Parashat B'ha'alothkha

Sometimes, There Are Second Chances

Of "Second Passover," Rabbi Akiva, and adult bat mitzvahs

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Reprinted with permission of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

One of the most compelling new rituals in the Conservative synagogue is the adult bat-mitzvah. The impulse is egalitarian, the result religious empowerment. The women who participate enjoyed no bat-mitzvah ceremony in their youth. Years later they seek to fill the void. Usually in small groups of up to a dozen, they study with their rabbi and cantor for a period of at least two years.

The practice is so widespread today that the Women's League for Conservative Judaism has produced a carefully articulated curriculum to enhance the meaningfulness of the experience. Learning to read Hebrew is required. Biblically based yet religiously encompassing, the study period culminates in the preparation of a specific parashah and haftarah [prophetic reading] to be chanted in the synagogue on a Shabbat morning. There is definitely comfort in numbers. Doing the bat-mitzvah as a group lessens the tension of performing in public. Each participant must master only a part of the whole.

A few years ago, a large Solomon Schechter elementary day school appointed its first rabbi-in-residence, a post vital to intensifying the religious atmosphere and programming of the school. A number of the women on the faculty approached her about preparing them for an adult bat-mitzvah. She readily agreed provided that the ceremony be held in the school. After two years of serious study, the teachers celebrated their bat-mitzvah in a service attended by all the students in the school. The event was role modeling at its best. To see their teacher and colleague reach for holiness transformed students and teachers alike.

The reward that comes from an adult bat-mitzvah is commensurate with the effort. A second chance brings with it a heightened state of consciousness. We would not be there if we didn't appreciate what we missed. The bonding with fellow adult learners, the illumination of Jewish texts, rituals and values and the mastering of a new set of skills fill us with pride and meaning. The growth brings us closer to God even as it affirms our vitality.

The power of this new ritual is infectious. Men who never celebrated a bar-mitzvah or endured one bereft of spiritual content are beginning to ask their rabbis for equal attention. To cast study in the mold of ritual is to infuse it with sanctity.

What prompts me to speak of the innovation of an adult rite of passage is the briefest of narrative fragments in our parashah. Out of Egypt a year, the Israelites are instructed by Moses to observe their first Passover in the wilderness. Some, however, inform Moses that they have been rendered impure by contact with a corpse and therefore are prohibited from sacrificing and consuming the Paschal offering on the assigned day. Yet given the momentous nature of this first anniversary, they do not want to be excluded.

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Rabbi Ismar Schorsch

Rabbi Ismar Schorsch served as chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary.