It began with a dream. It may not, however, have been a dream. I don’t know, and it doesn’t really matter. I thought it was real at the time, because I was sitting on the sofa in my office listening to my cellphone. I heard a voice on the other end, and I knew it was him. “Daddy!” I said. “No,” he replied. I know his voice, I’ve heard it all my life. “Albert?” “I am not Albert,” he said, “my name is Lev.” There was interference on the line, as a text message tried to arrive, and he began to fade out. I tried to get his number, but wasn’t quick enough. “We’ll talk again,” I heard him say. And then Penny the book-keeper woke me up. I was on the sofa in my office.
The thing is, I don’t dream like that. I’m a bit of a smart-arse, and am pretty sure that if this experience came from my subconscious it would have been much more clever. “I am Martin Buber!” the voice would’ve said, and sent me to the bookshelves in search of I-Thou. I would then figure out the subtle meaning, ponder upon the concept of connection, and be pleased about how smart I am. But things are different now. Albert is dead. And he said his name is Lev. He named it all with that one word: Heart. Not my style at all. It was, however, a message for me.
I am a rabbi, and have been for almost ten years. My father, too, was a rabbi. I asked him now and then if he believed in God. He did. I wished I could believe like he did.
When I applied to rabbinical school, nobody asked if I believed in God. It was not until an elective in advanced homiletics in the fourth year that the question arose. Rabbi Malino had palsied hands and spoke quite slowly. One might think that taking his class would yield three easy credits. At the beginning of the first class he asked us: “How many of you believe in God?” We looked around at each other, uncertainly. We all raised our hands, haltingly. “Nu,” he continued, “what does that mean? What is God to you?” We sat in silence. One student spoke boldly: “God is my Rock!” she exclaimed. “And what does that mean?” the rabbi responded, “that you sit on Him?” The following week, more than half the students did not return to the class.
Now I sit at the table with the bar and bat mitzvah students. 150 students this year. 182 next year. I have thirty minutes to connect with each one, to suggest what it means to be a child of commandment in the world in which she lives. The conversation focusses on the potential and strength that she has, and what she may do with this power. “What is the purpose of the mitzvot?” I ask. “A lot of people think they are the Jewish rules telling the Jewish things that Jewish people do to be Jewish.” The student nods. “Actually,” I continue, “that’s not what it’s about at all. Actually,” I say, “they have one main purpose, and that is all. We pay attention to the commandments because they will teach us how to be a mensch. You know what is a mensch?” The student shakes her head. I ask the parent. She says, “a person you can count on.” I bang my fist on my chest. She continues, “a person with a good heart.” “Exactly!” I cry. “Look around at the people you know - in school, at camp, wherever you go. Some are good at math, and others stink at it. Some run really fast, and others can’t. Some are really musical, and others aren’t. You can always work hard to improve yourself, but there doesn’t seem to be any logical reason why some people get to be gifted and others do not.” The student nods again. “The thing is,” I say, “there is one thing that everybody gets the same. It doesn’t matter how rich or poor you are. It doesn’t matter what colour your skin is, or where you are born, or in which religion they bring you up. Everyone gets a heart. Everyone. And everyone gets the power to develop it into a good heart. You only lose that power if you let go of it. Tell me,” I say, “ do you know the difference between right and wrong?” “I think so,” she says. “Do you understand that there are consequences to your choices and your actions?” “Yes,” she says firmly. “Then you are ready,” I say. “It is time for you to accept the responsibility for the continuing development of your heart, to become a bat mitzvah, and a mensch.
I wish I had more time. If the next student doesn’t show up, perhaps we may go on to talk about God. What will I say? “Let’s talk about air!” I may say. “When you woke up this morning, were you glad to see the air was still there? Before you went to bed last night, did you worry in case the air would be gone in the morning?” I'll talk about how we know that without air we die, yet, unless we are underwater, or going into outer space, we assume that it will be there. We cannot see, nor smell, nor hear, nor taste, nor feel it; yet we know it is there and that our bodies live because of it. We do not question this. What then of our souls? Whoever decided that they don’t need nourishment and maintenance also, just like our bodies? A hebrew word for the soul is neshama. The same word also means breath. Could it be that God is to our souls like air is to our bodies? Our senses cannot detect God, yet without God our souls would be dead. Why do we question this?