Thanks, Zach

Posted by mwallach on January 6, 2012 in Tribe Members |

Dear That’s Life,

Since the start of this column, there are numerous stories over the years I have left untold. Some are just for my Shabbat table, meant to be shared only with close friends and family, inappropriate for publication. Despite being excellent material, I have opted to use that internal filter I so rarely employ, each story having its own reason why it could not be printed. There are also those anecdotes I regret having ever put down into words, wishing I could take them back, wondering what I was thinking.

Some stories are vetoed simply because of where they happened or who was involved. In specific, I do not write about work, referring in this case to my classroom. While being a middle school teacher provides more inspiration than could be used in one lifetime, I have always had the, “Whatever happens in Vegas…” principle regarding my students. Adolescents are funny subjects, though often not on purpose. Even the boy who admitted having a staring contest with a photograph on the wall of a famous rabbi, and was convinced he would win, was never given column inches.

Many rules have their exceptions, though I do not consider this story to be one, despite starring a current student. Not only did the event not take place in my classroom, which already makes it permissible, but in this instance I was the one being schooled and not the other way around. I have said over the years that a teacher is only as good as his/her students. I am fortunate, therefore, to be teaching my present group of students because if this one boy is an example of just how fine his classmates are, I must be an exceptional educator.

While life is filled with various rites of passage that shape us as individuals, there is no more seminal moment for a Jewish boy as when he becomes a bar mitzvah. Miraculously turning into a man right before the eyes of congregation, nothing puts hair on a boy’s chest like reading the weekly Torah portion before hundreds of onlookers. It takes a certain amount of guts, a definite leap of faith and a very deep breath before an adolescent boy takes his place before the Torah, pointer in hand, his training on the line. Having never experienced it personally, I can only imagine the stress and anxiety surrounding that moment. Knowing myself the way I do, I am sure there would be plenty of nervous laughter and a slew of one-liners. What I know for certain, however, is that I would have only been thinking of “me,” unable to focus on anyone else.

I had been looking forward to my trip to Montreal for my student’s bar mitzvah, who is also the son of good friends. While they live locally, the simcha was moved to Canada at the boy’s request. His grandparents lived there and as a result of a downturn in his grandfather’s health, a trip to New York was not an option. The only way for his Saba (grandfather) to hear him lain (read) from the Torah would be to move the festivities north. Even though he understood that meant his friends would not be at his bar mitzvah and few of his parents’ friends would make the trip as well, nor would he be in his own synagogue, this was what he wanted. He was willing to give up everything so his Saba could be there – and so it was done.

Sometimes called the “me” years, adolescence is filled with egocentric, often self-centered, behavior. Completely to the contrary, this bar mitzvah boy demonstrated an act of selflessness most adults would have never considered, let alone followed through. He understood what was important, quickly recognizing that family was his priority. More important than a party, his friends or the community celebration, his grandparents trumped it all and so off to Canada we went. As if that was not enough, however, Shabbat morning came and we were all taught the lesson of a lifetime – all from our thirteen-year-old teacher.

Having arrived at the part of the morning services when the bar mitzvah boy begins to lain, the pinnacle of the weekend, many of us in the congregation were struck by an obvious and upsetting fact: the boy’s grandparents had not yet arrived. Physical limitations and illness prevented his grandfather from moving with agility or speed, complicating both his arrival and his wife’s. We were not the only ones who had noted their absence – the bar mitzvah boy and his parents were very well aware. Nevertheless, the torah was open and we seemed set to begin.

All of a sudden, the bar mitzvah boy turned to his father and to the rabbi. A short huddle ensued, a conversation took place, and the rabbi put his arm around the boy. Turning to the congregation, the rabbi explained that the boy had made a request: that we wait for his grandparents to arrive. Because we had come this far so his Saba could be there when he lained, he reasoned, that starting to read from the Torah before his grandfather arrived defeated the purpose – and he was right.

His parents rightfully beamed with pride. Everyone was already impressed with the bar mitzvah boy, now a man, for moving his big day to Canada in an effort to bring his family together. Now we were moved as well. And if all of this had not been enough, there was still more.

To pass the time as we waited for his grandparents’ arrival, the bar mitzvah boy gave an off-the-cuff, completely extemporaneous and totally unscripted d’var Torah (sermon) to the entire congregation. Having already delivered his bar mitzvah speech the night before, this was truly shocking. But again, we were enlightened by this teenager who had the presence of mind – right before a moment in his life that had brought even the toughest of kids to tears – to teach us what was important.

For approximately forty minutes, we patiently and happily waited for the couple to arrive. Family and love were the theme of the weekend, and we were on the same page. When both of his grandparents arrived, we all smiled, as did the boy who finally caught a glimpse of the man for whom all of this was done. As the boy began his laining, it was one of many beautiful moments that Shabbat – all of which were part of an experience no one would forget.

Rarely does a day go by when I do not think of my own grandparents. Their love was unconditional and while I hear they may not have all been the saints I remember them to be, it does not matter to me. There was nothing like a hug from Bubby or pre-shabbat wishes from Grandpa. I would like to think I appreciated their love when I was a young teen, but I would be giving myself too much credit. How refreshing, inspiring and touching was it, therefore, to witness numerous acts of kindness and love by a grandson to his grandparents on a day that should have been all his own but one he chose to share with them instead? While I usually have no shortage of things to say, this time, there are just no words.

Thank you, Zach, for the lesson of a lifetime.

As Seen in the South Shore Standard 2012

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