“Rabbi,” the mother asked, “You officiate at so many Bar and Bat Mitzvah services each year. How are you still able to make each one feel special and the most important at the moment?” I smiled at the question, which I am asked at least a dozen times a year.
Motioning her to step closer, I whispered my secret: It’s not about surviving 54 services, but about kvelling for each kid. While meeting with each student for 5-7 sessions, I seek out the unique path she is on, and try – with meaningful Jewish assistance – to ease her journey toward positive Jewish identity and maturation. Said more plainly, Having gotten to know each kid, I schepp nachas (fill up with love and pride) as the child grows up and shines forth on the bimah.
They Grow Up Right Before My Eyes
The parents and grandparents think they alone are going to burst with unique joy and pride, when their kinderlach (children) lead services, chant from Torah and teach us through their d’var Torah (speech). Here’s the truth: There is such joy in watching a young person grow up right before my eyes, shining from the bimah as he/she takes these first steps into Jewish adulthood.
It happens every time – with the confident students and the nervous ones, with those whose voices crack and those who could be in musical theater, with darshanim (speakers) whose divrei Torah (speeches) are simply heartfelt and with darshanim whose divrei Torah I file under “things I wish I wrote.”
Recent Bat Mitzvah Speaks Confidently about Taboo Torah Topics
Rachel Harris, a confident, thoughtful young woman, stood up on our bimah before a sanctuary filled with her relatives and friends. She delivered her d’var Torah on topics which most thirteen year olds wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole. Speaking on Tazria (Lev. 12:1-8 and 13:1-5), Rachel spoke about ritual purity, childbirth and menstruation. She tackles the intersection of Torah and tradition with women’s bodies and their health.
My Torah portion discusses the responsibilities women have once they give birth. In the ancient world, at childbirth, women were considered ritually unclean. Therefore she had to be separated from her family and group for a certain period of time until she became ritually pure again. A woman who gave birth to a boy was separated for 40 days, while one who gave birth to a girl was separated for 80 days.
Rabbi Kipnes and I discussed why women were separated for double the time after the birth of a girl. We concluded that because baby girls would eventually would undergo the same circumstances as their mother, namely menstruating and giving birth, maybe the women had more time to become ritually pure again.
I do not think that the separation of women is right. Childbirth and menstruation should not be looked down upon or consider “dirty” or “unnatural.” All life reproduces. These body actions are something that all living species go through. The Jewish tradition should have consideration for the difficult biological processes that women go through. Women should receive help to go through the process. Instead, we should help them through childbirth and help them cherish this moment of birthing.
My Torah portion relates to my life because someday I will go through the certain natural biological processes that almost every woman goes through. Through these experiences I will gain more responsibility and will wrestle with the new challenges that come my way. The Torah also teaches that we Jews and the much of the world as a whole have come a long way because now giving birth is not seen as disgusting but as a joyous moment. We celebrate when another human being is brought into the world and when someone is becoming a woman.
In our lives today, unlike during the time of the ancient Israelite people, we believe that everyone is equal. People should not be separated for how they look or what is going on with them. Nothing should cause someone to be secluded from the people they care about; not one’s race, sexuality, religious preference, biological processes, or interests. It is important to teach my understanding about this Torah portion because it is necessary to show how we Jews and how we human beings have changed over time. It is also important because I feel that while some may think that this portion could only be thought of in one way, there are many different valid interpretations.
I feel that my Torah portion connects to me in that it says that I need to be responsible. Now that I am a Bat Mitzvah, I have new responsibilities and obligations in becoming a woman. I have to take care of my own things and look out for my belongings. I have to be responsible for my own actions, what I do, and what I say.
Quite impressive for a 13 year old young woman. Quite courageous for a teen standing before a crowd of her classmates.
Moments like these – and I find one at every Bar and Bat Mitzvah with every student – fill me with hope for the Jewish future. Mazel tov to Rachel and her mom Jill, and to our entire Congregation Or Ami community.