Saturday, April 01, 2023

Not every bar mitzvah speech is so memorable that you remember it in detail years later, but when we hear something that speaks to us, it becomes etched in our memory. It was probably about 12 years ago that I heard a bar mitzvah boy thanking family members who had helped him. Toward the end of his speech he added, “To my father who taught me how to lein—you’re welcome.” Everyone in the shul burst out laughing.

As I continue to prepare with my second son for his upcoming bar mitzvah, I am reminded of my own struggles in learning how to lein. Although Parshat Vayakhel was not a walk in the park, I struggled more after my bar mitzvah than before, since for the seven years following my bar mitzvah I was the baal korei in my small shul in Brooklyn. For the first few years, the experience was not pretty. In fact, on most Shabbos mornings I would make so many mistakes that I would look at the people who corrected me with anger and disdain. I felt that they were picking on me, trying to deliberately trip me up and highlight my errors. The times when I would step off the bima after a dreadful performance full of errors and yet be greeted with handshakes were humiliating. I secretly wondered if the hands outstretched in congratulations were actually mocking me, since I certainly didn’t feel deserving of the handshakes. Why did I continue each week? Why did I spend so much of my free time preparing if I was doomed to failure? Perhaps it was the $25 weekly salary that kept me going (over the years I was bumped up to $35 and eventually $50). Perhaps it was the fact that there really weren’t many other choices. There were only a handful of men in the shul who knew how to lein, so the only other option would have been to hire someone from outside the community.

In retrospect, the entire experience over that seven years was truly incredible for my development. I developed a drive for success. I learned that if we don’t fail, we can’t succeed. Over the course of time, as my skills improved, I realized that those people in the minyan who I thought were gunning for me were in fact cheering me on. Those people who extended their hand to me knew that if they showed that they believed in me when I failed, I would eventually believe in myself—especially when I failed. This experience of failure would prove crucial to my development, as over time I have learned that our moments of failure can serve as our moments of greatest opportunity.

This coming Monday night, we will once again be sitting on the floor and, as a people, lamenting the loss of the Beit Hamikdash. As a nation and community, we see ourselves on Tisha B’Av as failures, unsuccessful in stemming the tide of history and welcoming Moshiach with our own hands. Our rabbis teach us that our generation, like those before us, bears responsibility for the destruction that has befallen our people. Throughout the words of Chazal we find several examples where failure serves as an impetus for improvement, but most notably in Rabbi Akiva’s offer of comfort to the chachamim who joined him overlooking the desecrated and barren makom hamikdash. Where others simply lamented failure, Rabbi Akiva saw opportunity for fulfillment of an eternal prophecy. May we collectively apply Rabbi Akiva’s hope as a community and as a nation. May we learn from his positive outlook to envision great opportunities when we struggle with failures throughout our personal journeys in life.

By Rabbi Eliezer Zwickler

 Rabbi Eliezer Zwickler is rabbi of Congregation AABJ&D in West Orange, New Jersey, and is a licensed clinical social worker in private practice. Rabbi Zwickler can be reached at [email protected]


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