My mechutan once told me that his grandfather would smile all of Yom Kippur. When asked why he smiled when others cried, he would say that since G-d is privy to so many tears, it would be nice to send him up a smile.
I thought about this exchange the other day at the Kotel. It was my father’s special birthday. He had decided that he wanted to celebrate the sixty-seventh anniversary of his bar mitzvah at the Kotel. It wasn’t a simple trip. There was the complicated logistics of gathering together family from across the world. There were concerns about the weather. Then there was the most pressing concern – my father had suffered a stroke a few years ago and his gait was slower – how would he and other relatives navigate the ancient stones and stairs of the Old City.
But that morning was beautiful. G-d shared his sun and with my father’s determination we made it every step of the way. Upon arrival, his sons and grandsons greeted him like a bar mitzvah boy. The women of our family stood on a bench next to the mechitza taking it all in.
I had taken this same position at the mechitza for each of my sons’ bar mitzva celebrations but what I saw on the other side filled me with a wholly different joy.
At the Torah, was my father chanting the parsha his father had taught him to read. Receiving the first Aliya, was my father-in- law, ten years my father’s senior. He was a Holocaust survivor, who had celebrated his bar mitzvah in a displaced person’s camp with a bit of kichel and home made schnapps. The portion my father was reading, Shmot, begins with the story of a growing family, “These are the names of the children of Israel…”
At the conclusion of the reading, my father was called up for his Aliya by his grandson. We threw candy. We danced and then my children who are Kohanim blessed my father. Several tourists took pictures intrigued by the star of the celebratory crowd.
In his bar mitzvah speech that morning, my father captured the import of what had transpired for him at the Kotel. As a physics professor, pithy phrases from Albert Einstein often pepper his words and this time was no different. “Life is like a bicycle,” my father said quoting Einstein, “to keep your balance, you must keep on moving.”
“Now,” my father said, “on the sixty-seventh anniversary of my bar mitzvah, I finally understand why Einstein used the analogy of a bicycle. You need two wheels, the front and the back, our future and our past, moving in tandem to travel forward in life.”
After the celebration, with a full heart, I went back to kiss the stones of the Kotel. Usually, I approach the wall with a litany of prayers and requests. But this time was different. I opened my siddur, to Psalm 100, a Psalm of Thanksgiving.
In ancient days it accompanied the sacrifice brought after surviving a dangerous situation or long journey. Today, it is part of our daily prayers, an acknowledgement that our existence is predicated on miracles, hidden and obvious, that G-d performs for us each day. I began to sing its verses to myself:
A Psalm of Thanksgiving…
Serve the Lord with Joy,
Come before him in glad song
Know that the Lord is G-d…
Enter his gates with thanksgiving…
For the Lord is good,
His loving-kindness is forever
His faithfulness for all generations.
Next to me at the Kotel a woman was crying. I prayed for her pleas to be answered. I thought of those who needed to be healed and those who needed to be comforted.
And then, l thought of my mechutan’s grandfather on Yom Kippur and I sent to G-d my biggest smile.