For my daughter on her bat mitzvah

You are the daughter of kings and queens, scholars and saints, men of letters and women of valor. The blood of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah flow through your veins.

August 28, 2019 18:14
For my daughter on her bat mitzvah

LIEL GOLDA.. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Dearest Liel Golda,
Torah tziva lanu Moshe, morasha kehilat Yaakov. “The Torah that was commanded by Moses is the heritage of the community of Jacob.” Those were the first words I spoke to you when I met you as a baby, and I repeat them now that you have become an adult.
I had 12 years to write this to you, but was only able to really sit and gather my thoughts this week, just a few days before your bat mitzvah celebration.
The difficulty is not in finding what to say, but how to say it. How do I convey to you how much Mommy and I love you? How can I find the right words to express how very proud we are of you? You are so kind, so giving! You have an incredibly nurturing spirit. It is a pleasure to be with you. In fact, I don’t just love you, I actually like you. Some of my favorite times are when we go out together, just the two of us. (We don’t do that enough…) We have been so incredibly blessed to have you as a daughter.
Now that you are a bat mitzvah, you are no longer just our daughter, but a daughter of Israel. I want to share with you some ideas that you may be too young for now, but I hope you will read these words again when you are older.
My difficulty in sitting and writing this to you is how to convey these thoughts without sounding corny. Everything I say to you now, no matter how clichéd is 100% the truth. No matter how cheesy it sounds.
You are the daughter of kings and queens, scholars and saints, men of letters and women of valor. The blood of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah flow through your veins.
You are royalty and it is your sacred privilege to act as such. Everything you do should be informed by your royal stature.
That means how you walk, talk, dress and interact with your fellow human beings. Even more important than how you relate to God, is how you relate to other people. Remember, we are human beings even before we are Jews. It is through the prism of our Torah that we understand and best actualize our humanity, but we are human beings first.
Don’t give in to those stupid memes clogging your social media feed exhorting you to “just be yourself” and not care what other people think of you. That is a lie. Care very much what other people think of you! Your reputation is quite literally the most valuable asset you have. Guard it with your life. And don’t “be yourself!” That is terrible advice. The whole purpose of Judaism is for you to be better than yourself. To coax you to act better than you feel like at a given moment.

AT YOUR brother’s bar mitzvah, I made the same point, but it is so important that I want to repeat it again to you: The two traits that best define good character are empathy and self-control.
And it is no wonder that these are the two very ends that the Torah tries to educate us toward. Every mitzvah we do has an end goal to refine us to one of those two traits. For example, the one mitzvah that is repeated more often than any other is not kashrut, nor Shabbat, nor any form of worship. It is the mitzvah to love the stranger. No less than 36 times we are reminded of this. The reason given by the Torah is that we, too, were once strangers in Egypt. And as you know, our experience there was terrible. Nevertheless, we are to remember that we were once strangers and to draw upon that to empathize with people who are less fortunate than us. Do you get that? The mitzvah that is repeated most often is a call to empathy with other human beings.
This is because the Torah is not just informational, but transformational. If it does not transform you, you have wasted your time.
I remember when I was a boy in yeshiva, I was told a story about the great Greek philosopher Socrates, who, after teaching a class on ethics, was caught by his students doing an immoral act. When asked by them how he can do such a thing, he is reported to have responded, “Right now, I am now Socrates!” (I tried to verify the story but cannot.) In our tradition, there is no room for such a division. Our greatest scholars are not known by their names, but by the books they authored. Rare is the yeshiva student who knows who Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan was. But they know the Chafetz Chaim, because that was the name of the book he wrote on the prohibition of gossip. He so embodied his book, that he became known by it rather than his given name.
The greatest compliment you can give is to say that someone is a walking sefer Torah. It means they have achieved an ultimate nexus and have successfully integrated the Torah’s teachings into their personal lives.
I really do believe with all my heart and soul that Judaism is the greatest technology to make us better people.
In fact, I believe that Judaism is the greatest idea in the history of the world, period.
It is okay to doubt God, but never doubt Judaism. If you do not doubt God, it means you are not a thinking person, and that is a greater sin than doubt. But never let your doubts fester into denial. I doubt God every day. But I always come back to faith. For me, the greatest proof of God is the return of the Jewish people back to its land.
Either one of two things have to be correct: Either there really is a God that takes an active interest in human events and really made a covenant with the people of Israel, or the Jews are such religious geniuses as to have invented a system of survival and immortality while teaching the world morality at the same time! Either way, I want to be an active member of this tribe! And it is my hope that you will too.
Jewish history is not a spectator sport. Now that it is your bat mitzvah, you need to decide how you will make your mark in Jewish history, take your turn on stage and figure out what role you want to play in the tribe. Some choose starring roles, others work in the background. As anyone in theater will tell you, both are equally important. You need to choose the role that best fits your many talents and strengths.
Life is an exercise in finding the role that best fits you. It is our blessing to you that find your way and find a partner in life who will be your best friend and help you write the next paragraph of the story of our people.
Love, Abba

The writer holds a doctorate in Jewish philosophy and teaches in post-high school yeshivot and midrashot in Jerusalem.

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