A dear friend of the family celebrated her Bat Mitzvah this weekend. In keeping with Jewish tradition, she was confirmed and recognized by her congregation as an adult upon her thirteenth birthday. The ceremony was beautiful and I found myself deeply moved by the passing of this age-old tradition from one generation to the next.
The Bat Mitzvah girl had an unusual honor. Her Torah reading fell on the very last portion of the Torah, as another year had ended and her congregation had made its way through the sacred text. Her reading, therefore told of the last days of Moses’s life – the time in which he knew that his days were short. With a sense of peace, he left his people in the care of Joshua on the plains of Moab and climbed Mount Nebo to die.
After the reading, the Rabbi brought the story to life. Moses, he told us, had led the Jewish people to the Promised Land. He had fulfilled his life’s work by guiding his children and sharing with them the message of God. He had then left them on the banks of the River Jordan, full with the knowledge that they would enter the Promised Land. It mattered not to Moses that he himself would never enter, for he knew that his children would.
It spoke, said the Rabbi, to his maturity as a man that Moses knew that he did not need to enter the Promised Land to be fulfilled. It spoke to his faith and his love for his children that he was filled with a sense of peace knowing that they would be taken care of – that they would be OK without him. This, he said, is the calling of a parent.
As the Rabbi spoke, Katie put her hand in mine and I nuzzled it to my cheek.
Over twenty years ago, I stood on the bank of the River Jordan. And I laughed. “That’s it?” I asked my mom. She shrugged her shoulders and said,”I guess so.” From where we stood, the river looked nearly narrow enough to jump from one side to the other. We snapped a photo and continued our journey, assured by our guide that we were standing close to the thinnest section of the great river. Down a ways, he assured us, you might just think you are standing at the edge of the world.
Our friend C will approach Brooke later in the evening at the Bat Mitzvah. She will crouch down to talk to her. Brooke will ask her name. C will tell her that she has seen pictures of her and that she has been looking forward to meeting her. She will not get her attention. I will prompt Brooke to answer appropriately and I will ask C to shorten her sentences. Brooke will ask her name again. C will ask how old she is and try to talk with her – about the party, her dress, school. Brooke will ask her name yet again. C will finally smile and graciously move on.
And as the conversation devolves I will remember the Rabbi’s words and I will ask myself – What if I can’t bring my child to her promised land? What if we cannot give her the tools to take herself across and over and through whatever lies between here and there? Who will be her Joshua when Luau and I are gone?
Calling or no, what if I never find the peace that Moses knew – the peace of knowing that she will be OK when we are not here?
The Rabbi went on to speak of responsibility. To declare oneself a Jew, he said, is to claim one’s moral and religious duty. As a member of the Jewish community, it is impossible to see injustice and to remain silent. It is impossible too, he said, to see a neighbor in need and to take no action. This world, he went on, is impossibly messed up. But still, we are incapable of not TRYING to make it better. It is what we do, he said. We try.
The Bat Mitzvah girl spoke about how she planned to take on her responsibility as a newly minted adult in her community. She spoke of the work that she will be doing for a local autism association. “It is because of my little friend Brooke,” she said, “that I do this. Being so close to little “Boots” and her family has shown me the need to advocate for research and resources for people with autism.” She stood before the congregation and said, “I want to do my part.”
Katie had no idea that this was coming and she looked up at me, shocked. “Mama,” she whispered, “did you hear that?” The tears were flowing – there was no question that I’d heard it.
At the end of the service, the Bat Mitzvah girl’s extended family joined her on the bimah (the elevated stage from which the Torah is read) for the lighting of the Havdalah candles, marking the end of the Sabbath – the Jewish day of rest. The Rabbi explained that the Havdalah candles are braided, and he held them up to show them to the congregation. Each candle was made from many smaller ones – two braided together then braided again with two others and so on. “Each of us,” he said, “has the ability to ignite one another’s fire. By letting our own light burn brightly we lend strength to one another, and as a family and a community we can then shine far more brightly than any of us ever could alone. It is with this communal strength,” he said, “that we can change our world.”
So maybe we can’t see the Promised Land yet. So what if Luau and I can’t necessarily find that turn of the river that allows us all to cross with relative ease? Perhaps we’re not meant to. Perhaps it is simply our job to help to light the candle. To lend to and gain strength from this community of people – all of us here who together may just find a way to deliver our children.
Maybe, just maybe, I can find a sense of peace in that.