On the occasion of my eldest’s bat mitzvah which took place this past Sunday, I got to thinking about what it means to be the parent of a child who becomes a bat mitzvah – and an Orthodox one at that. In my pre-observant days, my bat mitzvah was mostly about memorizing the Torah portion, chanting the haftarah, and leading services, which was followed by a mega (on a yacht) party on the Hudson River. I didn’t believe in God at the time.
Twenty-two years, a religious lifestyle, and married with four kids later, I find myself on the other side of this story – the woman planning the party (t’was not on a yacht) and prepping the bat mitzvah girl. She did not read from the Torah nor chant the haftarah. She did not lead a service, but she does (or at least tries to) pray everyday and does believe in God. In preparation for her big day, she learned some pieces of Torah with my husband, wrote and gave over a beautiful d’var Torah to one hundred of our family and friends with poise and confidence.
I spoke too. I praised her for the incredible young woman she has become. She was not an easy baby (she screamed seven hours a day for the first three months of her life), nor was she an easy toddler (she had fits, was willful, and like most toddlers, wanted the best and the first of everything for herself). Through hard work, though, she has transformed herself into a giver. I spoke about how she is always careful to save her siblings treats from her goody bags when she comes back from birthday parties. And whenever she’s with her multitude of younger cousins, she is the first to give of her own portion to one of them. A couple years ago on Pesach, when all the girl cousins had matching dresses and hairbands, a five year old cousin lost her hairband and without a beat, my daughter took the band off her own head and handed it to her cousin, just in time for the group photo.
My husband spoke after I did and interjected an important point: our daughter is not just a giver – she, thank God, has a strong sense of self and knows when not to give in. One time a few years ago, after an art project in school, she volunteered with some classmates to clean paint brushes off in the bathroom. The cleaning activities led to lots of water being splashed onto the ground and my daughter grabbed some gobs of paper towel, got on her hands and knees, and started wiping up the floor. Her classmates, incredulous at her behavior, pushed back “Why are you on the floor?” they wanted to know, “Isn’t it the janitor’s job?” My daughter explained that, yes, it would fall on the janitor to clean up their mess if they didn’t, and she didn’t think that was fair.
What I realized after my husband added this part about my daughter’s sense of self, is that Hillel, the famous sage, summed up what we have been fortunate in twelve years to help our daughter become – the essence of what we had gathered together to celebrate on Sunday night:
“If I am not for myself, who will be?” Take a stand, live with conviction, have a backbone, don’t cave to outside pressure. But then, Hillel goes on to say:
“If I am only for myself, what am I?” While you must stand up for your beliefs, you have to (at the same time) not be so strong or so stubborn that you forget about everyone else – be a giver. Hillel then concludes,
“And if not now, when?” This last part is what we need to instill in our daughter, now that she has entered the world of Jewish adults and is capable of making a difference. She is thankfully young, but time passes quickly. With her strong convictions and her generous heart, she is ready to go out and start changing the world. And she should not waste a minute in doing so.
Mazel tov on your bat mitzvah, my sweet girl!