Daniel, the name of your Parsha, Bahalotecha, is a Hebrew word that means “When you raise up”. At first glance, it seems to be part of the instructions on how to light the lamps on the Lampstand in the Mishkan. Rashi, the great commentator on the Bible, notes that when it comes to lighting lamps, you don’t know if you are successful until the light reaches up on its own. Daniel, if you have ever lit a candle, you will know that the candle is not lit until you take away the match and the flame on the wick is able to burn on its own.
As you said in your speech, candles are often a metaphor for education. It is the steady light that shows us the proper path in life. But my teacher, Rabbi Elliot Dorff at the American Jewish University, noted that he learned long ago that “Jewish Education is caught not taught” Rabbi Dorff went on to say, “I recognize that … what convinced me not to quit my Jewish studies after my Bar Mitzvah, as almost all my Jewish friends did – was the emotional component of Ramah – the singing, the dancing, the plays and the sports all done in Hebrew. But it was only when I could also integrate my critical faculties into my emotional commitments that I could truly love Judaism as the Shema asks us to love God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might. “
Daniel, you have many interests in life, as most students have when they are 13. When your parents or your siblings are driving you all around, you can pretty much take part in many different activities. There can be more to your day than just school. All your activities after school also tell a story about the kind of person you are becoming. That includes your Jewish education. You took time each week, to learn here at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel. And if you didn’t want to take the time, your parents insisted that this one activity was as important as all the others.
Daniel, you said in your speech that you wanted to continue your Jewish Education. You thanked everyone who had taught you so far to bring you to this day. But as I reminded you over the past months, that as you enter the world of being an adult, you will find that you will be taking more and more control over how you spend your time. We have passed the light of Jewish learning to you, now we get to see if the light has caught on the wick. Will you really remain interested in Jewish learning or will the myriad other activities crowd your Judaism out.
But Daniel, let me share with you a secret. Your religion, your faith, your connection with God does not depend on how connected you are to your religious school classes. From now on, everything that you will do can have a Jewish component. Your Judaism is not just about how often you study the Bible or if you keep up with your Hebrew language skills. Everything you do in life, all of it can be done using your Jewish tools. There is nothing that is beyond the reach of what Judaism teaches.
How you play basketball or football can reflect your Jewish values. Judaism would have you play hard for your team and practice to become the best player you are able to be. It also teaches you to reach out to pick up a player who has fallen down on the court or to help another player, even from the other team, up off the ground at the end of a play.
How you party can also reflect your Jewish values. There is no law in Judaism that says you can’t have fun at a party, but Judaism does teach what the definition of “fun” is. Making fun of someone else is not fun. Destroying something that belongs to someone else is not fun. Stealing is not fun, even if you think you can get away with it. Treating another person badly is also not something fun in Judaism, that includes how you treat waiters and servers and other people who are working to make an event a success.
How you work can also reflect Jewish values. Being kind to others who are working or to customers is a Jewish value. Being honest and fair are Jewish values. Giving your boss your best time in return for your paycheck is a Jewish value. And always remember that your Judaism teaches that no paycheck is worth doing something morally wrong or illegal.
In short, Daniel, inside every relationship are Jewish values. How you treat your parents and family; how you treat your friends and your enemies; how you treat your teachers and your mentors; it is all built on the values that you have learned in class over the past years. Today we can remove the match, and see if your light is ready to burn.
Daniel, the purpose of a candle, like the purpose of a Jewish education, is to bring light to the world. By bringing happiness to someone who is sad, by caring for someone who has fallen down, by being kind to someone who was treated unfairly, you are bringing light into the world. And oddly enough, Daniel, no matter how much light you give away, the flame of your candle will never diminish. You can never run out of kindness or compassion.
As you said in your speech, learning is a lifelong value. And how you live your life, what you do with all the experiences that life has to offer, will determine what kind of a life you will live. Is it all about you or is it all about how you relate to the world? Are you at the center of the universe or is there something greater than you in the middle? That you have a light to shine implies that others have shared their light with you. And their lights all came from those who shared with them and we can trace it all back to the very beginning where it is God who announces, “Let there be light”.
Yes, Daniel, that is a divine flame that you carry. All these people here came today to see you take hold of your flame and to see what you will do with it over the course of your life. They think you are ready to carry it. Your parents think that you are ready to carry it. Your teachers think you are ready to carry it and your Rabbi also thinks that you are ready. Daniel, do you think you are ready? With all you have done today, you have showed us that your flame has taken hold.
May God keep that flame alive inside you and may you be the source of light for many others as you grow each day in knowledge and understanding as we say… Amen
Mazal tov to you and to your family.
Sermon given by Rabbi Randall Konigsburg at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel on Saturday, June 10, 2017.