I am sure we all know what we’re doing here today: we’re celebrating Shabbat and celebrating Ella’s Bat Mitzvah, the moment when she becomes responsible for her own Jewish life. But there is something else going on today that may not be so obvious, which is related to Ella’s coming-of-age.

For the Jewish people, history is understood in terms of generations, dorot, and life is a succession of generations, involving the transmission of the Jewish heritage from one generation to the next. A key passage in the central prayer, the Amidah that we recited a few minutes ago, begins, L’dor va-dor – which means, literally, ‘for a generation and a generation’. Today, Ella will mark the completion of her debut as a young Jewish adult, when she receives the Torah scroll through the generations of her family. She will have led the congregation in prayer, she will have read the Torah on behalf of the congregation – both signs of her new status – but it will only be when she holds the Sefer Torah in her arms that Ella will demonstrate what it really means to become Bat mitzvah.

This week’s parashah, the Torah portion, Chayyey Sarah, which begins at Genesis chapter 23, verse one and ends at chapter 25, verse 18, includes some key events in the life of our ancestors: the first Jewish matriarch, Sarah, dies, her son, Isaac, marries his cousin, Rebekah, the first Jewish patriarch, Abraham, marries again, and then he, too, dies, and his sons, Ishmael and Isaac come together to bury him. And so, the portion relates the passing on of one generation and the emergence of the next: Next week, in the parashah, Tol’dot, Rebekah and Isaac – in that order – will take centre stage, as their twin sons, Jacob and Esau, who struggle together even in the womb, and then tussle over who will be the one to inherit the birth-right and blessing due to the firstborn son, and so become pre-eminent in the next generation.

And so it goes on – l’dor va-dor – ‘for a generation and a generation’; from one generation to the next. This is all very obvious – as the Latin expression puts it: tempus fugit – ‘time flees’. But time doesn’t just pass, so rapidly, moment after moment: the world changes. Even in one generation this can happen. The Torah relates in parashat Leich L’cha, which begins at Genesis chapter 12, that when Abraham left Haran, left his land, his birthplace, his father’s house, ‘he took Sarah’ with him (12: 5). The initiative was Abraham’s. But later, despite the fact that Abraham sends his servant back to Haran, to the house of Sarah’s brother, Laban, to acquire Laban’s daughter Rebekah as a wife for Isaac, and despite the fact that the servant negotiates with Laban, Rebekah makes her own decision about whether she will go or not. This is a crucial detail which we should not overlook. We read at Genesis chapter 24, verse 58:

They called Rebekah and said to her, ‘Will you go with this man?’ and she said, ‘I will go’ – Eileich.

Asked what she wants to do, Rebekah she gives her answer. And her answer has immense consequences. Rebekah could have chosen to stay at home; like Abraham before she chooses to go and take a new direction in her life. You could say that the movement for women’s liberation began at that moment. Of course, it was only a first step. Nevertheless, Rebekah’s bold decision to go teaches us that change is always possible and as the generations succeed one another, change is a continuing possibility, a constant challenge.

Just think about what we have witnessed during the past week. The Republican candidate for the presidential election in the United States, Mitt Romney, presented himself as the man who would bring change. At first sight, the re-election of Barack Obama as President suggests that things will continue as usual – as the ecstatic Democrats have put it: ‘Four more years!’ But what does ‘Four more years!’ actually mean? Who voted for Barack Obama? Minorities: African Americans, Hispanics, Lesbians and Gay men, and 70% of the Jews who cast their ballot – as well as the majority of the nation’s young voters.[1]

Why did they vote for Obama? Not simply because of the record of his four years in office, because of the health insurance reforms and his attempts – stymied by opposition – to deliver on promises he made during the 2008 election campaign. The people who voted for Obama, voted for what he proclaims in his very person: A man who embodies marginality and complexity; an individual who crosses boundaries and cannot be comfortably slotted into one place anywhere – and yet, gracefully, has managed to belong everywhere. They voted for the change in American society that Barack Obama represents and champions as the son of a white Christian American mother and a Muslim African father, who spent his formative years in Indonesia and in that Pacific island outpost of the United States, Hawaii. They voted for ‘hope’ and an inclusive America that embraces and celebrates diversity – an America for all. Mitt Romney, at heart a moderate Republican, graciously conceded defeat. In his victory speech, Barack Obama reached out to all Americans to work together to address the nation’s problems. Let us hope that the transformation of American society as a nation in which all its citizens thrive and flourish will continue.

Hope – tikvah – we Jews know a lot about hope. The prophet, Zechariah, described the Jewish people as ‘the captives of hope’ – asirey ha-tikvah (9:12). Arguably, we would not still be here today if we had not, generation after generation, nourished ourselves on hope, even when food and water and shelter were in short supply. Today is the anniversary of Kristallnacht, ‘the Night of Broken Glass’ – the beginning of the Nazis violent persecution of the Jews, which started during the night of November 9th 1938.[2] The name reminds us of the tons of glass windows broken – but the terror gangs did not simply break glass, they set fire to synagogues, shops, houses and books; they assaulted and killed their prey – and, as they went on the rampage, the authorities rounded up Jewish men and took them away to concentration camps.

