It’s my son Yoni’s birthday today, he turned 13.
We were in shul this morning, he put on his tefillin, but he didn’t yet have an obligation to. You see he may be 13 now, but his obligations as a young Jewish man don’t officially start till 2nd Shevat – this Thursday – on his Hebrew birthday.
It got me thinking. We have two calendars – the Gregorian calendar, which we live our chol lives by, our jobs, school term times – basically our daily lives. Then there is the other calendar – the Jewish calendar where we live out our kodesh lives – Shabbat, chagim and when it comes to a Bar or Bat Mitzvah – that is the date that matters. In essence, we have a calendar for our bodies and another one for our soul.
That reminds me of a very funny story about Yoni and calendars. It was Dec 31st 2007, on a flight home from JFK, the stewardesses were dressed in seasonal fair and came to give the then almost 3 year old Yoni a gift. ‘Happy New Year’ they said to him.
‘I know a song about that’, he said back.
The stewardesses smiled sweetly, ‘Sing it for us please’.
Yoni began, ‘Dip the apple in the honey…’
The stewardesses looked confused, I smiled and kvelled – to him there is only one new year – Rosh Hashanah. At that stage of his life, he only possessed the calendar of the soul.
Our challenge is living in the world of both calendars. The constant battle of maintaining our Torah identity within the wider western world in which we live and work.
It is not a recent problem, we know that this challenge goes all the way back to the Jewish people in Egypt. There is a troubling Midrash that describes that when Yosef died some Jews abolished brit milah to become like the Egyptians. However, there are other Midrashim that famously tell that even though we were on the 49th level of impurity we merited redemption as we kept our Jewish names, Jewish dress and Jewish language.
My name is Andrew, I dress like a westerner and I speak English – would I have not been redeemed? Strange thing is with that logic I know someone else who would not have been redeemed. His name is Moshe Rabbeinu.
According to most commentators Moshe’s name was given to him not by his parents – we do not know his Jewish name – his name was given to him by Batya – Paroh’s daughter – and that is what he is known as for the rest of his life.
We know when he rescued Yitro’s daughters he was called ‘ish mitzri’ by them to Yitro – the Midrash tells us his clothes were Egyptian.
Later we learn that he cannot speak to the people as he has– ‘aral sefatayim’ – uncircumcised lips – literally, he speaks Egyptian.
So our leader and saviour does not fit into the paradigm of Jewish name, dress and language – how are we to understand this Midrash?
What can the Midrash mean when it teaches we had Jewish names, dress and language? Or that in the future we need these things to stave off assimilation?
Let me offer an explanation, which will hopefully tie up all we have been saying.
What is our name? It is what we are known as. R’ Shimon says in Pirkei Avot that there are three crowns: the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood and the crown of kingship (civil rule); but the crown of a good name ‘shem tov’ rises above them all. When people say our name what do they think of? A good Jew, a family that embraces traditions, a true Mensch. Or, do they just think the complete opposite?
What about clothing? What is Jewish clothing? I don’t think Avraham or Moshe wore a black hat or dressed in a kappota for Shabbat. The only Jewish clothing for men that I know is tzizit and a kippah. However, more than that, how is a Jew to dress? With modesty, clean and pleasant. I think the Midrash is saying, is our dress Jewish, does it give us respect, or does it bring on comments and looks?
And our language, how do we speak? A Jew should speak politely, with care and concern – no room for needless gossip, crass, rude or immoral words.
Ask yourself, if in that definition, if all Jews dressed Jewish, spoke Jewish and their names were Jewish – would there be assimilation or would there be a proud people who saw the absolute joy and honour in being Jewish?
We have both calendars, both identities, our job is to make sure even while going about our lives of chol we are, through our values, actions, observances and words, making sure that those same lives are being imbued with kodesh as well.
Rabbi Andrew Shaw