Devarim: Coming of Age

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Moses Hassan looked around as he walked slowly to the dais at the west end of the room. There was a good crowd here, nearly three hundred people.

Moses wondered what the guests had thought of the party so far. Moses Hassan counted the rich and powerful of the City among his friends. When those friends had Bar Mitzvah’s or weddings, they rented hotels or dedicated halls. This space was nothing like that. The guests had had to walk through a gap in a fence – and on to a construction site. They had to don work helmets, safety shoes and protective glasses. And then they’d had to ride construction elevators – strapped to the sides of a still-rising skyscraper. The reception itself took place thirty floors up, in a newly-windowed double-story space that was far from complete. There was just unfinished concrete, construction lamps, and the day’s remaining sunlight peering through the floor-to-ceiling windows on the western side of the building.

The room was done up well. There were round tables, tablecloths, fancy table settings even fabric covered chairs. It was obvious, despite the locale, that no expense had been spared. In this way, the setup was conventional. Moses was sure of it.

He didn’t know much about table settings, but he knew how to hire experts.

Of course, the oddest thing about the fair wasn’t the room or the tables. It was the guests.

Because, while about half were indeed drawn from the City’s rich and powerful, there were others there. There were crane operators, bookkeepers, plumbers, electricians and masons. There were city clerks and firefighters and even a few police. These people were dressed in their best clothes. For some that meant suits and ties. But for others, it was a clean pair and jeans and a white shirt. They were all mixed together. They were all honored guests at the Bar Mitzvah of Jonathan Hassan.

As Moses Hassan looked around the room, he saw the different groups eyeing each other, all of them more than a little uncomfortable among unusual neighbors.

Moses smiled, inwardly. After all, everything was happening exactly how he had intended it to.

When it came time to speak, Moses had considered just standing on a milk crate. But a milk crate would have taken away from the backdrop; the sun setting behind the tall buildings of the City itself. So, he had assembled a group of concrete bricks and then plastered over them, creating something that seemed to fit with the room as a whole.

Moses stepped up on to this rough dais, and then turned towards the room. He had practiced this speech so many times. The way he figured it, he had one son and that son had one Bar Mitzvah.

And this was the most important talk he would ever give.

Moses had no notes. Instead, he just stood there and waited for the crowd to quiet. Voices settled, forks and knives were set down. The last surreptitious drinks were had. And then, there was silence.

Moses began to speak.

“Ten years ago, my time with Jonathan began. I didn’t know it and he didn’t know it. But it was true nonetheless. Ten years ago, my wife, Shoshana Hassan, was diagnosed with breast cancer. I know many people in this room knew Shoshana. She is the reason I know you. In those days, I was building small multi-unit apartment buildings. I busied myself with contracts and with engineering and with project management. I felt good about what I was doing.

“But Shoshana understood there was more to life than making a bit of money on a few building. She got me to think about relationships – to value them and to invest in them and to be rewarded by them. I am so pleased to have all of you here. And that is because of her. All my success, my real success – my community success – is because of her.

“But, ten years ago, Shoshana was diagnosed with breast cancer. We sought out the best doctors we could and they recommended that she undergo a radical and aggressive chemotherapy treatment. It was to begin immediately. She went into treatment without reservations. It is incredible difficult to undergo this sort of therapy – it damn near kills even those who survive it. Since then, doctors have realized it isn’t the best approach. But we acted on the information we had and Shoshana stayed the course without wavering. She did it so she could continue to make more of my world, and of yours.

“The doctors mentioned doing a procedure so we could have children after the chemotherapy. But it wasn’t the biggest of our concerns. And, we didn’t have time for anything extra. I just needed Shoshana to survive. She gave my life meaning. I’m sure all of you who knew her can understand that.

“Six months after treatment started, it seemed like the chemotherapy had worked. She was coming out the other end. She was weak, certainly. But, once again, we could think about the future. And we did. It was then that we truly understood she could never have children. I regretted shortsightedness. I thought I always would. How could we not have taken the few extra days needed before she started her chemotherapy?

“I thought I’d regret that choice. But I have since learned better.”

Moses stopped, and took a deep and slow breath. Then, a tremor in his voice, he continued.

“Shoshana was stronger than I was. She told me that we had so much to give, and so much to be thankful for. She told me we had to adopt a child. And not just any child, but a child who needed us. So, we started filling out the paperwork. We started looking and analyzing the options. Did we want a child from the US? Did we want a child from overseas? What did the different options involve? What kind of difficulties would we face?

“But we only started that process.

“Just a few months after the chemo ended, Shoshana got sick again. The prognosis was as bad as it could be. We did nothing, we could do nothing. Shoshana lived a few weeks longer and then she left us.

