In lieu of a President’s Message, this month we’re printing a lightly edited version of Benjamin Gyimah’s commentary on his bar mitzvah Torah portion.
I would like to begin by summarizing my Torah portion, Vayigash. Joseph was the favorite child from the beginning and his brothers did not appreciate it. The brothers retaliated and sold Joseph into slavery. For many years, Joseph lived in Egypt and was eventually selected by the pharaoh to be the second-in-command and Joseph became very powerful. Benjamin, the youngest brother, was accused of theft and Judah offered himself into slavery in Benjamin’s place. Judah had promised his father Jacob that Benjamin would return home safely. Judah was willing to do anything to keep his promise, and his speech to Joseph is the longest in the book of Genesis.
When Joseph saw Judah’s loyalty to Benjamin, he revealed himself as their brother. Joseph did not focus on his brothers’ past disloyalty. Instead, he asked them to let their father know that he was alive. Judah and Benjamin rushed to tell Jacob in Canaan and the family was reunited in Egypt after 22 years. On the way, Jacob prayed and received a divine promise from G-d that everything would be ok. The family settled in a fertile area of Egypt, which was a good place to be during an on-going drought.
There are a few themes in this Torah portion that relate to my life. The first is trust. Like Jacob, I have packed up every- thing and moved to another country multiple times. I knew my family would be with me, but that everything else would be different. I trusted that everything would be ok and that G-d would protect my family. Another theme is loyalty. I would never sell my sisters into slavery, although they definitely annoy me sometimes. Judah’s feelings toward Joseph changed as he matured, like I have. Judah kept his word to Jacob to bring Benjamin safely home. I am a First Class Boy Scout and in the Scout Oath we must commit to being physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight. I commit- ted to a 50 mile, 5 day hike to earn a hiking merit badge. The first day was cold, rainy, and I dropped my backpack in the water and ruined my supplies. It was hard to keep my commitment, but I pushed through and completed the hike.
The last part of the story that was relevant to me was the family reunion. We have lived overseas or far away from family since I was 3 years old. This year has been very special to me and thankfully less dramatic than the Torah’s story. Prepar- ing for my bar mitzvah was difficult because of moving, learning to read the Torah, and the long commitment. I complet- ed 13 mitzvot in preparation for my bar mitzvah, including donating coloring books and crayons at a hospital; delivering cookies to the fire and police stations on Thanksgiving; donating money to a man falsely imprisoned for 43 years; and packing meals and handing out food to the homeless. I am excited and honored to have this rite of passage into Jewish adulthood. Thank you to all of the people who helped me prepared for today, including Rabbi Ken in Hawaii, Rabbi Emily and Cantor Ruben in North Carolina, Rabbi Yonnie in Virginia, Chaplain Pekar and Mr. Sammy Fineman in Okinawa, Miss Diane, and Cantor Scheff and Rabbi Rappeport.
These remarks were prepared for a “chapel talk” for the student body at St. George’s School on September 30, 2021.
September brought the beginning of the Jewish new year, and was marked by the Jewish High Holidays, a trio of holy days that commemorate concepts like renewal, repentance, and joy. On Rosh Hashanah, the new year, the primal wail of the shofar- a ram’s horn that is blown like a trumpet- shocks us out of our cynicism and implores us to wake up to the wonder of the world and be amazed. Rosh Hashanah is followed by the Days of Awe, which culminate with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. This is a time for self-reflection, a time to confront your own failings with honesty and clarity, and to seek to repair your relationships with friends, family, and God. Judaism prioritizes tikkun olam, repairing the world, but on Yom Kippur we pause from looking outward and shift to the hard work of looking inward. We are all flawed and in need of improvement, and we all can grow and be better in the coming year. On Yom Kippur, we gently beat on our hearts while reciting a list of ways we fall short - a ritual that can be viewed as a way of waking up your heart and reminding yourself that your heart can always get bigger; you can always do the work of repairing my relationships. A week after Yom Kippur, Jews observe Sukkot. We build and decorate a temporary hut, or sukkah, and share a meal in the sukkah with friends and strangers. In this way, Sukkot reminds us of the 40 years that the Israelites wandered in the desert, when they had to rely only upon God for food and protection, and also celebrates the last harvest festival before the onset of winter rains in Israel.
All of the High Holidays serve as a stunning wakeup call that life is fragile and uncertain. We tend to get comfortable and forget. The High Holidays snap us out of it and remind us to take nothing for granted.
This Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of the Jewish year of 5782. This year has special significance because it is a shmita, or sabbatical, year. Just as the Torah calls for Jews to work for six days and rest of the seventh, it calls for them to work the land for six years and let it rest in the seventh. The 7th year is called a shmita year. Shmita means renunciation, or letting go, and in the shmita year, agricultural lands may not be farmed and the fruits & vegetables of the land may not be bought or sold. Rather, the land is to be left alone so that needy people may pick what grows naturally in the fields and orchards.
Shmita is an ancient custom that dates back to the biblical era, and it applies only to the land of Israel, so American Jews don’t think about it much, if at all. But, today shmita is part of the religious, agricultural, and economic reality in Israel. Rabbis have developed clever solutions so that the most observant Jews can keep shmita. Jewish farmers may grow and sell produce grown in hydroponic greenhouses, for example, or only purchase produce from non-Jewish farmers. There are systems that allow observant Jews to pay farmers for only their labor, but not for the fruits and vegetables themselves. Right now, Israelis are having a public debate about the year-long ban on planting trees, shrubs, and flowers in their cities and towns. Some activists argue that in an era of climate change a ban on planting trees is harmful. Others argue that there are practical solutions, like planting more trees in the year before and after shmita, or planting trees and shrubs in pots until the year is over and the trees can be transplanted in the ground.
