A young woman called, asking if I would be willing to visit with her 95-year-old grandmother. She seemed to be slipping away from life more and more each day, and had been asking to speak with a rabbi. I didn't know the woman or her family, but I figured anyone who lives to be 95 years old deserves to have a visit from just about anyone she wants (besides, I'll go anywhere to meet with anyone who actually asks to see a rabbi).
So I went. When I arrived in her home (of some 60 years), she was sitting up in a wheelchair, waiting. She immediately got down to the business of telling me her story. She told me of her active, fulfilled life with her husband (a physician now deceased) and son, and of her many travels around the world. In the midst of her life story, she suddenly stopped and began to cry. As I held her hand and asked what she was thinking about, she looked up at me with profound emotional pain and despair, and simply said, "My son."
"What about your son?" I asked.
And with tears continuing to fall, she slowly shook her head and replied: "I need you to help me with my son. He married a second time not too long ago, to a woman who isn't Jewish, and he vowed never to step foot in a synagogue for the rest of his life. Please help me. Will you call him? Will you tell him what the results will be of marrying someone who isn't Jewish?"
"How old is your son?" I asked.
"Seventy-one years old," she answered, "and his bar mitzvah experience was so lacking in meaning that he said he'd never go into a synagogue again, and he hasn't."
I must admit that for the first time in a long time, I was speechless. Nearly 60 years had passed, and they were both still living in the aftermath of a bad bar mitzvah. I wasn't sure exactly what she was asking of me. But while I was ruminating on the uncomfortable image of delivering a lecture to her son on the impact of his marriage on the larger Jewish world (and the pain it and his vow were causing his mother), she turned to me and, in a barely audible whisper, said: "I want him to leave this world as a Jew. I want him to leave this world as a Jew." There it was. A lifetime of Jewish regret and pain and life-cycle moments unfulfilled.
Now I had tears in my eyes, as I thought of all the missed opportunities for meaningful Jewish experiences, study and celebration that somehow managed to pass right by this man and so many, many others.
This is really what this week's Torah portion, Bamidbar ("In the wilderness"), is all about. For, in the very beginning of the first chapter of Numbers, Moses is told to command the Israelites to take a census of "the whole Israelite community." A census is the opportunity for individuals to stand up and be counted as part of the community and say, "Here I am, willing to take my place and be a responsible part the society in which I live."
More than 3,000 years later, there I was, standing in the home of a frail 95-year-old woman as she asked me to do something similar to what Moses had done so long ago, and find a way to have her son counted as part of the community of the Jewish people.
It reminded me that my challenge as a rabbi is to help both youth and adults discover the meaning of life itself through the inspiration of Judaism. Then they will all stand up to be counted with pride.
Steven Carr Reuben is senior rabbi of Kehillat Israel, the Reconstructionist congregation of Pacific Palisades.