My Bat-Mitzvah was yesterday morning. Boy, was my hand shaking, as I read Hebrew from my Torah portion.
At a Bat Mitzvah, one reads from the actual Torah Scrolls, which are often very old, and written on animal skins. They are rolled onto two very sturdy, carved pieces of wood.
So, I must admit, that it wasn’t as bad as I expected it to be. Though I was nervous, and messed up several times, the love and support that I received from my friends, family, and congregants buoyed me up.
A friend of mine suggested that I share my Dvar Torah, here, which is the talk I gave yesterday.
Here it is…
A big part of what motivated me to become involved with Temple Emek Shalom, and to train to become a Bat Mitzvah, relates to an intense yearning of mine, to feel more connected to the Divine. For decades I’ve searched through a myriad of religious texts, because I’ve always longed to feel closer to G-d.
Rabbi Joshua is the first Rabbi that I’ve encountered, who’s fueled by the fire of Judaism to the extent that I can experience his enthusiasm, just by being in his presence. I’ve so enjoyed the work that I’ve done with Rabbi Joshua, as well as with Robert, and Marilyn, the two other B’nei Mitzvah students that I studied with.
My decision to study to become a Bat-Mitvah, and to become more involved with Temple Emek Shalom, came from a place in me that felt lonely and empty.
Though I’ve been fortunate to make some meaningful friendships in the 4 years that I’ve been living in Ashland, I still have felt that something was missing.
I was born into Judaism. I grew up within the religious context of Reform Judaism, but I wasn’t particularly inspired by what I learned.
Given my experience, I guess I just didn’t believe that Judaism could cut the mustard.
So I’m really big into G-d, and I know the language in this essay will challenging because of this. I know the name G-d turns a lot of people off.
So many of us have been taught that God, and religion, more often than not are the cause of suffering, rather than a salve to heal it.
I’m going to use the name G-d in my piece quite a bit, and I’ll do my best to use alternate Hebrew names as well.
In Judaism, there are 72 different names of God, that express various qualities inherent in His Being.
Ehyeh, means I AM that I AM. Or, I will be what I wish to be.
Adonai means G-d, but it is really the name we use when we see the letters Yud-Hei-Vav-Hei-which is the unpronouncable name of the Divine.
El Shaddai means the One who nourishes, satisfies, and protects. Shaddaym means breasts. El is a masculine. Here we see the weaving of the masculine and feminine aspects of G-d.
Ein Sof means the Infinite One. That which is boundless and sublime.
Elohim means the greatest power and authority, some interpret it as guardian of the doors of Israel.
Though I am new to Kabbalistic teachings, I do know that the word Kabbalah means ‘to receive’. Kabbalah is one of many paths that is supposed to lead to direct experience with Adonai. This is one of the reasons why Temple Emek Shalom appeals so much to me. Kabbalah is taught as part of the whole of Judaism, rather than being seen as this weird, mystical offshoot of it.
Rabbi Joshua once told me, that my practice of painting art, is Kabbalistic. This idea resonates for me, especially when I’m in the flow of painting. When I paint, It sometimes feels like I’m channelling the spirits of my subjects. Like something larger than myself is working through me.
The sculpture here, that I put together over the past month, is an interpretation of mine, of the Tree of Life.The spirit of my Bat-Mitzvah teachings seized my own spirit, and I felt inspired to cut, glue,and paint, creating this piece.
I believe the story of the Jews enslavement in Egypt, more than anything else is a symbol of that part of us that is bound, and desperate for freedom. In my mind, the story of the Jews liberation is not so much about a physical place,or about history, as it is about a state of being. The Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitrayim, actually means, ‘narrow place’.
Even Moses, in my Torah portion had a hard time trusting in G-d. Moses kept asking Adonai to make promises to him, to share with him His beauty and His glory, to fill him with His Divine Presence. He even asked G-d to show His face to him.
G-d was standing right beside Moses. He was as close to a him, as He could be, yet Moses was still filled with doubt.
So, it is understandable that I, too, am challenged by the notion of G-d’s presence in my life.
I’ve prayed to the Lord with all of my might, for certain things, on many occasions, without receiving them. I prayed fervently for G-d to save the life of my younger brother, Matthew.
At particular times, I can palpably feel the Presence of El Shaddai. Something slumbering within me awakens momentarily.
God certainly felt absent, though, when my brother died. He was only 17.
