Rabbi Eliad Skuri
Former Rosh Kollel in Kansas City
Since I live in Tirat ha-Karmel, close to Haifa in northern Israel, and since I am writing this as a ceasefire goes into effect following a very difficult month in the north of the country, I would like to devote this ‘devar torah’ to an event that I was party to, during the past month, and then to link this to parshat Shoftim.
As anyone reading this no doubt knows, for over a month life in northern Israel was turned upside down: we lived in shelters and in protected rooms, we listened to alarms and sirens and falling missiles; we saw homes damaged and destroyed and, tragically, people killed. The situation forced many couples to postpone the happiest day of their lives – the weddings that they had dreamed about and prepared for for so long. I myself had to cancel some 20 wedding ceremonies at which I was supposed to officiate. One day the father of a bar-mitzvah boy whom I had been teaching and preparing for about six months came to visit me. The boy was meant to celebrate his bar-mitzvah on Shabbat parshat Re’eh, the 21st of Av, August 14th, in Haifa. The father asked whether it was possible to postpone the bar-mitzvah – perhaps the boy could be called up to the Torah at a later date; perhaps he could read a different haftara some other time. It was going to be difficult to celebrate with missiles falling in the area, with many friends and neighbors absent, having been called up for emergency reserve duty in the I.D.F. The time was simply not right for a celebration, the father maintained. What would happen if, in the middle of his son’s ‘aliya la-torah’ in the synagogue, the sirens would suddenly be sounded and missiles would start falling (as had in fact happened on a number of occasions)?
I told the father that if he were aware of the reason why the reading of the haftara was instituted along with the weekly reading from the Torah, he might look at the situation differently. In contrast to the Torah reading, which was instituted while the nation of Israel was still living in the land, the reading of the haftarah, from the Books of the prophets, began during the exile. When our Sages witnessed the suffering to which the Jews were subjected, they sought to strengthen their spirits and their faith by selecting excerpts for weekly reading that spoke of the eternity of Israel and God’s promises of complete redemption. Thus, being called up to the Torah and reading the haftarah from one of the Books of the prophets is especially important at times of crisis and uncertainty! Moreover, a bar-mitzvah is really a celebration of the covenant that the boy now enters into with the God of Israel, on the basis of observing the Torah and its commandments. But it is also a celebration of our covenant with the prophets of Israel, who promised and prophesized all the prophecies of comfort and consolation and of the eternity of Israel, all of which have come to pass. It is to these promises that the nation of Israel turns at its most difficult times. Hence, during a time of war we should be especially eager to celebrate the bar-mitzvah and to affirm our participation in thee covenant of the Torah and the prophets, with its promises and its protection, rather than tarrying and postponing it!
The father took my advice and the barmitzvah was held at the scheduled time, despite the technical difficulties.
As planned, on the morning of his barmitzvah the boy was called up to the Torah at the Kotel in Jerusalem. It was Monday, the 14th of August – the exact morning when the ceasefire came into effect. And the first verse that this boy from Haifa read was: “And you shall dwell in the land which the Lord your God causes you to inherit, and He will give you rest from all of your enemies around, and you shall dwell safely”!!
Following the bar-mitzah celebration we went to visit the Kotel Tunnels, with the new and very powerful exhibition that opened about two months ago at the Chain of Generations Center. Artistic glass pillars show the course of Jewish history, with Jewish names engraved and preserved throughout the generations, through times of joy and sorrow, throughout the ups and downs, in the land of Israel and in exile.
We emerged moved and amazed.
On our way out of the Center we met a family from Long Island, New York, that had come to celebrate the bar-mitzvah of their twin boys at the Kotel. The told us how they, too, had deliberated whether to come and celebrate the bar-mitzvah as planned, despite the war, and how they had finally decided to go ahead, even though about half of the family members and friends who had been meant to accompany them cancelled their participation. They ended up a group of 30, instead of 65. At their request I blessed the boys and gave a short speech. Amazingly, we witnessed the concept of the “chain of generations” before our very eyes: the boys’ names were Zekharia-Shelomo and Yehoshua-Gavriel. These were names of ancient Hebrew prophets, borne by Jewish boys from America who had come to read from the Torah and from the Books of the prophets at the Kotel in Jerusalem, and who met another bar-mitzvah boy from Haifa, who was there for the same reason…
That was the “coincidence” that I wanted to share. What an interesting realization of the verses in this week’s parsha of Shoftim: “The Lord your God will raise up a prophet from your midst, from your brethren, like me; you shall listen to him… I shall raise up for them a prophet from amidst their brethren, like you, and I shall put My words in his mouth and he shall speak to them all that that I command him…”.