Rabbi Lawrence S. Kushner's New York Founder's Day Address: "Michael's Bar Mitzvah" - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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Rabbi Lawrence S. Kushner's New York Founder's Day Address: "Michael's Bar Mitzvah"

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Thursday, March 1, 2001

An excerpt from Rabbi Lawrence S. Kushner's Founders' Day Speech
Rabbi Lawrence S. Kushner
Founders' Day, New York
March 13, 2001

THE RED CARPET IN THE SANCTUARY of our synagogue is laid directly over the cement of the foundation. That's what Michael's head hit when he went down, the cement. You could hear the crack. He didn't pass out. When people pass out they melt into a pool. They can be caught. Michael just took a half step backward, as if he were trying to give himself some distance from the Torah scroll and his own bar mitzvah. But instead he toppled straight back like a felled tree. When I turned around, I saw blood oozing from his left ear. I was certain he had fractured his skull, maybe worse. His mother screamed, "Oh God, not that, not now!" (Not what? I wondered.) She used his new prayer shawl to try to stop the bleeding. "He has an infantile seizure disorder," she said, "He hasn't had one in over five years. We thought he was cured." Michael lay there, unconscious.

We joke about the danger of holy moments, "The Great and Terrible Oz," Raiders of the Lost Ark, "Don't get too close or you might get zapped," things like that. But we don't really believe them. At least most of us didn't until Michael's bar mitzvah. Now we're a little less cavalier. The congregation came together. People waited patiently in their seats. Physicians who were present came forward. The rescue squad arrived and took Michael to the Hospital. Michael's mother, on her way out the door, asked us to please eat the luncheon lest it go to waste. I told the congregation that the doctors would do their job, Michael's family would do theirs, and that ours-even though none of us felt much like it-was to complete the service. Someone pointed out that we had forgotten to recite the concluding Torah blessing and respectfully suggested that the bar mitzvah might technically still be in progress. I waited around at the luncheon for a few minutes but had no appetite; my heart was at the hospital.

When I arrived in the emergency room, I found Michael all encased in an orange spinal brace and wearing an oxygen mask. But now everyone was smiling. "The X-rays and CAT scan show no serious damage," his mother whispered, "The doctor says he'll be fine." Michael was conscious-maybe more conscious than anyone else in the room. He looked up at me and proceeded to recite the three rules of checkers as taught by Rabbi Nahum, the son of the Rabbi of Rizhyn, which I tease all my bar mitzvah students they must memorize:

"You can't make two moves at once, you can only move foreword and not backward. And once you reach the last row, you can move wherever you want." Then he said, "Did I finish? Am I a bar mitzvah?"

"Oh yes," I sighed, "You did the whole thing and more."




Lawrence Kushner © 1998

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