L’Chi Lach: ‘Go for Yourself’ The Bat Mitzvah of Ruth
Today, as Ruth becomes Bat Mitzvah, we are celebrating the completion of one journey, and the beginning of another. On one level, preparing for this moment has taken just a few short months since Ruth began to meet Harry for her weekly lessons. On another level, Ruth has been on a journey to this day ever since she was born 13 years ago.
The word ‘journey’ gets used a lot – perhaps so much that it has become a cliché – and I have already mentioned it three times in about 10 seconds! But today that overused word is really relevant – not just because we’re talking about Ruth on the day that marks her Jewish coming-of-age, but because this Shabbat we are reading the portion from the Torah that recounts the first journey of the Jewish people: the parashah, Leich L’cha.
Actually, what I’ve just said is a little misleading. What we read about in Leich L’cha is not so much the first journey of the Jewish people, but rather the journey of a family, who were the first ancestors of the Jewish people. Indeed, strictly speaking, the focus is not on a family, but rather on an individual member of that family: on Abraham. We read at Genesis chapter 12, verse 1, at the very beginning of the narrative:
Va-yomer Adonai el-Avram: Leich-l’cha mei-artz’cha u-mimoladt’cha u-mibeit avicha el-ha’aretz asher are’ka; / V’e’escha l’goy gadol va’a’varech’cha’; va’aga’d’lah sh’mecha; vehyeh b’rachah.
The Eternal One said to Avram: ‘Leich l’cha – Go for yourself from your land and from your kindred and from your father’s house, to the land and I will show you. / I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing.’
What a challenge! And everything that followed turned on how Abraham responded to that challenge: he decided to leave. We read at verse 4: Va-yeilech Avram – ‘Then Avram went’. Of course, Sarah, Abraham’s wife, also went on a journey. Indeed, it was not until Sarah gave birth to Isaac that the Eternal One’s promise to Abraham that he would become the father of a great nation could be realised. So, we learn towards the end of Leich L’cha, that Sarah, too, was blessed with God’s promise. At Genesis chapter 17, verse 16, we read that the Eternal One tells Abraham:
U’veirachti otah; v’gam natati mimmenah l’cha bein. Y’veirachtiha v’hay’tah l’goyyim; malchey ammim mimmenah yihyu.
I will bless her; indeed, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she shall give rise to nations; rulers of people shall issue from her.
Both Abraham and Sarah left all that they knew to go on a journey. The Jewish story begins with their stories. This is very significant. It teaches us that however preoccupied we may be with the tale of our people, ultimately, it is the action of individuals, the decisions of individuals, and the choices that individuals make that shapes the narrative and make it what it is. Even the greatest story of the Jewish people, the Exodus from slavery in Egypt, is driven by the actions of individuals. Think about it: the courageous midwives, Shifrah and Pu’ah, who saved the Hebrew baby boys from Pharaoh’s genocidal decree (Exodus 1:15-22); Yocheved and Miriam, the mother and sister of a baby boy, Moses – all unnamed at that point of the story – who saved his life by hiding him in a basket in the reeds of the River Nile (Exodus 2:1-10); Moses himself, who, once fully grown, impetuously killed an Egyptian one day, whom he saw beating a Hebrew slave, and took flight to the land of Midian (Exodus 2:11-15).
The story could have ended there. Moses could have settled down with Zipporah, the daughter of the priest of Midian, and spent his days shepherding his father-in-law’s flock. But one day, achar ha-midbar, at the far-end of the wilderness – literally, ‘behind’ the wilderness (Exodus 3:1), he decided to turn aside from his daily task to investigate the puzzling phenomenon of a burning bush that was not being consumed by the flames (Exodus 3:1-4). Indeed, in a crucial sense it was that spontaneous on the spot decision that ultimately led to the Exodus. If Moses had not noticed that burning bush – and we’re talking about a little bush on a blazing hot day in the desert when the brightness and the dust make it difficult to see anything – if Moses had not been curious, and instead, intent on his shepherding duties, had simply passed by the bush, that would have been the end of the story.
I’m not suggesting that the Exodus of Egypt happened the way in which the Torah relates it. That’s not the point. The point is that the two foundational narratives of the Jewish people turn on the decisions and choices of individuals. For all our highly collectivist mentality, Jewish life comes down to individual Jewish lives – which brings me back to Ruth.