“I buried my beloved wife. And I was desperate for a time. But I knew what she had wanted. He had made that clear. And so, in some kind of act of mourning, I decided I would adopt and I would raise the child she would never meet. I filed out the forms, the agencies looked at my home. I went through the training. And I passed through the steps I needed to pass through. Then, they handed me a catalog. They had some fancy name for it. But it was a catalog. They had pictures of different children and a little background on each one. The idea was that I would sit with a caseworker and I would order up one of the kids.

“I was blown away. How could I choose a child from a catalog? I started flipping through the pages. My heart grew sadder with each page. There were so many kids who couldn’t be mine. There were so many I could help, but I could only choose one.

“And then I saw you, Jonathan. You were a gorgeous little kid. You had curly hair and beautiful features. But your eyes were tortured. You were four years old, but your eyes were full of pain. And I knew, just then, that you were the child I had to adopt. Then I looked at your brief little bio and one word popped out: ‘cystic fibrosis.’”

“The case worker talked me through the challenges I would face. She took me through your history. Your mother and father had divorced less a year after you was born. Your father just left. And your mother gave you up for adoption when you were three. She couldn’t deal with the burden of you any more.

“I met you a week after I found you in the catalog. We visited for a few months. And then, you became my son.

“Jonathan, you weren’t an easy boy. You lived in a world over which you had no control. You had been abandoned and you were sick. The fact that I wanted you was irrelevant. Another reality had been baked into you and it was not so easy to escape it. But you showed, even from those early days, an almost instinctive touch of judgement. It was a simple thing. You were rigorous about using your PEP device. For those who don’t know, a PEP is a face mask that creates pressure and that enables Jonathan to clear his lungs. As I saw it, the use of that machine signaled the first step in who you would become.

“But it was only a first step. In reality, the only control you could feel was the power to disrupt everything around you. You would throw incredible tantrums – especially considered you had such difficulty even breathing. It was, in its way, very impressive. You would sabotage anything you could – things, people, relationships. I tried to cut away at this reality. I tried to make you feel loved. But it wasn’t easy. There is no formula for dealing with that sort of pain. Good outcomes aren’t inevitable.

“Then, when you grew a bit more, things got worse. You learned a new talent. You learned to blame everything on everybody but yourself. You couldn’t do this or that because I had been unfair, or because your mother had been unfair. Or because G-d had been unfair. Nothing was up to you. You were incapable, as far as you saw it, of standing up to the difficulties of the world. And standing up wasn’t, as you saw it, your responsibility.

“But, as everybody here knows, your story didn’t stop there. Our story started with my love. My love of my wife and my love of a photograph. I don’t know how it happened, but you took this love and took chaos and despair and self-destruction and you began to form a cohesive person of yourself. You began to realize who you were.

“But you didn’t act on this awareness, not yet. You weren’t engaging with the world, but just settling for what you did have. You were avoiding doing. You were satisfied with being. And then, I remember, I came to you one day and told you, ‘It is time do something.’ You’d asked ‘what.’ And I said that I didn’t know, but I wasn’t raising you just to live.

“We talked then. And you came up with an idea. You wanted to start a foundation. Its job would be simple: it would provide medical devices for children with genetic defects in the developing world. The PEP machine was key to your life. But cystic fibrosis isn’t common in those places – it is primarily a Northern European disease. But there are other devices that children with other conditions need. So we started talking and planning and taking our very steps towards realizing this project. I was excited about the possibilities.

“Then, in the middle of this, when you were ten years-old, you asked to meet your birth parents. I thought it was a bad idea. But you argued. Your entire childhood, you said, they had been holding you back. Their decision to abandon you had been holding you back. I agreed to the meeting. Your parents weren’t dangerous people so you went to their homes and you talked to them, one on one. And then you came back to me and I could see, right away, that you had been right. A weight had been lifted from you.

“I asked you what had happened and your answer was simple. You realized, that day, that you were already, bigger, better and more important than the limitations that had held your parents back. You were free of their decision. You were only 10 years old and you had overcome a challenge many can never overcome. But you didn’t stop then.”

“Jonathan, you have amazed me. You aren’t like most kids. You have had to face overwhelming daily obstacles. You have to face, daily, fundamental threats to your own mortality. But despite all that, you kept going. We, together, hired a foundation manager. We actually visited Africa, not a safe trip for a kid with CF. We did it more than once, bringing a lot of equipment along the way. It cost a lot. But you did it because you wanted to talk to the kids and the parents You did it because you wanted to build relationships. You understand, in a way most don’t, what really survives.

