63 years ago today, March 21, 1959, the Cantor chanted my Hebrew name and, on legs that felt like rubber, I climbed the steps to the bima at Temple Sharey Tefilo in my native East Orange, NJ to read from the Torah for the very first time as a Bar Mitzvah.
It was an overpoweringly scary and yet very spiritual moment for me. Rabbi Avraham Soltes, of blessed memory, stood on my right and placed his strong left hand on my shoulder. I read and translated each line as I went along, Leviticus 5:17-26.
Back then B’nai Mitzvah students in our congregation did not give speeches, they did not conduct the whole service, they did not read the entire Torah portion. The focus of the ceremony was on reading and understanding the message of the Torah portion, I only read my Haftarah from the Book of Isaiah in English.
When I finished both readings and their accompanying blessings, the rabbi and I stood at his lectern, and he asked me questions. He asked me to recite the Ten Commandments, and then he asked me to share my favorite Psalm. I chose Psalm 61 and especially the aspiration of the verse, “Lead me to the rock that is higher than I” (Psalm 61, verse 3).
The lessons of my Torah portion remain with me to this day. The seemingly esoteric portion about sacrifices teaches me and all of us two vital contemporary lessons:
- Ignorance of the law is no excuse for violating it.
- In crimes that do not involve violence, victim compensation is the best form of redress.
Without question, kids today “do more” at their Bar or Bat Mitzvah ceremonies than I did, but I wonder, do they remember the lessons of their Torah portion years later? Do they even know what a Psalm is let alone have a favorite? More importantly, will they look back on their big day as I do on mine, as one of the most important days in my entire life?