“Rabbi Rosenberg, honored guests; all my life I wanted to be an Arab city. When I was four, I wanted to be Cairo; when I was eight, I wanted to be Damascus; and perhaps when I am 18, I will want to be Baghdad. But today - today is my bar mitzvah. Today, I am - Amman.”
But of course in reality, I was not a man. I was 13 years old. I was in Grade 8.
But, today as I celebrate my 50th anniversary bar mitzvah, age 63, I really am a man. And funnily enough, thanks to my Jewish learning of the last 13 years, today I really am an Arab city. The Arab city built in my mind is the result of my Jewish learning of the past 13 years, since I turned 50. It is perhaps the Andalusian city of Cordoba, where Yehuda HaLevi wrote the Kuzari in Arabic. Perhaps it is the Cairo where Maimonides, personal doctor of Saladin, wrote “Guide to the Perplexed”. I have become an Arab city because the architects of the intellectual house in which my mind resides, the pathways and connected synapses that make of my brain an understanding mind, were wired up by lines of text, based on what I learned from two great teachers, who wrote their poems and Torah interpretation in Hebrew, but who wrote their philosophy in Arabic: Rambam, the greatest Jewish prophet since Moses; and Yehuda HaLevi, the greatest Hebrew poet since Moses. Over the last 13 years, I learnt the poetry and dramatic intellectual dialogue of Yehuda HaLevi. Born 1075 in Christian Tudela, north of Spain, moved south to Muslim Andalusia, to Grenada, and Cordoba. His Jewish philosophical dialogue, “The Kuzari” subtitled: “In defense of a Despised Religion”, he wrote in perfect Arabic; Yehuda HaLevi’s many poems he wrote in perfect Hebrew. His day job was physician, as many educated Jews then became, since they could read the Arabic translations of Greek medical science (and wisdom) then circulating in Andalusia. 1140 was a big year for Yehuda HaLevi. After publishing Kuzari, his dramatized masterwork of Jewish philosophy, at age 65, he set out on a long dangerous sea voyage, an Odyssean pilgrimage to the land of Israel. From Rosh HaShana of the Hebrew year 4900 until Pesach, he had what we today would call a “rock star tour” of the admiring Jewish communities of two of the greatest Muslim Arab cities of the era, Alexandria and Cairo. Yehuda HaLevi died, legend says, at the gates of Crusader-held Jerusalem. His most famous line, the line of one perplexed as I: “my heart is in the East, and I am in the far West.”
My second great teacher was also born in Andalusia, also studied and practiced as a physician: Moshe ben Maimon, known as Maimonides in English, as Musa bin Maymun in Arabic, and in Hebrew by his acronym, Rambam. His father, a Dayan or judge, claimed direct paternal descent from Yehuda HaNasi, the famed 2nd century rabbi and chief editor of the Mishna, who in turn claimed descent from the seed of King David, (though Rambam’s teaching was decidedly non-Messianic). Born in Cordoba in 1138, two years before Yehuda HaLevi’s Jerusalem pilgrimage, Rambam was exiled from Spain when the fundamentalist Muslim Berbers swept in from North Africa. He fled to Fez in Morocco, then eventually to Cairo, where he became both the Nagid, or leader of the Jews of Egypt, and the personal doctor, first to Sultan Saladin, and thereafter to the Ayyubid Caliph. Rambam’s two greatest works were the Mishneh Torah, a comprehensive, encyclopedic and authoritative reorganization of the entire teaching of the Torah; and “The Guide for the Perplexed”, a book that changed Judaism, written in Judeo-Arabic, the greatest fruit of the Arabic enlightenment of the Golden Age. And since these two Arabic writers and philosophers, influenced by Arabic translations of Greek wisdom, have so influenced my mind’s architecture; and since my interior intellectual landscape is, in its complexity, multiculturalism and transactional vitality, urban, I have indeed become, in some sense, an Arab city. HaLevi’s poems and dialog, and Rambam’s philosophy and interpretation, have combined with my general studies, ancient and modern, in the past 13 years – from Homer’s narrative epic The Odyssey, to the science of how the human mind learns and works. And so, the goal of my bar mitzvah Dvar Torah is to bring all my Jewish learning, and my general studies, to bear on one single verse from the Torah portion that I sang:
וַיִּכְתֹּ֥ב משֶׁ֛ה אֶת־הַשִּׁירָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את בַּיּ֣וֹם הַה֑וּא וַיְלַמְּדָ֖הּ אֶת־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽלAnd Moses wrote / this song, / on that day, / and taught it to the children of Israel;
It seemed to me important to better understand this eleven-word verse, coming at the end of the final book of Moses, that to me speaks to the very nature of song and poetry, Torah, revelation, prophecy and learning. Then I will conclude with a quick-fire analysis of the individual words of the verse, using the insights gained from my “second bar mitzva years” of Jewish and general learning.
