||The Man On The Bima
by Rabbi Avi Shafran
He ascended the steps to the bimah, the platform where the Torah is read,
with the strangely hurried movements of someone who would rather be
traveling the other way.
This middle-aged fellow, apparently something of a stranger to a shul, had
just been "called up" from his seat in the back of the small shul to make
the blessing on the Torah.
They get so nervous, I thought to my cynical, teen-age self that day several
decades ago; they should really come more than just a few times a year, if
only to get the feel of things. The blessings, after all, are not very
long, the Hebrew not particularly tongue-twisting.
"Asher Bochar Banu Mikol Ho'amim (who has chosen us from among all
nations)" - I prompted him in my mind - "V'nosan lonu es Toraso (and has
given us His Torah)."
C'mon, man, you can do it.
His life was passing before his very eyes; you could tell. The occasion, for
the man on the bima, was both momentous and terrifying.
Then he did something totally unexpected, something that made me smirk at
first, but then made me think, - and made me realize something profound
about our precious people.
He made a mistake.
Not entirely unexpected. Many a shul-goer, especially the occasional one,
leaves out words here and there, reverses the order, or draws a traumatic
blank when faced with sudden holiness of the Torah. That would have been
unremarkable. But this congregant was different.
His mistake was fascinating. "Asher bochar bonu" he intoned, a bit unsure
of himself, "mikol," slight hesitation, "...haleylos shebechol haleylos anu
The poor fellow had jumped the track of the Torah blessing and was barreling
along with the Four Questions a Jewish child asks at the Passover seder!
"Who has chosen us from...all other nights, for on all other nights we
For the first second or two it was humorous. But then it struck me.
The hastily corrected and embarrassed man had just laid bare the scope of
his Jewishness. He had revealed all the associations Judaism still held for
him - all that was left of a long, illustrious rabbinic line, for all I
My first thoughts were sad... I imagined a shtetl in Eastern Europe, an old
observant Jew living in physical poverty but spiritual wealth. I saw him
studying through the night, working all day to support his wife and
children, one of whom later managed to survive Hitler's Final Solution to
make it to America and gratefully sire a single heir, the man on the bimah.
We have so much to set right, I mused, so many souls to reach, just to get
to where we were a mere 60 years ago.
But then it dawned on me. Here stood a man sadly inexperienced in things
Jewish, virtually oblivious to rich experiences of his ancestral faith.
And yet , he knows the Four Questions.
When he tries to recite the blessing over the Torah, the distance between
him and his heritage cannot keep those Four Questions from tiptoeing in,
unsummoned but determined. The seder is a part of his essence.
I recall a conversation I once had with a secular Jewish gentleman married
to a non-Jewish woman and not affiliated with any Jewish institution. His
en passant mention of Passover prompted me to ask him if he had any plans
for the holiday.
He looked at me as if I were mad.
"Why, we're we planning an elaborate seder, as always."
Astonished at the sudden revelation of a vestige of religious custom in his
life, I told him as much. He replied, matter of factly, he would never
think of abolishing his Passover seder. I didn't challenge him.
When living in Northern California, I became acquainted with other Jewish
families seemingly devoid of religious practice. I always made a point of
asking whether a seder of any sort was celebrated on Passover. Almost
invariably, the answer was... yes, of course.
It is striking. There are more types of haggadahs than other volume in the
immense literary repertoire of the Jewish people. The Sixties saw a
"civil-rights haggadah" and a "Soviet Jewry haggadah." Nuclear disarmament
and vegetarian versions followed. At the core of each was the age-old
recounting of the ancient story of the Jews leaving Egypt and receiving the
Torah. It is as if Jews , wherever the circumstances may leave them, feel a
strange compulsion to preserve the Passover seder and its lessons whatever
the costs, and whatever the form most palatable to their momentary
Events that took place millennia ago - pivotal events in the history of the
Jewish nation - are regularly and openly commemorated by millions of Jews
the world over, many of whom do so out of an inner motivation they
themselves cannot explain.
They may not even realize what they are saying when they read their
haggadahs, beyond the simplest of its ideas: a Force saved their
forefathers from terrible enemies and entered into a covenant with them and
But that is apparently enough.
A spiritual need that spawns an almost hypnotic observance of the seder by
Jews the world over is satisfied. And even if, after the seder, mothers and
fathers go back to decidedly less than Jewishly observant lives, their
daughters and sons have received the message.
As did their parents when they were young, and their parents before them.
The seed is planted.
The seder is indisputably child-oriented. Recitations that can only be
described as children's songs are part of the haggadah's text, and various
doings at the seder are explained by the Talmud as intended for the sole
purpose of stimulating the curiosity of the young ones.
For the children are the next generation of the Jewish nation; and the seder
is the crucial act of entrusting the most important part of their history to
them, for re-entrustment to their own young in due time.
And so, in the spring of each year, like the birds compelled to begin their
own season of rebirth with song, Jews feel the urge to sing as well. They
sing to their young ones, as their ancestors did on the banks of the Red
Sea, and the song is a story. It tells of their people and how the Creator
of all adopted them. And if, far along the line, a few - even many - of us
fall from the nest, all is not lost. For we remember the song.
Just like the man on the bimah.
[Rabbi Avi Shafran is the American director of the Am Echad media and outreach