The Boy: A Miracle Embraced

The Boy: A Miracle Embraced [1]

by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

The miracle was that it took place at all. The miracle was that the Bar Mitzvah happened. That a thirteen-year-old boy who could not speak and could not hear was leading a congregation with glowing hands that spelled out the words of God from an open Torah.

The boy was born of a Jewish mother. His father was gentile and black. His mother did not want him; his father had disappeared. He was unadoptable. Probably it would have been difficult to place him, even if he had not been deaf and mute.

After a series of foster homes, he found a friend – a teacher at the school for the deaf and mute who became very fond of him. The teacher was to become his adoptive father. He was not married; he was not Jewish.

The teacher believed that the boy was entitled to his Jewish birthright. He had a right to learn about and be proud of his heritage. The miracle began. The new father contacted the rabbi of a Reform Temple, and instruction was arranged for the boy. He was to have a Bar Mitzvah, the sacred act which confers new Jewish manhood. He would pray with his hands before the Ark of the Covenant.

In order to accomplish what is an ordeal for any thirteen-year-old, let alone one who can neither speak nor hear, his adoptive father would study along with him. As finally the boy recited with his hands before the congregation, the father would speak the words. And because the language of the Torah is both poetic and archaic, special instruction in liturgical sign language would be needed.

The day finally arrived.

The congregation had responded three hundred strong to the rabbi’s request for them to come as Bar Mitzvah guests. They were to be the boy’s family. He had been outfitted in new clothes. His light skin, framed by a halo of black curly hair, glowed milkily. The ritual candles shone brightly. The light of the open Ark was reflected in the breastplates of the Torah. The adoptive father – round-faced, bearded, and jolly – translated the language of the boy’s hands into sound, into Hebrew.

For those sitting and watching as the boy’s hands moved, it seemed as if there were words, as if we could almost hear the sound of his hands without his father’s vocal translation. It was as if the boy’s hands had set in motion a sound of joy so high that the vibration could be heard. It was as if, rocking back and forth to the newfound rhythm of truth in the Torah, the hands danced and then burst into exultant song: “Once I heard nothing, now I have the sound of God in my head. Once I had no one of my own. I was so lonely. Now I’ll never be alone again.”

I have been to so many Bar Mitzvahs; but on this night the character of what took place strengthened my belief in the enduring vitality of sacred rituals. They are our umbilical cord to  an appreciation o the wonder of creation.

On this night that I will never forget, I believe that I witnessed a miracle. Here, standing before God, was a creature so challenged in life, yet brought to this beautiful moment through the loving kindness of an adoptive single man. It happened. The gentile father gave birth to the Jewish son.

The father did not speak his thoughts before the congregation, but they were, I thought, clearly written on his face. “We finished what God started, my son. I wanted you to believe so that, even when I am gone, you will have someone to trust. You were born with every strike against you, but tonight you have taken your rightful place in this world. For me, you are a miracle.”

On that night the miracle was also that the witnesses to this birth, paying homage in sacred ritual, were themselves brought to life. In a kind of self-purification through the pain and joy of a young man-to-be, their own human spirit was ignited and reborn.

[1] ©️Corinne Copnick, Toronto, 1994, Los Angeles, 2017. This story first appeared as part of “Altar Pieces,” a videotaped narration of Rabbi Copnick’s stories and poems that was screened nationally many times on Canada’s Vision TV over a period of five years. “The Boy” is a fictionalized account inspired by a true Bar Mitzvah ritual at which the author was present.