What is the nature of prophecy? Who, or what, is a prophet? To better understand Moses, I turn to Rambam, my guide to a perplexed 21st century Jew. Rambam, Yehuda HaLevi and all Jewish tradition, see Moshe Rabenu as the preeminent prophet. And prophecy ran in his family, because Moshe’s sister, Miriam, was our preeminent prophetess: at the shores of Yum Suf, she also composed and sang a song - and then led the women in dance. Perhaps, as Yehuda HaLevi notoriously wrote, prophecy is what we would call today a genetic trait, that is inherited, and that’s why brother and sister Moshe and Miriam, descendants of Levi, were both prophets. But instead, I adopt completely as my own, the interpretation of that other great Moshe, Judaism’s greatest prophet – by his own definition - of the last 2000 years, Rambam. My latest study of Rambam comes from reading the book by Micah Goodman, of Jerusalem’s Hartman Institute, translated into English as: “Maimonides and the Book that changed Judaism: Secrets of the Guide for the Perplexed”. In its original Hebrew, "Sodotav Shel Moreh Nevuchim", it became a bestseller in Israel from the day it was published.
For Rambam, revelation “is not an alternative to reason as the source of knowledge about our world”; rather, revelation is “an achievement of reason itself”. And prophecy? Rambam teaches that a prophet has three things: 1. balanced moral qualities; 2. a powerful imagination; and 3. intellectual perfection. Therefore, “the prophet is a blend of saint” – one with balanced moral qualities; “artist” - one with a powerful imagination; and “philosopher” - one who strives for intellectual perfection. “Any person”, man or woman, "who brings all the rich resources of their humanity to its fullest realization may become a prophet." I have adopted Rambam's understanding of prophecy, summarized as follows: 1. prophecy is natural, not miraculous; 2. prophecy is a human achievement, not a divine initiative; and 3. a prophet is a superlative human being - but not more than that.
Grounded in Rambam’s understanding of prophecy, I conclude with this quick-fire analysis of the eleven words of the verse, using the insights I have gained from my last 13 years of Jewish and general learning.
וַיִּכְתֹּ֥ב משֶׁ֛ה אֶת־הַשִּׁירָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את בַּיּ֣וֹם הַה֑וּא וַיְלַמְּדָ֖הּ אֶת־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל
וַיִּכְתֹּ֥בVaYichtov. Moses wrote; Moses was literate; Moses could read;
וַיִּכְתֹּ֥ב משֶׁ֛ה Moshe. Two possibilities here; Moshe Rabenu, ben Amram, born in Egypt, from the tribe of Levi, who wrote the Torah “baYom HaHoo”; and/or, Moshe ben Maimon, Rambam, born in Spain, from the seed of David, who wrote the interpretation of the Torah that I accept, bazman hazeh.
וַיִּכְתֹּ֥ב משֶׁ֛ה אֶת־ Ett: conjunction. The fundamental abstraction of language. Language is an innate human nature ability to build, in the mind’s imagination and intelligence, a model of creation, of the Universe, using symbols and metaphors, that we understand through learning.
