Tomorrow’s Torah portion is Ki Tavo, which was my Bar Mitzvah portion, and tomorrow is also the 51st anniversary of my Bar Mitzvah. Last year, on the 50th, I read from the Torah again. This was possible because of the kindness of Elena Rothenberg, whose Bat Mitzvah was the same day, and of her parents, Amy and Jerry. They allowed me to share in their great simcha—their rejoicing. Although Elena, Amy, and Jerry gave me permission to “go public” with my version of our shared event, I was wary of invading their privacy. But Elena herself wrote a note about it a few months later in the Shearith Israel Synagogue bulletin, in which she had some very nice things to say about the fact that we had shared the occasion. This emboldened me to blog about it.
Below, I’ve pasted the remarks I made from the pulpit that day, which were directed to Elena. The background is that she spoke before I did, and she talked about her life as a young horsewoman. Among other things she described her astonishment at the fact that some of her competitors in horse races—and their parents—would try to injure other horses in order to gain an advantage in the race. Elena quite properly saw this as violating the law, “Do not place a stumbling block before the blind,” which appears in our shared Torah portion. Clearly, she had matured to the point of being a “daughter of the commandment,” and of assuming responsibility for her own moral behavior and her own sense of how to tell right from wrong.
The most emotional moment of that day was when Jerry and Amy spoke directly to Elena. There were tears in their eyes as they described their hope of having a child, finally fulfilled when they were able to adopt her as a baby. To preserve her birth heritage, they gave her her first name, and to honor that heritage further, they gave out beautiful woven kippot—yarmulkes, or skull caps—from “Maya Works—Interweaving Lives—Made in Guatemala.” It also says, “Elena’s Bat Mitzvah, Shearith Israel, September 5, 2009, 16 Elul, 5769.” So the shul was densely dotted with these little woven circles of Mayan traditions, intermingling with Jewish ones. I still have mine, of course, and wear it often.
On a lighter note, I also had the privilege, thanks to Amy and Jerry, of giving Elena a special gift. They gave her a horse for her Bat Mitzvah instead of a hugely extravagant party. He was called Kasey, and I gave Elena a halter, inscribed with her name, Kasey’s name, and the date of our shared and unforgettable event.
Elena, mazal tov on this great day in your life, and congratulations on your achievement. Amy and Jerry must be bursting with pride. Until a couple of days ago I thought I was going to speak for a few minutes before the sermon, but I then learned that I would speak instead of the sermon! What can I say except, I’ll do the best I can.
I’m going to talk mainly to you, but if these other folks want to listen in, I won’t mind if you won’t. But I wasn’t sure how to do it. So I asked my youngest daughter Sarah, who’s 22, how I should talk to a thirteen-year-old person.
She said, “When I was thirteen, it was a huge change for me. For the first time I felt as if I had a past. I understood the passage of time and the cycle of life. My best friend Emily and I took long walks and talked about philosophy. I don’t think that the mind of someone who’s thirteen is that different from the mind of an adult. So whatever you do don’t talk to her as if she’s a child.”
So I guess it’s not an accident that we think of this as the right time for a girl to become a woman.
Elena, I don’t know you well, but it’s not every young person in Atlanta who spends years preparing for one morning, who sings heartfelt and beautiful prayers in a foreign language, who masters a portion of Torah and Haftorah.
And it’s not every Bat Mitzvah girl who owns a horse and rides him like the wind.
I also didn’t find it easy to get ready for today. I also got nervous. I had to relearn things I once knew, and learn new ones. Like you, I had other responsibilities. I had one especially big thing to do, something that meant a lot to me and that others were counting on me for.
But I learned, for the umpteenth time, to find a balance between the different parts of life. And I came here to do something different, and special.
The hardest thing I had to read in my Torah portion was “lo avarti mimitzvotecha v’lo shachachti—I did not depart from your commandments and I did not forget them.” Actually, that was the part I kept forgetting while I was practicing.
Of course, I did depart from the commandments, and I suppose you will too. But I know that you are a good person. The beloved rabbi of my childhood, Bernard Berzon, used to say that Judaism is not a bargain basement. What he meant was, you don’t do mitzvot to get something in return.
