There are lots of memories of that day. Mine was far from the ostentatious parties or elaborate synagogues of many young people. Indeed I didn’t even have a Bar mitzvah speech. I was far too shy to do so. But I remember studying. I remember the events leading up to this day, some of them not pleasant ones. But the day itself and the weekend was wonderful. It was the first and only time I would have all of my grandparents at my home, instead of visiting them. I will always remember my grandfather’s davvening during services, in that gravely Ashkenazi pronunciation. Our synagogue, was a converted garage, we has a plain building and sat on metal folding chairs. I got up there and sang my maftir and haftarah. I remember little of the party afterwards, but remember the family get-together the next day where my youngest cousin tried to sell the leftovers of the previous day’s party to everyone.
It was not long afterwards that I began to turn away from Judaism. I had prepared for My Bar mitzvah in an Orthodox Hebrew School, though only going on Tuesdays and Thursdays. My unobservant ways were looked down by the other students, with encouragement of the teachers. I was a second class citizen in this environment. It was one of the last straws to make me look for somewhere that seemed more connected to God than to one’s pride of doing mitzvot. Like many Jews I went towards Buddhism and Taoism.
So it was an irony that I finally wrote that bar mitzvah speech twenty years after my bar mitzvah. To celebrate my 20th anniversary of my bar mitzvah I did not just read a memorized maftir again, but this time translated it on the fly. The shy boy in the powder blue suit had been replaced with a far more exuberant character. I gave a D’var that day that talked about the blessings in my life, my Promised Land. I wrote on that day of sending a spy not into the Promised Land of space but into time. He would travel from June 1979 to June 1999, and report back on my life in the future. There would be many of my blessings of course, including my return to Judaism, my living in Downtown Chicago, and my master’s degree in Education. But there is Amalek there too. Like the Spies whotold the Israelites of the people of the land seemed unconquerable, my spy into the future would have to tell of some of the darker parts of my life. I understood the spies and their fear back then, the thirteen year old me would have been terrified if he knew what he would have to endure. I’m still terrified remembering it.
That 20-year late Bar Mitzvah speech was a beginning for me. It lit something under me to write. Three years later, I started Shlomo’s Drash, and close to every week I crank another one of these out. In the last ten years I’ve gone from barely knowing Hebrew to translating both Hebrew and Aramaic. I’ve gotten my Master’s Degree in Jewish studies. I’ve had some downturns, such as the loss of my Grandparents, but nothing that was traumatic. I’m a scholar, an artist and can pick my way around a guitar. Life is good.
Of all the biblical characters, Joshua has stood out for me. While there are other instances of Joshua showing up in Torah, it is here where the story is more his and not Moses’. Here he is a spy. In the haftarah, 38 years later, he is the leader sending out spies. For the last ten years, the midrash on Joshua has fascinated me. There is one, which tells that Joshua’s confidence in taking the Promised Land is discounted because he is single and has no family. Nowhere in Torah does it say Joshua married. It is left to the rabbis to come up with that story. So it was only when I was able to read Aramaic that I found out that not only did Joshua marry and have a few daughters who would be the mother of the late prophets like Jeremiah, but he also married the sexiest, most powerful woman in the Region: Rahab of Jericho.
But Joshua’s beginnings present some interesting challenges for Midrash as well. We read in this week’s portion:
8. From the tribe of Ephraim, Oshea the son of Nun.[Numbers 13]And a few verses later we find
16. These are the names of the men which Moses sent to spy out the land. And Moses called Oshea the son of Nun Joshua. [Numbers 13]
It would seem that this is when Moses changed Joshua’s name. However, there are several time when we find that not to be the case, including not long after the Israelites cross the Red Sea.
8. Then came Amalek, and fought with Israel in Rephidim.
9. And Moses said to Joshua, Choose for us men, and go out, fight with Amalek; tomorrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the rod of God in my hand. [Exodus 17]
Later in Exodus, we wil read:
11. And the Lord spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend. And he turned again into the camp; but his servant Joshua, the son of Nun, a young man, departed not from the Tent.[Exodus 33]
Joshua was named Joshua before the episode of the spies. Rabbinic lore tells that the letter yud in Sarai, which was lost when God changed her name to Sarah, was given to Joshua. Yet the chronology does not exist here either.
The Zohar, however, believes Joshua’s renaming did happen at the time of the spies
AND MOSES CALLED HOSHEA THE SON OF NUN JOSHUA: As much as to say: May God save thee from them!’ R. Abba said: ‘As he was being sent for the purpose of entering the land, it was requisite that he should be perfect, to wit, through the Shekinah, for up to that time he had been called “a lad”, and therefore Moses joined the Shekinah with him. And though we find the name Joshua before this in the text (e.g. Ex. XVII, 9; XXXIII, 11), it is there used in anticipation.’[ Bemidbar, III, 158b]
The yud is also a letter of God’s name and thus the addition made Joshua a more holy person, to counteract the evil report of the ten spies. Yud also is the letter ten, again reflecting on those ten spies. Yud is the letter that makes the fire Aish of immaturity, into a man ish.
The Zohar believes that he was called a lad in previous portions, and this was to prepare him to be an adult. The word for lad is also the word for servant. This name change also changed the character of Joshua. In the previous cases he was a servant, and did Moses’ bidding. From this point on, he is his own man, the one who will cross the Jordan into the land.
It may be a stretch, But Joshua changed from a person of obedience to a person of responsibility in this reading. While we cannot tell Joshua’s age, Moses may very well have been at the very first bar mitzvah – that of Joshua’s.
It is a wonderful thought to share this day with Joshua. Thirty years later from my own Bar Mitzvah so much has changed, and the sweetest has occurred. Like Joshua when he crossed the Jordan to Jericho, He found his perfect match. I too have found mine. Sweetie has none of the past nor the dubious profession of Rahab, but in the tradition of wise strong women, she stands along Rahab, Asnat, and Ruth.
With her with me, I’d love to see what the next thirty years will look like.