Miriam’s Cup: What 15 B’nei Mitzvah Students are Teaching Me About Chanukah

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This past weekend, I spent more time in our sanctuary at Bethminster than I have in the past 9 months!  

I felt a special kind of quiet and reverence walking into the space. The colourful fabric banners were already hanging on the walls and the aron kodesh (the ark) was in its place on the bimah. Looking around at the empty pews, I could feel the presence of all of you, at different services over the years, many of you in the same seats every time you come to a DJC service. At the same time, the space felt so strangely empty. Light was coming in through the stained glass windows scattering light through the room. There is good reason that sacred spaces are among the great achievements of great architects. Before any ritual begins, before people arrive, the space itself stirs the heart and soul, feels inhabited with a sense of Presence.

I carried the Torah from my office to the sanctuary. I miss that feeling of holding the Torah. If you have never had the honour of holding a Torah in your arms, or haven’t done it in a while, put it on your post-Covid list. Both arms have to embrace the scroll and its weight rests on your chest and right shoulder like a sleeping child – tender, protected and yet somehow it feels like the Torah is holding me.  

All this was in preparation for two events – a Bar Mitzvah service on Shabbat; and a full day of back-to-back appointments with our fourteen group B’nei Mitzvah students and their families to chant directly from the Torah, prior to this coming Shabbat’s group B’nei Mitzvah service on Zoom.

On Shabbat morning, we celebrated Jake Koffman becoming Bar Mitzvah. There were many conversations with Jake’s family about how we would hold the service for one family (and one Covid bubble) spread between two households with parents and step-parents, several sets of grandparents, one great grandmother, uncles, aunts and a whole lot of cousins, as well as the DJC community. As Covid restrictions changed and changed again, so did our plans. After many consultations, we decided that only Jake’s immediate family, the videographer and I would be in the sanctuary and everyone else would join us on Zoom. As strange as it was to wear masks throughout the service and to sing to empty pews, as Jake chanted the words of the parasha and shared his insightful d’var Torah, the sanctuary filled with a kind of deep homecoming and joy.

The next day, I walked each of the fourteen B’nei Mitzvah students through the ritual of taking the Torah out of the ark, calling them up to Torah by their Hebrew names, and gathering their parents around them as the student chanted directly from the Torah scroll. When we have the service on Zoom this Shabbat, the students will still chant, they will still lead parts of the service, but from the separate spaces of their own homes and without the Torah open in front of them.

I went through this ritual fourteen times over the course of the day. It was, indeed, a very long day. But each time, something stirring happened. I stood with each student in front of the aron, asking them to draw back the curtain and as they revealed the Torah, there was a slight gasp – surprise, awe, gravitas. We stood silently for a moment and then I whispered to the student, “When I am leading on behalf of the whole congregation I take a moment with the ark open like this to find grounding, to pray for what I need to be able to lead the community. What do you need to be able to lead our community? Let’s take a moment here to listen, to ask for the support that will carry you.”  Some closed their eyes, others took a deep breath, and then I took out the Torah and they reached to touch it with their tzitzit, the fringe on their brand new tallit, and kissed it. After that, the Torah reading and shouts of “mazel tov!” were all cast in the light of those quiet intentions and sparked wonder.

I am sure that these experiences were entirely different from the Maccabees’ reentry into the Temple in Jerusalem after the Assyrian Greeks had captured it, stolen its sacred objects and defiled it with idols. The Maccabees recaptured Jerusalem and took possession of the Temple, cleansing it restoring it and rededicating the space for Jewish worship and the life of the community. The circumstances are, of course, so very different, but with Chanukah so close I felt the historical echos reverberating in both this long stretch of time not being able to come together as a community in that important gathering space, in our holy home, and in the meaning of returning, even if only for the weekend, and of rededication.

The word chanukah come from the word chinuch, which means both education and dedication. This is a time to ignite sparks within, to rededicate ourselves to Jewish joy and learning, to step into leadership, enlivening our connection with ancestors, with community and the ways we create meaningful moments and sacred space, wherever we are. It is a good time to remember what Jewish life is like when we can be together in our beautiful sanctuary so that it nourishes us for the times we are physically apart. I am so grateful to our B’nei Mitzvah families for reminding me, for reminding us of all these teachings. I hope you’ll join us on Zoom this Shabbat and to celebrate Chanukah, rededication, together.

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