The Light in Sarah's Tent...and in Mine

As my daughter ruminates on Jewish heroines in her bat mitzvah speech, I think of how far Jewish women have come since I was 13.

Of the six Torah portions named after people, Chaye Sarah, the Life of Sarah, is the only one named for a Jewish woman. It is ironic then that this portion, named for Sarah, actually opens with Sarah's death, and that its central female protagonist is Rebecca, Sarah's successor.

So begins my daughter Sophie's bat mitzvah


her speech about this week's


Torah portion. I have heard her practicing its delivery and her Hebrew chanting these past months--snippets behind closed doors and the occasional full-blown rehearsal at the dinner table. I listen in awe and amazement that the baby I carried 13 years ago, this tiny girl with her dry humor and passion for social justice, is now a young woman who will be called to the Torah this Shabbat.

I should admit that I tear up at every bar and bat mitzvah I attend. As a rabbi, I often have the privilege of saying a private message in front of the congregational ark to a maturing adolescent. Though what I say is different for each young adult, the primary theme is similar. In many tribal societies (of which Judaism is one), coming-of-age rituals are marked by serious challenges--a quest or labor. I remind the young adult that in our Jewish tradition that "quest" involves the study and mastery of a great deal of sophisticated text, finding a personal message in that text, and explaining it to the community. For most 13-year-olds with whom I work, it is the hardest thing they have ever done.


This portion describes the continuity of the generations, the passing on of the Jewish heritage from the first generation of Abraham and Sarah to Rebecca and Isaac.

I didn't have a bat mitzvah. My grandparents were all socialists from Russia who felt alienated from the Orthodoxy of their youth. They didn't raise my parents with much regard for or knowledge of Judaism.

My parents were a bit too affluent in Eisenhower's suburban America to remain socialists, but neither did they return to Jewish faith. The Holocaust and American scientific rationalism had opened a vast rift between many Jews and God, and my parents were on the other side of the chasm. They were both mental-health professionals; psychoanalysis was their religion, and the collected works of Freud their Torah.

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