On January 11, 2014, our congregation had a joyful and moving ceremony once again, when Isabelle Menczer, 21, became a Bat Mitzvah.
Isabelle has been an active member of our community for three years now, a teacher of the Talmud Torah, and head of the youth group. You can read a lot more about her connection to Judaism, her ties to the community and her thoughts about the parashah she read from in her moving drasha below.
(delivered on 11 January, 2014, at the Sim Shalom synagogue)
I would like to begin my droshe by introducing my weekly Torah portion and then, I’m going to share the connection between this chapter and myself, culminating in the presentation of my Hebrew name and finally, I’m going to speak about my personal Judaism and feelings.
My weekly portion
I would like to begin the presentation of my chapter by summarizing the story of Moses, as – even though, I believe that everyone in this room is familiar with the story – I think this overview is essential for the analysis of the chapter. The Israelites were kept in bondage for 400 years on the land of Egypt, when God finally softened Pharaoh Ramses’ heart by smiting the land with ten plagues assisted by Moses; thus, Ramses let the people go. However, as the people of Israel were joyfully leaving the land of Egypt, Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, so he ordered his army to follow the newly freed people and his charioteers cornered the people of Israel by the Sea of Reeds. That was when the great miracle befell on them, with which God saved his people and proved his might once again.
I’m going to read out chapter 15 from the parashah of Beshallach, S’mot; namely the well-known Shirat Hayam, The Song at the Sea, sung by Moses and his sister, Miriam, while crossing the Sea of Reeds, looking into the unknown future with hope, seeing the immense power of God, with which He had parted the sea so that the people of Israel could pass through, then He closed the waters back on the Egyptian army chasing them, thus destroying the enemy. My chapter tells of this miracle with the longer song of Moses and the following shorter song of Miriam, the latter one being – according to certain rabbis – a more ancient version of the former one, while others believe it to be merely a simplification. The Shirah was written around the 13th century B.C., much earlier than the preceding prosaic text that tells of the same miracle. The song is (songs are) followed by a shift of focus, still in the very same chapter: these few verses give an overall picture of the 40 years spent in the wilderness.
I found an interesting and, in my opinion, very fitting metaphor in a book – chiefly edited by Tamara Cohn – that analyses the Torah from a women’s point of view: Passing through the Sea of Reeds can be interpreted as the birth of Israel, where the following 40 years of wandering is packed with the continuous whimpering of the infant, demanding food and water, in which metaphor, God is the sometimes indulgent and sometimes chiding mother. The hunger and the thirst of the people of Israel are unquenchable, until they can finally settle down and eat from the fruit of their own land.
My weekly portion and myself
Ever since I read my weekly portion for the very first time, I’ve had a feeling that it was the chapter that had chosen me and not the other way round. Is it possible for such a close harmony among the story and emotions of this song and my own to be a mere coincidence? As I’m going to refer to it later on in my droshe, in connection with the choice of my Hebrew name, I personally do not believe that fate is written, as I think – or at least hope – that it is up to us to shape our own lives. Still, I do believe that this similarity is more than a simple coincidence. Is this an anomaly or proof for the erroneousness of my philosophy? It is neither one, it’s only that some specification is necessary at this point. In my point of view, two worlds coexist next to each other, namely the material and the transcendental world intertwining and forming a whole together. I exist in both worlds simultaneously and I do not state that it is me who shapes my own destiny all by myself in either one of these worlds. In the material world, I’m influenced – sometimes helped – by material deeds and happenings, whereas in the transcendental world I’m guided by signs like the projection of Shirat Hayam on my own life. Evidently, my physical existence is also indirectly influenced by my connection with this story, considering that, as I’ve mentioned before, the two worlds are also closely linked to each other. I’m going to get into more details concerning the transcendental later on; however, now I would like to go on with the depiction of this parallelism.
I have had a very good life so far, which I owe mostly to my parents, as I’ve got everything from them that a child, then a young girl might need, with the most important of these values being physical and mental security, and an emotion that is superior to these, meaning that it can be attested only if the former ones are provided; this emotion is love. I repeat, all this was granted to me, so do not misunderstand me; I’ve been extremely happy all my life so far; still, I felt that something was missing… and I knew that this “something” must be originated from myself. I cannot put it into words up to this day what it is exactly, but I can feel that it is this thing that has prevented me from being really myself up till now. Considering that my opening up is a continuous process, I cannot define its starting point precisely, but it is for certain that it was only a couple of months ago that it really began. This new insight might lead me to a more perfect happiness than what I’ve experienced before, or it might make me turn towards arts – writing, music and drawing –, but whatever it should end in, I’m certainly going to be myself much more than I was before the beginning of this process. I know that the proportions are entirely different; still, I would like to liken my former state to the Israelites’ bondage in Egypt and my present one to a turning point, to the point, when Miriam is standing on the shore of the Sea of Reeds, staring into the uncertain future full of obstacles, which is still – or maybe in consequence – so much awaited and yearned for. What can one do in such a situation other than start singing at the top of her voice with a timbrel in her hand, as Miriam did back then and as I would probably do under similar circumstances?
