My Blog

My Blog

17

At fifty-one years old, I decided to become a Bat Mitzvah. This is the drash I gave on that day.

Introduction: Why am I doing this now?

Shortly before my father passed away one year ago, he said to me, join a temple, become part of the Jewish community. I can’t recall dad ever giving bad advice. I found Congregation Etz Chaim and attended my first service last year on Yom Kippur.

I remember asking Rabbi Noah shortly after if there were Bat Mitzvah classes. She said classes were starting soon. I couldn’t ignore the timing.

In honor of my father, in honor of our community, in honor of my desire to learn more about Judaism, I decided to have a Bat Mitzvah ceremony.  

Welcome to my Bat Mitzvah, but I have to make a confession. I’m not 13 years old. After the service tonight, there won’t be a reception with a band and a candy cart. No one will be lifted on a chair while dancing the Hora.

            When I first met with Rabbi Noah and told her I wanted the date to be April 15th she went to her computer to learn what the Torah portion for that Shabbat service would be. Her face dropped and I wondered if maybe there were no Torah readings on April 15th. It is tax day. Perhaps the service would be dedicated to sitting Shiva.

Rabbi Noah looked up at me from her computer and explained, with the most dreadful expression, that the Torah portions for Shabbat services on April 15th were Leviticus chapters 14:1 – 15:33. I looked at her blankly. Then she further expounded: they’re the laws for cleansing lepers, houses and bodily fluids. As I would be giving the drash, I would need to discuss these portions of the Torah.

I hesitated for only a moment since this was the date I wanted for several reasons.

My father passed away on April 14, 2015 and yesterday was his unveiling. My sister and nephew flew in from Maine, and my brother and his family from North Carolina. Dad was an accountant so April 15th has always been a significant day to him. I’m a student of the Italian Renaissance and today is Leonardo da Vinci’s 566th birthday. My mother is here. My stepmother is here. Other family members and friends too. My community was prepared to gather. April 15th had to be the day. Lamb offerings, bird blood, and discharges notwithstanding.

Leviticus: Bodily discharges and Bird Blood, Really?

After studying Leviticus my hesitation of giving the drash on this portion of the Torah dissipated. While the Biblical rules of cleansing are complicated and ancient, and do not apply in a literal sense today, they are overwhelmingly relevant in our modern time.

Upon study and reflection, these sections explain how God wants us to act during those significant and difficult times when we are most challenged. When we lose a loved one, when life is in transition, when what we believed to be true suddenly feels false. During the most difficult tests and trials, God wants us to seek spiritual cleansing. She wants us to heal and rejoin our community. He wants us to help ourselves.

I also realized Leviticus chapter 14 deals not with the cure of leprosy but the rituals for a person to attain purity and then to return to the community and to his home.

Other parts of the Bible address attaining purity. In Psalms, King David—after his transgression with Bathsheba (Psalms 51:7)—said, “purify me with hyssop, and I shall be clean. Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.”

In Numbers, Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses. It is believed they did so because of the Ethiopian woman he married (Numbers 12).  The Lord was furious and Miriam stood there "leprous, white as snow" (v. 10). She was put outside the camp as unclean and had to cry out she was impure (Lev. 13: 45). But it was not forever. Miriam was allowed to rejoin the community after seven days. (Numbers 12: 14). And Moses forgave her.

As seen in many places in the Bible, cleansing requires affirmative action. It obliges us to act in ways that lead to our betterment. 

In Leviticus, the leper is referred to as “he who is to cleanse himself”, indicating the leper must do his share to become pure, and to attain cleanliness by repentance and appropriate conduct. David sought to cleanse himself after his affair. Miriam accepted her wrongdoing and cleansed herself in order to be permitted to return to her community and to her home.

When we experience difficult times, we must first look to ourselves to make things right.

Mourn the loss of a loved one and cherish the memory of that person. If they played the role of teacher to us during our lifetime, continue to learn from their lessons.

When life doesn’t go the way we planned—we didn’t get the job, or a relationship didn’t work out as we had hoped—look inside and understand how we can act, or react, better. Accept the different turn of events and strive for enrichment. 

