When does childhood end and adulthood begin? Until modern times, childhood was very short, and children assumed adult responsibilities from one day to the next, as they were put to work, or were married off. Of course, this still happens in some parts of the world even today – but not here, not in Britain, or Europe, not in most of what is called ‘the developed world’ – and not in most of the ‘Jewish world’, either.
And yet, today Emma Williams becomes Bat Mitzvah, literally, ‘a Daughter of the Commandment ‘; according to Jewish tradition, from this moment onwards, Emma assumes the responsibilities, which devolve on Jewish adults; that is why, she has stood in the pulpit, leading the service – very beautifully, I’m sure you’ll all agree – and that is why, in a short while, she will read this week’s portion from the sacred scroll of the Torah. It’s not just the act of being on the bimah, and doing these things, which signifies Emma’s new status – as an active participant in our Beit Lameid, our educational programme for young people, Emma has been on the bimah, taking part in the leading of the congregation’s Shabbat morning services for several years – rather, it is the fact that today, for the first time, she is standing before us, as our representative; as a sh’lichat tzibbur, an ‘emissary of the congregation’. And so, together with her tutor, Harry Atkins, and myself, Emma stood facing the Ark, and called the community to prayer; and so, in 15 minutes or so, she will repeat the same phrase, as she calls the community to the Torah reading:Bar’chu et-Adonai ha-m’vorach – ‘Bless the Eternal One, who is blessed’; and once again, we will respond, Baruch Adonai ha-m’vorach l’olam va’ed – ‘Blessed is the Eternal One, who is blessed forever and ever.’
So, what are we witnessing today? Has Emma become an adult? Of course not: Sorry, Emma – and sorry, Sarah and Martin; on one level, it would be quite nice if Emma could start helping to pay all those bills… Outside the arena of traditional Jewish practice, becoming an adult means assuming economic responsibilities. And yet, today is not simply a quaint, Jewish ritual moment; yes, Emma will go back to school on Monday, but she will no longer be a child; today, as Emma calls the congregation together, she is also proclaiming to us that she is setting out on a new journey, away from her childhood, and towards adulthood.
As Emma makes this proclamation to us today, she echoes generations of young Jews before her – not least, one of our ancestors, who features prominently in the last four portions of the book of Genesis: Joseph. Today’s Torahportion, the parashah, Va-yeishev, which begins the story of Joseph is so familiar, I’m sure most of us here could tell it without having to read it. But the problem with knowing a story very well is that sometimes we miss crucial details. What was Jacob thinking when he told his favourite son to go and find out how his brothers were doing? Didn’t he know how much they hated and resented Joseph? And what about Joseph; was he so oblivious to his impact on his brothers that he could just go off and look for them? These are the questions we are bound to ask.
But in our preoccupation with the dynamics of this dysfunctional family, we overlook something very important: when Jacob tells Joseph to go to Shechem to find out how his brothers are doing, as they tend the flock, Joseph’s response is startling: hinneini – ‘here I am’, he replies (Genesis 37:13). I say Joseph’s response is startling – but that may only be apparent to those who recall the moments when other significant individuals in the Torah said,hinneini: Hinneini: this was the immediate response of Abraham to the voice of the Eternal One, even before he heard that he must go to Mount Moriah, and sacrifice Isaac (Genesis 22:1). And, having responded, hinneini, Abraham had to take the next step; because hinneini doesn’t simply mean, ‘here I am’, it implies, ‘I am ready’ – for anything. Similarly, when the Eternal One apprehended Moses, as he was shepherding his father-in-law’s flock,achar ha-midbar, ‘behind the wilderness’, Moses responded, hinneini (Exodus 3:4). Like Abraham, Moses was ready even before he knew his mission – and, significantly, the narrative tells us that the Eternal One only addressed Moses, after he had turned aside to look at the ‘burning bush’ (ibid.). The implication is that if Moses had simply got on with his shepherding, he would have wandered off into oblivion, and that would quite simply have been the end of the story – the end of the Jewish story altogether: no Exodus; no Sinai; no wilderness wanderings; no crossing over into the land beyond the Jordan.
As the examples of Abraham and Moses show us, the simple response, hinneini, ushers in momentous events – and so it is with Joseph. Yes, he is a spoiled, irritating, boastful, teenager, preoccupied only with himself and his dreams – and yet, he is ready: hinneini – ‘here I am’. And, as with Abraham and Moses, his readiness says something very particular about Joseph: hinneini – here I am; Joseph has a sense of himself as an individual; indeed, he has already demonstrated that he is an individual, even before he uttered hinneini. Similiarly, before Abraham’shinneini, he had already left all that he knew to go on a journey far away from home, into the unknown (Genesis 12:1ff.); and, likewise, some time before Moses said, hinneini, despite living a privileged life in the Egyptian court, he had gone out one day and killed a taskmaster, who was beating a slave (Exodus 2:11-12). So, although he expressed his singularity in a different way, when Joseph stood up amidst his brothers, and said, I’m not like you, I’m special, in an important sense, he was following in the footsteps of Abraham and Moses.