I have not been the best person in the world, but I have tried to do the right thing—enough to know that doing good is its own reward.
There will be moral dilemmas. You’ve already talked about one of them: the temptation to do as others do and try to sabotage your competitors horses in a race. You rejected that thoroughly. I’m guessing you’ve already run into some other dilemmas: a friend who betrays a trust; someone who says, “Come on, do it, no one will ever know;” or: “It’s okay not to invite her, she’s not popular anyway.”
The ethical challenges will not get smaller. You will rise to them.
I was always okay with being Jewish, but there were times in my early life when I could almost take it or leave it. Then, especially after my children were born, I asked myself: “Self, is this three thousand year old tradition going to end with you??” My answer is that I am here today, and, although they are grown up and live far away, my children are here too.
In these 50 years my life took many paths, and not all of them led to shul or Torah, but I always knew where I came from, and I came back. Wherever you are and whatever you do, today will be a part of your connection to Jewish tradition.
By letting me share your Bat Mitzvah, you and Amy and Jerry and all your family gave me a great gift. I did this because I felt connected to the past, but you’ve reminded me that there is something even more important than the past—and that is connecting with the future.
Maybe you know the song from Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, “Kol ha-olam kulo gesher tzar m'od,”–all the whole world is a very narrow bridge—“V'ha-ikar lo l'fachayd klal”—and the main thing is not to be afraid.
As I look back, my life has been a kind of bridge between my parents’ generation and my children’s—between the past and the future.
When I was born, radio was the greatest invention, but I lived to have a little box in my pocket that lets me in on all the knowledge of the world and connects me to billions of people.
I was born under the shadow of the Shoah, the Holocaust, but I lived to see the Jewish people survive and thrive and amaze their former tormentors.
I grew up under the threat of nuclear war, but I lived to a time when the hope of one peaceful world may be within our grasp.
I grew up in a world where African-Americans could not sit down at a lunch counter, but I lived to see an African-American become president of the United States.
I grew up in a world where women were not allowed to touch the Torah, but I lived to see you hold it in your arms and read from it and lead this whole congregation in prayer.
And I was born in a time when the Jewish people were refugees and wanderers, but I lived to see the triumph of a Jewish national homeland—a place I have visited often and which I know you will visit next year–as it says in my Torah portion: Eretz zavat chalav u’dvash–a land flowing with milk and honey.
Well, today, it also flows with silicon, computer technology, music and art and theater and film and dance, athletics, mathematics, medical discoveries, Nobel prizes, and wealth that can help protect the future of our people.
But, I have to say, it also sometimes flows with blood and tears.
Elena, I hope, and believe that in your lifetime the blood will stop flowing, although the tears never do. I believe you will live to see an Israel that is universally recognized as “a light unto to the nations,” the Israel the Jews of old dreamed of.
In more ways than one, you have chosen to stand here today. For the times when you are not sure exactly what you believe in, some things are certain: Israel is one. The Jewish people are another. We need you, and you need us.
I know it’s hard for you to see yourself where I am now, but you too will see many changes. As an anthropologist I always take the long view; as Rabbi Tarfon said: “It is not up to you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”
There is plenty of work for you and your generation. My Torah portion reminds us, not once but twice: Take care of the stranger, the orphan, and the widow. It tells us not just that they must eat within our gates—achlu vish’arecha–but that they must eat until they are satisfied.
Because a hungry person is not free until she has had a meal. In your d’var Torah, you talked about not placing a stumbling block in the way of others’ dreams. But I am guessing you will go farther; you will go out and remove some of the stumbling blocks that are still in place.
You will use your great gifts—the love your parents give you, the courage you show every time you climb on Kasey’s back, your writing skills, the gifts and responsibilities you have gleaned from Jewish tradition—to make the world a better place for all its people.
I know you love to read and write. I do too. Those are wonderful things, and they will help you no matter what you decide to do.
But don’t forget to have fun. That too is part of a good life. And it lets you relax into your responsibilities and do more good than you would otherwise do.
Elena, when I look at you, I see a future that I can believe in. Do good deeds, read, write, have fun, and ride like the wind.
And I know that this congregation will say, Omeyn.