To My Daughter, Hannah, on Becoming a Bat Mitzvah



I will start by telling you how proud I am that you are up here on the bimah leading the congregation this weekend. I know you are not fond of speaking in front of a large group of people, and certainly, I know that you would rather do anything other than sing out loud. I’ve watched you lip sync in school performances for years, and today, there was no lip syncing.

No, it was definitely your voice – the voice of my confident, strong, and beautiful daughter – leading us in prayer. You are now a Bat Mitzvah, a Daughter of the Commandment. I am sure in the course of your Jewish learning, your teachers have told you what it is supposed to mean when you become a Bat Mitzvah. You now have new religious privileges along with some additional responsibilities. Becoming a Bat Mitzvah is not the end of your Jewish learning, rather, it’s the beginning of your study as a Jewish adult.

Your aunt Kathleen sent some words for you today that I want to read. She wrote, “There is a well-known story about the great Jewish sage, Hillel in The Talmud. Hillel was asked by a fellow sage – who was known for being quite temperamental – to teach him the entire Torah while standing on one foot. Hillel replied, ‘What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah while the rest is commentary; go and learn it.’ For my niece Hannah on her Bat Mitzvah, I wish for her to welcome Torah learning into her life so that she may realize Ha’shem’s purpose for her is to rise higher and let her Divine spark illuminate all that surrounds her.”

Last night, Rabbi Meiri talked about the Torah being the blueprint for the creation of the world. And, if we take Hillel’s words seriously, that means the entire Torah is really about how we treat our neighbors. Personally, I think using that concept as a blueprint for the world would not be such a bad idea.

One of your strengths is how you treat your neighbors. Indeed, your service project – collecting supplies for homeless women through the Asheville Period Project – is all about treating your neighbors with dignity. I’ve watched you wipe tables, mop floors, and even scrub toilets to help provide your neighbors without homes the same sort of world that you enjoy. There is no doubt that you have already practiced being a good neighbor. You have some idea of what you don’t like about this world and perhaps an inkling of what you’d envision as the blueprint for the world you’d like to live in.

But, as Rabbi Meiri said last night, it’s hard to think about repairing what we already have in the world if we are focused on constantly plugging up the holes with our fingers. It can seem overwhelming. Rabbi Yisrael Salanter founded the modern Mussar movement, which is a Jewish ethical movement. Rabbi Salanter said, “I first wanted to change the world, but found it too hard, so I tried to change my city. I couldn’t do that, so I tried to change my family. I finally realized I could only change myself.”

And, that is my wish, or really my challenge, for you. As you leave the synagogue today as a Bat Mitzvah, I challenge you to engage in tikun ha-midot. You have heard of tikun olam, which is repairing the world. Tikun ha-midot is the repair of yourself. It is the repair of your personal characteristics. And, that is the only real goal of Mussar, not your understanding of Jewish law. As you might imagine, this is not easy. Rabbi Salanter said that repairing one bad character trait is more difficult than learning the entire Talmud.

There is a midrash relevant to what Rabbi Meiri spoke about last night. It’s from Kohelet Rabbah not from Bereshit Rabbah, but it still fits. It says, “Before God created this world, He created worlds and destroyed them, created worlds and destroyed them. He said, ‘These I don’t like. These I don’t like.’ Then He created this world. He said, ‘This one I like.’”

Hannah, envision a blueprint for the type of person that you want to be. Then create that person. Don’t be afraid to create and destroy, create and destroy. This will be a lifelong process. Along the way, don’t forget to remind yourself “It was good,” just as Rabbi Meiri reminded us that God said “It was good” during Creation. Create the person you want to be, a person you want to smile at in the mirror and say, “This one I like.”

I will close with words not from a famous rabbi but from a famous neighbor, Fred Rogers. As you’ve heard me sing countless times, “It’s you I like, it’s you yourself. It’s you. It’s you I like.” Fred Rogers commented on that song and said, “When I say it’s you I like, I’m talking about that part of you that knows that life is far more than anything you can ever see or hear or touch. That deep part of you that allows you to stand for those things without which humankind cannot survive. Love that conquers hate, peace that rises triumphant over war, and justice that proves more powerful than greed.”

Hannah Rose, find that part of you – the light of Creation, the light of righteousness and joy – and go forth as a Bat Mitzvah today.

Author: Tamara Reynolds

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