I almost never get personal in my columns, as I really don't think anyone out there is interested in my life. But this past weekend was my daughter's Bat Mitzvah and the speech I gave to her after the service contained a message that I think all parents of Millennials and young teens should consider. I hope that you don't have to be religious or even a member of a house of worship to understand that we must demand more of our children. But we cannot do that without promising to help them achieve more with our guidance and by setting an example.
Here's a somewhat abridged version of what I said:
"A Bat Mitzvah is really an initiation, not a graduation. 'Your Jewish obligations don't end here!'- that's what you hear Rabbis say at this time. And of course, that's true. But even though you become a Jewish adult today, this obligation is by no means all on your shoulders.
So this parental speech on this Bat Mitzvah is going to be different. This speech is not just about what our daughter did today or even what we expect her to do from now on. This speech is a promise, my promise and my wife's promise that we are making to our daughter, in front of our family and friends here today.
Mommy and I promise you this: We will always continue to show you how Judaism and the Torah can guide you in your life. We will do this while you're in high school, college, at work, and God-willing when you are married and you too become a parent. We will do it as you continue to attend services, celebrate the holidays, attend Camp Ramah, and return to visit Israel as we did in February.
It sounds like a lot, but thankfully you have already given all of us in your wonderful chanting of the Torah and your learned speech earlier today a one-word tool as our guide. And that word is "sacrifice." We keep hearing about how young people and Millennials don't want to make any sacrifices at all. But Mommy and I think that's simply not true and the real problem is what it's always been: young people simply don't yet know what to sacrifice for or how to do it! If young people aren't making sacrifices and commitments today, it's most likely because their parents never showed them how or told them why it's important.
Mommy and I were both lucky enough to have learned those things from our parents.Then we learned it again from our experiences, and now we're even learning some of those lessons from you! We've learned that everyone CAN make sacrifices to something meaningful in their own way. You made sacrifices and commitments when you sat down with me and really studied for your Bat Mitzvah, and help me lead services at the homes of the mourners. You make sacrifices when you spend so much of your free time to perfect your singing and artwork. All of these things are a great head start because you are already avoiding one of the biggest mistakes a person can make in life: destructive sour grapes!
Here's what I mean by that: You know that the very first murder occurred after an actual sacrifice. Cain killed his brother Abel after Abel's hard-earned sacrifice was accepted by God, and Cain's minimal effort offering was not. Cain responds not by trying to improve himself or finding new ways to connect to God. Instead he decides to try to destroy the entire concept of sacrifice by killing his brother. Cain didn't just reject the idea of trying harder; he wanted to blow it up! The "wicked son" we just read about in our Passover Seder is similar. Not only does he not connect personally with the process of the Seder, but he mocks the entire process and seeks to destroy it.
Everyone here knows that that's not you! You, and many other kids your age may often insist on doing things differently, but you and they truly still want to be a part of the process. You've been that way since you were a toddler, when you would sing during a dance class or march one way when all the other kids were marching the other at play time! But you were still involved and you loved being a part of it! You were just worshiping in your own way.
Worshiping in new ways is what Judaism is all about. When the Romans destroyed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago, Jews had to replace animal sacrifice with new ways to worship God. And of course, that process never really stops. That's why Jews have made so many of the greatest contributions to humankind since then.
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So now, back to our promise. We promise to show you how making those contributions as a Jew will reap great rewards in ways you'll never expect. Did you know, a decision I made to sacrifice my time and do a kindness about 18 years ago today is ultimately how you came to be? I met your mom because I agreed to my cousin's request to meet and advise a classmate of his who was considering getting into TV news. That person was mommy, and deciding to do that kindness was the best decision I've ever made.
So you see, our promise today to help you find the "Jewish way" to do things won't just be about cold obligations. We promise to show you that Jewish teachings are always relevant to each and every personal issue you will face in life and the "big picture" challenges you'll see in the news. We have shown you and will continue to show you that the synagogue is not a museum, the Torah is not just some ancient document, and Jewish knowledge is not limited to how to make the best matzoh balls, (but your mom's are the best, by the way).
We promise to keep showing you how exactly a Jew keeps sacrificing for her community and the world. Again, think back to the Seder and the boy we call the "wise son." The wise son is not some robot who just wants to observe the Seder to follow orders. No - he really wants to do these things out of gratitude and joy. And everyone can see how you have those two things in great abundance!
We promise to do all we can to make sure your gratitude and joy endure and lead you to continue to be a good person. Happiness is great. Financial success is nice. But to have a child who is a good person and finds pleasure in doing good things… that is the ultimate achievement for any parent. And so to get there, we promise to guide you as a Jew for as long as we are alive.
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We will do this not just to preserve some hard-to define-ethnicity. Whatever Jewish ethnicity is, well that's just the vessel. What we want to do is preserve and apply all the Jewish wisdom and contributions that have been life-tested for 5,000 years and counting.
After all, if mommy and I had the most precious diamond in the world, but didn't pass it down to you and your little sister as an inheritance, what would that say about us? Well we do have it, because our parents gave it to us. They gave it to us when mom's parents and my parents taught us for our Bat and Bar Mitzvahs. And so we taught you for your Bat Mitzvah. They gave it to us when mom's parents sent her and my parents sent me to Jewish sleep away camps. And so we send you to Camp Ramah. These are just two examples of the precious Jewish inheritance we are passing on to you and your sister. And you will get much more of it… and with no inheritance tax!
All parents of B'nei Mitzvah should make this promise. Whether our children realize it or not, on the day of their Bat or Bat Mitzvah they are making a promise to join our ancient and still enduring Jewish people and tradition. So we as parents have the obligation to help them get there. If we don't make and strive to keep that promise, then these celebrations are just parties. You mean more to us than that. Our people mean more to us than that.
So to put it in the most simple terms as possible: today, Mommy and I promise to help you be a good Jew forever. This is an obligation we expect you to fulfill but you will not be alone in this obligation. And don't ever be afraid to come to us for help, because when you do, there will be snacks!"