“As you know, Jonathan, we can’t measure relationships. We can’t see the ripples they create. But as my wife taught me, they are all that is real. You, Jonathan, a thirteen-year-old boy, already know what I did not understand as a fully-grown man.

“You are becoming a young man. But unlike many young men, I’ve never had to tell you when another child is a bad influence. You have worked it out by yourself. You have learned to lock out those who are incompatible with the reality you are trying to create and you know there is no profit in some relationships. It takes strength to act against your own nature – your desire to reach out – but you are able to judge, despite your age, when that is for the best. I used to say that if my mind was too open, my brain would fall out. Jonathan, you understand that if your heart is too open, your reality will disappear.

“But it doesn’t stop there. You don’t stop there. That little hint of self-control – the use of the machine to clear your lungs – has only grown with time. Every night, before you go to sleep, you review your day. You keep a diary, like many others have done. But you do more than just that. You judge your own actions. You actively and consciously improve yourself. Even at your young age, you have focused yourself with a power that even I, a fully grown adult, am in awe of.

“But, my dear child, you still aren’t where you need to be. And that is why I have brought all of these people here today. Jonathan, these people come from all walks of society. There are the rich and powerful, the aristocracy of New York. And there are masons and tradesmen and civil servants. I didn’t invite them as some gesture towards social justice. I invited them, to this place, because I want you to connect to them, to relate to them. And to enable them to empower you. And to enable you to empower them.”

Moses pauses and gestures broadly towards the darkening skyline behind him.

“Jonathan, this building, the one we are dining in, was built by the tradesmen in this room. It was financed by the bankers in this room. It has been protected by the policemen and the firemen. It has been reviewed and approved and improved by the civil servants. We work together. Certainly, we push and shove sometimes. But, fundamentally, we respect the place of those around us. We are neighbors as well as partners.

“Jonathan, a reasonable person could look at what you’ve done and say you’re just a rich kid who has wastefully spent a bunch of your father’s money helping a few kids get help. They could sum you up in this way, and they wouldn’t be wrong. But you are just a child. You have so much more to do.

“And that is why I chose this building. I chose it because, as important as the immaterial is, all of it is built on a physical framework. The physical world is the scaffolding upon which our relationships are grown. Your Foundation is funded by profits from this work. The devices you distribute are the creations of engineers and manufacturers. We eat and drink and live and relate only because of the physical production of farmers and roadworkers and crane operators and machinists and truck drivers. Jonathan, the cityscape you see behind me represents the scaffolding of our relationships. It represents the framework upon which the immaterial is established. Shoshana taught me this. I used to think she was pulling me from my work. But my work wasn’t made less important by her. It was made more important. And you, Jonathan, can never forget it. You need to build our reality, not just embrace those around you. One leads to the other.

“Jonathan, you are not physically strong. Your willpower, your focus, are amazing. But you are not physically strong. You are going to have rough patches, of every sort. I don’t expect you to be perfect or immune to human weakness. I don’t want you to be perfect. You are a person, just like everybody else here. And imperfections often unlock our greatness. It will sound contradictory, but I don’t want you to achieve perfection in every little thing. I want you to achieve perfection in everything. If you pull away from the small and everyday, you can begin to understand the whole.

“Jonathan, you are 13 years. Most Bar Mitzvah speeches are cross between a eulogy and a presidential nomination. You are an impressive child, and so I’ve delivered something that could pass as either. But you are only thirteen. I haven’t gone through all of this to honor you. I have done it so that you can connect with this community. With my community. With Shoshana’s community.

“When you feel weak, these people – this community – can serve as your hands and your ears and heart. They can make you whole.

“Ten years ago, I thought that I’d always regret our failure to preserve Shoshana’s ability to have children. I always thought I’d regret not having a child with her earlier. But it was Shoshana who taught me the importance of the relationships. It was Shoshana who taught me the importance of self-control. It was Shoshana who helped me understand the path to true success.

“I’m telling you this because I now know, as I stand here today, that you are Shoshana’s child. Not physically. Not genetically. But in every way that matters. You have inherited the most important parts of her. You are Shoshana’s child. We, this community, are all Shoshana’s children. And so, I finally realize, I have no regrets.

“She never knew you but she would be so proud of who you have become.

“I know I am.”

 

With this, Moses Hassan steps down from his little dais.

The sky is dark now, but the city is ablaze with light. For a long minute, the guests just sit in silence. They just sit, their eyes drifting towards Jonathan Hassan. For his part, Jonathan just sits, physically confined to his chair. He just looks at where his father had stood just moments before.

