“There’s a dream in the future, there’s a struggle we have yet to win
‘Cause I know where I’m going, and I know where I’ve been.
Motor Mouth Maybelle sings those lines in a show-stopping number in the musical “Hairspray.” Maybelle is about to lead a group of people into their own Promised Land of integration and civil rights, but first she (musically) takes stock of the struggle of her people and how the risks they’ve taken to get to this point are worth what they’re fighting for. What they’ve been through gives meaning to where they’re going.
Hmmmm. These thoughts might just as easily have come from the mouths of the Israelites as they stood, ready to enter the Promised Land, and also just as easily from the pages of the innumerable Bnai Mitzah speeches on any given Shabbat. So for a moment, step back in time to your own speech, or one you’ve heard recently, or read this to someone about to write their own speech (because rare is the kid who will read a Jewish paper their own!)
There’s a cliché about you, young one, becoming an adult as you stand in front of the community. But you’re not really adults, by any contemporary standards. Anyone who has been the parent of you or one of your friends knows that. What you are doing, however, is beginning to learn how to be Jewish adults.
You already know how to be Jewish kids; now you get to start designing your own Jewish adulthood. You are taking those first steps into the land of Jewish maturity. Little by little, through high school and college, and then beyond, you are going to start making your own Jewish choices, and there’s not much we, your parents, can do about it.
In the parasha Masei, Moses starts with a travelogue, listing all the places the people have traveled since leaving Egypt. But it’s not just the geographical journey. In each of those places, something happened there that helped shape and transform the people. Each of those places was a community marker, not just a geographical one.
For the Israelites, the geographical markers were not of their own making, nor was what happened there, necessarily. God pretty much set the agenda, the people reacted, (usually badly) and Moses had to re-orient them all. For you, your family, and in a larger sense, your community has set their markers up for you, too, engineering your Jewish experiences through the Shabbat dinners, the holiday celebrations, doing acts of tzedakah or standing up for social justice because it’s the Jewish thing to do.
Or not. Because if you haven’t been experiencing Shabbat dinners, holiday celebrations, doing acts of tzedakah or standing up for social justice because it’s the Jewish thing to do….well, it’s amazing that you’re standing up there at all, because it must have been awfully hard to establish a context for what you’ve committed to do on your special Shabbat.
Either way, you’re going to have to establish your own Jewish markers from now on.
There’s another part of Masei that I hope you take to heart, oh young bar/bat Mitzvah: the cities of refuge. The Torah sets out an interesting concept: if a person accidentally kills another person, there are six cities of refuge up and down the land, where that person can’t be attacked by a revengeful mob. The cities are run by the Levites, and they’re designed to be safe places until a trial can be held.
Find your own cities of refuge. Find your safe places. Of course, we hope you don’t accidentally kill anyone, but there will be other kinds of accidents that may happen to you: choices made, turns taken (literally) that can alter your life path, or even thoughts or ideas you want to “try on” for a while and see how they fit. You need to have some personal Levites to help you at those moments.
Both you and the Israelites are standing at the edge, looking back and looking forward, ready to commit to a Land, a community, continuing the journey. March on.