GOING OUT AND COMING IN AND GOING OUT AGAIN:
THE BAT MITZVAH OF MIRIAM SEGAL
We have come here today, not simply to celebrate Shabbat. We have come here today, in particular, to celebrate Miriam Segal, as she becomes Bat Mitzvah, literally, ‘a Daughter of the Commandment’. We have come here to witness a special moment, in the midst of Miriam’s life; the moment, when she leaves her childhood behind, and begins her journey towards adulthood.
You may have noticed that I have repeated one word three times: come – more of this in a moment. The Torah, the Five Books of Moses, is divided into weekly portions, and read in an annual cycle. We began reading the Book of Exodus three weeks ago, and so, the story of the Exodus from Egypt. What does the word, ’Exodus’, mean? Like the related word, ‘exit’, it denotes ‘going out’. The Exodus from Egypt was a great departure: after 430 years of settlement, including over 200 years of slavery, finally, the Israelites went out of the house of bondage, along with a ‘mixed multitude’ of other slaves – the erev rav – who also took the opportunity to take flight.
Unlike English, which has a huge vocabulary, and where there are so many words for saying the same thing, the Hebrew Bible, has a much smaller vocabulary. While writers of English may search for alternative words, rather than the repeat the same one, biblical literature is marked by the repetition of words – and, specifically, by the repetition of the root meanings of words, which may take different forms. The Hebrew root for the word, ‘Exodus’, and the concept of ‘going out’ is Yud Tzadi Aleph – and so, in Hebrew, the Exodus from Egypt is y’tzi’at mitzrayim. However, the root Yud Tzadi Aleph is not only used of the Exodus. In the Book of Genesis, we read that Jacob ‘went out’, when he fled his brother, Esau’s anger after stealing the blessing due to the firstborn son (28:10). We also read that, a generation later, his daughter, Dinah, ‘the daughter of Leah’, ‘went out to see the daughters of the land’ (34:1). Less dramatic than the great Exodus, these personal examples of going out, were, nonetheless, very momentous for the individuals concerned.
Today marks the moment when Miriam goes out, when she begins to go out into the world. At the same time, today also marks the moment when Miriam comes in, when, taking responsibility for her own Jewish life, she enters the Jewish community in general, and this congregation, in particular, in her own right.
A little earlier, in my introductory remarks about how we have come here today to celebrate Miriam’s Bat Mitzvah, I drew your attention to the repetition of the word, ‘come’. At first sight, compared with ‘going out’ into the world, with making a great departure, ‘coming in’, sounds a more domestic note. But the use of the Hebrew root, Beit Vav Aleph, suggest otherwise. In a short while, Miriam will read a section from this week’s parashah – portion of the Torah – indeed, more than anything else she does today, reading the Torah in the presence of this congregation will signal her new status as a young adult. Each Torah portion is known by the first word that differentiates that particular portion from all others. Sometimes, the first word fulfils this function – as in the opening word of the Torah: B’reishit bara Elohim eit ha-shamayim v’eit ha-aretz’ – In beginning God created the heavens and the earth’ (Genesis 1:1). And so, the first portion of the Torah is called B’reishit. On other occasions, as with this week’s parashah, Bo, we have to read a rather unexceptional phrase before we reach the first differentiating word. And so, the portion begins (Exodus 10:1a):
The Eternal One said to Moses: ‘Come! to Pharaoh’ – Bo el-Par’oh
To appreciate the significance of the word, Bo, it helps to realise that the form here is an imperative, a command: Bo! – with an exclamation mark. But we need to do more than appreciate the significance of the word; we also need to think about the context: Moses, a rather diffident individual, who, not long before was a humble shepherd, shepherding his father-in-law’s flock, is being told – by the Eternal One, no less – to ‘Come to Pharaoh’ – to approach the mighty King of Egypt. For Moses, coming into Pharaoh’s presence was a rather daunting, terrifying prospect.
Which brings me back to Miriam: What do you think Miriam was feeling as she prepared to come here today? What do you imagine it’s actually like for a young person, just 13 years old, to come in to the presence of all these people? What do you think it takes to stand up in the presence of a large congregation to lead the Shabbat morning service and to read the Torah, the sacred inheritance of the Jewish people? It takes courage – the courage to contain one’s fears and anxieties. Miriam has that courage. It takes presence of mind – the presence of mind to focus on the task at hand. Miriam has that presence of mind. It takes determination – the determination to see beyond the terrifying moment, to the goal: By having the courage, the presence of mind, and the determination to come here today, leaving her childhood behind and the protective embrace of her family, Miriam has become Bat Mitzvah before our eyes.
As you can see, coming in can be as momentous as going out. What is more, the Hebrew root, Beit Vav Aleph, carries with it a freight of meaning that is actually very complex. The dictionary of the Hebrew Bible, compiled by 19th century Christian ministers, Brown, Driver and Briggs, identifies three major uses of the root in the simple active form of the verb – there are further uses in the causative active and causative passive forms – and within two of the three categories in the simple active form, the dictionary identifies between seven and eleven sub-categories! In a number of these different uses, the resonance is compelling – and sometimes, unsettling. At the beginning of the Exodus story, when the Torah relates how Moses is apprehended by a burning bush and finds himself in the presence of the Eternal, we read that the Eternal One declared (Exodus 3:9):
And now, behold, the cry of the Israelites has come to Me – V’atah, hineih, tza’akat b’ney yisrael ba’ah eilay.
