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21 Nisan 5761
When I first started thinking about what I would present for my Devar Torah, I had in mind something very analytical and scholarly and what I associate with Jewish tradition: selecting a line or two from the parasha, examining it from every angle, explaining what all the great sages had to say on it, and then maybe offering my own perspective. I met with Rabbi Tilsen to get started on this, but he asked me a question that set me off on a completely different path: He asked me what I had to say on my Bat Torah. I explained that what was in my heart did not really fit into what I thought of as a classical Devar Torah, but he convinced me that it did and he encouraged me to share it with you.
And so I would like to share with you a story. It’s the story of my journey here today….so it has a very happy ending!
Five summers ago. I attended Elat Chayyim, a Jewish Renewal retreat up in the Catskills. This was the first major Jewish event I had ever voluntarily attended in my life and I had a lot of apprehensions because I always felt like a failure at these kinds of events. Everyone around me always seemed so self-assuredly Jewish, so at peace with themselves, which only enhanced my own sense of alienation and turmoil as a Jew. I was always waiting for the right time to run away.
And so here I was again, taking another chance, hoping that this time I would not run. I realized as soon as I got to the retreat that I had made a huge mistake. I felt like an outsider…and all this beauty and joy was sprouting up all around me, and rather than it feeling inviting to me, it felt like a painful reminder of what I could never have. I couldn’t wait to leave. I ended up leaving right before Shabbat, in fact, which was supposed to be the highlight of the entire week. But just before I left, someone told me about a rabbi who did spiritual therapy sessions. I had no idea what that even meant but I was intrigued and maybe even hoped for a quick fix. And so I sought her out and, as luck would have it, she was free to see me.
She asked me many questions…questions about my relationship to God and Judaism. She truly had a gift because the words began pouring out of me. I told her that Judaism was something that haunted me…the melodies haunted me, the faces of the elders haunted me, even the movements during prayer haunted me…that I felt that it was a part of me but that I was not a part of it. I felt like an invisible Jew. I spoke for some time and when I was finished, she said, “You know, during the Exodus, there were many Jews who got separated and lost in the desert and never found their way out. While you were talking I pictured those Jews. Maybe you’re one of the Jews who never made it out of the desert.” Although she was speaking metaphorically, I’m sure, I could visualize this so strongly, and I began to cry because someone had finally found the words that captured my sorrow. I could actually see myself wandering and wandering through the sand, knowing I had lost my brothers and sisters, knowing I would never find my way back to them.
Then she said to me: “I want you to picture yourself finding your way out of the desert. Just imagine that after all those years you find your way back. Close your eyes and tell me where you are and what you see.” So I close my eyes and I can see very clearly. I am outside of a very little shul. And I know to stay outside. The rabbi, who is leading me through this meditative journey, says to me, “Look inside. What do you see?” I look through the windows, the panes are dusty, but I can see a group of maybe five or six old men. They have long beards and long black coats and they are all huddled over a big book. “Can they see you?” she asks me. “Do they know you’re there?” Yes, they know I’m there. But they won’t look at me and they don’t let me in. “Listen to them then. Can you hear what they’re saying?” I listen and I hear them. They’re asking God, “What do you want us to do with her? She doesn’t know the language! She doesn’t know the code! What are we supposed to do with her?” “What does God say?” she asks. I listen. God doesn’t say anything. He won’t tell them to let me in. He doesn’t interfere. He’s just smiling. “Why is he smiling?” she asks. I think that God finds it amusing in some way…his children amuse him. And I think He’s smiling because he knows it’s not time, for them or for me, and that I have to wander a bit more.
When I planned this date for my Bat Torah, I had no idea what the Torah portion would be. Maybe it was destiny that on this day I would sing the Song of the Sea because the sea is such a fitting metaphor for what has separated my Jewish soul from my Jewish home all these years.
I think the waters parted for me a few years ago. I had been living in Connecticut for a few years now and had toyed for a long time with the idea of seeking out a synagogue. I got on the mailing lists of all kinds of synagogues in the area. Each month I read the brochures and made a promise to myself to visit a synagogue. But each week I found excuses. Then I read about BEKI. It had been written up in the Advocate. I remember reading the article several times and feeling intrigued but it was several months before I took the plunge. When I finally got here something happened that made me want to stay. The rabbi remembered my face and my name, after meeting me just once before, and only briefly. He even acknowledged Bruce and me at the end of services and encouraged the congregation to welcome us. I felt embraced, and I didn’t feel invisible anymore.
One day I was speaking with my brother-in-law on the phone. I was talking about BEKI (which by this time I had joined) and the feeling that I have here. And I confided in him that one day I’d like to get up on the bima and read from the Torah. And as I said these words I began to tremble. The very thought was overpowering to me. To even think of myself as playing such an honored role among Jews seemed so bold. Who was I to get up on the bima and read from the Torah? And yet, once these words had been uttered, I knew in my heart that my journey had begun and that I would never run away again. God had created a passage for me to cross.
I made an appointment with the rabbi and I told him of my decision. And he was so happy for me and so encouraging and he gave me strength and confidence and inspiration to go forward. And I approached Darryl and asked her to teach me and she has worked with me patiently for almost a year now, and praised each of my little successes. And Bruce stood by my side all along…cheering me on, sharing my excitement, honoring the path my life was taking.
Last summer I went up to the bima for the first time. I heard myself singing to God sacred words that had been sung so many times before me. I loved this person who was singing, and I wondered, “Why did I have to wait so long when this is where my happiness is and this is where my truth is.” I decided that now I would prepare for a Bat Mitzva. I met again with the Rabbi and we talked about this. He suggested that I call it a “Bat Torah” — which means “woman of Torah,” or one who has committed herself to Torah and its people. That seemed so fitting — a celebration of my long journey home…my journey back to the people of the Torah. Today I am a Bat Torah. It’s taken me so long to get here and this is my celebration…my welcome home party to myself.