Bat Mitzvah

I have been gone awhile.  I’ve not actually been far away, either in reality or in my mind, though if you open this blog several times to the same post that was there two weeks ago, you have no way of knowing that I’ve not gone far.  I have begun several things I wanted to write, but have not finished and hit publish.  The Bat Mitzvah that I have been first studying for, then later trying to imagine and then finally preparing for with determination–is over.  

Yesterday at our synagogue, gathered a big group of women and men and young people.  My people (those there for me) were people I love and have known a long time.  They came for me and for this event and to be with each other.  That was lovely.  My family and friends sat, not front and center, but most of them on the far left side (from the vantage of the bima where I sat) in our wide, semicircular sanctuary.  They were positioned so that I could look and smile right at them during all the times I was not working up front, and watch them– their good, good faces.  I loved that so many of my people were there. 

I and each of my four Bat Mitzvah sisters read from the Torah and gave what is called a drash or a drush (short for Midrash– which means story or commentary)– a short speech about our interpretation or our findings of current meaning in our ancient portion.  These are also called Dvar Torah, which I think means literally “Torah thing”– or something about the Torah portion you have read.  I will write more about this experience in the coming days–as well as about other things that have happened recently and which are on my mind.  But for now here is the Dvar Torah that I read from the bema on Saturday:

D’var Torah II
Parashat Chayei Sarah;
October 30, 2010

I will be reading Genesis 23:7-11.  The verses describe Abraham, who is living among the Hittites, seeking to purchase a piece of land for a gravesite for his wife, Sarah.  This section begins with Abraham in the land of the Hittites “bowing low to the people of the land”. 

Abraham wants not just a gravesite, but a specific piece of land.  He goes to  Ephron, a Hittite, who owns the field and the cave of Machpelah and asks Ephron to sell it to him as an inalienable gravesite at the market price. Ephron says “Land worth 400 Shekels of silver—what is that between you and me?”  In so saying Ephron names his price. 

Abraham pays that price and, the reading says “Abraham buried his wife Sarah in the cave of the field of Machpelah facing Mamre in the land of Canaan. Thus was confirmed Abraham’s acquisition from the Hittites of the field and its cave as a fully owned gravesite.”  There is additional language signifying that this was a carefully executed sale in accordance with the law of the land.  It is believed that all of the Matriarchs and Patriarchs except for Rachel were buried at this site.

Commentators on these verses generally agree that the price Ephron set and was paid was, for the times, an inflated price.   Reading the commentary I thought about the consensus that Abraham paid more than the “fair” price.

 Abraham wants, after all, to ensure that Sarah’s burial ground will remain intact and in his family forever.  Abraham is older than Sarah, and one would assume that he is contemplating, not only a final resting place for Sarah, but also his own mortality and his desire to be buried alongside his wife in the future.  

I thought about the question– what is a fair price for something?  Whether the price Ephron sought was fair or not, I don’t know.  But I believe Abraham paid a fair price.  Abraham acted with integrity, paying what was asked—because he could apparently afford that price and because he knew he wanted a future that would rest on having made a business deal with integrity.   Perhaps the lesson of the story is about Abraham’s integrity.  Each one of us can always act with integrity; we have control over our own integrity in any exchange.   

I also grew interested in another aspect of this reading.  Rabbi F.  explained to me that the name of that land and cave—Machpelah, comes from the same root as the word Kaful—which means “to double” or doubling.   The commentator Rashi says that the cave was called Machpelah, because it contained an upper and a lower chamber and that because of its size and structure, was suitable not only for one person’s burial, but for several couples to be buried there.  Abraham was very specific in his negotiation with the Hittites.  He did not want just any land; he wanted to purchase the “field and the cave of Machpelah.”

 I am interested in what might be significant to us about this idea of doubling.   In Abraham’s insistence on the large cave of Machpelah he sought a burial site that would be suitable for many couples. The idea of doubling, of growing in numbers can be drawn from the name of the cave, as well as from what we are told is the structure of the cave of Machpelah—a cave with an upper and a lower chamber. 

We make much, in Judaism, of lineage, but we grow as a community and maintain our community not only through our children but through our chosen family as well.  Traditionally adults marry. In my life as well, I have built my family with a wonderful partner, M.  Whether married or not, if we have a life partner, we form a fundamental partnership specifically with someone not a biologic relation.   We form family by “doubling” but not through biologic relation.  We “double” and grow, through friendship and community that become family to us, as well.

In Judaism there is great emphasis on the questions;  Who are you descended from?  Who are your descendants? 

I am very proud of the people from whom I am descended.  I am proud to be a Jew and proud of my Jewish foremothers and forefathers. I am also blessed with a wonderful daughter.  N.  Not born to me and not part of my biologic lineage, and yet fully my daughter, and fully a Jewish girl.  I am my daughter’s mother and through me, she is a Jew.  And she too has a lineage, of which I hope she will always be proud.  And her lineage is now part of me, as mine is part of her.  Thus my own family is not one solely of biologic relations, but a family of “doubling” of adding to our Jewish life and community.  We are a family not through lineage but through love and partnership, as are each of your families, however they are configured.

 I think that Abraham’s absolute insistence that he own the field and the cave of Machpelah, a cave large enough to be a gravesite for his wife, and daughters-in-law as well as his sons is a reminder to us that the bonds of choice, of chosen partnerships and chosen children, are also the backbone of our communities and are sacred.  Inalienably sacred.  We are reminded by the cave of Machpelah, that we double, we grow and we forge life sustaining bonds of love and commitment. 

My great-grandmother Rose, and my grandfather, Louis, taught me nothing about Torah or study.  Neither of them had much formal education.  But they each taught me a lot about how to love and be loved, which is the message of our Torah.  Thank you all for being with me.  A special thanks goes to Rabbi F. and to my tutor, A., who have both been extraordinary tutors.  Finally I want to explain that my partner M. and my mother bought a beautiful tallis for me, for this day.  But when my sister and nephews arrived from the midwest, they brought me the tallis which my father wore at his Bar Mitzvah in 1939, and which I am wearing today.  So I have him with me as well. 

This Torah reading – a direct continuation of the previous one — begins on Page 41 of the JPS Tanakh.

3 responses to “Bat Mitzvah

  1. ‘We “double” and grow, through friendship and community that become family to us, as well.’
    These words are very significant to me, Laura. I am grateful to you for the awareness about this.

  2. I love reading your thoughts, thank you.

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