September 28, 2023 -
These remarks are excerpted from Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk’s charge to our 2013 Confirmation Class, at Shabbat and Confirmation Worship held on Friday, May 17, 2013. We encourage you to post, share, or respond to these remarks, and to consider the questions of readiness to encounter the world’s challenges as our young adults do, having confirmed their place in the Jewish people as part of the beautiful traditions of Confirmation at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple. Would you like to know more about our high school program or about Hineni, our alternative path to continued learning and engagement for teens after B’nai Mitzvah, contact our Religious School office at 216-464-1330, or email Staci Cohen at email@example.com.
What is a teenager? Don’t answer that so quickly. Teenagers are stubborn about who they are and how they are defined. They are creative, exuberant, indeed exhausting– and if you misstep in your answer about teenage life, their bound to pounce. You had better answer such a question by starting with what a teenager is not because defining what it means to grow up, to grow out of childhood, to grow into adolescence and later adulthood—that is a challenge for all generations!
Thomas Hine in The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager says “the word teenager tells us only that the person described is older than twelve and younger than twenty. But these seven years represent an enormous chunk of a person’s life, one in which most people experience a huge array of changes. Yet the teenage years have been defined as, at once, the best and freest of life and a time of near madness and despair.
Ah– near madness and despair. Now that sounds close to defining a teenager. The Hebrew for adolescent, mithager, can be rendered “becoming an adult, but not yet having achieved financial, social and psychological independence and maturity. While teens are not prominent in Torah, neither are they silent. Remember Joseph? Joseph was seventeen when he had those dreams of grandeur and he shared and taunted them with his brothers and with his dad. My colleague Rabbi Jan Katzew writes of Joseph’s prototypical teenage outlook. His “unalloyed, unvarnished narcissism earned him the ire of his siblings… But this teenager who foresaw his own greatness and thought nothing of proclaiming it may have believed he was invincible. Still only through a series of literal and figurative ups and downs did Joseph actually realize this dreams. Lives are rarely- if every linear, and Joseph is a powerful teenage example.”
I share all these teachings with you against the backdrop of this experience of Confirmation—a life cycle event for you, for your family and even for us in your synagogue. Although loaded with celebratory pomp and circumstance, no small window is opened Confirmation into the future of which you dream. Will your path to the fulfillment of your dreams include ups and downs? Yes, I can assure you of that.
But what of your path to the fulfillment of our dreams, our dreams as your Jewish community? For tonight to this sacred space in your synagogue, on Shabbat no less, we your Jewish community want to lay our eyes on you, and appreciate the way you’ve grown up, but more than that– we, your temple community, we want to say in no uncertain terms: you mean the world to us. And not just as representatives of the future. You are our present, and your lives, your well-being, your integrity, your ability to love and receive love, to give and forgive yourself and others, these aspirations and ideals are in our hearts as we watch you in this moment. But all the pressures around you, all the winds that blow at your back, are encouraging you to take this moment and leap up on it to gaze at your future, your future beyond high school, your future beyond our daily grasp.
It makes me want to ask you all a question. Having studied with you, grown with you, traveled with you, danced and eaten and hiked and partied and giggled like crazy with you in New York City and here in Beachwood, Ohio, I wonder, perhaps as all rabbis do for their confirmation students: are you ready? And what does it mean to be ready, ready to confirm your path into the future and our Jewish future?
Your whole life you are getting ready—ready to go out, to come in, to get it together, to take it apart, ready to be. It is easy to be ready when you know what is expected from you. But how difficult it is to be ready for the unknown, how challenging is it to set our intention towards a state in which you are not driven by the ephemeral needs of the moment but driven by an eternal energy within us as Jews, a drive that stands for goodness and righteousness?
The words we just shared moments ago: V’zot Ha-Torah Asher Sam Moshe, allude to that idea: they are symbols of our trying to link this present moment in which our Torah scroll and our voices rise with the moment at Sinai when these teachings of love and justice, goodness and hope were first responded to by a people willing to confirm its involvement. The prayer with which we began our worship tonight Va’anachnu N’varech Yah, imagines us pledging our shared blessings not just in this moment but in each and every moment of inspiration going forward. These vivid & poetic images help us to dismantle all the filters with which we often waste the words and pledges we make in the daily toil and grind of our obligations in this world.
