The Spirit of ’76 and the Spirit of Judaism: A Bar Mitzvah Boy’s Perspective
A special post from National Museum of American Jewish Military History Chaplain Michael Bloom on Independence Day and its connections to Jewish tradition.
At this time of year we celebrate the American Spirit, symbolized by the most important day in American life – the 4th of July – and the signing of the Declaration of Independence – an event and a concept reflected in the quotation selected by Quaker Hebraist Isaac Norris for a bell, cast to celebrate the 50th anniversary of William Penn’s Charter of Privileges of 1701 – “…proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” Still in Philadelphia, today we know this bell as the Liberty Bell.
And this year the 4th coincided not only with Shabbat but with the 17th of Tammuz (observed on Sunday) commemorating the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem by Nevuchadnetzar at the time of the 1st Temple, and by Titus at the time of the second.
In the Torah reading from the Book of Numbers in the afternoon of the fourth we begin the portion of Pinchas, and we learn how Pinchas took the initiative to stop an injustice, thereby preventing the destruction of his people; we complete the portion the following Shabbat, where we also read of the argument for a more equitable law of inheritance made by the Daughters of Tzelaphchad;
And we observe Moses preparing for the transfer of leadership to Joshua by performing the Smichat Yadaim – the laying on of hands;
In the Haftorah section from the Prophets, we hear from Jeremiah, who initiated the practice of praying for the country in which one lives – a custom we still follow today, two and a half millennia later, with the recitation of the Prayer for the Government of the United States.
The year before he became a Supreme Court Justice, Louis Brandeis noted that “America’s fundamental law seeks to make real the brotherhood of man. That brotherhood became the Jewish fundamental law more than 2500 years ago.”
And it is fascinating to note that Dr. Bernard Revel, who later became the 1st President of Yeshiva University, wrote that he felt that Abraham Lincoln, who fought to preserve our nation, and helped ensure a Jewish presence in the military chaplaincy, represented “the summation of all the noblest qualities of Judaism.”
The six individuals and events which we discuss today – Pinchas, the Daughters of Tzelaphchad, the laying on of hands on Joshua, the Prophet Jeremiah, the Fast of the 17th of Tammuz, and the 4th of July and the American Revolution – share in common the notion that we must take responsibility for – and act for – the improvement or protection of our lives and our freedoms.
Taking the initiative – while at the same time putting one’s faith in the Almighty – is an idea shared by Judaism and the Founders of the Republic, and is most apropos of a Bar Mitzvah celebration, when one assumes the duties and responsibilities of adulthood.
About 126 years ago, my Mother Evelyn’s Father, Samuel Glick, celebrated his becoming a Bar Mitzvah at a Monday or Thursday morning Torah reading in Pittsburgh’s Hill District;
Towards the start of the last century my Great Uncle, Julius Blumenthal, became a Bar Mitzvah in the City of Brotherly Love – and I have a copy of his Yiddish Bar Mitzvah speech; 83 years ago my Father, Albert W. Bloom became a Bar Mitzvah at the Steel City’s Adath Israel Synagogue – known colloquially as the Ward Street shul – and I used a Pointer, or Yad, from that synagogue during a 25th anniversary Bar Mitzvah Torah reading;
And 44 years ago, after training with the Classical Chazan, Cantor Brumer, I celebrated my becoming a Bar Mitzvah – reaching the age of majority in the Hebrew Faith – at Young Peoples Synagogue/YPS/ Bohnai Yisrael, on Pittsburgh’s Forbes Avenue in Squirrel Hill and I still have the Siddur-Prayerbook given to me at that event.
Though one becomes a Bar Mitzvah at the end of the journey of minority, the Bar Mitzvah celebration is more the mark of the beginning, not the end of a journey. ‘Bar Mitzvah’ literally means ‘one who is of, or responsible for the commandments,’ or, as Birnbaum translates in “A Book of Jewish Concepts” – ‘a man of duty.’ Rather than the “Bar Mitzvah” ending at the ceremony, one in fact remains a Bar Mitzvah for the rest of his – or a Bat Mitzvah for the rest of her – life. As Mom points out, one does not become “Bar Mitzvahed” – the term is neither a verb nor an adverb – it is a noun, and one becomes, or celebrated becoming, a Bar Mitzvah.
Today we have been discussing journeys and travels – to wit, Pinchas, the Daughters of Tzelaphchad, and Joshua – and the journey through, as the Haftorah puts it, the “desert, an unsown land”; the Fast of the 17th Tammuz and Jeremiah – and the journeys of the Exile or impending Exile; and the 4th of July and the journey of the American Experiment.
If well founded, and undertaken with proper motivation, a pioneering journey – especially one undertaken of the improvement or protection of our lives and/or freedoms – has a much greater chance of success.
May we all be Blessed with:
The Freedoms and Liberties represented so well by the American Revolution and the struggle against Babylonian and Roman invaders on the 17th of Tammuz; And be guided by spiritual and justice-oriented motivations such as those of Moses, Pinchas and Joshua; As we seek to improve the knowledge and lot of Humanity on this earthly abode and in the Heavens – like the Daughters of Tzelaphchad and the Prophet Jeremiah.
–Chaplain Michael Bloom