Last Memorial Day Weekend, my twin girls, Stav and Noam, became b’not mitzvah. After the service, I addressed them from the bimah. Many in attendance were deeply moved by what I said, some to tears. I didn’t intend this; I simply spoke from the heart about what I feel are the biggest challenges facing teens, especially young women, today. Here is the central message from my charge.
And now, Stav and Noam, some fatherly advice: You probably feel relieved – not just that the ceremony is behind you, but that the annoying questions will stop.
“Are you excited for your bat mitzvah?”
“When’s your bat mitzvah?”
“Are you ready for your bat mitzvah?”
Finally, no more questions! But the truth is, the questions are just beginning. Soon, it will be, “Where are you going to high school?” Then, “Did you take the SATs?” Then, “Where are you going to college?” and “What are you majoring in?” “What’re you doing after you graduate?” “Do you rent or own?”
Sometimes the people asking these questions aren’t people at all, but magazine covers. Television shows. Websites. Asking about your calves, and your abs, and what kind of haircut you have and the shoes you wear.
You will hear these questions so often that if you’re not careful, you might think the answers to these questions matter. Or worse – that the answers to these questions are who you are.
But I want to tell you right now: this is not who you are. Do you hear me?
You are not those things! You are not your SAT scores. You are not your abs, or your haircut, or your shoes. You are not your house or your car or your salary or even your job. You are not those things!
So, then…who are you? I know who you are. You know who you are. You, Stav and Noam, are the girls who take forever to walk through Jerusalem – or any other city, for that matter – because you insist on giving money to every single homeless person asking for help.
I know who you are. You are the girls who got up on stage with a classmate so he wouldn’t have to sing alone in the talent show. You’re the girls who took in a stray cat in Israel, and fed him, and named him, even when everyone else, myself included, told you it was ridiculous, because Israel is full of strays…but you did it anyway, because you knew that if you didn’t no one else would. And you are the girls who helped young children – five, six, seven years old – pick out gifts at the Christmas store when we volunteered at Part of the Solution, the soup kitchen in the Bronx. They were poor, and they looked afraid, but you took their hands and led them through the store, and when you did that I have no doubt they felt special and loved.
That is who you are. And best of all, Stav and Noam, is that you can be those people no matter what. You can quit your jobs, you can drop out of college or decide not to go to college, you can have whatever haircut you want and wear whatever shoes you want to wear, and you will still be the people who help those needing help and take care of the ones who need taking care of.
One final thought: At a bat mitzvah we talk a lot about responsibility. But how does it happen? Is it overnight? Am I supposed to believe that my daughters will go through this bat mitzvah ceremony and magically become responsible?
And then it hit me: this responsibility of which we speak only partly depends on you. The rest depends on us. Me. Mom. Your teachers. This is a coming of age ceremony for us, too. Because in order for you to become responsible, we must hold you to a higher standard. In the Talmud it says that a father is obligated to teach his child to swim. I think the Talmud means it literally, but also metaphorically, in the ocean of life. And we can’t truly teach you to swim unless we demand more responsibility from you.
So now that you are b’not mitzvah, the time has come to take off the floaties. Toss aside the noodles. And move from the shallow end of the pool to the deep. Mom and I will be with you, next to the water, always.
But now begins the time when you learn to swim.