For too often, we’ve come to see our lives in categories, with prayer as a leisure-time optional activity, bound to blocks of time in our schedules, as if spirituality is something we can fit in between picking up something at a store, or finishing a project for a class, or heading off to baseball or soccer or lacrosse practice, or seeing a friend whom we’ve known since we were kids. We fail to break through these boundaries, and out of the walls of the synagogue- where our deeds, our thoughts, our actions and our contemplative moments can also act as prayerful soulful opportunities we have to leap towards the God’s realm, to draw close to the most high!
We are not the first generation to make this mistake. It has been that way throughout history. I think now of an otherwise mundane Friday morning centuries ago when the prophet Ezekiel stood in the community of exiles near the Chebal Canal. Suddenly in no particular holy place, he experienced a holy moment. He described it as though the heavens were opening with a Godly vision. Ezekiel confesses “I looked & behold there was a stormy wind came sweeping out of the north, a huge cloud and flashing fire, surrounded by a radiance, and in the center of it, in the center of the fire, a gleam, and a glow of amber.”
Listen again to these images: a stormy wind, a thunderous cloud, a radiant fire and a glow.
Could he have known whether he was prepared to let go of the profane and move toward the holy? Did he go to that canal knowing he was about to see a messenger of the most high. Of course not. Nor did Jacob know when he lay at a place in between Beersheva and Haran that God would encounter him in ways untold. Stil new ways of seeing, feeling, and hearing called to Jacob, they beckoned Ezkiel, and tonight they call upon all of us to be ready to step into territory we have yet to discover. And so I ask you, are you ready? Are you prepared to step into the unknown, to listen to the voice of the unforeseen, and seek transformation through the sacred and spiritual deeds, rites and meditations that are part of your Jewish history, part of your people?
Don’t answer that. Or should I say, don’t be tempted to try to answer that in the flash of an instant. Before you even begin, whether aloud or in your heart, think of the moments that have shaped you up until now. We in the congregation tonight – we too will consider the moments that have shaped our ideas of the holy- those experiences which have caused us to feel ready to commit to you constantly in our lives, to retain our Judaism, to hold our sweet heritage as a precious gift, and an example to you of our actualizing the teachings of our ancestors.
For some of us, the pivotal experience was in fact this ritual of confirmation. For others, it came in a far less formal or less intentional environment. But I believe in the core of my heart, that when we all consider carefully in the same moment what it is that has empowered us into the righteous work of living our Judaism, raising Jewish children, walking our Jewish talk of goodness, kindness, righteousness and action, when we set an intention to do so, at once there is a sense for God that the whole world just became a little more ready for its future. There is a sense that tomorrow can and will be different form today, that transformation is possible, that Tikkun Olam is near, and in such a moment, this synagogue, you and all those who’ve stood before you and who will come after renew our commitment to the Oneness, the holiness, the meaning that is the Source of all Existence.
Are you capable of such focus and such intention? I believe you are – for yes, you are teenagers! So you do come with a fair amount of madness and despair. But also, you are each teenaged adult members of this Jewish community, with a youthful set of years but with an array of adult struggles and meanings, and a tremendous capacity to be resilient and to be supportive of one another’s efforts to forever fulfill our people’s holy vocation- only to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with one another, with your families, and with the Holy One of Blessing.
So let me ask you, and don’t answer this question, don’t rush to judgment, don’t let your ego or your rationality or your cynicism enter the room for just a moment, just sit very quietly and contemplate the following question: “Are you ready?” For when you are ready, when you can imagine that you might be ready, you will be able to join with Cantor and I and your families in prayer and in awe for all the light and clouds and winds and radiant glows we see in the universe of meaning where if we are ready, we might in fact share the experience of God’s majesty.
Keyn Y’hi Ratzon, may it be so, now and always.