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"23 and Me"

Cantor Adam Kahan

July 21, 2022

I’ve always loved summertime.  I know, bold statement there! I’ll always take too-warm over too-cold any day. With the bright sun and beautiful smells of nature, mixed with memories of camp and childhood freedom…summer’s where it’s at. There’s one other thing that really tips the balance for me. My birthday is smack dab in the middle of summer, on July 23rd, which happens to be this Shabbat.   


Now, growing up in Chicago with an affinity for the number 23 is not special. I like to think Michael Jordan was subtly acknowledging my birthday’s specialness when he sported his jersey, but that may just be a “me” thing! That being said, 23 has always brought me joy each time it comes around in July, especially in 1999.  That was the year I turned 23, making it my “golden birthday”.  If you haven’t heard that term before, it’s used to describe the birthday when you become as old as the number of your birthdate.  So someone born August 3rd had their “golden birthday” when they turned three, and I had mine in ’99 when I turned 23. With some quick beep-booping on my math machine, I can also notice that this year, 2022, is exactly 23 years since 1999.  So this is now my double-golden-birthday (Note: not an actual thing.) Yay!

“Boy, Cantor Adam, this seems a very self-focused article you’re writing!”  Yeah, that’s a good point. Please pardon my inward thinking here, but it was all really just a setup to discuss the following…I find myself looking at two halves of my life coming together - the first 23 years, and now the second 23 years. The first 23 were amazing, ending with my college graduation. The second 23 have also been amazing, culminating this Saturday, and affording me the opportunity to reflect on all that has evolved and developed within my own life in that time. I really encourage you to take on that exercise. Split your life into eras and reflect on what each era provided, with all its glory and all the challenges, too.  It’s powerful to see different parts coming together to form the whole….and that brings us to the Torah, and this week’s Torah portion (we were bound to get there eventually!)

At Temple Beth-El, we follow the schedule for reading Torah that is observed within Israel.  Outside of Israel, in the Diaspora of Judaism, the Torah reading schedule is sometimes slightly out of synch with Israel, but eventually comes back in line so that everybody is reading the same thing at the same time again. Why that happens is interesting, and we can chat about that if you’d like (seriously, come up to me and ask…I love this stuff), but for now let’s just say it happens, it rectifies itself, and all is good.  While the different parts of the Jewish Community are still reading separate sections of Torah this week, next week it all comes back together to unify in reading the end of the book of Leviticus. Then we are all back in synch for the start of the Book of Deuteronomy. A fresh clean start at the beginning of a new chapter (book).  The two halves of the world, Israel and outside-Israel, come back together to make the whole. And this made me think of the two halves of my life.  

So I want to take another brief moment to ask, “what to do with this clean start?” As with any new chapter, we get the opportunity to build freshly, potentially unencumbered by the past.  

This last week, Michelle and I went down the city to see a comedian named Hannah Gadsby.  If you aren’t familiar with her work, I can’t recommend more highly. She is brilliant and extremely thought-provoking. Her material, which can be seen on Netflix, is a mixture of hilariously playful lightness, and extremely serious, important, and challenging intensity that speaks to the reality of being human, and needing to be seen.  In one section of her show this past week, she referenced how she deals with her mind’s mental processes as an adult on the Autism spectrum.  She noted how she gets into these mental spirals that can spin out of control. When this happens, her wife has come up with a perfect questions to snap her out of the spiral. That question is, “Hannah. Who do you want to be in this moment?”  What a great question.  Who do you want to be in this moment? 

In this week’s Torah portion Matot, Moses and the Israelites are preparing to enter and conquer the Land of Canaan. They plan and execute an attack on the Midianites, and kill the men including Balaam, son of Beor.  I don’t know if that name rings a bell to you, but it caught my eye.  A few weeks ago, we read in the Torah about The Moabite king Balaak, and how he hired a man named Balaam, son of Beor, to curse the Israelite people.  Balaam famously looks down on the Israelites from a hill, and goes to utter his curse, but instead utters a blessing upon the Israelite encampment. “How wonderful are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, oh Israel.”  We often say or sing these same words when entering a synagogue on Shabbat morning. Mah Tovu Ohalecha, Yaakov, Mishkenotecha, Yisrael.

So wait, Balaam chose not bless our ancestors, sparing them from a curse, and then we now hear about the Israelites killing him?  That seems messed up.  Why kill the guy who blessed us?  Well, yes, Balaam blessed us, but then after that he then went on to settle in Midian, and he advised the Midianites on how to defeat Israel, how to undermine them.  So sure, he blessed us in one moment, and then in more recent news, worked hard on trying to help our enemies defeat us.  It’s sort of a “what have you done for me lately” kind of thing. (Hat-tip to Janet Jackson.)  

Even though Balaam had done right by us in the past, who he was being now was what mattered.  The same can be true in the reverse. If someone has done wrong in the past, they can rectify that by cleaning up the past and acting differently now. It’s hard to make that pivot in an instant, but it sometimes can be easier to do at natural break points….like the end of a Book of Torah….or the end of an era of your life….or when someone asks you “Who do you want to be in this moment?”  

So I turn to you, my dear friend, and I say to you how blessed I feel to begin my next 23 years with you as my companion for the journey. If you had asked me at 23 years old what the next 23 years would bring, I would have had no idea, but I could have shared some thoughts.  The same holds true now. I can’t tell you what I will reflect on as a future 69 year old man. I’m pretty sure there will be joys and pains, and I am certain that I will find strength in community and in being anchored by our traditions and values. I hope you find strength in whatever era you chose to embark upon, or find yourself in the midst of, and that you find power in your answer to the question, “Who do you want to be in this moment?”  

I look forward to us all coming back together as one in the coming weeks and beyond, and wish you the sweetest of Shabbats.  

Shabbat Shalom, 

Cantor Adam Kahan


Mon, August 8 2022 11 Av 5782