Today I am a Man.
More accurately, today I am a middle-aged man.
At my bar mitzvah 40 years ago, I recited prepared words: the Torah reading, the Haftorah, and Musaf. My dvar Torah was written in its entirety by the assistant principal of WDS. Even the thank you’s.
Don’t get me wrong – I was very appreciative of my parents’ work that went into the party and the family trip to Israel. But my 13-year old brain liked it the way I liked halavah – something great, but not necessarily remarkable.
At that time, I don’t think I was particularly unique. The perspective of most 13 year-olds in our community was very narrow. We lived in a small protected bubble.
As we aged, our worldview expanded. We were exposed through life experience that many things we took for granted were not insignificant, but important. Not ordinary, but exceptional.
We started by slowly grasping that the stakes were becoming higher.
- At 13 I was worried whether a particular girl in class liked my humor. If she didn’t, well, I shrugged it off that she probably wasn’t that smart.
- But at 53 I’m worried about how my wife will react to my lack of comprehension that 45 is a really big birthday for a woman.
The ramifications are starkly different.
Along with the higher stakes, I learned that the demonstration of gratitude needs to match the occasion and the expectations.
You see, gratitude is also tied to responsibility.
At my bar mitzvah, I became responsible for my own actions. As I got older, I assumed additional responsibilities, for family members, friends and the community. That responsibility sensitized me to various challenges and small victories we each encounter.
Rabbi Meir Soloveitchik has said that true gratitude must include obligation. Really? If I’m thankful for having a full head of hair, do I have to subsidize a friend’s hair transplant?
Personally, I don’t think so. And it goes to a core component of what I’ve learned over the past 40 years: understanding what’s really important.
You see, today marks another anniversary for me. The 18th year of my beard.
In October 2000, my father was diagnosed with advanced melanoma. A man who had never taken a sick day was suddenly in a hospital having extensive surgery to remove infected lymph nodes that had spread throughout his body. The following month, he was given a choice of undergoing chemotherapy or try a series of transfusions with an unproven medicine undergoing clinical trials. He opted for the latter.
So on this day, the Shabbat of Thanksgiving, I made a commitment that I would grow a beard. For the next five years, when I davened, I would rub my beard during the Refa’eynu section of the Shmona Esrei, asking God to heal my father.
Miraculously, five years later, my father was cancer-free and given a clean bill of health.
What kind of news can possibly be better than that? It was a moment to consider how to be – and how to demonstrate – being truly grateful.
So I decided to keep my beard and follow the same format on behalf of others. I have continued to touch my beard during Refa’eynu and recite the names of people who were sick in this community, and friends and people I grew up with facing terrible illness.
These prayers are no longer said standing in an empty space. I pray with the full gratitude to Hashem, that just as He helped heal my Dad, I ask that He heal others who are ill.
Forty years ago I thanked my parents for raising me and for my bar mitzvah celebrations. I continue to thank them for many other things – such as hand-picking my wife. And I am additionally grateful to Hashem that they were able to walk a mile to be here today to celebrate this milestone.
I am grateful that I have been blessed with amazing siblings, a fantastic wife and remarkable children. To live in a great community with such a warm rabbi. These are all important things.
I also understand that there are extraordinary things like this amazing country and the thriving State of Israel.
The important things and the extraordinary things fall under the category of what Charles Krauthammer called “Things That Matter.” Over these decades I learned that essential life lesson of separating the critical from the trivial. And I have chosen to actively focus my energies and responsibilities, and express my true gratitude to those Things That Matter.
Today, I thank my wife for being a great partner and parent, and for coordinating a wonderful celebration. I also thank our rabbi and this community for being such a remarkable place.
May we all be blessed to be thankful,
and may we be thankful to be blessed.
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