I cry at bar mitzvahs

There is nothing like a lifecycle event to open my heart. Combined with the penetrating power of song and prayer, these moments make me so feel so vulnerable, so very aware of our humanity, of life’s fragility.

Since we moved to Hannaton in late 2010, I’ve been present for six bar or bat mitzvahs, five brises or baby namings. I’ve cried at all of them. Sometimes I’ve cried, too, at Shabbat services during the mishaberach prayer for the ill or during a minyan enabling one of my neighbors to say the mourner’s kaddish. Seven have lost a parent since I’ve lived here.

This past weekend — as our oldest child became a bar mitzvah in the synagogue on Kibbutz Hannaton — it was our family’s turn to be at the center of the community’s attention. My body still reverberates the joy that filled every inch of it on Saturday, as our friends and family welcomed my son into symbolic “adulthood.” At some later date, I might share my reflections on the immense gratitude I feel in response to the volunteer efforts of our friends and extended family so we could simply be present for this occasion. It was a gift like no other.

For family and friends who were not able to attend, and for readers of this blog, below is the dvar torah (a reflection on the weekly chapters of Torah read this past Shabbat) I offered to the community on Friday night in advance of the bar mitzvah. The torah portion, the beginning of Shemot, should be familiar even to non-Jews as it’s the story that is the basis for the film, The Ten Commandments.

I welcome your own reflections in the comments.


 

If Moshe had a bar mitzvah, I wonder what language he would have given the dvar torah in?

We learn in the parsha this week, that Moshe was a Hebrew by birth and in his early years, as he is nursed by his mother, is part of his Hebrew family’s household. Presumably, he learns their language, their traditions; becomes accustomed to them. But — though, we don’t know when exactly — Moshe leaves his early home and grows up in the royal palace, among Egyptian family, and Egyptian friends.

It could be, if Moshe had to give a dvar torah in young adulthood, he might have preferred to speak in his Egyptian language.  This was a revelation to me, and a comfort. That Moshe — one of our greatest heroes — was also a person who lived between two languages, two identities.

We also know Moshe questioned his ability to speak in front of a crowd, to be able to move the people God intended him to move.  He says to God in chapter 4:

“God, I am not a man of words … for I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue.”

Maybe that difficulty with speech had something to do with his living between languages.

Recently, inside an old cardboard box, I found the dvar torah from my own bat mitzvah  There it was, my speech, typed up and printed out on 1980s IBM printer paper, marked up first in red by the rabbi and then in blue in my mom’s cursive handwriting.

I read the speech. The words didn’t sound like they came from me. They were the rabbi’s words, and my mother’s. But not mine, not really.

I wondered then, reading my speech from 1987: Do we even have our own words at 13?

Of course we do. Except everyone is trying their hardest to make us say everything else but what we really want to say. They’re trying to shape our words in the same way they’re trying to shape us. In the hopes we’ll grow into smart, kind, loving, good people.

They — our often well-meaning parents, teachers, rabbis — might say to our face, “We love you just the way you are.” But then they act — we act — in a way so counter to this statement. We monitor and evaluate our children’s behavior, we narrate and judge their choices, we edit their words.

I wasn’t very good at speeches when I was 13. Probably because I hadn’t yet found the courage to speak in my real voice, with my choice of words. Since then, I’ve discovered the thrill of sharing my own words with others. Of writing what I think, of investigating my beliefs, of challenging people, of learning others feel the way I do or don’t.

A few weeks ago, however, when I started thinking about writing this speech in honor of Tobey’s bar mitzvah, I got nervous. I found myself asking, What am I going to speak about? What language should I speak in? Would only half the room really be listening if I spoke in English? Would I embarrass Tobey if I spoke in Hebrew? Would I sound like an idiot talking about Torah? Who am I to talk about Torah? Is that really me?

The questions, I realized, were not unlike those of a young person becoming a bar or bat mitzvah.

 

*  *  *

 

There’s a movie I used to love as a kid called Freaky Friday. For those of you who don’t know the movie, it’s about a teenage girl and her mother who one morning magically switch places for a few days. As a kid, I loved this movie for the reason most kids love this movie: Wouldn’t it be awesome to get to be a grownup for a day? To switch bodies with my mom and get to be the one to make all the decisions? To CHOOSE the way my day goes, the way my life goes? When to wake up? What to wear? Whether or not to even get out of bed in the morning?

The irony — all of us grownups realize — is that being an adult is a lot harder than a child imagines it is.

But what’s also true — and what grownups often forget — is that being a child is a lot harder than we adults remember.

Being 13 is hard. You’re straddling adulthood and childhood. And you’re not sure, not really, in which direction you’d prefer to travel. Back to fourth grade, when homework was easier and friends were kinder. Or forward, where there is more freedom, but also more responsibility, confusion, and uncertainty.

I’d argue, too, that this splitting of identities is accentuated for a 13 year old living in two languages, two cultures.  English at home but Hebrew at school or on the soccer field. You often might find yourself asking, Tobey, as I often do, who am I? Am I the me in my own mind? Or am I the me out loud? And is there any way to blend the two?

What I want to say to you Tobey is that life is like Freaky Friday. There are days — like in the beginning of the movie — when you wish you were in the body of somebody else. And there are days — after all the madness that ensues — when you realize just how good it is to be you.

And usually we spend more of our time wondering what it might be like to be someone else instead of getting to know better and loving the person we are right now. This is not something that gets much easier in adulthood, but my wish for you this year Tobey and onwards is for a greater awareness of your true you right now.

