A month ago, in the midst of a government shutdown, with a second missed pay check looming, with fights over border walls and locations for Presidential addresses escalating, with angry, blaming tweets flying, with despair climbing, I caught a glimpse of one of the ways we might retain our sanity and affirm our shared humanity. I participated in a ceremony in which a young woman became a Bat Mizvah, and it was so beautiful that I could hardly believe the world didn’t radically change for the better during the hours I spent in the synagogue.
Many traditions recognize the power of a ceremonial marking to guide families through a transition. In Judaism, a young Jew makes his Bar Mitzvah, or her Bat Mitzvah, to acknowledge the transition from childhood to adulthood. The event can be simple or lavish, but it always contains chanting in Hebrew from the Torah, family and mentors who help guide the young one by participating, offering words of affirmation, and praying, and the presence of friends to help the Bat Mitzvah celebrate her hard work and maturation.
As I watched my young friend step to the lectern, I realized she was invited there by a fiercely-loving Rabbi, who had been working with her to prepare for this experience. Even though the young teen had to rise, chant, speak, and present herself to her community, her Rabbi and mentor stood with her, encouraging her, laughing, guiding her along. Isn’t that wonderful? She didn’t have to walk alone, and neither do we! We can both look for guidance from those who have walked the road before us and provide guidance, space, and an invitation to those who come behind. The Rabbi’s embodied solidarity—her standing with-ness—was stunning in its simplicity. What if we all became people who stand with tender others?
The pinnacle of the ceremony is when the child comes to the Torah, with reverence, and, in this case, some playfulness, to chant a portion heard all around the world from every young person becoming a Bat Mitzvah. There was beauty in the solidarity, in knowing that even on this day geared toward celebrating her, she was one of many. We interact with and document our histories in such performative ways now. Our reliance on social media, on images to demonstrate our worth, has given us importance but also left us alone. Reading a portion of Torah shared globally reminded me that it does not have to be so. We can live in our own skin while resonating and belonging to so many around us. My story is mine, but it becomes meaningful when it is contextualized with the stories of so many others.
Early in the ceremony her grandparents, brother and parents spoke words of life over her. Her grandparents adore her and were radiant with the pride of folks standing on the sweet side of raising kids to hold on to their faith, their history, their people and their community. They spoke words of blessing, intertwining the legacy of the past with their hopes for her future. Watching, I thought we all have the chance to be people who know the past and what it offers, even as we walk into the unknown ahead. Still, how lovely to pause and hear it. To acknowledge that we don’t spring into existence out of nothing, but we join a living river of souls in stress and at ease, ascending and descending as they find their way.
Even more poignant, I wept tears of gratitude as I watched my dear friends speak words of life over their daughter. A mom and a dad, each invested in their communities in so many ways, thoughtful and fun, passionate and, above all, present for the long haul in the lives of dear friends. They welcomed their daughter into such friendship. They let her know, with great specificity, that they see her. She got to hear her mom and dad not just celebrate how fabulous she is, but to know deep in her heart that they see all that she is learning to offer the world. They didn’t speak of some hypothetical daughter, but instead of her very self, in her unique wonder. Watching them speak over her, and then watching her big brother come and chant part of the Torah with her, left me marveling in the beauty of telling each other the good we see, out loud, face to face. This young woman’s life will forever be grounded in the words she heard. Rather than speaking up when we notice the worst in someone, what if we find words to call out the good?
In this era of accusation and assault, this holy moment in time felt like a miracle of kindness to me. Every element offered an alternative for how we might live well with one another. We do not live in scripted times, and we can’t control how others will play their roles in our current national or personal dramas. This ancient ceremony reminded me, however, that while protest and speaking up and advocacy are necessary, they alone will not save us. We need more than resistance, and must go further than merely rejecting the bad. Watching a brave and beautiful young woman become a Bat Mitzvah offered us a beautiful alternative as we created space to affirm the good.
Consider this an invitation to name the bad, to resist hateful evil, while also speaking the good you see into the world. Evaluate your own energy and behavior. Use your voice to resist through challenge and through lifting up beauty! In dark times, the presence of light is an act of brave resistance. As Dr. King famously argued, hate cannot defeat hate, but love can. We are transformed in the sharing of hope, not just in the resisting of evil. How much more effective might we be if we call out the good we see in others, if we name our hopes for those who come after us, if we honor the best in those who came before us? Advocate for a better world by creating it in the spaces you share with others.