How a Virus Tried to Hijack My Son’s Bar Mitzvah

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, March 13, 2020 / 17 Adar 5780

Summary: Today’s Oasis Songs is a personal, heartfelt letter as I reflect on my youngest’s bar mitzvah.

I am writing today’s Oasis Song as a rabbi, a father and a spouse, and with Laura’s input as well. As you well know, this Saturday is our son Amitai’s bar mitzvah. For any family, this is a cherished milestone, tinged with so many powerful emotions. Pride in a child’s accomplishment and how they are growing up so quickly. Poignancy for the same reason, accompanied as it is by the realization of how quickly time passes by. While for a 13 year old, college seems far away, parents know that by the time of a bar, bat or brit mitzvah, it won’t be long before the kid leaves home. Melancholy at all those who no longer walk with the living. The grandparents who were so important when we became b’nei mitzvah are gone, and their absence is felt more strongly at times like these. What Jewish parent hasn’t experienced some of these thoughts and feelings?

So all those emotions are coursing through me. Joy and loss. And also this sense of my place in time. One day, sooner than I might wish, my generation’s time on the stage will be up. And as my baby’s bar mitzvah arrives, I have this deep appreciation that remarkable people like Amitai will ably pick up the mantle. My appreciation is accompanied by the hope that he and his peers will do better than we. Maybe that’s the special nachas of this moment. Often, there’s this rightness to the flow of our life. This feels like one of those times.

That’s the richness of our inner landscapes—how they can inform us of what matters and why it matters. As a rabbi, I suppose one part of my work is helping all of us to develop that inner life a bit more, to embrace our humanity in all its fullness. As a father and spouse, the busy reality of our world, our work and its twisted priorities means that I probably give less time to those deeper needs than I should.

Which is what milestones are all about. These liminal, or threshold moments force us out of the complacency of our routines. Our complaints, our exasperations, our neuroses and chasing after goals in the outer world, none of those can really stand firm against these rites of passage.

Simultaneously, the world is intruding on this bar mitzvah in ways Laura and I could never have predicted. The Coronavirus COVID-19 has staked a claim on all our attentions. People are scared, panicked; anxiety is the word of the day, as all the empty shelves attest. If only we do this, buy that, avoid this, we will be fine. Where is the line between sensible caution and overwrought fear? I suspect that as with many things, many of us harbor the secret belief that our response hits the balance just so, while those around us are either too paranoid or incapable of realizing how serious this all is.

There’s a very real part of me that is furious at this little bit of ribonucleic acid wrapped in a protective protein covering known as a capsid. The thing isn’t even alive, not in a biological way, and yet look what it has done to society, to the stock market, to our health systems! Look how fragile they all are in the face of a genetic code composed of 30,000 characters! To put that in perspective, if you have read up to here, that’s already over 3200 letters. 30,000 genetic letters declare war on the world.

Look at what this little bit of code has done to our communities. Colleges canceled. The NBA season over. China and Italy locked down. The National Guard stationed in my home town of New Rochelle, NY. None of my relatives here to celebrate Amitai’s accomplishments. They all cancelled out of real health concerns, along with two very dear friends. Congregants who hoped to celebrate with us writing with their regrets because they fall into a higher risk category. Every hard surface in the building repeatedly wiped down. No public tallitot. No yad during the Torah service. No Torah parade for God’s sake—or our sake!

And Amitai is my boy, but he’s just one boy. What about all these other remarkable kids who have been studying their tuches’s off? Will their relatives not be here to celebrate with them? Will their friends’ parents suggest they don’t attend?

So I give myself a moment to be angry, but then turn back to the work of the world. To make sure that CNS is as safe as possible, following the best scientific recommendations so that we can be proactive, not reactive—motivated by rationality and not our fear or anger.

Because here’s what I know. We Jews have been through the Black Death and the Holocaust, through wars and antisemtism, through mighty empires who tried to crush us but who were crushed in turn by the tides of history. We are still here because we formed and maintained our communities in the most unlikely of places.

There’s a subterranean chamber at Treblinka that the guards apparently didn’t know about. On the ceiling are scribbled the words of the siddur. Laura and I visited there before we had any children, when we were still trying desperately to conceive. In that morally dark place, the light of the Jewish spirit refused to go dim. All these years later, the light of our youngest is prepared to shine forth as he joins the Jewish adult world.

COVID-19 will pass. One way or another. What matters now is who we choose to be during this time. Please, be safe. Know we are doing everything in our power to keep CNS a safe place. Whether you chose to join in person or livestream services, don’t let your fear and anxiety get the best of you. Each of us has within all the spiritual resilience we need to weather this storm. Let’s love one another the best we know how, whether that’s in person or on the phone, by text or even by a longhand letter. Let’s let our light shine.

Shabbat Shalom from a very proud abba,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  • What have been some impactful life cycle moments for you? What made them that way for you?
  • How are you managing your anxiety during this challenging time? Do you need additional support from loved ones? Have you asked for that?

If you’d like to continue this discussion, follow this link to CNS’s Facebook page to share your own perspectives on the topics raised in this week’s Oasis Songs. Comments will be moderated as necessary.

Torah Sparks Commentary This Week