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.

Approaching Elul

 On the night of August 26, the Hebrew month of Av ends, and the month of Elul begins. Elul in Jewish thought is a sacred time during which we begin in earnest the process of self-examination and reflection in preparation for Rosh Hashanah (The Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement) a month hence.

 We need this month to prepare for the grueling period of introspection that the Days of Awe (the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) should be. A sports team does not simply put on their uniforms and show up to play their first game. They prepare and practice for weeks beforehand. So it should be with us and the Days of Awe. We do not just show up and expect to be “ready to play” on Rosh Hashanah. We carefully prepare during the month of Elul by reviewing our thoughts and actions over the past year and asking ourselves, “How can we do better in the year ahead?”

 It is a worthy task that elevates our humanity. If we take it seriously, the Days of Awe themselves will be much more meaningful, and we will enter the new Year better equipped to use the talents with which God has blessed us to make on this earth a more just, caring and compassionate society!

 The moon of Av wanes rapidly,

And soon Elul arrives—

A holy month, our Sages taught,

A chance to examine our lives.

 We prepare ourselves for the Days of Awe

The Holy Days just ahead.

We look at our thoughts, our words, our deeds,

“What might we have done instead?”

 To better live true to the Covenant

The Almighty asks we uphold

To work to create a better world

As our lives unfold.

 Will our world be a kinder realm

Because God planted us here?

Will we strive to make the earth a place

Where no one needs to fear?

 As the moon of Av wanes rapidly

And sacred Elul arrives

May these be the questions we ask ourselves

As we examine our lives!