To My Daughter on Becoming Bat Mitzvah

Below is the speech I gave on June 8, 2019 following the service celebrating my daughter becoming Bat Mitzvah.

Eliana.

Soon after you were born, Ema and I started to notice…an…odor. 

We would bathe you, of course, but there was often this very sour smell. We couldn’t figure out why. Where was this funny smell coming from?

One day your head rolled way back, far enough for all of the little folds of baby neck skin to open up, and it was there that we found the source of the stink…a disgusting little cocktail of curdled spit-up that we had not adequately cleaned from the folds of your neck.

Who knew you had to deep clean the crevices of a baby’s neck?! Nobody told us that! In the hospital they taught us to gently pour warm soapy water over you and to carefully shampoo your hair. So that’s what we did.

And it wasn’t enough.

So, right about now you’re probably wondering, “Why, Abba, on my Bat Mitzvah day, are you telling 130 people, including all of my friends, about how I smelled as a baby?”

It’s a fair question, but there’s a good answer.

I’m telling you this, Eliana, because, if you were not already aware, Ema and I don’t always quite know what we’re doing, and that can really stink (pun absolutely intended) for you, especially as the oldest child in the family.

It’s cliché, I suppose, but being the oldest means that everything that is new for you is also new for us. And I’m sure that just as we made mistakes when you were a little baby, we are making them now too.

I hope every single day that we are getting it right, but often times I really, truly just don’t know.

As you get older you will see things with your adult eyes that you didn’t see with your child eyes. In fact, I can tell that you are already seeing many of these things.

You’ll see that parents and adults don’t always have the answers, that they make mistakes, and that they sometimes say sorry, but sometimes they don’t know how to.

You will start to understand me better, to see me more as a full person.

There are going to be things that you really like about me and things that you won’t like at all…You’ll tell yourself you’ll do many things differently as an adult and perhaps one day as a parent as well.

This is all a really long-winded way of telling you, Eliana, that I’m so sorry for not properly cleaning your neck as a baby. And I’m sorry for all of the other mistakes I have made so far, and I’m sorry for all the mistakes I will certainly make in the future. I truly hope that, despite learning how to be a parent each and every day, I am doing enough for you.

And by the way, generally speaking you really smell fabulous most of the time these days!

Now, enough about me and my insecurities! Let’s talk more about you and why you are so incredibly fabulous!

There are so many things that I love about you, Eliana, but I want to talk about two of them.

The first thing I love about you is your incredible intuition for justice and equality, and I want to share two quick recent examples of this:

The other day you asked Ema why so many people don’t like when a man marries a man or a woman marries a woman. I could see that it was really bothering you as you very emphatically insisted to us that same-sex couples are just people like anyone else and without question should not be treated differently.

Another example: We were recently at a large event, where the majority of the attendees were white. You began telling me at one point that you were really enjoying spending time with a woman there. I asked you who she was, but I did not recognize the name, so I asked you to describe her. You immediately started telling me about her dress. Quickly I realized you were speaking about one of the few people of color in attendance, and it struck me that, in my experience, most white people in a similar situation inevitably first note the person’s skin color if the person in question is not also white. But that’s now how you see the world. You did not see a white woman, a black woman, a Latina…what you saw was a kind woman who was wearing a beautiful dress.

These two moments, and there are others I could share, make me so proud of you, Eliana. You naturally focus on people as human beings and not on attributes that might make them stand out as different. And that is exactly how it should be.

Eliana, the world has a tremendous amount to learn from you.

The other thing I love about you, Ellie, is your incredible personality. You’re hilarious and sassy in all the best ways and were from the moment you were born.

When we visit you at camp, you know everyone and everyone knows you. You started a brand new school this year and you quickly built a wonderful group of friends, and just this past Monday you were the lead in the school play!

A word of advice, though: With great personality comes great responsibility.

People notice what you do and what you say because they like to be around you. In this way, you have a lot of power. Always use your beautiful sparkling personality to influence people for good, to help others become better people, to teach people to treat everyone in the world with the incredible dignity that comes so naturally to you.

Finally, I want to end with a quick word of Torah.

Chapter 7 of parashat Nasso, the final chapter of your Torah portion, begins with the following verse:

וַיְהִ֡י בְּיוֹם֩ כַּלּ֨וֹת מֹשֶׁ֜ה לְהָקִ֣ים אֶת־הַמִּשְׁכָּ֗ן וַיִּמְשַׁ֨ח אֹת֜וֹ וַיְקַדֵּ֤שׁ אֹתוֹ֙ וְאֶת־כָּל־כֵּלָ֔יו וְאֶת־הַמִּזְבֵּ֖חַ וְאֶת־כָּל־כֵּלָ֑יו וַיִּמְשָׁחֵ֖ם וַיְקַדֵּ֥שׁ אֹתָֽם׃

On the day that Moses finished setting up the Mishkan, he anointed and sanctified it and all its furnishings, as well as the altar and its utensils, and anointed them and sanctified them. (Numbers 7:1)

We studied together how the entire Israelite community helped build and care for the Mishkan. In this verse the construction of the Mishkan is declared complete and almost ready for use. The only thing left was for heads of each of the Israelite tribes to present gifts to the Mishkan to celebrate its readiness to facilitate the holy encounter between humanity and the divine.

On this day, Eliana, you are the Mishkan. Ema and I have set you up, we have anointed and blessed you and have furnished you with what you need. And look around you. You are surrounded by the representatives of many tribes, who all came to collectively celebrate with you.

Together we say to you, Eliana, you too are now ready to facilitate the holy encounter between humanity and the divine. Put differently, Eliana, you are ready for the world, and I know the world is ready and waiting for you.

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