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Coming of Age

December 18, 2014

Shalom,

Given the fact that I am the youngest child in our family and among the youngest cousins, it has been well over a decade since anyone in my family has had a bat mitzvah. Although it feels like so long ago that they took place, some of my fondest childhood memories are of my sisters’ and cousins’ bat mitzvahs. I still vividly remember the way all of my cousins would sit together in excitement at a beautifully set table and laugh for hours. I’ll never forget the pride I felt while watching my loved ones read from the Torah for the first time. And the feeling of being part of something bigger – something deeply holy and sacred – which was instilled in my young soul at these family occasions, is a feeling that has remained with me to this very day, and has very much formed me into the person I am.

A bat mitzvah (or bar mitzvah for a boy) is a special ceremony to celebrate the biblical “coming of age,” when children are traditionally recognized as adults and assume all of the biblical responsibilities that this entails. The day a girl turns 12 and a boy turns 13, they are obligated to follow the same biblical laws and commandments as adults. In Genesis 21:8 it says that “the child [Isaac] grew and was weaned, and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned.” Bible commentators clarify that the celebration Abraham made for Isaac was on the day that Isaac turned 13. On this day, Isaac was “weaned” from being recognized as a young child, and thereafter was recognized as an adult. In other words, in Genesis 21:8 we learn about Isaac’s bar mitzvah.

And just as Isaac’s family threw a feast and welcomed him into adulthood over 2,000 years ago, in keeping with that tradition, this past weekend my family was blessed to celebrate the bat mitzvah of my oldest niece, Eliana. Shabbat (the Sabbath) is a weekly holiday that celebrates and honors family and faith, so it was completely fitting to celebrate Eliana’s bat mitzvah with a family Shabbat weekend.

It’s amazing how Shabbat can truly bring peace and warmth to some of the most difficult times. This bat mitzvah weekend, when all of the women in my family gathered together from across the world to light the Shabbat candles in Chicago, all of our differences and disagreements instantly melted away. It is the women’s responsibility to welcome Shabbat into the home by lighting the candles, and as my family and I watched my oldest niece light the Shabbat candles and say the ancient prayer for the first time in her life, the pieces of our souls that are completely pure and closest to God were alive. The entire house was filled not only with the lights of the candles, but by an illuminating spiritual light as well. The moment that this precious young Jewish child was entering the ancient and eternal covenant as an adult for the very first time, the whole world felt embodied with peace and holiness.

Following the candle lighting ceremony, over 25 of our family members sat down together for a special Shabbat dinner.

Just as we do each week at sundown on Friday, we began our meal with prayers. My husband made the traditional blessing over grape juice, the men sang Proverbs 31:10 to their wives, together we sang songs welcoming God into our home, and then my father put his hands on our heads, placed his forehead against ours, and with his eyes closed he blessed all three of his daughters with the biblical priestly blessing that he has been blessing us with every single Shabbat since the day we were born.

Only after we blessed each other and God, did we sit down to enjoy the meal.

In honor of Eliana’s bat mitzvah, my mother set the tables beautifully. There were table liners, flowers, and balloons creating a festive atmosphere, and we cooked all of Eliana’s favorite foods. But the most special part of the evening was the words exchanged, and the faithful acts exhibited.

With dozens of family members sitting at the table, we went around and with deep emotion spoke about how much we love Eliana. Four generations of family members each spoke with joy and tears about how special she is, how proud we are of her, and what we wish for her future. The messages were all deeply ingrained with love, hope, faith, and family.

After wiping away tears of happiness and emotion, Eliana gave her bat mitzvah bible teaching. She spoke about Joseph and how, despite his hardships, he had the ability to never lose faith or joy, and how that is the quality she wishes to emulate.

Throughout this profound weekend, I couldn’t help but thank God for the beautiful tradition of the bat mitzvah. How often do four generations of family members gather together to praise and strengthen a child? How often do we put the responsibility of faith and worship on a pre-teen, in the context of love, happiness, and positivity?

Every detail of our faith and worship must be recognized, appreciated, and lifted up to God. Because I believe that if we don’t live for and appreciate the happy times He sends our way, we don’t have much to live for at all.

With blessings from the Holy Land,

Yael

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