of the thousands of years of Jewish civilization can offer. This was a morning of holiness for me and I gave thanks for the opportunity to bring that holiness to others as well.