"I Decided to Stop Feeling Like an Outsider"
Jessica Cross's Adult Bat Mitzvah Talk • June 23, 2018
Why did I decide to embark on becoming a bat mitzvah at age 35?
What have I learned?
What have I discovered about myself?
Simply put, I wanted to learn more about this religion and people I was born into. I’ve been attending services my whole life. I studied the history of the Jewish diaspora quite thoroughly in college. I’ve visited abandoned synagogues in Poland and partied in the vibrant nightlife of Tel Aviv. But I’ve always felt on the periphery of the religion, whether because I don’t speak Hebrew or don’t “look Jewish,” as I am often told.
Every year my mother and I attend High Holiday services. The communal nature of singing praises and blessings together always makes me feel grounded and refreshed. And every year I tell myself I’m going to attend more services and learn more. But I always felt intimidated about where to start.
So I decided to stop feeling like an outsider and learn.
Over the course of the year we’ve read a good portion of the Torah, bringing me closer to the words written down thousands of years ago. I’ve learned the concept of Pardes, an acronym that describes the method of studying Torah. It stands for P'shat (surface), Remez (hints), Drash (inquire), and Sod (secrets). Using this method, the group discussed the weeks' Torah portions, wondering about the meaning and how it applies to our lives.
One passage from the Torah that sticks out to me is actually the first passage we read together to start our Bar and Bat Mitzvah class. It is a story about one of our spiritual ancestors, Jacob, who was estranged from his brother Esau for many years. Jacob has decided to travel to see Esau and try to reconcile with him, bringing his large family with him. They reach a river and Jacob shuttles everyone across -- his possessions, his flock, his children, his wives -- leaving himself alone on the river bank overnight.
Now this is the part of the story that has always intrigued me, and I suppose that is the point. Jacob is visited by another man with whom he wrestles all night. Or maybe he wrestles with an angel, or maybe he is simply wrestling with himself as he struggles through his worries and fears about seeing his long-estranged brother the next day.
Either way, as dawn breaks, the other man wrenches Jacob's leg from his socket and demands that Jacob let him go. Jacob refuses to let him go unless he blesses him. Though, rather than give a blessing, the other man says:
“Your name will no longer be ‘Jacob’ but ‘Israel,’ for you have struggled with Gd, and with people, and have been able.”
This passage resonates deeply with me. Firstly, to be an active member of the faith means to wrestle with Gd, secondly, that to be Jewish is to be part of a collective people, and third and lastly, carrying the name of Israel is a blessing, and should be treated as such.
Over the course of this past year as I tell friends and family that I signed up for an adult bat mitzvah class, they usually ask me two things, first, am I going to have a party and second, do I believe in Gd.
The thought of Gd as an external singular entity feels sad, unapproachable, and not a good enough description for the power I feel in this universe.
Honestly, I believe in myself.
I believe in the interconnected power of our collective souls. And to me, that is Gd.
I believe that we passed down these stories in the Torah to give ourselves a map of how to interact, how to behave, how to aspire to be better humans.
Another thing I learned through this class is that prayer isn’t so much about pleading with Gd and whining to get your way. Prayer is a vehicle for us to express our internal thoughts and desires.
This reminds me of another passage from the Torah, from the story about the Israelites being enslaved in Egypt for hundreds of years. It quotes Gd as saying, “And now the cry of the Israelites has reached Me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them.”
The Jewish people had long been toiling as slaves in Egypt, but not until the collective voices came together and cried out to Gd did something big happen.
When we call out together as a community, as the people of Israel, we can make great things happen. We can part seas, found new societies, drive out hunger, bring forward peace. But the change, it starts with us.
I grew up culturally Jewish, attending High Holiday services and celebrating Hanukkah and Passover with my family. Growing up in such a secular community as the Bay Area I feel religion is often looked at as antiquated. But I've always felt that Judaism could provide me with a path to explore my spirituality and connection to my community and heritage.
Rabbi Bridget and Jewish Gateways paved the way for me to explore and learn, drawing me closer to the religion. I hope you all enjoy the service we put together for you and find a connection as well.