To Noa, as she becomes Bat Mitzavah

Noa, last night I taught a little bit about how this week’s Torah portion begins with a census – a counting of the people. And actually, it’s not the entire people of Israel who are being counted in this particular case, but rather, it is one particular family – the Gershonites – who are being counted because they are being given a special job to do.

The Israelites were organized by family. Each of the 12 tribes was a very big family, descended from one of the sons of Jacob and Joseph. Those tribes are further divided into smaller family groups. The Gershonites, for example, are those who are descended from Moses’ son Gershon. 

For the Israelites, a lot of important things were dictated by what family they came from. Where you lived and what kinds of jobs you could or couldn’t do were all determined by what family you were a part of. Also, back then, people didn’t move away from home when they grew up. The Israelites spent their whole lives living and working alongside the other members of their family.

This might be one of the reasons why the Torah makes such a big deal out of how we treat our families.  There are laws about how children should treat their parents, and there are also laws about how parents should treat their children and what kinds of things parents are obligated to teach their children.

There is a folk-saying in the Talmud about how “what a child says out in the street comes either from his father or from his mother.” Basically, this is talking about how the behavior of a child directly reflects – positively or negatively – on their parents. Luckily for your parents, Noa, you do a pretty great job of making them look good. In the past few years, as I’ve gotten to know you, I’ve been really impressed with how polite you are – especially to adults, – how grounded and level-headed you are, how committed you are to be a regular part of this community, including pitching in whenever asked, and how responsible you are. Lots of times when students are supposed to send me something, I get it in an email from their parents. But when you have an assignment to submit or a question to ask,  you always email me directly, and I think that shows a lot of maturity on your part. In our classroom, you are often a leader – rallying the other students to follow directions, think through a problem, or complete a task. What is interesting to me though, is that even though you often take a leadership role, and are very confident in doing so, there are other times when you seem less confident in yourself.

A famous rabbi once taught that the Jewish rule against gossiping – speaking badly about someone – also includes speaking badly about yourself. According to this rabbi, you’re not even supposed to think bad thoughts about yourself! That’s a pretty impossible rule for most people to follow, but his point was that while it’s important to work hard at being a good person, it is also important not to be too hard on ourselves. Even if you’ve made a mistake or you didn’t do something as well as you could have; even if you’re feeling that emotional pollution that we talked about after doing something you know is wrong; even if you’ve hurt someone else – these things don’t make you bad. Even though we are supposed to work at doing better next time, we are not supposed to feel badly about ourselves because of these human errors. Because we all make mistakes, right?

Noa, Judaism teaches that confidence comes from within, particularly from knowing that we are created b’tzellem elohim, in the image of God. Last year, when our class studied the Holiness Code, we learned that we are each holy because God created us and God is holy. By the same reasoning, we are good because God is good. This idea might best be summed up by a bumper-sticker I once saw that said, “I know I must be special because God don’t make no junk!”

Noa, even if we don’t choose to act on our goodness, it’s still there. It has nothing to do with how we look, how smart we are, or what kinds of talents and skills we have. We are supposed to remember that no matter what, we are created by God and loved by God, and knowing that is supposed to give us confidence and remind us to treat ourselves with love and respect, just as we should treat God and all of God’s other creations with love and respect.

I recently read a great story about a woman who plays a game with her little girl to help teach her about confidence. The mom asks: Who made you so smart? And the kid answers: God! Who made you so beautiful? the mom asks.  God! The kid answers. Who made you so funny and cute? God! And the last question: Who makes you so good? To which the child answers: Me!

God created us the way we are, Noa, and gives us our unique abilities, but God doesn’t make our choices for us. God gave us free will, which means that when we do make a good decision, God doesn’t get the credit, we do. When we make good decisions, we should feel proud of them and it should contribute to our sense of self-confidence. But how do we have the confidence to make the right choices in the first place? Some of that confidence also hopefully comes from within, from knowing that we are created in God’s image, but sometimes, that confidence also comes from knowing that we are loved unconditionally, not just by God, but by our family.

My first memory of your family Noa, is from the first time I ever lead a service here at TBD. I remember looking out into the congregation and noticing you because you were leaning your head on your mother’s shoulder. I noticed it, particularly, because whenever I’m able to be in services with my mom, dad or brother – even now, in my 30’s – I still find myself leaning my head on my parent’s shoulder or squeezing my brother’s hand to the rhythm of the songs the way we used to do when we were little.  Seeing the confidence that you had to be affectionate with your family in public – something that a lot of people your age find embarrassing – made me feel at home, and it reassured me that TBD was a warm and caring community full of people who love each other.

Every time I see you – with your parents, your sister, your Grampa and Claire, your cousins – you are always hugging one another. It is so special – I hope you realize that Noa.  Knowing that we are loved by our families, is part of what helps us to be confident in the world and to be less concerned with what other people think of us.  There is a Jewish teaching that says, “Don’t be intimidated by the scoffers”, by those who might make fun of you. Following this teaching is much easier if we have the confidence to know that what we are doing is right, and that even if we are wrong, we will continue to be loved and supported by our families. I think that a large part of the confidence you display at temple Noa, comes from feeling safe here, where you are surrounded by your family. You are the third generation of your family to belong here. Your mom and her sisters grew up here as well, and your Grampa is the member of our community who has belonged here for the longest amount of time and still lives to tell the tale! 

It’s great that you are able to feel confident here Noa, and I hope that you are able to take that confidence into all the other areas of your life – especially as an adult member of the Jewish community. Being a leader in the Jewish community – in your own temple but also in other Jewish communities, like Jewish high school, youth group and college programs – requires confidence. It is directly related to being able to successfully lead others. The Torah teaches us that Moses was a great leader, even though he was very humble, meaning he didn’t brag about himself. But not bragging about himself doesn’t mean that Moses didn’t have confidence – He actually had a lot of guts. He risks his life for those in need, he makes hard decisions for himself and the people of Israel, he stands up for himself when his authority is challenged, and he even has the chutzpah to ask God if he can be allowed to see what God looks like!

Noa, like Moses, you are most confident when you are leading your community and standing up for what you believe in – as you demonstrated this morning in your beautiful and well-thought-out D’var Torah. I know that your family is incredibly proud of you and so am I. And just like Moses, you are not someone who brags about themselves, although I look forward to hearing your speak more and more confidently about yourself as you continue to take your place among the leaders of the Jewish people and as a leader at school and in your other communities as well.

Wherever life takes you, I hope you will always feel secure in the knowledge that the love of your family goes with you, even if they are not right there next to you, and that no matter what you do, you are created by God and loved by God.

I am excited to see what you will accomplish in life Noa, I know you will continue to make us all proud but more importantly, my prayer for you on this day of your Bat Mitzvah, is that it won’t matter whether or not I am proud of you, or your family is proud of you, because you will be feeling proud of yourself.

Kein Yehi Ratzon. (Be it God’s Will)

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