DUvar – Baha-alotUcha 19-21
One of the first things the rabbi said to our class, as we gathered for the first time, was that our experience would obviously be very different from that of a thirteen-year-old child. For a Rregular ageS Bar or Bat Mitzvah, the ceremony represents coming to adulthood; becoming a Rgrownup,S at least theoretically. For us, this would not be the case since we are already adults.
RBut wait!S the running subtext in my head protested, RthatUs not true!S And I began to think that this ceremony was for me a kind of marker of – could it be, adulthood?
Am I not a Rgrownup?S DonUt I have children, and grandchildren? DoesnUt that alone make me a grownup? Long, long ago, when I first became pregnant with my first child, I believed that becoming a mother would prove that I was an adult – I was, after all, twenty-one years old when my oldest was born!
Becoming a parent certainly propelled me into responsibilities I wasnUt prepared for but learned to handle, somehow. Sometimes well, sometimes not so well. I knew how to love my children, the gift that we all have for free from our own great mother, the ShUchinah, the divine presence that permeates every atom of creation. So I carried my children, nurtured them, and put aside for a while my dream of being a writer.
I hoped that things would work themselves out, and that I would somehow find my place by being patient and allowing it to be. I went back to school and felt myself to be at home, and as the way opened for me I stayed to get my Ph.D in English while my older two children finished high school and college and the younger two went to day care and elementary school and had their own bar and bat mitzvahs. I began teaching, but never in a full time position, and kept writing, off and on, songs and poems and stories and plays, as I had since I can remember. I never seemed to quite finish anything, never moved to another level.
Meanwhile, my parents were growing older and needed help; they returned from their second Aliyah to Israel to be nearer their kids.
My parents were lifelong, ardent Zionists, and raised me to value Israel and Jewish culture. My father was a scholar of Israeli history and archeology, and my mother loved the Jewish people. I didnUt think of them as synagogue-goers although we observed the major holidays; I learned only after their deaths, ten years ago, that my father was the first president of our small, Conservative congregation, in my home town of Greenbelt, Maryland. The Jewish Community Center was built by the people of the town, including the churches; I recall my father giving me a ride – I must have been about three years old — in the wheelbarrow he pushed up the hill from the JCC to our house, after he had brought a load of bricks down.
When I first looked at the lines I am reading from the Torah, Bamidbar 19-21 in parsha Baha-a lotUcha, I thought I would have nothing to say about them. They deal with the allocation of duties to the Levites, who attended to the temple and to the Cohanim. The cohenim had certain obligations and privileges. Only Aaron, and the high priests after him and descended from him, could enter the Holy of Holies. The priestly class acted as intermediaries between the people and God, officiating over the rituals and performing the animal sacrifices. The priests had to follow exceptional rules of purity. They owned no property, but were awarded their food out of the offerings brought by the people to the temple. A note in our text observes that the chief duty of the Levites may have been to practice the music associated with worship.
How could I relate to the designation of a priestly class? I am against the whole idea of aristocracy, and even wonder, with some radical ecologists, if the agricultural production required to maintain a class of priests (and an army) marks the beginning of civilization, and with it the destructiveness of human encroachment on the land of the world.
Then I recalled that after my parents moved here for their last years, my father told me that he was a cohane. As the daughter of a cohen, I am a Rbat-cohane.S The cohenim are Rthe sons of Aaron,S and the tradition has been handed down from father to first-born son for millenia. I once asked my father how far back his lineage went – he said either all the way back to Aaron as designated here in the lines I am reading from BaMidbar, or to the time of the Romans, who introduced Rfalse priestsS to sow confusion among the Jewish people and disrupt their hereditary practices. So my family history goes back at least two thousand years.
Will this generation be the break in the link? Although some congregations continue to allot the first aliyah to a cohen or, failing that, a bat-cohane like myself, the practice has more or less fallen into disuse among non-Orthodox Jews, and what with intermarriage and the embrace of social equality, itUs questionable whether the designation will continue much longer. Most of us believe that people should follow vocations for which they have talent and desire, not familial habit.
So what remains, for me, of this genetic and social history I carry in my own being?
For as long as I can remember I have made up songs, poems, and stories. While my mother loved the arts, always having season tickets to the theater and symphony, and made sure that I had the best piano teacher around, I never saw an avenue to a career in the arts.
Yet turning 65 last year had affected me more than any other birthday. In only 15 years I would be eighty! Would I ever be Ra writer?S
After a long, long lull, and after my parentsU deaths, I resumed writing poetry, often in the form of Jewish raps. I found that retelling stories from the Torah in rhyme comes easily to me, and I have been doing that as well as producing RsecularS works of poetry for the last several years. I began sending my work to a friendly audience. This spring a song I arranged for four voices, the RShehechiyanuS prayer in feminine language, was performed by MakUhela, the regional Jewish chorus of Western Massachusetts of which I am a member.
While earlier in my life I saw writing as a deeply introspective and confessional practice, I now realize that for me the essence of RwritingS is spiritual. The creative impulse is a response to the presence of the divine in our lives. To write, perform, or hear poetry and music is to partake of transcendence. And as a constructor of music and texts, I have a deep desire not only to Rexpress myself,S but also to share my realization and experience of the ecstatic connection to holiness that permeates existence.
Today, RShehechiatnuS is to be sung at our groupUs celebration of bar and bat mitzvah.
To have a prayer I composed sung in a synagogue meets the highest aspiration I can have for my writing.
Today I am a grown-up!
BUruchah At Yah, ShUchinah, ruach ha olam
Shehechiatnu, vikiyimatnu, vihigiatnu lazman hazeh!