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On October 19, 1991, my mother’s house, along with 2,800 others, burned down in the Oakland fire. Six months later I was chanting this week’s Torah portion at my bar mitzvah. We lost everything the day of the fire and half a year later I chanted the verses from this week’s Torah portion that spoke to me as never before when it reminded me, “A cloud of God rested on the Tabernacle by day, and fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all the house of Israel throughout their journeys.”  Clouds and fire surrounded the transitional home of the Jewish people as they prepared for the next leg of their journey. As one commentary states, “the Book of Exodus, which opened with a narrative of misery and oppression, closes on a note of confidence and hope.  Israel is assured that day and night, the divine spirit hovers over it, guiding and controlling its destiny.”

We are all slowly emerging from a year of isolation, fear, and loss, and moving towards a hopeful future of vaccinations, the re-opening of businesses and schools, and the rebuilding of relationships that have been put on physical hold during this pandemic. It has been a year of clouds and fire – clouded by illness, death, unemployment, anxiety, and frustration but illuminated too in a blaze of resilience, voices for systemic change, hope, creativity, and loving-kindness.   

Earlier this week, on my birthday, I became a little sentimental and decided to search the deepest recesses of my computer files to find my bar mitzvah speech delivered in the aftermath of that terrible fire that changed my life. I discovered hints within my 13-year-old self that help explain who I am today – perspectives about God that confirm why I was drawn to the rabbinate, and views about the world that shaped my definition of ‘home’. 

“The fire meant that I had a personal Exodus and had to start over from scratch and build my life back up again,” wrote that thirteen-year-old boy who is now me. “I was very lucky though. I had family and good friends who took care of me and I knew I was safe. I had to leave my symbols and possessions of the past behind, just like the Israelites. But I will always have with me the love of my family and of God. No matter where I go, they will stay with me…I know I am protected by divine love and by my own power of determination.” 
 
When we finish a book of the Torah, the community stands up and declares, “hazak, hazak, v’neet hazek” translated as ‘be strong, be strong, let us be strengthened.’  It’s a self-affirmation meant to embolden us as we enter into a new phase of our collective narrative; forward-looking and future-oriented.  We declare that the clouds and fire of the past will only fortify our ability to move forward with passion, gratitude, and optimism. As we close the Book of Exodus and say farewell to a year of pandemic living, may we be emboldened by our own inner strength and encouraged by the people we love as we journey forward together.
 
Shabbat shalom,

Joel
 
PS – It was cathartic and moving to rediscover my bar mitzvah speech. This is a perfect weekend to do your own search for something that can reconnect you to a moment in your past, with the hope that it can offer you some strength for the future.  Take some time to look through your files, bookshelves, storage containers, or garage for an old letter, e-mail, speech, home video, or photo album that can bring you some comfort or remind you about something valuable in your life. I’d love for you to share your discovery with me so feel free to e-mail me at rabbijoel@wbtla.org.