What Gives Meaning to a Bat or Bar Mitzvah?

Torah commentary: Shabbat Ahare Mot-Kedoshim 5775

What gives meaning to a Bar or Bat Mitzvah? Is it a flawless presentation of the Torah and Haftarah readings? Is it a great party afterwards?

These questions were on my mind as I sat with Julia Madonick last week to discuss the timeless teachings from Leviticus 19 known as “The Holiness Code,” that she will read from the Torah as she becomes a Bat Mitzvah this Shabbat.

You do not have to be a farmer to have “a field.”

She will read of our obligation to “leave the corners of our field for the poor and the stranger.” She will read of the imperative to pay our workers promptly and fairly. She will also read that God forbids us to “curse the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind”, which she rightly understands to mean that we are not to knowingly take advantage of the vulnerabilities of others. She will conclude her reading with the classic teaching, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

My hope for the long-term impact of Julia’s Bat Mitzvah is the same as my hope for every student that I have had the privilege to teach over the last 42 years. I hope that her understanding of her Torah portion will continue to grow with her as her intellectual and spiritual capabilities continue to expand and mature.

I am proud that Julia is “leaving the corners of her field” by teaching her passion for dance with children less privileged than she.

A Commitment to Redress Society’s Ills

I pray that the commandment to pay workers promptly and fairly will always resonate with her in a practical way and that she will appreciate the disgraceful reality that in our country there are CEO’s who earn more in an hour than some of their workers earn in a year. Such a discrepancy is the antithesis of the commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

When the Torah teaches of God’s concern for the “widow, the poor and the stranger,” the text cries out to us that decent health care, wages, educational opportunities, housing and nutrition should be available to all of God’s children, not just those born to privilege or blessed with the ability and good fortune to pay huge sums for these things.

The Awesome Power—for Good or Ill—in Our Ability to Communicate

Julia will also teach, “You shall not go about as a gossip.” There is awesome potential in our ability to communicate. Our words can uplift and exalt or denigrate and cause pain. How we use this power is up to us, but the Torah is clear in its instruction.

What gives meaning to a Bat Mitzvah? It is not so much the chanting of Torah but the meaning of Torah for today! I pray that the vital religious lessons Julia teaches at her Bat Mitzvah will not be just a pleasant memory. Rather I hope that they are–and will continue to be–urgent imperatives, which she and all of us continue to aspire to uphold throughout our lives.

Rabbi Stephen Fuchs is the author of What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives. He is Rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel in West Hartford and the former President of the World Union for Progressive Judaism.

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