Yesterday was National Holocaust Memorial Day. Since the millennium, the British government has set aside January 27th, which is the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by the Red Army in 1945, as the day for reflection and educational activities to commemorate the Sho’ah, and to learn about and remember the genocide of other peoples during the 20th century. For Jews, accustomed to remembering the Exodus from Egypt every Shabbat and each year at the Festival of Pesach, Passover, for whom the central hero of the story has always been God, not Moses, the Sho’ah provokes searing questions: Where was God? What was God doing while six million of His people were being murdered? Why didn’t the God of our Hebrew ancestors, deliver us out of the furnace on Eagle’s wings? Why didn’t our cry come to God?
There are no satisfactory answers to these questions. Perhaps it might give us pause for thought, to remember that our ancestors suffered in the house of bondage for at least 200 years before their cry came to God… The modern Orthodox thinker David Hartman argues that in the absence of the interventionist God of the Bible, the early rabbis who reconstructed Jewish life after the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 CE, transformed the Torah into the vehicle for God’s presence in the lives of the people. He writes:
Rabbinic Judaism developed a new paradigm that differed from the dominant biblical model. I believe that had Jews retained the biblical framework alone they would have gone insane. An event-based theology would have driven them into collective manic depression. Victory suggests ‘God loves me’; defeat, ‘God has withdrawn His love.’ What saved them from this manic-depressive relationship with God was a text-centred theology that made God’s presence in history a function of the presence of the Torah. As long as we were the carriers of learning and continued to interpret God’s Word, God was present.
David Hartman may not provide the definitive answer for all our anguished questions, but his words remind us, as we look into the abyss of the Sho’ah, that although Hitler managed to murder a third of the Jewish people, he did not succeed in destroying the Torah, which is the heartbeat of our people still. This congregation even has a scroll, our Czech scroll, which is a valiant testament to this truth. The Jewish community of Frydek-Mistek was annihilated, but their Torah scrolls and the scrolls of the other Czech communities destroyed by the Nazis, did not simply survive, they live on in vibrant living communities of Jews the world over.
Towards the end of the service, Miriam will mark the final moment of becoming Bat Mitzvah by receiving the Torah scroll through the generations of her family. Miriam: in that moment. You – the special unique individual that you are – will become a link in the chain of the generations of the Jewish people. As you put it yourself: ‘Being Jewish means that I am part of a community; that I am part of something special and unique. It also means that I am connected to people all over the world, past and present. Becoming Bat Mitzvah means that I am growing up, and ready to accept my responsibilities as part of the Jewish community.’
Miriam: for you, as you expressed it – and I’m quoting you again: ‘the synagogue is a place where I can have fun and relax, while at the same time discover more about my Jewish heritage. Since joining the synagogue I have got to know loads of people that I never would have met without it, and it has helped me make lots of new friends.’ Miriam: Your experience demonstrates the power of Torah to live in our lives here and now. And the way you live every day also shows that living self-confidently as a Jew, and being proud of your inheritance, is also about connecting with others and with other sources of knowledge – that is, it is about going out into the world, as well as coming in to the Jewish community. And so, you have many interests – as you put it: ‘I love playing the flute, because it lets me express myself, and I hope to take my Grade Six in the summer. I also enjoy spending time with my friends and family, either going out or just sitting around talking. I enjoy most of my school subjects, especially ones with a creative edge, such as art, DT, drama and English. I also like languages, particularly French, as they are both useful and interesting. I am currently learning Mandarin, too. I’m not really sure what I want to be, although I would quite like to be a lawyer as I find law extremely interesting and I also want to do something that would help people. I would also like to do something creative – possibly an author – as I enjoy writing, and would love to make a career of it!’ Miriam: you are multi-talented and enjoy so many pursuits. You are also very concerned about the wider world around you. Again, in your own words: ‘A really important issue at the moment is global climate change, so I would like to do something to help that. After all, this is the only planet we have, so we need to look after it.’
Miriam: Preparing for this day has been a journey, and it has also been a process of transformation. As you put it: ‘Over the past year, I have changed in many ways – not least my height! I have become more organised (despite what my mum would say!), responsible and mature, and have more confidence in myself and my abilities.’ Of course, you recognise that you have been accompanied on your journey – learning so much from your tutor, Andy, you have also been surrounded by your friends and family. Again, in your own words: ‘They have helped and supported me so much, and I don’t know where I would be without them.’
Miriam: your family and friends are with you today, and they will always be with you. Nevertheless, today marks a beginning for you alone, the beginning of another stage in your unique life’s journey. Psalm 121, closes with these words (:8): ‘May the Eternal One guard your going out and your coming in now and always’ – Adonai yishmor tzeit’cha u’voecha mei’atah v’ad olam. And in the Book of Deuteronomy, chapter 28, in the parashah, Ki Tavo, we find a similar sentiment, expressed the other way round (:6): ‘Blessed shall you be when you come in, and blessed shall you be when you go out’ – Baruch atah b’vo’echa u’varuch atah b’tzeitecha. Miriam: today these words of blessing are for you: May you go out and may you come in, and go out again, embracing all the gifts of life from this day onwards. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah
Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue, 28th January 2012 – 4th Sh’vat 5772