Birthdays are important, and the older one gets, the more important they become. With age, birthdays begin to stimulate ambiguous feelings.
On the one hand, every birthday is cause for celebration. Another year of life and accomplishment has gone by, and a new year full of hope and great possibilities is about to begin. There is much to be thankful for.
On the other hand, one can no longer deny that he is getting older. Sadly, some who we celebrated with last year are no longer around to celebrate with us this year.
Birthdays bring back memories of the past. The memories themselves are sometimes wonderful, but sometimes remind us of tragic experiences that we would rather forget.
My own birthday is coming up soon, and one of the ways I know it is approaching is with the upcoming weekly Torah portion. You see, my Bar Mitzvah parsha was Parshat Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11-34:35), which we read this coming Shabbat. Each year, this Torah portion is an occasion for reflection for me, and this year is no exception.
My memories center about the people who were there. My parents, of course, are among them, and three of my grandparents, all long gone. A great-uncle, already old then, who went on to live until he was a hundred and ten years old, and who was one of the few people then who actually taught me something about my parsha. My sisters were there, although one was barely a year old.
I also remember fondly, and with great respect, the man who taught me to read the Torah. His name was Mr. Sender Kolatch, and he was a world class baal koreh, or Torah reader, himself. I would walk to his home every Friday night for lessons, each of which was followed by tea and cookies. I still keep in touch with one of his children. He too is long gone.
But what I reflect on most is the discrepancy between what I knew about my parsha then, and what I have learned about it in the many decades since my bar mitzvah. I did learn to read it from the Torah scroll, and I’m told I did it well, but I had only a very superficial knowledge about this profound parsha and its very diverse contents.
I knew, for example, that it opened with the mitzvah of machatzit hashekel that every Jew was to contribute a half shekel to a central fund, out of which the costs of the Tabernacle services would be paid.
I knew that the opening two sections of the parsha were among the longest, if not the longest, in the entire Torah. This was one of the biggest obstacles I had to mastering the Torah reading. But I hadn’t a clue as to the details of those two sections: about the special oils and fragrances which were an essential part of the Temple service. It was much later that the Talmud tractate which discusses these details and their significance, Masechet Kritut, became one of my favorite Talmud tractates.
I knew about the reference to Shabbat in the opening sections of the parsha, but it was not until much later that I began to appreciate the connection between sacred space—the Temple precincts, and sacred time—the Shabbat day.
I knew the story of the Golden Calf, but only as a story. I did not appreciate its contemporary relevance and rich symbolism until much later. I have since, for example, become enamored of Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi’s explanation of the attractiveness of a Golden Calf for the people. He maintains that the demand to worship an invisible god was just too much for the Children of Israel, so that they chose a tangible object through which to worship a God Who could not be seen. How tempting it is to this very day to try to find tangible physical or ideological substitutes for the transcendent Almighty, a temptation which leads us to modes of worship which is more “sophisticated” than dancing around a Golden Calf, but no less idolatrous.
The courageous confrontation of Moses with God, as he intercedes for the sinful people and begs forgiveness for them, was “over my head.” It made no impression upon me. And yet, now, these verses have come to exemplify what for me is the essence of true leadershSip: “Moses went back to the Lord and said: ‘Alas. This nation is guilty of a great sin in making for themselves a god of gold. Now, if You will forgive their sin (well and good); but if not, erase me from the record which You have written’” (Exodus 32: 31-32).
Nor did I in any way understand Moses’ plea: “Now, if I have truly gained Your favor, pray let me know Your ways.” What ways? What exactly was Moses asking for?
I now have learned that Moses was asking to understand God’s inscrutable will. He needed to understand so much that we find difficult in our daily lives as we struggle to make sense of “why the righteous suffer.” But for a 13-year-old, blessed with a relatively problem-free life, I was protected from such a “need to know.”
Our Torah portion contains so much else that was not part of the agenda of a 13-year-old boy, brought up in the United States in those years. It was not that the period of history in which I was born and raised did not have its immense trials and tribulations. After all, I was born months after World War II began. When I was safe and secure in my baby bunting, my cousins in Poland were being shot and buried alive. My childhood years were concurrent with the State of Israel’s struggle for independence. My Bar Mitzvah took place during a time when our neighbors’ sons were off in the distant land of Korea, from which one of them did not return.
Yet, there is much in the parsha that was relevant then: God’s response to Moses’ request that he know His ways: ”You cannot see My face, for man may not see Me and live;” the mysterious “cleft in the rock” in which Moses hid; the symbolism of the Second Tablets which Moses was instructed to carve of stone; the Thirteen Attributes of God’s mercy; the radiance which graced Moses face, so that “the people shrank from coming near him;” and the mask, or veil, which Moses wore so as to frighten the people no longer.
All this rich content, and more, was not taught to me, and had it been taught to me, it wouldn’t have meant very much.
There is a lesson in the ignorance of this particular Bar Mitzvah boy and all that he has subsequently learned about the Torah and about this parsha. It is lesson by which I have tried, albeit neither constantly nor consistently, to live by. The lesson is this: One cannot be complacently satisfied with the understanding of Torah that he attained as a schoolchild. As we mature, so must our knowledge of Torah mature. The Torah of a 13-year-old cannot slake the intellectual thirst of a 30-year-old, nor can the Torah we learned when we were 30 satisfy our spiritual needs when we turn 60.
Our Torah must be renewed as we grow older. Torah study must be a lifelong endeavor. Then, and only then, can it continue to inspire and instruct us as we struggle with the challenges of living, with the challenges that change as we age.