Interestingly, while set apart from his brothers, Joseph’s singularity also made him rather like the only daughter in the family, Dinah, who, amazingly, as recounted in last week’s portion, Va-yishlach, ‘went out’, of her own volition, ‘ to see the daughters of the land’ (Genesis 34:1ff.). I say, ‘amazingly’, because unmarried daughters didn’t go out on their own in ancient times – and, indeed, like a cautionary tale along the lines of, ‘good girls should stay at home, lest something awful befalls them’, Dinah got her comeuppance…
It’s tempting, but I’m not going to stray into the disturbing story of Dinah. For one thing, fortunately, today we live in a society that is moving in the direction of full gender equality, and, also, we are progressive Jews, for whom equality is one of our basic principles. But today, there is an even more important reason for focusing on Joseph rather than Dinah: right at the beginning of the story, the reader is told that Joseph is 17 years old – and that’s the point: not yet a fully-fledged adult, still in his family home, Joseph was his own person, an individual in his own right – and that’s why he could say, hinneini – ‘here I am’.
Which brings me back to Emma: Emma, each young person who becomes Bat Mitzvah or Bar Mitzvah is a unique individual, and it is fascinating to see how some aspect of the weekly portion always seems to speak in a particular way to each individual – even though, it is just the weekly portion, and was not written for them. And so, the story of Joseph, or rather, Joseph’s ready, hinneini, seems to speak directly to you: I remember when we met to plan your Bat Mitzvah studies: you were completely ready then to step out on a new journey – and your tutor, Harry, has told me that your readiness has shone out throughout your preparations: hinneini – here I am! But it’s not just that you have been eager and enthusiastic, you have also been yourself – completely the ‘I’ in ‘here I am’: totally focused; an utter perfectionist; knowing exactly where you are going and why you want to get there. You’re not a bit like Joseph in character, of course – and you are lucky that in your family, there are no favourites – but you do have something of Joseph’s quality of self-possession, of knowing who you are. You are aware, for example, of how much you have changed since you began your Bat Mitzvah preparations – in your own words: ‘Over the past year I think I have become a lot more mature in many ways. I have also thought a lot more about Judaism and put a lot more energy and time into it.’ You have also thought about the implications of becoming Bat Mitzvah – as you put it: ‘Becoming Bat Mitzvah means becoming a more respected member of my community and taking on more responsibility within the community’. For you – and I’m quoting you again – ‘being Jewish means being part of a huge family who are all interlinked and share one belief. For me, the synagogue is a place where I can meet with my friends and other people who are just like me. It is a place where I can learn and socialize and pray. I can be what I want to be.’ Emma, you say the words, ‘For me’ and ‘I’ very readily; you seem to have an inner capacity to enjoy being with people, while, at the same time, being utterly yourself – that is a very rare quality; Joseph, while very much his own person, had to suffer terribly before he learned how to relate with other people.
That capacity to reach out to others and to be yourself at the same time is also reflected in your interests beyond the synagogue: as you put it: ‘I enjoy being with my friends a lot and (my emphasis) I love to read and be transported away, but my main hobby is my music which I love because it is relaxing and helps me focus.’ You know how to nourish yourself and to be with yourself – and be the life and soul of the party – and that adaptability and breadth is also expressed in your favourite school subjects: how many people do you know, who ‘love English because it involves being creative’ and ‘biology, because you find out how things work’? You embrace bothdimensions, and perhaps it isn’t surprising that you would like to be a doctor, and would relish doing medical research into diseases, like cancer, so that you can help people in need. The readiness you have shown in connection with your Bat Mitzvah preparations, extends to a readiness to go out into the world and make a difference.
Emma: you are a very special person – and because you are the kind of special person you are, you know that you have not arrived at this day on your own: you love your family and your friends are very important to you, and you have also appreciated working with Harry, and the years you have spent learning with Melanie, Eileen and Andy, your teachers at the Beit Lameid. Nevertheless, you are here today because you have chosen to take responsibility for your Jewish life; because you responded to the challenge and said, hinneini, ‘here I am’. May you always be ready to engage with the Jewish heritage you receive today, and eager to make it your own, as you continue your life’s journey. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah
Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue – Adat Shalom Verei’ut
27th November 2010 – 20th Kislev 5771