The Bar Mitzvah Lesson: A Tragedy

Shaul’s father misunderstands why I’m here and apologizes for his son’s stop-and-go Hebrew and ignorance of Judaism while Shaul himself listens politely in his baseball uniform. They don’t know that I have no expectations of prior observance or tradition. In my personal life, I am in a position to notice flaws. Here, it wouldn’t help.

And just as I plan to ignore his shortcomings, I’m not going to track his growth, not precisely. It would be a miracle if, consequent to these sessions, his Hebrew improved or he could recall a word I say. A boy from a family like his could theoretically grow in observance in his teen years, but then, Sancherev’s army could theoretically be struck by a debilitating plague at the walls of Jerusalem.

At least the father is honest; I’m not. I can’t tell him that Bar Mitzvah lessons are triage, that his priorities, a respectable Maftir and a decent Mussaf, are not what his family needs if they hope to preserve the future of the Jewish people. I can’t tell him that while I hear his son repeat his memorized aliyah my mind scrambles for options. How can I fill our time with more Mitzvot? What questions about Judaism does Shaul have that he does not want to ask, and how can I find an excuse to preempt them in our remaining fifty minutes? Is there a way to breach intermarriage? Should I bring up the history of Judaism?

One week, I decide to ask Shaul if he knows about Moses. He doesn’t, not really. But then, on a different occasion, when I have used Mussaf as an excuse to talk about prayer in general, he floors me when he says the soul is compared to a candle. In my capacity as a private citizen, I sneer at the bumper stickers and boilerplate of the popularizers of Judaism that at this moment I want to embrace, to kiss, to fall to my knees to worship. Somehow, he learned this! I can’t spare the time to wonder how this small scrap of mysticism has made it through the raging cataracts of his teenage mind, past the sports trivia and phone apps, to be remembered in a place where news of the Jews’ greatest prophet has yet to reach. The Chabad House Bar Mitzvah lesson, like life, is too short; these miracles must be ignored, for the mission. There are only forty minutes left.

I’m still not sure how I ended up as Shaul’s teacher. I don’t even know how to read from the Torah myself; if the Rabbi hadn’t made Shaul a tape to memorize, I’d have been lost. But I am not cynical and jaded and ignorant, not in Shaul’s eyes. I am, to him, a representative of the collective wisdom and heritage of the Jewish people, even though he doesn’t know what that means, and if I was chosen mostly because I have patience and spare time and a beard, he’s unaware.

Dad is into Holocaust remembrance, so we talk about putting it into Shaul’s speech. Some families choose Israel, some the Holocaust. Either way, this is what constitutes American Judaism circa the apocalypse, and I dare not squander any passion I can find. Mortality and calamity are on the menu, and if no thirteen-year-olds wish to partake, at least the parents will be satisfied with the graduation from Jewish life that the Bar Mitzvah too often signifies. I don’t argue, though. There is no time to convince him off the holocaust in the next twenty minutes, and besides, his father’s right. Shaul should know about the Holocaust.

In addition to the tragedy, we work sports into the speech as well. Jackie Robinson is a hero of his, and of course Sandy Koufax. “There are a couple of stories about the Rebbe and baseball,” I say. It is a statement of faith. If I speak about Judaism and baseball to Shaul’s father it would just sound like salesmanship, and bad salesmanship, because I’m not a salesman and Judaism is not about baseball. But when the Rebbe speaks about baseball, Judaism is about baseball. Just like when I’m trying to teach this kid something, I am the right man for the job. This is one of those Rebbe things. I can’t explain it. I tell him to search for baseball on Chabad.org.

Even with only fifteen minutes left this week, I try to weigh my responsibilities to the mission. “Perhaps these words will…help,” I think, and try not to think, “Like a bug helps slow down a car as it hits the windshield.” That is a trap. I must never fall into the trap of, “These people care only what the neighbors think of the nice party they’re throwing.” If I think it, they might think it, and that will not happen. I try to acclimate to the impossible.

And it is impossible, a thousand ways. At thirteen, we expect this to work? He is already gone; his mind is in athletics when it is fully anywhere at all; he skips two whole lines of Maftir when one of the Bat Mitzvah Club members wanders into the office looking for something. Though he’s from a traditional family, he doesn’t know who Abraham is or what a gabbai does. He’s mostly worried about his public speaking, and I don’t blame him. His knowledge is actually, all told, above average. Nowadays, circa Götterdämmerung, who has the chutzpah to hope for more?

But he is the one who happens to be in front of me, twice a week, for the blink of an eye, and that “happens to be” is part of the mission and what miracles are made of.

Hurrying, in ten minutes I teach him to wrap his Tefillin, over and over. They won’t be worn every day, but I speak to him as if they will. I don’t expect him to be religious. I expect him to be Jewish, and to be Jewish is to know how to do this.

He follows my instructions obediently. “Shaul is a good kid,” I tell myself. “Polite, disciplined, happy.” It’s what I always tell myself. It’s what I told myself about my students in summer Yeshiva and my campers in upstate New York. He has a good family life. His parents care about Judaism, in their way. I can see the seeds of it, the exact spot where the miracle will take root.

I do not, in my mind, compare Shaul to Mottel, whom I used to drive home from cheder. I do not consider how Mottel at eleven spoke fluent Yiddish, knew dozens and dozens of niggunim and a thousand Chassidic stories, memorized Tanya and Mishnayos. How at eleven, Mottel had a wit sharper than a razor and studied the Rebbe’s talks after Shabbos dinner. I do not spend time, in the last five minutes this week, on the small thought dawning like a winter morning in the back of my mind, that nowadays, circa The End, even Mottels sometimes leave Judaism behind. What hope could there possibly be for…

It is not for me to understand. I am just a messenger. I have no expectations. It is not my place to despair or rejoice. I am not myself. I am here for the miracles. I am here for the impossible and the nonexistent, and then I will be gone from him, and he will move on.

G-d, the Rebbe, Shaul’s soul –

Your move.