Daniel's Bar Mitzvah Video ... Too Much? Not Enough? (Shabbat Zachor)

If you have not already, please first watch the video above.


Earlier today, I sent my congregation a link to a video on YouTube. As of this afternoon, over 243,000 people have watched an Atlanta kid rap about the Braves, keeping kosher, musing about the Torah and commenting on the fact that he's allergic to penicillin.

Daniel and his family are members of The Temple in Atlanta. This three minute video features cameos by basketball stars, a rap artist, and the mayor of Atlanta, Kasim Reed. It was produced with high production values and was endorsed by his rabbi, my colleague and friend Peter Berg.

There has been a swarm of comment and controversy surrounding this video since it was uploaded two weeks ago. The CNN belief blog posted a comment by one woman: Gag. This would be cute if it weren't so excessive. I'm embarrassed on behalf of The Temple (the synagogue Daniel's family attends), my home city and southern Jewry.

On the YouTube page, there are 658 "likes" for the video and 238 "dislikes." It's common understanding that a video does not get a "dislike" unless one finds it tasteless or offensive.

Since sending the congregation the link to the video, I've heard from several about it. I will quote the first two emails that I received. The first, This is awesome! The second, This is disgusting! Two Jews, three opinions ...


My opinion ... I like the video. I admire the creativity and follow-through of Daniel and his family. As a Jewish educator, I like the fact that the rap speaks of Judaism and Torah and different mitzvot. I also like that Daniel takes ownership over his process of becoming a bar mitzvah. His video invitation is not only about the party.

HuffingtonPost.com contains the following headline: Daniel Blumen's Bar Mitzvah Rap Is Probably Not What The Forefathers Had In Mind. And this is my point. Daniel's bar mitzvah needs to be meaningful for him. Yes, he has to complete synagogue requirements and Torah study and prayer literacy. But these are only the stepping stones to a greater achievement; a personal connection and understanding.


It strikes me that this video is garnishing so much attention now, just as we are about to celebrate the holiday of Purim.

During Purim, and during this month of Adar, Judaism suggests that we not take ourselves so seriously. That's why we will alllllll dress up tomorrow night ... it's why we scream when we hear Haman's name, and it is why our service tomorrow night will be full of mirth and frivolity.

Many Jews like to joke that there is a mitzvah to get drunk on Purim. Whereas this is true, it's not the whole story. The exact commandment is that each adult is to drink until they do not know the difference between Cursed be Haman and Blessed be Mordechai.

You may have heard of the word gemmatria before. Gemmatria is the Jewish numbers game. Each letter in the Hebrew alphabet is assigned a number. Alef-1, Bet-2, etc ... Yud is ten, Kaf, 20, and so on. Rabbis and scholars often find semantic connections between words in the Bible based on their numerical gemmatria. Many will add up the gemmatria in their Hebrew name and then find a word in the Torah with the same numerical equivalent.

All of that being said, the gemmatria for Cursed be Haman and Blessed be Mordechai is exactly the same. The Hebrew letters of both phrases add up to 502.

Sure, this is an intellectual curiosity, and it hopefully serves as an interesting tidbit to pull out as part of a Shabbat sermon. But Judaism suggests a meaning to this mathematical equivalence. The holiday of Purim teaches us that even as we are certain of a judgement or opinion, we may not have all of the information. We may think of something as a blessing, but a deeper reality suggests that it's a curse. And likewise, we may see something as a curse, but in fact, it really may be a blessing.


Such is the case with Daniel and his video.

Some may have the opinion that the video is inappropriate or tasteless. I don't agree, but it is certainly a valid opinion.

I do argue, however with the comments that Daniel is not taking his bar-mitzvah seriously, or that all he wants to do is have a party, or that his priorities are in the wrong place.

I disagree because to be frank, we just don't know. A three minute video is not enough to judge the integrity of the religious identity of one twelve-year old boy.


Esther, the book we read on Purim, is the only book in the Hebrew Bible that does not mention the name of God. One rabbinic teaching is that God is hidden in the story; God is hidden through the deeds of Esther and Mordechai. God may not be seen or experienced, but God is still present. The story seems to be one of ribaldry, bawdiness and chaos, but there is holiness present. We need just be open to see it.


The same is true for Daniel's bar mitzvah.

We make a quick and harsh judgement, and this is the consequence: We hide from ourselves a fuller picture and a more nuanced opinion. Purim is so holy because on it we embrace the known and the unknown, the visible and the hidden. But too often we do not acknowledge the fact that we need more information before making a judgement. We simply rely on what is right in front of us.


We sometimes also forget that Judaism's very foundation is controversy and disagreement. I don't mean this in a self-deprecating way. The Talmud is filled with rabbis disagreeing with each other, sometimes virulently so. These disagreements are often not resolved. We are left to wrestle with what we think, with an interpretation that makes sense to us.

This video was seen by over 250,000 people. Many of them are Jews. Even if you find the video upsetting, I bet that your reaction to the video has caused you to think about the meaning of ritual, the tension between technology and tradition, or the role of a rabbi in mentoring a young Jewish student. It forces a conversation, a dialogue, even an argument. But that's not a bad thing; it's a Jewish thing, and a holy thing.


Purim is incredibly multi-layered. Tomorrow, to say that we will not take ourselves seriously is an understatement. But we will take our Judaism seriously. The humor, the costumes, the drinking, the Purim schpiel ... all of these remind us that there is more than meets the eye. The story of Purim may seem ribald and convoluted. God seems not to be present. And for some of us, Daniel seems not to take his bar mitzvah seriously enough.

Let us come out from the hidden corners of our judgements and prejudices. We may not understand any deeper reality, but we can at least sense a deeper reality. We can sense God, hiding in the town of Shushan. We can sense blessing even as we might otherwise only sense curse. And we can wish Daniel a Mazal Tov and Yasher Koach for helping us have this conversation.

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