It is tikvah, hope that has enabled Jews to survive the horrors of the Sho’ah and to rebuild Jewish life, even while mourning the loss of one third of our people – because to be hopeful is to look forwards, to have the vision to see beyond persecution and suffering and work for justice. And more than this, being hopeful involves acting boldly, emboldened by the hope that we can change the circumstances of our lives and of the world around us. Acting boldly: like Rebekah – and like Anat Hoffman: the Director of the Israel Religious Action Center, who was recently arrested, together with other members of a group called Women of the Wall, at the Kotel, the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the remnant of the former Temple, destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. Arrested because having just begun to recite the Sh’ma, they were singing the prayers and wearing tallitot – prayer shawls.[3] While there is a section for women at the wall – about 25% of the total area – the orthodox who dictate how Judaism may be practised in public in Israel, and see themselves as guardians of the halachah, Jewish law, prohibit women from praying aloud and wearing the tallit, the garment that, traditionally, is worn by Jewish males, not females.

Today Ella is wearing a tallit. On the one hand, today is a moment of continuity – l’dor va-dor – when Ella receives the Torah and takes responsibility for her Jewish heritage. On the other hand, today, like Rebekah, Ella is treading a new path. Until all Jewish women have equal access to Jewish study and practise and can mark becoming Bat Mitzvah by wearing a tallit and leading the congregation in prayer and reading from the Torah, a Bat Mitzvah will not simply be the mirror image of a Bar Mitzvah. Until Judaism has been transformed into an inclusive, egalitarian inheritance, until we have achieved that goal, a day like today will be a celebration of hope and an act of liberation.

Ella: when you reflected on the questions I asked you about this special moment in your life, you mentioned the word ‘change’ or ‘changed’ three times. You said – and I quote: ‘Becoming Bat Mitzvah to me, means that I have grown up, and changed into a more mature and knowledgeable person. It’s a way of showing that change is often good, and can lead to new responsibilities and journeys as I get older.’ You also said – again in your own words: ‘My favourite school subjects are Art and History, because I love painting and drawing and I find it really interesting learning about what it was like hundreds of years ago and how things have changed.’

Ella: you have, indeed, changed over the past year – as you put it: ‘I think I have definitely become more confident with my Hebrew and I think I’ve become more engaged in trying new things.’ And the history you have learnt has not just taught you that society has changed. You want to play your part in creating change in the future – and I quote: ‘To make the world a better place to live in I would like to make sure everyone has enough of what they need, Even though I’m only one person, I would still aim to do everything I can and if everybody did the same the world would be a better place.’ You also see the future in very real, down-to-earth  terms – as you put it: ‘In the future I think I would quite like to be a Vet because I really enjoy working with animals because no matter how annoying you are, animals can never judge you so I would love to work with them and care for them.’

Ella: I think you’ve found the secret of how to be a successful change-maker: knowing what needs to be changed and appreciating those things that give security and continuity to your life. Your core values are about relationships – primarily, with the people and the animals you love. Again, in your own words: ‘I enjoy being with my friends and family and training my dogs with Dawn because I can always be myself when I’m with them. I care about my friends and family the most because they will always be there for me when I’m upset or need a hug.’ And so, for you Ella, ’being Jewish means’ – and I quote: ‘that I’m part of a family, and that I’m surrounded by people like me whom I can talk to.’ At the same time, reaching out to others is also important to you – as you put it: ‘To me, the synagogue means quite a lot. I enjoy being part of a community and everyone here is so nice and welcoming and I feel very comfortable here.’

Ella: you are here today, becoming Bat Mitzvah, because of the support you have received from your family and your friends and your teachers – especially, your tutor Andy. But in the end, you are here today because you have had the courage to become Bat Mitzvah, to grow up and change. Like Rebekah, you made the choice to go and venture out into the unknown. Ella: we are all very proud of you. May the achievement of this day encourage you and inspire you as you continue your journey. And let us say: Amen.

Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah

Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue – Adat Shalom Verei’ut

Shabbat Chayyey Sarah

10th November 2012 – 26th Cheshvan 5773

[1] See ‘The types of people who voted for Obama’ by Rebecca Greenfield in The Atlantic Wire, 07.11.12 – http://www.theatlanticwire.com/politics/2012/11/types-people-who-voted-obama/58794/

[2] For accounts of Kristallnacht in the context of developments during 1938, see the classic study of the Sho’ah, The War Against the Jews 1933 – 1945 by Lucy S. Dawidowicz (Penguin Books), pp. 132-41 and pp.245-6 and Martin Gilbert’s opus, The Holocaust. The Jewish Tragedy (Collins, 1986), pp.66-78.

[3] The women were arrested on October 16th, on Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the Hebrew month of Cheshvan. The Women of the Wall gather at the Kotel each Rosh Chodesh – traditionally a women’s holiday. See the report in HAARETZ, 18.10.12 http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/jewish-world-news/anat-hoffman-after-arrest-a-minority-controls-israel-s-holy-sites-and-abuses-its-power-1.470727