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Toward Shabbat: Shelah Lekha

I celebrated becoming a Bat Mitzvah with a Minha service surrounded by family, friends, and a community of people, many of whom had known me since I was a toddler. As I gripped the yad (ritual pointer for reading Torah) in one hand and the eitz hayyim (wooden handle of the Torah) in the other, my eyes began to water. Luckily, at that point I knew my parashah by heart because my eyes were so full of tears that I could hardly see the sacred letters that lay before me. While I did not cry, it was as if my body instinctively knew that this was a special moment—a moment that went beyond words, even Divine words, and straight to my soul. I felt a deep longing to serve and somehow understood this to be my entryway to continued connectedness and a sense of belonging.

What I did not know at the time of my Bat Mitzvah is that Shabbat Minha is known in our tradition as an “eit ratzon,” a time of desire. The Zohar refers to this magical time as “ra’ava d’ra’avin,” “the desire of desires.” The Sefat Emet, a late 19th-century Hassidic rabbi, teaches that by the end of Shabbat the desire becomes reciprocal: we deeply desire God and, after a day of celebrating God’s love and the creation of all, God deeply desires us. This eit ratzon is a moment of desire and one of mutual love. After a day of tasting the world to come and all of its sweetness, we do not want to leave and nor does God want us to depart. We try to savor every moment (much like we do at life-cycle rituals) and try to hold on to it as long as we can; the sense of longing becomes palpable as the sun begins to set and the “real world” waits for us beyond the horizon.

When I think about what this sense of desire and longing is all about, my thoughts go back to that very moment of my Bat Mitzvah when I grasped my sense of belonging. We strive for Shabbat to be a day of living out our covenant with God and with our community. To be a day when we turn back to our core values, when we are encouraged to reveal our best selves, and when we are inspired to step back into the paradise of Eden—the moment we were each formed in the image of our beloved Creator and when we are seen and loved for who we are in the moment. Shabbat is the time when we appreciate our unique song and listen to and harmonize with the songs of all who are around us, creating a “shir hadash,” a new song, together. It is a day in which the individual and the community are celebrated simultaneously.

As I reflect on the emotional experience of reading Torah at my Bat Mitzvah, I realize that my sense of belonging was a gift given to me by women and communities who fought so that I would be able to find my place within our tradition. That Shabbat afternoon I was becoming a daughter of mitzvot, and the title of that step allowed for my longing to become belonging.

I’m forever grateful for this gift. But for some who approach this milestone, the gendered language of our tradition may not fit how they identify—perhaps leading to conflicted feelings or a questioning of their sense of belonging. This is not how it should be.

That’s why, in addition to the titles “Bar” and “Bat” Mitzvah here at BJ, we are excited to join many communities who have expanded our tradition by also using the language of “B-Mitzvah.” “B-Mitzvah” is a non-binary, gender-inclusive term representing the milestone of becoming a Jewish adult, so that all of our students can be their full selves at this pivotal moment on their Jewish journey. This term affirms that all people belong here at BJ and within the Jewish community. (Read more about this decision.)

As we move toward Pride Shabbat, may we find ourselves immersed in a sacred day of belonging—a day in which we are seen and welcomed for who we are, a day in which we feel that special Divine desire toward each one of us, and a day that empowers us to realize how our longings can lead us to belonging.