Just three hours after the massacre at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, I was called to chant Torah in Phoenix as I became a bat mitzvah at the age of 55. As part of my service, I explained the relevance of my Torah portion. In light of recent events, including the massacre of Jews as they prayed, my Torah portion has special significance. Here is what I said:
As I become a bat mitzvah today, you may be surprised to learn that I sat in services on Rosh Hashanah this year, as in most other years, wondering why I am Jewish. Now, before you wonder why you traveled across the country or across town, let me explain.
On Rosh Hashanah, the Torah reading is Genesis, Bereshit 22, the story of the binding of Isaac. In this story, God asks Abraham to offer his son Isaac on Mount Moriah. Abraham, in a show of loyalty and faith, does as he is told and takes Isaac, along with the ropes and other things to sacrifice his son. Just as he readies to engage in the sacrifice, God intervenes and a ram, caught in a thicket, is substituted for his son.
I dislike that story. Every time I hear it, I question how I could believe in a God that expected such a show of loyalty. I also question the relevance of the Torah. However, I come back each year and struggle with the story, in part because I am comforted by the fact that our rabbi struggles with this story, too.
In our High Holiday prayer books, this passage is explained as a story of inner conflict and struggle, but it also suggests a couple of other passages to be read instead. One of the alternative stories is the one I will chant today. Its Genesis Bereshit 18, the story of when Abraham challenges God, as Judge of the whole earth, to do justice. Specifically, when Abraham learns that God will destroy Sodom and Gomorrah because they are places where evil has taken over and really horrible things go on. Abraham challenges God to think about people as individuals and not label the whole group as evil. So, Abraham negotiates with God.
In this passage, Abraham asks God if there are 50 innocent within the city, will you spare the city so that the innocent are not killed and treated like the guilty? God agrees. Then, as any good negotiator would do, having achieved part of his goal, he pushes on — what if there are only 45? And what if there are only 40? He slowly gets God’s agreement to look for the innocent before making his decision. Ultimately, the cities are destroyed, but Lot, Abraham’s relative and some of his family are saved.
Beyond the fact that I can relate to this passage after 25 years as a lawyer, negotiating with judges (lesser-known judges, but judges nonetheless), this story is relevant, perhaps really important today. Our country and the world have grown increasingly tribal. There is an increasing trend toward viewing people as a tribe or group and all those outside ones’ group should be given negative labels such as evil or bad, and some fear and hate those groups.
It seems that with increasing frequency, or at least news coverage reveals, that
some people forget that we are part of a larger humanity. Some forget that each group is made up of individuals, each of whom should be judged and evaluated on their own merits.
Quite frankly, until a few years ago, I was guilty of doing the same thing. I viewed all Palestinians as a group. I feared Palestinians and made negative assumptions about them. I did this even though I had never met a Palestinian person. I also assumed that all the Palestinians hated me because I am Jewish. Then I met a teenage girl, Sawsan, an exchange student from the West Bank. She is Muslim and spent a school year here.
Sawsan looks like my daughter. She certainly could be my niece or relative. When I met her, I was surprised that she was nice, friendly and seemed like a typical teenager. At first, I was afraid to tell her that I was Jewish. I also worried that she would be angry that as part of her experience, I would be taking her to a synagogue to see a bar mitzvah and talk to a rabbi.
When I told her and the other students about the bar mitzvah, the rabbi and the fact that I am Jewish, I waited for a negative response. Instead, she said that she does not hate Jews, and added, “Some of my neighbors and friends are Jewish.” She does not like the Israeli government, but she holds no animosity toward Jews.
Over the course of her year here, I learned more about her life in the West Bank, including hanging out at coffee bars with friends, but also the lack of freedom and economic opportunities for her and other Palestinians. She opened my eyes and reminded me to judge everyone as an individual.
In these times, I think my Torah reading is more relevant than ever before. I think that we need to remind ourselves to learn, understand and judge individuals on their own merits and to strengthen skills such as empathy, understanding and openness to others’ differences.
We need to remind ourselves that differences are usually not good or bad, just different. We need to remind ourselves to really get to know people before making judgments about them.
So, I am glad that I decided to become a bat mitzvah. Had I not, it is unlikely that I would have studied and learned this Torah portion, I would not have noticed the commentary at the back of our High Holiday prayer books that discussed in this portion, and I would have continued to ask myself why am I Jewish every time I sit in services on Rosh Hashanah.
It is likely that I will continue to struggle with some, perhaps a great deal of the Torah, but I also learned that in the Jewish faith, that is fine. My rabbi explained at the High Holiday services that the translation of Israel or Yisrael means “to struggle with God.” In my research, I learned that the Torah is saying that to struggle with God is common. Most people require inquiry and study as adults to come to terms with their personal encounter.
Jews are not asked to accept faith blindly or completely. Jews are encouraged to engage in study and reflection about God. It is possible to be a good Jew and have questions about God. In Judaism, actions are more important than faith. So, while I will continue my struggles and continue to question my own faith and beliefs, I am confident my Torah portion has important lessons for us all today because it reminds us to discard urges to label groups and to judge each person on their actions and character.
I am excited to chant the Torah portion, along with all of the other prayers we will sing. In doing so, I join my daughter, my nieces and so many Jewish boys, girls, men and women who have been called to the Torah as a bat or bar mitzvah. This has been a new beginning for me as I continue to struggle, agree or perhaps disagree with portions of the Torah, and finding relevance in places like my portion, along with Jewish values such as tikkun olam. JN
Jill Goldsmith became a bat mitzvah at Congregation Merkaz Ha-Iyr in Phoenix on Oct. 27. Goldsmith is the owner of JSG Executive & Leadership Coaching and Goldsmith College Consulting. She was also a managing partner in the Phoenix offices of the law firm of Bowman and Brooke.