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THE BAR MITZVAH OF MATT WILSON

Friday, 9 December, 2016 - 12:00 pm

"Would you like dinner?" the flight attendant on El-Al asked Moshe. "What are my choices?" Moshe asked. "Yes or no," she replied.

This week's Torah portion, Vayeitzei, tells how Jacob had worked for 14 years as a shepherd for his father-in-law, Laban, and desired to leave, so he asked for his wages. Laban resorted to standard business tactics, and did not want to suggest what Jacob’s wages should be. Jacob suggested that he herd the flocks, and when they would have offspring, he would take as his wages all the speckled and spotted lambs and goats, and brown sheep. The solid colored sheep and goats (white or black) would remain Laban’s.

But then, Jacob seemingly undermined his chances of wealth. He told Laban to remove all the speckled and spotted lambs and goats, and the brown sheep, from the herd, which Laban did at once. There were only solid colored lambs and goats left. Naturally, they would breed offspring similar to themselves: white or dark. Jacob would remain broke.

Instead, the lambs and goats produced spotted and speckled offspring, and Jacob generated a fortune from this. He managed to produce very large herds of spotted and speckled cattle, to the point that his brothers-in-law, Laban’s children, accused him of theft. “He [Jacob] has seized all that belonged to our father,” they said. Jacob was forced to escape.

Jacob took pure white sheep and bred out of them spotted, speckled, banded, striped – in short, a hodgepodge collection of animals. His animals were sought after and he got top dollar for his livestock. He bred his flock in unheard of numbers, in record time. In six years he was a wealthy man.

How did Jacob achieve this feat? How did he manage to produce so many multi-colored cattle from their solid colored progenitors? 

The Torah is cryptic about this. It relates two stories: “Jacob took rods of fresh poplar, almond and chestnut. He peeled white stripes in them by uncovering the white in the rods.” He then set up the rods he had peeled near the troughs where the sheep drank, facing the sheep. They would mate when they came to drink. The sheep mated toward the rods and the sheep gave birth to streaked, spotted and ringed lambs. How exactly? The Torah does not state.

Then, the Torah relates that during the season of mating, Jacob dreamed that all the males mating the females were ringed, spotted and streaked. An angel said, “Lift your eyes and see how all the males mating the sheep are ringed, spotted and streaked, for I have seen all that Laban does to you.”

However, Laban had removed all the non-solid sheep left in the herd. How did Jacob pull this off? A deeper reading of the portion reveals that 3,600 years ago, Jacob of Mesopotamia became the father of genetics.

I am not a genetics expert, but a few basic facts about this science will explain how Jacob managed this. We know today that our genes are passed down to our offspring. A sheep's coloring is determined by genes.

Now, every single thing has two copies of each gene, one of which was inherited from the father and the other inherited from the mother. Sometimes, the alleles (the two genes) are identical, but sometimes they are different. When they are different, one is dominant and the other is recessive. The dominant allele is expressed, and the recessive allele is hidden in the organism.

This is part of why genetics is so interesting. What you see is not what you get, because it may be masked, but it may be what your child will get. For example, two parents can have brown eyes and give birth to a blue-eyed child. How? Alleles for brown eyes are always more dominant than that of blue eyes. However, if both parents have one allele which produces brown eyes, and one which produces blue, their child may inherit the blue allele of each parent, and not the brown one... and have blue eyes!

Why is this story recorded in the Torah?

Because it captures one of the most vital ideals of Judaism—the laws of spiritual genetics: What you see is not always what you get!

Sometimes we may look at someone, or ourselves, and say: This is “damaged goods.” This person is made of one solid color and he or she will never change. I have no hope for a true, wholesome, happy, life—I am who I am and that is just the way it is.

But Jacob taught us the law of spiritual genetics. I may appear to be one way, but I am carrying a majestic, colorful, holy “gene” in me that may be masked and recessive, but it is present, and one day it will emerge.

Rabbi Ephraim Silverman is the ambassador of Chabad to Marietta, Georgia. Late one night, he got a call from a man named Ken Wilson. “Please come to my house now. My wife is on her death bed, and she wants to see you. It’s urgent.”

Chabad rabbis and rebbetzin have no "working hours." Rabbi Silverman drove right over to the Wilsons and was rushed into a bedroom. A woman in her early 40’s lay there. She could barely talk.

Lisa had contracted breast cancer a while before. No treatments had helped, and she knew she was dying at home.

“Rabbi,” Lisa said. “I am Jewish, but I married out. My husband is a wonderful man, and we had a good marriage. But there is a part of me that he could never understand. It is not his fault. It is the reality.

“My time is short. Our son Matthew is 10 years old. He is my only child. He will be orphaned from his mother. That is why I summoned you tonight. I beg you, promise me that you will Bar-Mitzvah my boy and that he gets some Jewish education…”

Rabbi Silverman promised her with a tear in his eye. She seemed deeply relieved, and the Rabbi left. The next morning, he found out that Lisa had passed shortly after he had left.

Two years passed. Rabbi Silverman did not forget his vow. When Matt turned 12, he called Mr. Wilson and said that he would like to prepare his son for his Bar Mitzvah.

The father’s reply was cold. “I am not Jewish; I don’t think it is important. I remarried, you know; I am now married to a Christian woman. Matt is growing up in a completely non-Jewish home now.

In the inimitable Chabad style, Rabbi Silverman did not give in easily. He insisted that the boy would not forgive himself when he grew older and discovered that he had not fulfilled his mother's final wish. Mr. Wilson finally acquiesced.

Matt learned Judaism with Rabbi Silverman for close to a year. Rabbi Ephraim and Rebbetzin Rochel Silverman arranged for a beautiful Bar Mitzvah ceremony and feast at their synagogue in Marietta. Matt was called to the Torah, he wrapped Tefillin, he gave a moving, inspiring speech, and he became a full-fledged member of the Jewish people.

Who attended the Bar Mitzvah ceremony? Naturally, all of Mr. Wilson’s and his new wife’s relatives came to Shul that Shabbat morning. Few of his dead mother’s relatives attended. That Shabbat morning, the Chabad synagogue was filled with many Christians and a few Jews celebrating Matt Wilson’s Bar Mitzvah.

We can be assured that one of the Jewish attendees was his mother who came to celebrate her son’s life and destiny as a Jew.

Here was a Jewish woman who, according to all Federation statistics, alienated herself from her people. And yet—right before she returned her soul to her maker, What did she ask? What was on her fading mind? That a Chabad rabbi promise her that her 10-year-old boy would have a Bar Mitzvah.

This is a Jewish soul. This is the basic law of spiritual genetics. You might think you are of one color, and you will never change, but you carry within yourself spiritual “genes” and powers that allow you to breed and create a life of astronomical material and spiritual richness.

Shabbat Shalom, 
Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

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