This might sound ridiculous to you...impossibly foreign, archaic, and outdated. But, I believe that shmita can challenge us to think about the space we occupy and how we can make room for others. Like many of you will do, I have spent the decades since graduating from St. Georges striving for professional advancement and influence, which I’ve achieved. And now I’m beginning to understand that part of growing up is letting go of some of the space that I take up so that other people can step into it and grow and flourish too. This is what shmita means to me, and I think that you can challenge yourselves to make space for others too.
It won’t be easy. I know how little space you have to give. Your physical space is confined to this campus and a shared dorm room. Your space in time is not in your control; nearly every hour of every day is scheduled by classes, sports, and school requirements. Your mental space is full of the stress and anxieties of high school - Do I fit in? Do people like me? And, seemingly this is all to secure your space in a zero-sum future: space in the college you want to attend, space on the team, and later, space in society and the economy.
The stakes are so high that giving up space might seem impossible, but making space for others isn’t about getting small. It is about encouraging others to be big, to live up to their potential. It is about approaching everyone with an open heart and open mind. You can do this right here and now. When you go to King Hall for lunch, make sure there is an open seat at your table and invite someone to join your group. Back in your dorm, leave your door open and invite someone in who might be lonely (which, by the way, is everyone). Ask someone a question and listen with curiosity. Include someone in your study group and ask her to explain how she thinks about the material or problem you’re working on.
Releasing the space you occupy isn’t easy. Its serious business and most adults never understand this part of growing up. Letting go of what makes us feel secure, letting go of the assumption that we’re right. It is, perhaps, the hardest thing we'll ever do. The secret that too many adults never figure out is that there is space for everyone. This shmita year is your chance to get a head start.
It isn't hard to understand why Temple Shalom is often filled with families with young children. My friends and I want to give our children the profound ethical guidance, deep spirituality, and curiosity that Judaism offers. We are trying to give our children the chance to absorb the most beautiful parts of Judaism: how to get meaning and depth and purpose and community out of their lives. We need the Temple and its community to grow spirituality deeply within the bones and hearts of our children.
Septuagenarians and octogenarians also fill our Temple. Our eldest community members are leaning into deep questions of how to live in a time of loss. How to live in the absence of all the things we took for granted: health, loved ones, mobility, and time.
But we spend most of our time between the bookends of life and the Temple is one of the few places that helps us continue to grow and strengthen throughout adulthood. During the Shabbat Amidah I gently reconnect with myself. I try to remember my inherent value, separate from my professional successes or failures, and separate from my children. It is a time to hold myself accountable to my responsibilities as part of G-d's audacious project.
I recently read a passage written by Maya Angelou that hit the nail on the head:
Most people don't grow up. It's too damn difficult. What happens is most people get older. That's the truth of it. They honor their credit cards, they find parking spaces, they marry, they have the nerve to have children, but they don't grow up. Not really. They get older. But to grow up costs the earth, the earth. It means you take responsibility for the time you take up, for the space you occupy. It's serious business. And you find out what it costs us to love and to lose, to dare and to fail. And maybe even more, to succeed.
We give children support to grow; patience, understanding, and compassionate redirection when their behavior does not meet our expectations. Imagine the power of granting adults the same grace. Temple Shalom offers the time and space to consider our relationship with ourselves and the world, and the necessary support and love of each other to grow. This year, let's show up for each other with open hearts and minds so that we may all have the chance to cultivate the peace in our hearts that Judaism offers.
It is Valentine’s Day, and sometime between wiping little bums, folding infinite heaps of laundry, and scraping another uneaten peanut butter sandwich into the compost, my husband and I might exchange a token of our affection. We each bought the other socks. The tasks of living are so endless it is easy to forget we are bonded in love. But it is the underlying love that makes these daily indignities bearable.
Living daily in the boundaries of our mundane world, it can also be easy to lose one’s concept of G-d. Getting the oil changed and fixing the leaky roof don’t exactly fill the despairing with hope and the fearful with courage. This must be why so many of us encounter G-d in a blazing sunset, harvest moon, or soaring notes of a choir - undeniable reminders that there is more to life. This past year, our lives have become even more finite. We have been prevented from many of the experiences that seek to usher finite humans into the presence of the infinite and awesome.
During these hamster wheel days, I think about the many concepts of G-d in Judaism that implore us to put G-d in the commonplace. Consider the two types of interactions described by Martin Buber’s “I Thou” philosophy. My simple understanding is I-It relationships are transactional, utilitarian- the Uber ride of human interaction. In the I-Thou encounter, we relate to each other as authentic beings, without expectation, judgement, or objectification. While our lives are understandably full of I-It encounters, imagine the transformational power of giving more people the radical generosity of heart and mind Buber described.
When we enter the Temple sanctuary on Shabbat, the ner tamid reminds us that we are attempting to encounter G-d. While we are away from the Temple for a while longer, join me in applying the same audaciousness to our everyday encounters. Granting every person the dignity and sanctity of Thou is the beating heart of the entire Jewish enterprise. I’ll start in my home and surrender to listen and hear the unique and divine hearts of my family members... most likely while I’m folding socks.