Ruth is part of a family – including her parents, her sisters, her grandparents and other relatives – all of whom are very proud of her today. Ruth is part of Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue – including, her fellow classmates in the Beit Lameid, the educational programme for the 3 to 15-year-olds of the congregation. One of her classmates, is almost exactly the same age, and will be celebrating her Bat Mitzvah in two weeks’ time. And yet, connected to others, today is Ruth’s Bat Mitzvah – her special day; the day which marks a crucial milestone on her particular life’s journey, as a young Jew, who is in the process of becoming a Jewish adult.
Ruth has already led the congregation in prayer – very beautifully – and in a short while she give her own d’rashah, her own commentary on the section of the Torah portion that she has chosen to study, before reading the passage from the scroll. Ruth will share with us her particular perspective in her own distinctive way. The scroll of the Torah is read in an annual cycle; year after year, Jews the world over read the same text – and yet, each reading is different because what the Torah says is mediated by its readers; its teachings are the teachings we discover and explicate. I’m not going to pre-empt what Ruth is going to say – you have that treat in store – suffice it to say, she will make the Torah speak with her voice, her personality, her values and concerns.
Ruth: in preparation for this day, I asked you some questions, so that you would have an opportunity to reflect on what becoming Bat Mitzvah means to you as an individual. The word ‘responsibility’ echoed in your response – for you – and I quote, ‘becoming Bat Mitzvah means responsibility: Responsibility for leading the service, responsibility for learning my Torah portion, and responsibility for being an independent member of the Jewish community.’
Ruth: you have taken your responsibilities for reaching this stage in your journey very seriously – getting on with your studies without having to be coaxed and nagged, you have relished the fact that it’s all been up to you. You are aware that you’ve changed a lot over the past year – that you’ve become more confident than you were, and because of your dedication to the task in hand, your Hebrew has improved, as you put it: ‘a lot’! And yet, although you’ve dedicated so much of your own personal time to studying, for you, preparing to become Bat Mitzvah has not just been an individual challenge. The congregation is part of your life, and, in your own words, ‘the synagogue is a place to see friends and be a part of a close community. It’s also a place where I learn more about being Jewish.’
You’re very comfortable with your Jewish identity, and, for you, again, as you put it, ‘being Jewish means taking part in Jewish festivals and rituals with my family and Jewish friends, – and eating the delicious food at the different festivals!’ Your family and friends are more important to you than anything else – and at the same time, while you love spending time with them, luxuriating in your own space is what you enjoy most – and I quote: ‘I love lying on my bed with a hot chocolate and a good book because I find it relaxing and un-stressful.’
Ruth: you are a very balanced individual. As you’ve demonstrated during your Bat Mitzvah preparations, you’ve got great academic skills, but your favourite school subject is, actually, DT because, as you put it, ‘it’s relaxing and I enjoy the practical side of it.’ A hard worker, who also knows how to relax; a good student who also likes working with your hands – what great combinations! And when it comes to hard work, preparing for your Bat Mitzvah will seem like a breeze compared with studying to be a doctor – which is what you want to do in the future. But for you, becoming a doctor – which will involve a great deal of demanding study and long hours – is actually about the practical consequences, and the difference you can make to other people’s lives. Again – in your own words: ‘I would like to become a doctor because I would like to feel like I’m helping people and making them better. I would also like to work with children so I want to be a pediatrician.’
Ruth: you have received lots of love and support as you have prepared for this day – from your mum and dad, from Kate and Hannah, from your grandparents, from your friends, and from your teachers, especially, your tutor, Harry. But in the end, you are your own person. And now, having completed the journey of your childhood, this day also marks the moment when you begin your journey towards adulthood. Like Abraham, like Sarah, you are ready to leave and chart a new course. And another ancestor, even more closely connected with you comes to mind: Ruth, who, according to the biblical account, became the grandmother of King David. Ruth, the Moabite, who after experiencing the loss of her husband, chose to go with her mother-in-law, Naomi, to another place – to Bethlehem in the land of Judah. Naomi pleaded with both her daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah, to return to the the houses of their mothers. But Ruth remained adamant. Her response to Naomi is one of the most lyrical and poignant passages in the entire Hebrew Bible. We read (Book of Ruth, chapter 1:16-17):
But Ruth replied, do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people and your God my God. / Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus and more may the Eternal One do to me if anything but death parts me from you.
Ruth: You have a strong vision of what you want to do with your life and you share with your biblical namesake the determination to go where your heart leads you. Take a cue from the parashah, from the call of Leich l’cha: L’chi lach – go for yourself – and may the achievement of this day inspire you, as you embark on a new beginning. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah
Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue – Adat Shalom Verei’ut
Shabbat Leich L’cha
27th October 2012 – 11th Cheshvan 5773