Miriam is the very first woman figure in the Torah referred to as a prophet being later followed by four others. Though, she doesn’t foretell anything in the Torah, according to a Torah analysis, the M’chilta, she predicts the arrival of her little brother, Moses, and that he will deliver the people of Israel from bondage. After the birth of Moses, Miriam follows the path of the basket on the river, the basket in which her baby brother has been concealed from the decree of Pharaoh smiting every new-born male child with death. The prophetess aids Moses all her life, which role can be interpreted as her being the manifestation of Moses’ feminine self.
I believe that no-one is caught unawares by my announcing that it is the name Miriam that I’ve chosen as my Hebrew name and that I’ve always felt I should choose. The picture appearing before me whenever I think of her is her silhouette standing before the unending sea, the unending future, and, as if challenging it against her, she begins to sing at the top of her voice.
Despite the fact that Miriam is one of the most major figures of the Torah, we’re not given the story of her entire life, as the Torah depicts only fractions of the story of such a prominent person. She rarely appears, but when she does, she always executes a very important mission. This was also a sign to me that it was the name Miriam I had to choose, that it was her I had to choose as a metaphor to my own Jewish self, as in this way, with the major part of her life being a mystery for us, I can feel that it’s rather up to me to shape my own life, meaning that – even though, under certain restraints – it is me who makes my own destiny.
Judaism and myself
I’ve always known about my Jewish descent; still, my connection to Judaism had not been much more than that of blood until I was sixteen. It was then, that a turning point came that radically altered my entire view of life, as from that point on, my Jewish identity gradually became an integral part of it.
The turning point was brought on by my making friends with Somogyi Hanna, a classmate of mine, in ninth grade, who shared many of her experiences with me about Szarvas, a conservative Jewish youth summer camp, which stories awakened my interest in it as well. With Hanna, I took part in the Moonlight tour of Hashomer Hacair (Shomer), a Zionist youth organisation, which I was so delighted in that I swore I would attend the programmes of the organisation after the approaching summer holiday. In the summer, I finally went to Szarvas, which I had been unwilling to try before, in spite of the continuous encouragement of my parents, terribly afraid of finding myself alone there. As I finally had a rather good time at the camp, I returned the following year and this was my very best collective experience until then, and it has not been surpassed ever since. I frequented Hashomer Hacair as I’d sworn I would, I completed the madrich (leader) trainings for both Szarvas and Shomer and visited Szarvas Camp for the third time as well.
I heard of Szim Salom for the very first time from Mikes Dóra, a member, who finally brought me here. I got to love the congregation and I’ve been frequenting it for almost three years now. I have always been closest to the reform trend, even though I evidently hadn’t realised it before getting to know Szim Salom. Presently, I’m an active member of the congregation, as the teacher of the younger of the two groups of children, giving their activity called Talmud Torah and I’m also the head of the youth group. Szim Salom has given me a lot and I can feel that it has greatly contributed to my spiritual development. After becoming a member of the congregation, I found myself more and more deeply involved in Jewish life. Two summers ago, I went to Israel for the first time, on the birthright Taglit trip, then I stayed for over a month to do some volunteering in a kibbutz. Last summer, I instructed arts in a Jewish youth camp in Massachusetts. Last year, I coordinated Shir Chadash, a reform Jewish choir, with Langer Ármin and Rozgonyi Dóra. Last semester, with my interest in the Hebrew language turning more serious, I took both a Classical and a Modern Hebrew course at university.
If I were asked now what Judaism meant to me, I would answer that it means community, unity, tradition, a sense of a shared past dating back thousands of years, which feeling has always filled me with deep respect and affection. At the same time, the picture of the future to be shared also appears in my mind, ending up in my imagining and excitedly planning my own future Jewish identity, what I can do to develop it.
In my previous answer, I did not make mention of religion and deliberately so, as the relation between religion and myself is at the moment such a complicated and not in the least clear domain for me that it seems that not only my whole droshe, but even my entire life would be insufficient to see my connection with religion. It might not be a problem, though, as religion, spirituality, is, in my opinion, one of the few spheres of life that does not in the least have to present itself to one as a black and white, unquestionable reality. It is exactly the opposite, as its depth, its essence derives from its being materially impalpable, that is why it’s called the transcendental, meaning: beyond this world. Still; if I were asked what religion meant to me, how would I respond? I would probably say that to me, God dwells in the depth of emotions: where I can see the beauty in a leaf, in the blowing wind; where the continuity of physical sounds create a most beautiful music; where the real – the inner – self, the soul is born.
I can feel that even though the past four and a half years have brought me closer and closer to Judaism, the veritable point of initiation has not come to pass just yet and – even though, in my opinion, in a spiritual point of view, it can never ever come to pass; I can only continue approaching the unattainable – it is my duty to always strive for getting closer and closer to this point. That is why today is a major turning point in my life; as, though the future is still a blurred image before my eyes, what I know for sure is that my Bat Micvah is a huge leap towards this unattainable yet approachable goal. I am standing at the threshold of a new life, like Miriam on the shore of the Sea of Reeds, ready and impatient to be finally initiated into a deeper spiritual level of life.