There will inevitably come a moment over my months of meeting with a student, when they will break down during a lesson. Whether they have been studiously practicing since day one or skating along by the seat of their pants, whether they are nervous wrecks or calm, cool and collected, I will look across my desk one day and see their hands begin to shake, their voice falter, their eyes well up. And I always ask them the same question: So, how long has it been since your invitations went out? They blink back the tears and answer, “Just last week! How did you know?”
Depending on the student, I’ll ask if they’ve read Harry Potter, or seen Star Wars, or are a fan of Greek Mythology (you never know!). When they ask why, I tell them about the Hero’s Journey. How they, like Luke or Harry, or Odysseus, (or Dorothy, or Mulan…) are in the middle of a sacred quest, and the treasure they seek is what they will discover about themselves along the way. They have heard the Call to Adventure (perhaps seeing an older sibling or friend become bar/bat mitzvah), perhaps Refused the Call, and then, eventually, Crossed the Threshold to my office, where they Meet the Mentor who supplied them with valuable tools for their journey. Each prayer they mastered, each minute of practice they carved out of their day filled with tests and texts, lacrosse matches and family obligations is another dragon slayed, another obstacle overcome. And now that they have sent out their invitations, they Approach the Innermost Cave. For some, it is the daunting challenge of a lengthy haftarah which awaits them. For others, it is the sickening reality of an impending public appearance with them in the spotlight. In every case, there is the (very stressful) realization that now there is no turning back. They have reached a turning point where it often seems darkest before the light. My job now is less about preparation than to reassure and remind them that they have come this far because they are indeed a worthy hero of their own story. They have already shown the inner strength and commitment necessary to help them face this final Ordeal. They must face this final push alone, and yet know that they are not alone. Like Obi-Wan (or Dumbledore…), there are those that have come before them, who will remind them that they have what it takes to face their deepest fears and challenges and emerge victorious. But it doesn’t end there. Once the service is over, they may think that the Reward they have obtained is the party (and the cash). But then, on The Road Back, it is our job to remind the newly-minted young adults that what they have learned about themselves is the true prize, and we hope as they Return to “normal life” they will use it wisely – for their own future, and for the future of our community and our people.
Eric Schulmiller is cantor at Reconstructionist Synagogue of the North Shore, in Plandome, NY.