Message To A Bat Mitzvah
Shabbat B’chukotai, June 1, 2019
Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman
We are facing a fearful world.
Not really encouraging words to say to a child about to embark on her path as a young adult.
But that’s the thing about growing up. The first step is recognizing who the Tooth Fairy really is, and then, step by step, the understanding that, for the most part, life is what we make of it, not what we wish it to be.
And, after all, would it be better if we sent a teen off to face the rest of his or her life with the lyrics from the Disney movie Pinocchio, “When you wish upon a star/Makes no difference who you are/Anything your heart desires/Will come to you?” Really now? “Makes no difference who you are?” I think we all realize by now that we live in a world and a time when the differences between us are more marked than almost ever; when your gender, your race, and your religion will almost definitely make a difference in which doors and opportunities will open up for you.
Now, don’t get me wrong. “When You Wish Upon A Star” is indeed a beautiful song. It speaks to the inner child in each of us, which accounts for its enormous popularity. It was recorded by countless artists, from Glenn Miller and Louis Armstrong to Barbara Streisand and Idina Menzel. Even the Beach Boys admitted to being influenced by it, stating that it was the inspiration for their mega-hit, “Surfer Girl.”
We all love wishful thinking. And truthfully, without dreams and hopes, we would have nothing to look forward to, nothing to strive toward. Even the Hebrew word for “prayer,” tefillah, is tied into this very human sense, our need to imagine, to wonder, to strive toward something, no matter how far away it seems.
But prayer is only a starting point. We love to send thoughts and prayers, but aside from the warm and fuzzy feeling that such wishes evoke, they don’t really accomplish much.
Prayers do not stop violence; prayers do not end hunger or stop a disease in its tracks. Prayer may set us off on the right track, but it will be the work of our hands that will take us the rest of the way.
And so yes, we are facing a fearful world. The challenges facing young adults today are enough to keep all of us awake at night. I won’t list them here. We come to synagogue to find shelter from our fears, not to be troubled by them!
In some Native American cultures, coming-of-age rituals include sending a young man off on a vision quest, hopefully to find a purpose or a mission in life. For most Americans, however, transitioning from child to adult is a longer process, one that takes several years to complete. In the Jewish tradition, the process is simpler. It does require, however, years of immersion in prayer and study, learning to chant some verses from the Torah—in Hebrew yet!—and then leading the congregation during a worship service. And at the end of this process—voila!—you’re an adult!
At least for one day. The next day you’re back in middle school again.
So what advice to give a young adult about to start off on the road to maturity?
First, I would say: Yes, go ahead and dream. Dream, wish, imagine! Visualize a future where justice, equality and freedom are the lot of every human being. Strive toward a world without hunger, war, or need. Pray for strength to overcome the challenges and obstacles.
Secondly, learn from all your teachers and role models—including your parents, no matter how silly they may seem to you now. Mark Twain once famously said, “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in 7 years.” Experience is the knowledge of what works and what doesn’t, and that is probably the greater part of all wisdom. Of course, along the way you will find some who will tell you that something is impossible. They may be right, but don’t let them discourage you from trying anyway. You may, after all, succeed where others have failed. Use common sense, by all means, but at the same time don’t stop trying to find a way that will lead you from where you are to where you want to get.
Work hard. Success is never easy. In the Torah, the book that most encapsulates Jewish wisdom, one of the first lessons that Adam has to learn is that the earth doesn’t easily yield its produce. “By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread,” God tells Adam—and, by extension, all of us, too. There is no easy route to the top. You have to keep at it, and if you once fail, try and try again.
And just as importantly—don’t rely only on yourself. The human being is a social animal. We survive as members of a group. We help one another, watch out for one another; we are there for one another.
Becoming an adult in the Jewish community means that you have a built-in support group. Friends will come and go. As you grow and move from middle school to high school, then to college, and from there on to the next stages of life, you will make new friends. Some you will leave behind; others will remain with you for as long as you live. Your family, too, will always be there for you. But beyond that, you will always also find yourself welcome in any Jewish home, in any Jewish community around the world. Dispersed as we may be, we are one people, one nation. Our collective wisdom and experience provide lessons at every stage of a person’s life. Not to mention food.
When you go off to college, no matter how far away from home you may find yourself, Hillel, the international Jewish student organization, will always be there to give you a taste of home—literally and figuratively—and the sense of comfort and familiarity that come from having common roots, common traditions, and a common history.
Israel, the homeland of the Jewish nation, is there once again, to be there for you at times of hardship and need. Rebuilt after two thousand years of lying in abject poverty and degradation, the restored State of Israel will welcome you with open arms should you need refuge, shelter or inspiration. That is its purpose, after all.
Most importantly, however, never lose sight of the values and ideals you learned at home, in your synagogue and at religious school. These, after all, have been providing the Jewish people with goals and direction for more than 3,600 years now. Our vision and perception of God may have changed through the ages. But not so our understanding of what God wants of us: To walk humbly, to pursue justice, to make peace where we see strife, to heal the sick, to feed the hungry, to teach the ignorant. And above all, to be loving and accepting of others, no matter how different from us they may seem at first.
With these lessons at your side, you will never lose sight of the road ahead. Your feet will easily find the path before you; your hands will always find the strength to accomplish your goals, and your heart will continue reaching for the highest goals and aspirations.
In every legend and fairy tale, there is a seed of truth. Perhaps that’s true of “When You Wish Upon A Star,” too. Don’t be afraid to reach for what may seem at first too far away to be attainable. Don’t let others discourage you from trying. Be as strong as you can be—physically, emotionally and spiritually—and you just might make it to that star. Or at least half way there. And don’t worry, even if you don’t reach it, there will be others who will follow you, who will take your hopes and dreams and make them grow. Who knows, perhaps one day we will yet get there. And it will all be thanks to your first steps upon that path.
Chazak, chazak v’nitchazek—be strong, be of good courage, and we will all be strengthened with you.
© 2019 by Boaz D. Heilman