Who was Moshe really on any given day? What propelled him that day in the fields to strike down the Egyptian? Who was he in the moment he did? Was he a Jew protecting his own? Or a compassionate Egyptian with a general care for humanity?  And what frightened Moshe afterwards? Was it only the idea of getting caught or was it the guilt of hurting someone who was a member of his own community?  Of one of his communities?

Moshe, if you think about it, was both an insider and an outsider wherever he went. There came a time when he had to decide, however, which of his identities was stronger, and that happens to us too, sometimes.

Tobey: I wish for you …to know who you are… and to love who you are. I wish for you self-compassion on the days when you question who you are (and there will be days when you question who you are). I wish for you the wisdom to distinguish between what others want for you and what you want for yourself. Not just in the short-term, but in the long-term. And so I wish for you also patience.

I wish for you a peaceful, quiet place for those times when you need to consider your choices and I wish for you the courage to choose to be YOU in the face of self-doubt or criticism.

You’ve shown us since you were a little boy that you have the makings of a leader. Being a leader is not always easy, though, as you’ve seen both at home and outside of it. I want you to hear today — in front of everybody who loves you  — that Dad and I are proud of you. We trust you and we believe in you.

There is light inside of you that shines so brightly, Tobey. We see it most clearly when you’re playing rough with your brother and sister. We can hear it, even, when you’re laughing with your buddies upstairs.

May your life continue to be filled with that light and may you continue to shine it upon others. Our lives are fuller with you in them.

Shabbat shalom.

 

 

The felicity of freedom

I do not feel connected to Israel’s independence, nor America’s.

My heart does not swell enough on Yom HaAtzmaut, nor does it burst with pride on July 4th.

I am neither a loyal patriot nor a faithful expat.

I

am

clearly

a spoiled brat.

Or a heartless wench.

One or the other.

If I were put on the spot and asked why I am so numb when it comes to celebrating freedom, I’d choose spoiled brat.

Entitlement is what happens when you have always had something come easy and come free.

My freedom has always been free. And you are less likely to celebrate what you have always gotten for free.

If my freedom was a gift only to the 1000th citizen born on every third year — like a raffle or a supermarket prize — maybe I would jump up and down for joy.

If my freedom was a surprise miracle in a barren wasteland — like Sarah conceiving Isaac in her old age or a lone soaptree yucca surviving the desert heat of Death Valley — maybe then I would thank God in silent prayer.

If my freedom was one true thing in a sea of falsities — like my breath, like my love for my children — perhaps then I would weep tears of gratitude.

But my freedom is free.

And my freedom has never come with strings attached.

And my freedom will be here tomorrow, or so my entitled mind tells me.

We only know what we know.

And so therefore, on the 4th of July or any other day I choose, I must stop.

Pause.

Acknowledge.

The good fortune with which I was born.

The grace of good men and good women who do not know the life I know.

The felicity of FREEdom.

Be all you can be

Most of us spend our entire lives figuring out who we are.

Parallel to this, we also seek the confidence to admit to ourselves who we are and share that self with others.

It can be an entire life’s work.

Imagine, then, being reborn smack dab in the middle of that project.

This is what it has been for me to make Aliyah.

Some will say just the opposite.

That making Aliyah was like “coming home.”

That moving to Israel allowed them to finally “find themselves; ” to finally feel a part of something, rather than apart from.

And there are elements of that sentiment I can relate to, but I wouldn’t say this has been my overarching experience until now.

Moving to Israel was a move away from who I am.

I am a communicator.

This is what I do. It’s what I love to do and it’s what I’m good at.

I’m also a relationship builder and an information gatherer.

And those are probably the three hardest things to do and be when you are a new immigrant, especially one in a country in which the main language is not your native tongue.

So why did I move to Israel?

For lots of reasons.

Good ones.

Reasons I stand by and do not regret.

But just as we do after many of the big life decisions we make — getting married, having kids, taking a new job — I ask myself now:

Who am I?

Who am I now?

Am I still me?

Some of my family and friends would insist I managed to be “me” even here in Israel. That I found a way to be the communicator, the relationship builder, and the information gatherer despite the challenges of language and culture.

On some days, I’d agree (and pat myself on the back, thank you very much).

But then there are the unforgiving days…

The days when I run into another parent in the parking lot, and I take that breath

You know that breath?

It’s the one you hardly notice but you take it right before you jump into a casual conversation with a casual friend in the parking lot.

Before you just “shoot the shit.”

You take that breath

I take that breath

but then I remember:

Im not me anymore. Not exactly.

This me thinks, “it’s going to be too, too hard for me to figure out which shit is the appropriate shit to shoot.And it’ll be even harder for me to understand the shit she is shooting back to me in Hebrew.”

And then I take another breath. This time, more of a sigh.

And I ask myself, Is it worth the mild humiliation? Discomfort?

I’m not sure.

So I don’t.

This is never a question I asked myself before.

Never.

And, similarly, there are some days…

Days when I know it’s really necessary for me to have a heart-to-heart with the teacher at my kid’s school. And I force myself to have the conversation.

Not because I am “the communicator” or the “information gatherer,” but because it’s what I HAVE to do. It’s on my to-do list.  And maybe I have that conversation, but I know it’s the mediocre version of what I could have pulled off in English.

And, oh how I judge myself afterwards.

And question myself.

In a way I never ever did before.

Never.

Because I knew who I was.

At least I thought I did…

Now, I’m not so sure.

Is who we are so fragile that POOF a move to a foreign country can change us?

Or do we just have to dig deeper, try harder to be

all we are. In spite of ourselves…