Here is a story from Reb Goldfish called “Your Masks, Your Dances, Your Song”. You could also call it a Tale of Two Tribes; it is a story of how we mark the milestones in our life. In today’s westernised society we take so many things for granted and we ignore so many important milestones in our life. Often all we have to pass on at the end of our days is a few photos that show a few happy moments of our life. Is that what life is all about, a few photos that will accumulate with other photos in a box in some cupboard, lost and forgotten? So what are your most important possessions in the world that you would like to pass on? Please read this heart touching story and then ask yourself what are your masks, your dances, and your song?
During my son Mark’s bar-mitzvah preparatory year, since his Torah portion was Noah [and the ark], I felt fortunate to be serving for as rabbi on a Universe Explorer cruise up the coast of Alaska. We helicoptered onto glaciers, whale watched, visited tribes. The big “Ah Ha!” moment happened in Victoria, British Columbia at the Natural History Museum.
The Western Coastal Nuu-chah-nulth tribes were then keeping (and maybe still do keep) their most sacred artifacts in the museum in temperature controlled rooms. A tribe-member was always present, as both guard and docent. Mark and I walk in and after a bit I feel a tap on the shoulder.
“Is that your son?” Inquires a person obviously from the tribe, due to his dress.
“Yes.” (I turn quickly, what trouble could Mark get into here!?)
“Are you a Jewish shaman?” Inquires the tribal representative.
I pause in responding, thinking that he must be asking because of my kippah. My son has noticed us and answers: “Mom? Yeah, she is, more or less, we’re Jewish and we call our shamans rabbis.”
The docent turns to my son and says: “I’ve heard the puberty rituals of your people are very special. Would you tell me about yours?” Mark turns crimson. And wisely responds in his newly cracking voice: “Um. Would you tell me about yours first?”
Pachi, the name-tagged, middle-aged, kindly-faced docent, begins by saying: “A person’s most important possessions in this world are:
|and your masks.
These are how you will be remembered when you are gone, these are how you pass on the wisdom of your life, and this is the most important inheritance a person can leave.”
Pachi reverentially caresses a mask that he identifies as his father’s. Lifting the red, green and white raptor head carving to sit atop his own head, he becomes the story of an agile scout, covering miles and miles filled with adventures. His gestures show the missions are very serious, they must result in sighting food for the tribe. The dance is a powerful transmission of the skills of a scout. He stops.
Mark is fascinated. He inquires further, using Talmudic method, revealing that he has noticed something curious about the opening statement. “Mr. Pachi, You said dances, masks, names. Those are plural, so why only song and not songs?
Pachi continues: “Mark, let’s say you belong to my tribe. The first verse of the song of your own life you must write during the year of age 12. How to do this is an art communicated by a mentor. This mentor will be chosen from a different family than your own. If you are a boy, your first mentor will be a man. He will help you look back on your young life and think about the hard times, special times, joyful and successful times. From this reflection will come the first verse of your song. You will add a verse at age 20, and 30 and 50, if you live that long, and at your marriage and the birth of your children, sometimes also if you survive a dramatically dangerous thing. You will sing your first verse at your puberty feast and at that time wear your first mask, dance your father’s dance and then dance the one of your own, which you create.”
He pauses to reflect and adds: “Mark, you will become a mentor too, when you are an adult. A mentor helps you find your place in the tribe, to make sense of your life.”
Pachi turns to me and continues: “There must be an economy of words to the song, a splendor to it and a combination of personal individuality and yet conformity with the metaphors of tribal tradition. It must reflect an integration of the values of the tribe and self awareness. It is sung softly by your mother should the shaman have to come when you are ill and also it is sung by the tribe at your death…at your death your names will all be spoken, and your dances danced with your masks telling the stories of your life.
Then Pachi says to Mark: “And how about your rituals?”
Mark looks at me and says, “Well, we get a tutor and they teach us about the notes for reading Torah. We don’t do masks, we wear a tallit, a “prayer shawl.” At a Bar Mitzvah our own life story doesn’t matter for much, nor that of our parents. Mostly we have to learn a chunk of our tribe’s story by heart, sing it at a service out of the scroll that we use to hold our stories and then give a short interpretation of it. Then we get a big party. And we do dance at the party, though I don’t know if the dances have special meanings. Many families give out plastic guitar balloons during the dancing, I’m not sure what that tradition is based upon.”
Pachi continues to interpret rabbi as shaman. He asks if I am training my son to follow me. Has Mark begun to learn how to bridge the power of the ancestors for the tribe? I am also asked: Does my son know the chants for seasons and joys and sorrows? At what age will I teach him how to discern where the power of the tribe’s intention is and how to shift it for their own good?”
Since returning from the cruise, I keep thinking: What of Mark’s own song? Helping him to lovingly craft such a legacy….to know himself in that way? What about the meaning of his names? Mark’s name had been chosen because it was short, incorruptible (we hoped), and the only one his dad and I could agree upon. His Hebrew name, Ari, was a seed intended one day to help him discover the great Jewish mystic called The Ari. I believe so far he only knows the literal meaning of Ari, “lion.”
What about helping Mark see himself as a leader of our people, a lion of Judah? What about mentoring, meaning, connection? Everything we’d done so far was on-task memorization and logistics – rooms, caterers, guests. Aaugh. I’d almost missed the whole point. Fortunately it was very early in his preparation process. I resolved to review it all in the light of Pachi’s words. What a gift that day was. We turned the rest of the cruise into a bar mitzvah spirituality intensive, writing a Four World’s Plan and a CyBar Mitzvah web site. Mark’s joy at the transformation of the process was unmistakable.
Copyright 2002 Rabbi Goldie Milgram (aka Reb Goldfish) http://www.reclaimingjudaism.org/bmitzvah/pachi.htm