וַיִּכְתֹּ֥ב משֶׁ֛ה אֶת־הַשִּׁירָ֥הHaShira. the Poem, and/or the Song. Moshe Rabenu, baYom HaHu, wrote poetry; and/or Moshe Rabenu, baYom HaHu, wrote songs i.e. he was a poet and songwriter, like Leonard Cohen. Or like Yehuda HaLevi, born in Andalusia, whose 12th century Poems are, like Bob Dylan, today in Israel, bayom HaZeh, set to music.
וַיִּכְתֹּ֥ב משֶׁ֛ה אֶת־הַשִּׁירָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖אתHaZott. THIS, self-referential. Almost post-modern approach to text; while Moses is writing “haZott”, Moses is referring to “haZott”. While we are singing this as a song, we are reading this as a poem. HaZott. THIS, Feminine. Hebrew is gendered. All Hebrew nouns are either masculine or feminine, perhaps because at Creation, zachar v’nekeyva Barah Otum. And, we learn from this verse, Shira - song and/or poetry - is feminine.
וַיִּכְתֹּ֥ב משֶׁ֛ה אֶת־הַשִּׁירָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את בַּיּ֣וֹםbaYom. DAY. Time measured by nature; a day is the Earth revolving on its axis. A year is the Earth orbiting around the sun. Hours, minutes, seconds, nanoseconds are all subdivisions of Nature’s Time. Kronos time. Greek word for chronological time.
וַיִּכְתֹּ֥ב משֶׁ֛ה אֶת־הַשִּׁירָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את בַּיּ֣וֹם הַה֑וּא HaHoo. THAT, MASCULINE. Kairos time. Kairos. Greek word for time to describe the right, the critical or the opportune time; our experience of time; history.
וַיִּכְתֹּ֥ב משֶׁ֛ה אֶת־הַשִּׁירָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את בַּיּ֣וֹם הַה֑וּא HaHoo, ETNACHTA. The most familiar trope mark, the one that marks the end of the first segment of a verse. Etnachta looks like, and is known as, “the anchor”. The importance of grammar, and of musical notation to the Torah’s text, which Jews have had for at least a millennium. Trope marks themselves look like Arabic, if you just write out all the trope marks parked in a row. And “Anchor” is a symbol and metaphor for pause; as if each Torah verse is a sailing vessel, on the Sea of Talmud, and ETNACHTA, the first pause in the verse, is that vessel’s tiny anchor.
וַיִּכְתֹּ֥ב משֶׁ֛ה אֶת־הַשִּׁירָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את בַּיּ֣וֹם הַה֑וּא וַיְלַמְּדָ֖הּ VaYilambda. AND TEACH; and study; and learn.
וַיִּכְתֹּ֥ב משֶׁ֛ה אֶת־הַשִּׁירָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את בַּיּ֣וֹם הַה֑וּא וַיְלַמְּדָ֖הּ אֶת־ Ett. Conjunction. The relationship: between teacher and learner, between text and reader, between the Divine and the human, is a two-way relationship; ideally Buber’s I-Thou relationship.
וַיִּכְתֹּ֥ב משֶׁ֛ה אֶת־הַשִּׁירָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את בַּיּ֣וֹם הַה֑וּא וַיְלַמְּדָ֖הּ אֶת־בְּנֵ֥י Bnay. CHILDREN. As I have learned from our two-year-old grandson, a child born of woman is the greatest learning creation in the known universe, with almost miraculous abilities to make meaning of their physical and social reality.
וַיִּכְתֹּ֥ב משֶׁ֛ה אֶת־הַשִּׁירָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את בַּיּ֣וֹם הַה֑וּא וַיְלַמְּדָ֖הּ אֶת־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽלYisrael. ISRAEL. A tribe bound by a language, by a single poem written by a prophet, by a feminine song learned from a prophetess mother, by philosophy derived from a narrative epic. And by me, singing some of this song, reading some of this poem, learning some of that philosophy, teaching some of what I learned about what was written bayom HaHoo, on that day, to some of the children of Israel, my community, with whom I share songs, poems, teaching and learning, on this day I have become a bar mitzva. 200912 Jubilee Bar Mitzva Dvar Torah • דבר תורא לבר מצוה +50 : אִבְּן בּרָנְדַייס