Every Bar or Bat Mitzvah is a unique and special occasion, and every Bat or Bar Mitzvah is a unique and special individual. And yet, there is something particularly unique and particularly special, both, about this occasion and about this individual.

Chavivah: here you are today. You have already led the service beautifully for us this Shabbat morning, and in a short while you will read from the sacred scroll of the Torah. When you called us to prayer by singing the Bar’chu you did at least two unique things. First and foremost, you called us together as a congregation – which is what the Bar’chu is all about. But as you sang, you also expressed who you are in your own unique and special way: you told us all, hinneini – ‘here I am’ – this is Chavivah.

Yes, Chavivah: here you are. What do I mean by here? Of course, you are not in the synagogue sanctuary, which has become so familiar to you over the years since you were a small child. I know how much the synagogue sanctuary means to you. In your own words: ‘the Ark is beautiful, and I’ve always loved pulling the cord to open the curtains – I’ve always tried to stand next to the cord on the bimah.’ And just because the ark curtain has been so important to you, thanks to Michael, we now have a new temporary ark, with a curtain – just for you! Hopefully, it won’t be too long before we can return to our synagogue home, and are able to enjoy it again – repaired and refurbished, and minus all the leaks!

So, what I mean by here you are, is that here you are in the heart of your community – which is what a synagogue is all about. And: here you are being who you are – a courageous, life-loving, fun-loving, mischievous, utterly determined individual.

Before you read from the scroll, you are going to give your d’var Torah, your own commentary on your portion, Tol’dot. There are so many things one can say about your portion. We are all looking forward to hearing your particular take on it. And now, I’m going to say a little about how I think the story of Jacob and Esau, the twin sons of Rebecca and Isaac, relates to you.

The tale of Jacob and Esau is sad and disturbing. Here they were, twin brothers. They could have been the best of friends, as many twins are. But their mother, Rebecca, knew enough about the ways of the world at that time, to understand that only one son would inherit the birth-right due to the eldest son. So, keeping Jacob close to her at home, he became her favourite, and Rebecca made plans to ensure that, although born second, Jacob would be the one to inherit his father, Isaac’s blessing.

Meanwhile, Esau, a hunter, the man of action, became his father’s favourite. On the surface, what Isaac loved about Esau was simply that he cooked him delicious stews whenever he came back from hunting (Genesis 25:28). But there was something more profound going on. Isaac nearly died, when his father, Abraham, took him on a journey and very nearly took his life, because God had told him to do so (Genesis 22). Isaac was saved at the last minute, but did he really ever recover from his trauma? We learnt in last week’s Torah portion, Chayyei Sarah, that Sarah died immediately afterwards. How did Isaac feel after that terrifying experience? The Torah doesn’t tell us. All we are told is that Abraham instructed his servant to go back to his birthplace, Haran, and find a wife for Isaac (Genesis 24). And then, after the servant returned with Rebecca, Isaac simply took her into his tent, and was, as the Torah says, ‘comforted for his mother.’ (Genesis 24:67).

As soon as we begin to read the tale of Jacob and Esau, it becomes clear that Isaac was a broken man. Who was Esau to Isaac? The kind of man he could never have been: full of energy and life. And when Esau cooked those stews for his father, wasn’t he comforting Isaac, just as Rebecca had comforted him, when they had first got married? But then after she became a mother, Rebecca’s focus of attention became Jacob, not Isaac; her concern was for the future, not for the past.

It becomes clear when we examine the tragic story of this dysfunctional family that Esau and Jacob never had a chance to be the brothers they could have been. Their parents’ needs defined their lives. Chavivah, I’m not surprised you found it a little challenging relating to this story – because your experience of your family life has been so different. In your own words: ‘I love my brother because he is awesome. He listens to me, let me join in, he helps me and he’s really kind. I love my parents because they are helpful because they believe in me because they did all these things for me. I love all my family and I’m glad I came to this family.’ Your family also includes your animals. As you put it: ‘I love my hamster, even though she’s a bit naughty: she ate through the Internet cable and she chewed a big hole in my curtain. I love my dog – Nancy Small And Naughty Ward Lee’. And you also ‘love baking and helping Pam next door with her horses’. You ‘loved going to France’ with your family and ‘staying in Sandra and Cliff’s caravan.’

Chavivah: Unlike Esau and Jacob, you have such positive experiences of family life. Your loving parents, Trudy and Janet, have devoted themselves to enabling you to grow and have done – and continue to do – everything in their power to ensure that you enjoy your life to the full.

In a way, the story of Jacob and Esau teaches us a negative lesson – because it teaches us about how families should not behave. It also teaches us about what it means to be an individual. Of course, we are disturbed by how Rebecca and Jacob go about deceiving Isaac, and by how Jacob takes advantage of Esau. But at a deeper level, the tale is also exploring how a member of a family, any family, becomes their own person. Jacob was only able to become his own person by taking flight from Esau’s anger. The Torah doesn’t tell us anything about Esau’s life after Jacob’s departure. But when they meet one another again after 20 years, we can tell by Esau’s dignified demeanour that he has managed to come into himself during his brother’s absence (Genesis 32-33).