I was so enraged by the injustice of my brother’s death, that I turned my face away from God and religion for a very long time.
Living with severe depression and anxiety, for most of my life, has also challenged my ability to hold onto a firm belief in God.
Yet, I’ve had enough mystical experiences, that cannot not be explained away, that I believe there is a Higher Power holding all of us.
I’ve come to believe that prayer can be effective. It seems that most often the results of these prayers, are paradigm shifts, within ourselves, rather than changes in the physical world.
I kind of wonder if G-d watches us from a distance, like a mother does when her child is beginning to walk. Is he coaxing us along, without interfering with our shaky steps into our lives, into our days, into the world?
The training I’ve done for today, has made it apparent to me, just how deep the well of Judaism is. It’s also given me the awareness that I’ve only scraped the surface of Judaic wisdom.
Okay, so I’m going to switch gears here.
My Bat Mitzvah falls on a day that is part of a week long Jewish holiday, called Sukkot.
Originally Sukkot was a harvest festival. A time of joy and thankfulness to G-d for His bounty.
Sukkot is up there with some of the most important holidays, such as Passover, and Shavuot. I didn’t know this until recently. I had always thought it was a minor holiday.
Why is Sukkot seen as equivalent in holiness to Passover?
I believe it’s partly because it commemorates our first steps away from slavery, and towards freedom. Our first steps away from our captors. Our first steps into the unknown.
It represents a tremendous leap of faith for the Israelites, who left Egypt with no road map as to where they were going, or knowledge of how long they’d be homeless.
Terrified, sleeping in huts, that I imagine were flimsier than the Sukka built recently at Emek Shalom, the newly freed Israelites, had next to nothing. It says in the Torah that the Jews brought with them unleavened bread, the clothes they were wearing, their livestock, and the bones of their forefather Joseph.
I believe that all of us have many examples within our lives of experiences that echo those of the newly freed Israelites.
I moved to Ashland, on my own, without knowing anyone here, around 4 years ago. I was in a very stuck place, and very miserable, before I left the Bay Area. Something in me persistently told me that I had to go. At some level it felt like I had no choice. Once I took that step, and began looking for housing in the area, I knew that my decision was the right one.
Though I knew that I could no longer live in the Bay Area, I was still terrified about making these changes.
The Talmud, which incorporates the wisdom of the Rabbinic sages, speaks about how a great cloud cover descended upon the Israelites on their first night away from Egypt. This was a gift of compassion, and caring from G-d, to protect them from wild animals, and from marauders.
G-d knew that the Israelites were leaving comfort and familiarity for the Promised Land.
I’ve found that even when situations are terribly painful, they can provide me with a strange sense of comfort. It can take all I’ve got to extricate myself, and to engender new ways of being.
Because I’m on the shy side, going to Temple Emek Shalom on my own, can be a challenge. But I started going, finally joined the Temple, and continue to forge ahead, building relationships with new people in the process.
During Sukkot, observant Jews sleep in temporary structures called Sukka’s, covered in branches, through which the stars can be seen. I’ve yet to experience spending the night in a sukka. I’d like to attempt this at some point, but I’ve never been a very good camper.
Some of the reasoning behind this is I feel, is to make us more aware of our vulnerability. Stripping away the sturdy walls of our homes, reminds us of our own fragility, and of our dependence on the Divine. It also helps us to remember the Jewish peoples initial journey out of Egypt.
It brings us back to that simultaneosly exciting and frightening state of new beginnings. The alternative is to stubbornly hold onto past ways of living in the world, and in relationship to ourselves.
By becoming a Bat Mitzvah I believe something of a transformation of my spirit is occuring.
I don’t believe in blind faith. Judaism, in as far as I know it, doesn’t endorse this kind of thinking, either. Arguing, and disagreement is encouraged, rather than being forbidden. Because, how else can people learn?
As a congregation, I look forward to us constantly reinventing the Torah, and making it applicable to daily life. I hope to break down my own walls of ignorance and fear, as the years pass, as well.
I feel so blessed to have my parents and friends here on this special day. You help to make my life worth living, and have been with me through so much. I don’t know what I’d do without you.
Thank you for the help and inspiration you’ve given me Sasha. Thank you Rabbi Joshua for the flame of curiousity you’ve fanned in me. And, finally, thank you all so much for being here, and for your love, compassion, and support.