Rosie Silber-Marker’s bat mitzvah d’var Torah

Shabbat shalom. My Torah portion is Vayetze, in the book of Genesis. This portion contains the famous story of Jacob, Rachel and Leah, where Jacob promises to work seven years in exchange for marrying Rachel, but Lavan tricks him into marrying Leah instead. But the part I focused on happens before Jacob meets Rachel. Jacob has just left his home, and as he travels, he falls asleep and has a dream. In the dream, God promises Jacob lots of land and children. Jacob responds by saying, “If God remains with me, If He protects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safe to my father's house—the Lord shall be my God.” When I read this phrase, I wondered what caused Jacob to put in so many If’s: “IF God remains with me, IF he protects me, IF He gives me bread and clothing, and IF I return safe to my father's house, THEN the Lord shall be my God.” Usually God is the one making deals with people. Here Jacob seems superior and God is the innocent one doing what He/She is told. When I read this section, I wondered what made Jacob respond this way to God's promise. There were a few possibilities that I came up with. Maybe Jacob feels powerful at this moment, as if he can defy God. Right before this in the story, Jacob was able to trick his father into giving him his brother Esau's blessing, and to convince Esau to sell him the birthright. He might have felt accomplished, and as if now that he's done this, he can do anything. Now that Jacob has the birthright and the blessing, he doesn't need God so much. Or maybe Jacob feels alone and helpless. He has just run away from home. His brother and father are feeling betrayed and angry at him. Now that no one is on his side, Jacob might feel that he has to try to control everything that happens to him. By trying to overpower God, in a sense, he could have just been reacting to the abandoned feeling his family left him with. One more idea about why Jacob answers God this way is, maybe Jacob is trying to be independent. His father, Isaac, and his grandfather, Abraham, both praised God, and God rewarded them; but maybe Jacob doesn’t want to follow in their footsteps. He doesn’t want to go along with everyone else. Being independent means not doing what everyone else says, or what everyone else does; instead Jacob does the opposite and holds God off for a while, instead of accepting God right away. Of these three ideas—that Jacob felt powerful, powerless, or independent—the one that spoke to me the most was the last one. I think Jacob knows that accepting God is what he's meant to do—because both his father Isaac and his grandfather Abraham were spoken to by God, and they prayed to God and they were both the epitome of a perfect Jew. Jacob knows that he too should accept God, but he wants to be independent, and make his own decision. Still, he doesn't want to be TOO independent and completely reject God, because then everyone will look at him either like he’s totally out of his mind, or in shame, because he didn't do what he was destined to do. So, Jacob says, “One second—” and buys himself some time to think. Deciding how to answer God is one of the most important and difficult choices of his life, because it doesn't just affect him and his little circle, it affects the generations after him. His grandparents and parents built a strong relationship with God, and now Jacob has to decide whether or not to carry it on. I can relate to Jacob at this point in his life. My decision to have a bat mitzvah is also one of the most important choices I have had to make. I see this ceremony as making an official decision to be Jewish. One of my parents is Jewish, and the other is Catholic; they decided to raise me Jewish, however, when it came time for me to start thinking about my bat mitzvah, I was the one had to choose how committed I was going to be. Like Jacob, it took me a while to decide. First, when I was little, I assumed I would have a bat mitzvah. Then, when I got older and began to realize how much work was required, I thought I didn't want to use that much energy for a one-day deal. Turning thirteen seemed so far away, and it didn't seem like anything I was learning at the time was going to affect the rest of my life. Finally, a little over a year ago, I saw that it was time to decide, that I was going to turn thirteen, and if I said no to having a bat mitzvah, I would miss an important event in my life. I realized that I wanted to be part of the Jewish community as an individual, not just as part of my family, and I was ready to make that commitment. I said yes, and, here I am. So I understand why Jacob would try to hold God off for a while: Jacob is not rushing to accept God right away because it is one of the most important decisions of his life. I think that rushing to answer something or make a decision, is not always the best thing to do. Important decisions require thought and consideration. If I had said no to having a bat mitzvah, I might regret it now and wish that I hadn't given up. If I had said yes without thinking about it, standing here today wouldn't have been quite as meaningful to me. I'm happy with the decision I made, and I'm also glad I didn't rush to come up with an answer. But as important as this day is to me, accepting Judaism isn't a one-day deal. After you have a bat mitzvah, you're not done; you're still Jewish, and that means celebrating Jewish holidays, maybe going to services once in a while, or studying Torah, or giving tzedakah, or sending your own kids to Hebrew school. This is only the beginning of my Jewish life. In the same way, Jacob goes on to have a relationship with God that lasts for the rest of his life. The relationship is complicated—Jacob actually ends up physically wrestling with an angel of God many years later. The angel changes Jacob's name to “Yisrael,” Israel, which means “wrestles with God,” or “struggles with God.” I don’t think this name change means that Jacob has changed his original being or personality, but that wrestling with God changed the way he looked at God and Judaism. I think that having a bat mitzvah affects your life, but it doesn't really change who you are. Instead, it helps define who you are. It doesn't change how you act, or your personality, but it almost engraves in stone that you are officially Jewish now, which is part of the definition of YOU. It also defines you as a young adult, and a full member of the Jewish community, someone who can count towards a minyan, chant Torah, and lead prayers. I like that Jacob waits to give God an answer, because it sets an example for me, of not accepting something just because it's what's expected, but because I choose to. I want to follow Jacob's example. But does this mean that I’ll end up wrestling with Judaism the same way Jacob wrestles with God? To me, the idea of wrestling with God sounds kind of extreme or violent. I like to think of it more as a gentle pull, rather than a fight. You don't want to be pushed in one direction against your will, but you don't want to run the other direction mindlessly either. In this way, I do want my relationship with Judaism to be similar to Jacob's relationship with God. We are both looking for a good balance. I want to be a part of shul and go to services, but not be extremely observant; I want my kids to have bar and bat mitzvahs one day, but I don't want them to have to go to Hebrew school seven days a week. I don't want Judaism to overwhelm my life, but I don't want it to whittle away to nothing either. This bat mitzvah experience has taught me one very important lesson: “don’t go with the flow if you disagree with it.” After a lot of thinking and studying, I believe that Judaism is important enough to spend time learning about it, struggling with it, and finding your own balance. And I think that Jacob would agree with me.

© 2011–2015 Kolot Chayeinu | Voices of Our Lives
WORSHIP SPACE: 1012 Eighth Avenue • Brooklyn, NY 11215
ADMINISTRATIVE OFFICE: Kolot Chayeinu • 540 President Street, 3rd Floor • Brooklyn, NY 11215 • 718-395-9950