My bar mitzvah was not that meaningful or memorable to me in 1972. I remember shopping for a double-breasted sky-blue suit with flares that would match my bright purple shirt and tie. I remember wanting to look like singer Davy Jones from The Monkees band, their hit “Daydream believer” still ringing in my ears. I remember receiving five cricket bats as gifts – and I do not like cricket. And I remember that my Parsha was about a big red cow that had to be killed for someone else’s sins.
I decided to redo my bar mitzvah as I wanted to find some meaning to it. If not now, then when, right? I wanted to see how much my bar mitzvah impacted my life and if my Parsha bore any relevance to my life over the past 50 years. In a sense, I wanted to see if there was a hidden prophecy in the Parsha.
Apart from those five cricket bats from people who obviously didn’t know me, I received from my grandmother a one-year subscription to karate lessons. My grandmother Vivette Cohen z’l nee Lazaravich was born in Alexandria, Egypt. Her parents fled the pogroms of Odessa in the late 19th century. The stories and images at that time look identical to the stories and images we see on our screens today. Is this déjà vu? My grandparent’s generation fled antisemitism from Odessa to Egypt and my parent’s generation fled antisemitism from Egypt to Australia. The Jews in Odessa who did not flee in the 20th century are now fleeing in the 21st century.
Where and when is it safe for Jews in the world?
It was important for my grandmother that I do a rigorous sport, a sport that would come in handy, a sport that would protect me from antisemitism and pogroms. Her muscle memory of fear from her experiences in Egypt layered with the fear inherited from her parents’ experiences in Odessa was powerful and ever-present… even after settling into the safety of Sydney in the 1960s.
At that time, Bruce Lee was a popular hero and I guess she thought her grandson would become a Jewish version ready to kick antisemitism in the head and butt at any time. I am sure she never thought that those initial karate lessons at South Sydney Juniors Rugby Club taught by Frank Nowak (a German instructor whose father was in the Wehrmacht in WW2) would direct my way of life and determine my destiny.
My barmitzvah parsha is called Parshat Parah (yes the big red cow). I have not read the parsha for 50 years, so I decided to be half brave and sing the haftarah.
There are two themes in this week’s haftarah. It’s about The Land and about The Heart and Spirit. Three distinct verses about the land and three verses about the spirit stand out as incredible revelations.
Vs 24 I will take you from the nations and gather you in from all the countries and I shall bring you to your land. I look at our amazing community in Raanana. We came to Israel from so many lands and here we are. Did Hashem bring us?
Vs 28 And you shall dwell in the land that I gave your fathers. My great grandfather was the chief rabbi of Safed, he comes from six generations of kabbalists in Safed. And here I am dwelling in their land…
Vs 34 And the desolated land to be tilled instead of being desolate in the eyes of every passerby and the cities that were destroyed and were desolate and ruined shall be fortified and inhabited. Israel, the startup nation. Israel, is a secure and thriving country. Is this modern miracle a prophecy? What else could it be?
The Heart and Spirit
Vs 26 And I shall give you a new heart, and a new spirit shall I put within you; I shall remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. The heart of stone is hatred and closed off, the heart of flesh is love and compassion. In Japan, they often use the terms “kokoro semai” meaning a closed heart or closed mind, and “kokoro hiroi” open heart or mind. In my 20 years living in Israel, this is exactly what I have been doing: opening the hearts and minds of young children from all sectors; promoting tolerance and respect; spreading the message that we are all made of the same flesh and blood.
Vs 27 And My spirit shall I put within you. The spirit is chi. G-d gave the chi which is in all of us. We could not walk in His ways if we did not feel His energy.
V35 Then they shall say “This very land that was desolate has become a Garden of Eden. The Garden of Eden for me is my wife Danna and my 2 lovely fruit trees- Galia and Ella . I would not be here today, doing what I am doing, without my wife’s love and support. Without my family, the land and my heart and spirit would be desolate. I want to thank you all dearly.
The Garden of Eden is also the vibrant Jewish community here in Raanana. Eight years ago, Danna and I decided to make aliya from Herzliya to Raanana specifically for the Jewish community here. To get a richer heart and spirit.
I want to thank Rabbi Ben David for his kokoro hiroi (open heart and mind). You welcomed us into the community which made me comfortable enough to take on this challenge.
I also want to thank my bar mitzvah teacher – sensei Pinchas Melchior – for being a tough but patient teacher, his five-month training routine was harder than training for a world karate championship! They say that the mitzvah of the Red Heifer sacrifice is one of the few mitzvot that has no logic to it.
But who needs logic when it’s clear that a story of a big red cow can impact one’s life and bear relevance after 50 years or 5,000 years.