We celebrated our son’s Bar Mitzvah this past Shabbat. I just thought it would be apposite to post my sermon on this blog:
Yosef Yitzchak, Yossi or Yoyo, as we affectionately call you. You’ve done us all proud –Didn’t he do well!
You’ve leyned beautifully –and you recited Haftarah really well-you are a credit to your teacher – whoever he is!- But it’s nothing to do with him- it’s got to do with you- you took your lessons seriously. You sat down you practised. We are proud of you- and we love you.
I want to direct a few words of Torah to you, but before so doing I looked into your Sedra of Nitzavim Vayelech to find some appropriate words that I could say to you. The New Year is on the horizon.
I found in the last portion of your first Sedra this morning the following words… Moshe is about to die:
He directs the following message to B’nei Yisrael:
“Look- I have placed before you today life and good. The death and the evil.”
Note these words; the word life is associated with good. Death is associated with evil.
And then comes the exhortation from G-d
“You shall choose life- in order that you shall live, you and your offspring.”
What’s going on over here? What is Moshe saying to B’nei Yisrael before he dies?
One of the most fundamental issues in Judaism is that we believe that everybody has what we call bechira chofshit- free choice.
G-d has placed before each and every one of us choices, and if we want to be good, upright, decent people; living lives permeated with fulfilment and purpose; If we want to deal honestly in business, we desire to sit, study Torah and interact with our fellow beings in a just and charitable way – the choice is in our hands. Conversely, if we G-d forbid want to turn our backs from the Torah, sever our connection with the Jewish community, or act deceitfully in our dealings-the choice is in our hands. In every aspect of life, the choice is there. Take away that freedom to decide between right and wrong, good and bad; we would become mere automatons, fulfilling God’s will with no meaning or choice in the matter.
So Moshe is saying; look I’m putting before you the choice… Good which is synonymous with life and bad which is equal to death.
What did he mean? Listen to what our Rabbis say-“the righteous even in their death are called alive” and conversely “the wicked even whilst alive are called dead.”
What did they mean with these words?
Simple.. If you live a life devoid of meaning, where you fail to make the connection with Hashem and your fellow man. You neglect to live a life where you pursue goodness, honesty and integrity in your lifestyle- then what is your life about?
But, if you strive to be a good person to fulfil His commandments and to follow His ways-to study Torah- then your life has meaning, and you are Chayim-alive forever.
And that’s what we’re saying on Rosh Hashanah through to Yom Kippur… Zochreinu Lachaim melech chafetz bachaim- Remember us for life- king who desires life… Give us a life which is the one that You Hashem desire for us to live.
And this is the message of Moshe … Uvacharta Bachaim- Choose life!! You’ve got the free choice… but make the right one.
My Dear Yossi- I now turn to you on this Bar Mitzvah day. Bar Mitzvah is the time when we become responsible and obligated in the Mitzvot. Yesterday you officially started putting on your Tefillin. Something you began already two months previously, but that was practise. Yesterday you put them on as a person obligated to do mitzvoth.
Today you were called up for the first time. Before your Bar Mitzvah you weren’t permitted to be called up but today you’re called up. On Thursday afternoon you couldn’t be counted as part of the Minyan but on Thursday night you could.
So what’s it all about? The answer is that now you are responsible as a Jew. You make the choices. You pull the punches.
Your name is Yosef Yitzchak. You are named after the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe: Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn- who lived at a very difficult period of our history.
Today you are free to live your life as a Jew. You can go to Shul and daven. You go to a great school Hasmonean where you can learn Torah and fulfil all the Mitzvot. But imagine if you were forced into a life where it became illegal to study Torah. That means that if you were caught Studying Torah- or going to Shul to daven or trying to follow Judaism you could be arrested and sent to prison.
Can you imagine that?
Well this is exactly what happened to Yosef Yitzchak, the sixth Lubaviitcher Rebbe. Because he lived in Russia in the times of the communists who prohibited Jews to practise their religion- and he was arrested and sent to prison twice for the crime of being a Jew.
The famous story is told about Reb Yosef Yitzchak when he was facing trumped up charges in St Petersburg. The Head of the Ogpu, the secret police put a gun to his head demanding he confess his crimes. Yosef Yitzchak didn’t wince.
He said.. “If you believe only in this world then of course I should be afraid. But if I believe in this world and the next, why should I be afraid?”
Yet he continued and kept the spark of Judaism alive even though he knew that he could be exiled or sent to prison or even murdered for his beliefs.
Today Yossi you have complete freedom to live your life as a Jew- Nobody is going to send you to the Siberian concentration camps in the Gulag G-d forbid if you stand up for what is right. Because we live in a free world. But you have the choice.
So Yosef Yitzchak you are named after the sixth Rebbe because we knew that he lived a life of selfless devotion to Judaism and that’s what we would always want from you.
Your Brit Milah was on the second day of Rosh Hashanah in Shul in Newcastle where you were born- I suppose that technically makes you a Geordie. It’s interesting to note your paternal grandfather: Rev Sydney Black also had his Brit on Rosh Hashanah in shul in Kalish – I suppose the chances of that happening in the same family are very remote.
So you have the connection with Rosh Hashanah when we ask Hashem: Zochreinu Lechaim to give us life…
So my message to you is
Choose life… Choose a life of meaning and of value. Choose a life where you run to do good. It’s not always the popular thing to do, but it’s the right thing. Choose a life where you can make a difference…you learn Torah and do mitzvot
May you continue to strive mechayil el choyil from strength to strength. May you always be a source of nachas to your grandparents to mummy and daddy to your brothers and sisters and may your name Yosef Yitzchak – Yosef which means to increase and Yitzchak which means laughter- may you always bring joy to all those who love and know you and let us say Amen.