Meanwhile, the Torah focuses on Jacob, and as he is deceived by his uncle Laban into marrying Leah, we can see him struggling to find himself over the years he spends in Laban’s household (Genesis 28-31). In the end, it is only after his night-time struggle on the eve of his reunion with Esau, that we see Jacob emerging as himself. He has survived his terrors and overcome his fear about meeting his brother again, but he is wounded in the thigh, and is limping (Genesis 32:32). Jacob, the favoured one, had to suffer before he could begin to take responsibility for his own life, and learn to live with his damaging family experiences – although he didn’t learn enough to avoid perpetuating the parental favouritism syndrome with his own children.

Chavivah: you have done more to become your own person in the first 13 years of your life, than Jacob managed in a lifetime. You have shown enormous strength and determination, and been prepared to work so hard to stand before us here today, ready to start your journey into adulthood. Fortunately, in addition to your wonderful parents and the best big brother ever, you have been loved and supported by many, many people since the time that you were born.

These special people include: Anna, the nurse who used to go and play with you, when you were in hospital as a small baby, before you joined your family; Lesley, the social worker you had at that time; Gerry, the social worker who assessed your mums as adopters and recommended that they would be allowed to adopt you; Sian, the paediatrician who was on the adoption panel that approved the match, and supported your mums, so they understood how to care for you; Karen, the head teacher at the infants school who worked hard to make sure that the school took care of your health needs, and that you were very much included in all aspects of school life; Maddie, the reception teacher who taught you how to read and shared her passion for high heeled shoes with you – and, yes, Chavivah, I think we have all noticed the lovely black patent shoes you’re wearing today! The other special people who have helped you along the way are Jenny and Alison, the teaching assistants, who worked the whole time with you in school, feeding you and doing regular blood tests; and Charlotte, the art psychotherapist who helped you make sense of your life and your health needs.

All these people have helped you to become who you are – and as a result you enjoy your school life and really care about education, and like a lot of subjects. I think I only liked one or two that your age, but your list includes: Music, Drama, English, IT, Science, History and Geography – practically the whole curriculum!

And your life has also been blessed by other special people, who have played very important roles: Annabel, who has been part of your extended family, and has always been there for you, when you wanted to talk things over; your wider family and friends, including Laura and Oscar who have come from France to be here today; and the families from the lesbian and gay adoption group.

And then there is the synagogue, which is like your village. The members and friends of BHPS – many of whom are here today – have been so happy to watch you growing and developing in confidence, and have enjoyed seeing you enjoy yourself, like when you dance to Adon Olam. The synagogue is very ‘important’ to you. In your own words: ‘[It] feels like a friendly warm place. Lots of people love me and I feel very safe here. Coming to synagogue means I get to meet all my friends. I like singing Adon Olam, Mah Tovu, the Sh’ma and the Amidah [and] I like talking to people.’

In the past year, the synagogue has meant more than anything else, preparing for your Bat Mitzvah, and you have been helped, in particular, by your teacher, Eileen, and your tutor, Harry, who have supported you and guided you along the way. For you, again in your own words, ‘becoming Bat Mitzvah is about growing up and becoming an adult in the community. I’m excited about going to KT with Miriam in January. I have loved the evenings at Harry’s – learning with him and then being able to play with his dog. Harry makes me laugh and I love him singing. Becoming Bat Mitzvah [also] means I can wear high-heeled shoes.’ Chavivah: you realise that you have changed over the last year: you’ve ‘grown taller’ and ‘learnt lots of Hebrew.’ You have also ‘made more friends at school.’

Chavivah: there is no doubt about it, being Jewish is special to you. For you – again in your own words: ‘Being Jewish means having fun. I like my teachers. I love doing Shabbat. I usually make challah at home. We sing the blessings and I love singing. We find out about how the week has gone for everyone around the table.’ For you, being Jewish also includes your LJY-Netzer youth activities. When you go to Kadimah, you ‘love their soup and dumplings.’ You also ‘like making Havdalah’ – again because you love the singing.’ Anna and Sam from LJY have helped you become a 21st century Liberal Jew, and become part of the community of young people away from your family.

Chavivah: many of the people who are here today have watched you as you have made an incredible journey. And now you’re about to start a new one. In the future, you would like to work with horses because, as you put it, ‘They are big and beautiful and fast at running – [and] when I’m with horses it feels really peaceful.’ You also have hopes for the future – and again I’m quoting from you: ‘I care about people having chances like I had a chance moving into a new family.’ You would also like to play your part in ‘making less pollution.’ You think people shouldn’t ‘use their cars so often and just use public transport.’ If we did this, as you put it, ‘The world would be a healthier place.’

Chavivah: we hope that your dreams for the future come true – for yourself and for the world around you. But before you get to the future, I know that everyone gathered here today joins me in congratulating you for reaching this special moment in your own special way. We are hugely proud of you and everything that you have achieved. We also send you all our warmest good wishes as you begin your journey as a teenager. Above all, we hope that you will continue to go from strength to strength, singing and dancing and celebrating, and continuing to be the unique individual that you are. And let us say: Amen.


Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah

Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue – Adat Shalom Verei’ut

 26th November 2011 – 29th Cheshvan 5772