And then the guest began to rise; one by one. They rise and they make their way towards Jonathan Hassan. They know it is time to introduce themselves to Jonathan, the son of Moses and Shoshana Hassan.

It is time to unlock their own potential.

 

This week’s story isn’t about the Torah reading of Devarim, but about the first two-thirds of the book of Devarim.

The book of Devarim opens with Moshe making a speech in front of a whole list of places. It seems odd, like he has a huge microphone. But translate the names literally and another reality emerges. The words describe the people. And the descriptions apply to everybody. Only the last descriptor makes a distinction. It separates those who are distinguished and those who lacking effort. Through effort, we can be distinguished, even if it is not measurable in human terms.

This introduction is followed by Moshe describing a history of the people. But it is a selective history and one that changes many of the details we encountered before. The history is there to tell a story. The story is of the people’s growing responsibility.

It starts with the self-control of judges, which parallel’s Jonathan’s use of the PEP machine. It continues with the spies, which parallels Jonathan’s blaming others for his own limits. Then G-d commands the people to stop circling Seir and instead go through it. Seir represents the physical and this is paralleled by Moses Hassan’s drive to have his son engage in the world.

With the wars against Og and Sihon we see two kings who headed nations that suffered when Amalek did, at the hands of Kedarlaomer. They, like Amalek, bore the same continual grudge from the time of Avraham and the birth of our people. They would weigh on the people so long as they bordered them. The destruction of Og and Sihon parallel’s Jonathan’s visit to his parents. It is the step they take to overcome their demons. The people are learning the power of their will – which is ultimately represented by G-d’s altered plans concerning the two and a half tribes. With will, we can change reality. And Jonathan is learning this power.

But the book of Devarim doesn’t stop there. The next parsha, speaks of G-d’s love for the forefathers and their love of him. It parallel’s Moshe’s love of Shoshana. It describes why we exist as a people and relate to G-d. But it also shows that our influence is not limited by our lives, but can extend far beyond them. Of course, the power to extend that influence is not our own. It comes from G-d alone. Only He can offer a thousand generations of kindness. But there is another trend emerging. Rather than a group of individuals, the people are becoming a cohesive whole. In this vein, the Ten Commandments are recast as national commandments, rather than individual ones. It is represented by Jonathan’s growing cohesiveness and self-awareness.

In the reading of Eikev, Moshe visits the people’s history a third time. But this time, it emphasizes that the relationship with G-d is what truly enables us. It teaches us to use the concrete to embrace the timeless. The immaterial, the relationship with G-d, is what actually lasts. We are to circumcise our hearts, so we can serve G-d and realize our full potential. Jonathan learns this lesson through the establishment of his foundation.

Then, in Re’eh, we learn to immunize ourselves against relationships that can damage us. We push back against influences that can undermine us – just as Jonathan learns to do. This is followed by Shoftim, where we are given mechanisms of self-control. Between the choosing of kings and the place of Kohanim and prophets, we learn to regulate our national self.

Jonathan, with his nightly checklist, does the same.

In Ki-Teitzeh, we learn to hold ourselves together. The laws are laws of neighborliness (among the people and between the people and G-d) and they are critical to making our national selves real. They form a sort of cellular cohesion. Jonathan can only become who he is to be by establishing himself within his community.

In Ki-Tavo, we come to life. We are given a heart to know, and ears to hear and eyes to see. Like Pinocchio, we become a living nation. We grow into our majority, just as Jonathan becomes a man.  He acquires, through his community, his heart, his eyes and his ears. In this reading, we plaster the Torah over rocks – the rocks are the imperfect people, but the national plaster of Torah enables a sort of perfection, even with imperfect building blocks.

What follows are covenants, covenants to enable and strengthen the people. These are the covenants that Moshe helps will strengthen his people and enable a better reality. It is, of course, the conclusion of this story.

Moshe’s speech is aspirational. We are weak and small, like Jonathan. But we had not, and have not, learned the lessons the boy in this story learned. Jonathan, the child who conquers his demons, who acts with will and who protects himself. Jonathan who values the immaterial and who is enabled by those around him. This Jonathan is the person Moshe hopes we, as a nation, will be. But it is not who we are.

We have achieved tremendous things. But we have not realized the fullness of our potential. We have not yet reached the reality that Moshe’s last speech holds up as our ideal.

Perhaps, when we do, our small and weak nation will enable the nations of the world.

Perhaps, when we do, we will witness the coming of Moshiach.

 

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Image: Tim Sheerman-Chase, CC Flickr

Joseph Cox Author

Joseph Cox is the author of City on the Heights (www.CityontheHeights.com), a thriller about creating hope from war.

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