To be Jewish is "to eat and to argue"!
Carmine – this morning you have stepped forward and led us in prayer and read from the Torah. It is your coming of age – the moment that you become a man, in Jewish eyes, and that you are considered ready to take responsibility as part of a minyan. In yesteryear you would have had further adulting privileges – the right to get married, for example, but as good Jews we like to adhere to the local laws and customs, so you have a few more years ahead of you on that.
But this act of stepping forward has made those around you very proud, including of course your mother, who has accompanied you every step of the way. I am sure that Flopsy-Mopsy is very proud of you too, and will surely give you a big bark and a lick when you get home this afternoon. I am also proud of what you have achieved. When we met last year it was not obvious that we would be here today. You were new to our community, a little hesitant about doing bar mitzvah, perfectly normal for a teenage boy. But over the year you have grown in stature, it was your decision to be here this morning, and you do it for one of the best reasons a Yiddishe boy can have, you do it to please your mom.
Abraham’s journey, that we have read in the Torah today, presumably did not please his mother. We are told nothing about her, it is one of the big gaps in the Torah. The story that everyone thinks is in the Bible – that Abraham had an epiphany whilst minding the family idol store in the absence of his parents, and ended up smashing all the idols who he understood were not God – is not in the bible at all. It’s in the midrash – the rabbinic stories and explanations that came later to help fill in the gaps in the bible. And it’s taken up also in the Quran, presumably written around the same time as some of the later midrash. But even if he didn’t smash up the family business, Abraham did follow a path that took him, like so many of us ex-pats today, far away from his birthplace and family home. But unlike today, he didn’t go back to visit his parents. Rather he became a father – a forefather – a patriarch himself, and it is through his children – Ishmael and Isaac, and later his grandchildren – Jacob and Esau – that he became the ancestor of the three eponymous Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Islam and Christianity.
What made Abraham so special? Why was he chosen to be the first Jew? Why Abraham, rather than Noach, whose antics in the ark predated him, or Adam, or indeed Eve, the first human beings. The rabbis tell us that Abraham was the first to have an ethical conscience, that he was the first ethical monotheist. That is to say, that he was the first both to recognize and respond to God, but also to see and take up the challenge of being responsible for those around him, beyond his own family.
This feeling of responsibility – both to God and to humankind – did not make him always the easiest person to live with. It’s sad but true that many of the heroes and heroines who have done so much to advance the world at different times, are a nightmare to live with for the ones who are closest to them. When you’re off saving the world, you may forget to spend time with your kids at home. When you’re a celebrity that everyone admires and fawns over, you may lose your sense of normality in how to behave at home. With Abraham, we are shown in the Torah how he can argue with God to try to save the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, bartering him down to say that if Abraham can find just 10 good citizens then the whole people will be saved. And we are also shown that when God says he needs to kill his beloved son, Isaac, he is quick to get up early in the morning in order to carry out this terrible task. I should, of course, add, that Isaac survives.
So Carmine, what do we learn from all of this? Well apart from the fact that all families are dysfunctional and all heroes have flaws. I think you know that what’s important is what your mum has been teaching you: to be a good Jew, you need to be a mensch. You also need to eat and to argue – I loved that definition of a Jew that I heard from you the other day – but ultimately you should live your life caring for those around you, without ignoring the needs of those beyond your family and inner circle. I have no doubt that you Carmine have every bit of potential to be a mensch inside your bones, now your life is an opportunity to live and to realise that potential.
Mazal tov to you Carmine, and to you Lynda, to Flopsy-Mopsy, of course, and to all of your family and friends. Shabbat shalom.