The Biblical rules of Leviticus also put a spotlight on the importance of home and community, which are as essential in ancient times as they are today. In every community—doesn’t matter who we are or where we live—we must accept each other and welcome all into our places of worship, into our communities. And help each other be our best. 

So what do the Rules of Leviticus tell us? They tell us everything created by God, living or inanimate, has the life force of God in it. Everyone, everything, is worth saving. Everyone, everything, needs to be treated morally and ethically.

Overall, Leviticus teaches us to be our best selves. It is by being the finest we can be that we do the most good for our community as a whole, as well as for the individuals that surround us - our friends, neighbors, co-workers, family members, spouses and lovers.

Why Do I want to do This?

I have to admit when I decided to pursue having a Bat Mitzvah as an adult, I hesitated. Why do I want to do this?

To honor my father’s memory?

To please my mother who has proudly sponsored the Oneg this evening?

To learn more about Judaism?

To become more entrenched in our community?

Yes to all but frankly I honor my father’s memory every day by being the best person I can be, I know my mother is proud of me without this ceremony, only two of us that are taking the Bat Mitzvah class are actually having a Bat Mitzvah and with each week that passes I feel more and more part of our Jewish community.

And then there were the snarky comments when I told some people (nobody here, of course!) of my plan. All the jokes, of course, centered on my age.

Aren’t you a little old to have a Bat Mitzvah?

You don’t look thirteen.

You’re looking for an excuse to have a party.

As a child living on Long Island, I was never inspired going to temple. I liked the songs—the cantor has always been my favorite—but I never felt moved or motivated by the services. It was a chore, a responsibility that my friends and I had to endure, primarily during the high holidays. My brother had a Bar Mitzvah. Mom and dad didn’t send my sister or me to Hebrew School. No complaints from me.

In my twenties and residing in Florida, I tried again. I joined a temple, took Hebrew classes, and considered having a Bat Mitzvah. Again, I had the same experience as a child. Temple didn’t make my heart pound. The cantor made me sway and smile, but nothing about the services inspired me.

At fifty-one, here I am again. Three times a charm, right? This time I am at a different place. I don’t know if it’s because I am ready to explore Judaism in a more meaningful way, or because of Rabbi Noah’s leadership, or the wonderful people I’ve met, or all of the above, but I feel different. The Shabbat services now hold meaning for me. Hazzan Jerry’s melodies fill my heart. And though I still don’t know all the words, or understand the meaning of so much, I am moved, motivated, and inspired.

At one of the Bat Mitzvah classes, Rabbi Noah talked about wisdom and how “God straightens the bent”. She was referring to Ecclesiastes chapter 7:13:

“For wisdom is protection just as money is protection, but the advantage of knowledge is that wisdom preserves the lives of its possessors. Consider the work of God, for who is able to straighten what He has bent? In the day of prosperity be happy, but in the day of adversity consider-- God has made the one as well as the other so that man will not discover anything that will be after him.”

Wisdom is better than wealth. True wisdom is shown by submission to the inevitable. In all that happens, we must recognize God's work and man's impotence. The things God made crooked are the difficulties we face. Some would include bodily deformities in things made crooked, which takes us full circle and back to tonight’s Torah portion: Leviticus chapters 14:1 – 15:33 about having the wisdom, courage and fortitude to be our best selves.

I did not know why I chose to pursue my Bat Mitzvah until recently. And the reason is to find my better self, and to encourage all to do the same.

Conclusion: What I have Learned

Over the last several months, I have learned an incredible amount.

Among the lessons--  

You’re never too old to have a Bat Mitzvah.

I never want to be thirteen again.

And yes, I have learned, that looking for an excuse to have a party and for my friends and family to gather is never a bad thing.

And so here I am, a proud member of Etz Chaim, engaged in a journey of religious discovery and more enmeshed in my Jewishness than ever.

Dad gave me wonderful advice throughout his life, saving the best for last. Join a temple. Become part of the community.

After the service tonight, there won’t be a reception with a band and a candy cart. Just the Oneg Shabbat shared with my family, some old friends and many new ones.

Shabbat Shalom. 

Post-script 

I was wrong. I was lifted on a chair while dancing the Hora.