Jewish Journal

View from the Back

by Susan Esther Barnes

April 24, 2013 | 8:00 am

When you attend a bar or bat mitzvah service, you might sit somewhere in the middle of the sanctuary. Or, maybe you sit closer to the front. Regardless, chances are you’re hoping to get a seat that allows you to take in all the action. Chances are, most of the time you think you’re pretty successful.

But as one who often sits or stands in the back, wearing a badge that identifies me as a person to whom people can come with questions, I can tell you, you may be missing plenty.

Take last Saturday, for instance. Toward the beginning of the ceremony, the bar mitzvah boy fainted. Of course, you would notice this no matter where you sat. I’m not mentioning this to embarrass the young man; I mention it because you need to know it to understand something that happened later on. The young man revived, and much to his credit, continued on with the service.

Later, I was standing in the back of the sanctuary, when a man came up to me. “Do you know that tall man up there?” he asked.

“No.” I answered.

“The tall one,” he insisted, “four rows up, next to the blonde woman.”

“No,” I confirmed, “I don’t know him.”

He then said, “Because he left this backpack here,” gesturing to a backpack resting against the wall inside the crowded sanctuary.

There was a brief pause while my brain connected this seemingly innocuous statement with the fact that, less than a week earlier, two backpacks had exploded at the Boston Marathon, doing tremendous damage.

“Ah,” I said, “we’ll move it.” I picked up the blessedly light – and therefore probably not containing a pressure cooker filled with nails, ball bearings and explosives – backpack and placed it in the back of the social hall, far away from the congregation but still visible so the owner could find it later.

The service progressed, and the bar mitzvah boy was now reading from the Torah scroll. One of the photographers came up to me and asked, “Shouldn’t he be wearing a tallit while he’s doing that?” I said that yes, he normally would be wearing one, and the photographer said, “I know he fainted, but if he had one on, it would make the pictures look better.”

Now, this is one of the things I love about going to services. Often, it helps me to gain perspective on life.

The bar mitzvah boy was trying to make it through what was probably the most important day of his life so far, without losing consciousness again. It was a hot day, and a heavy woolen tallit would not help him achieve that goal.

Just that morning in Torah study, we had discussed that one may choose not to perform a mitzvah (commandment) if performing it may endanger his or her health. Therefore, one could argue that the boy had made the correct choice according to halacha (Jewish law) in not wearing the tallit. If he fainted again, he could fall and injure himself. This rule exists because, in Judaism, we value human life above just about anything else.

Similarly, the man who had pointed out the backpack to me was acting in the interest of preserving human life.

Yet here was a photographer, concerned only with whether or not his pictures would look their best.

Perhaps I should have quoted Deuteronomy 30:19 to him: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life.”

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Susan Esther Barnes is a religious Reform Jew who can regularly be seen greeting people at her synagogue before services. She is a founding member of her synagogue’s chevra...

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