Notes from a 13-Year-Old Rabbi

Today I become an adult rabbi.

This June marks my 13th year since ordination as a rabbi, and my 13th year of service to my congregation. I am, therefore, a bar mitzvah rabbi, having reached the age of Jewish maturity. At age 13 we celebrate this rite of passage for our youth, as we mark their transition into Jewish adulthood when they can take on an expansive role in Jewish community and Jewish practice. It is also a fitting rite of passage of maturity into the teenage years.

As I tell my b’nai mitzvah students, the marking of a bar or bat mitzvah is both an ending and a beginning, a start of a new chapter, a time of looking backward and ahead. I like to think that 13 years doing the same thing also brings one to a point of maturity, after 13 years we are well poised to look backward and ahead to see from where we have come, and also where we are going.

READ: The Beautiful Meaning Behind My Daughter’s Alternative Bat Mitzvah

When I became a rabbi, I didn’t necessarily think I would serve a congregation long term. But as our relationship developed and deepened, it became a natural fit. As in any good relationship we endeavored on joint projects in common cause for the same mission, and allowed each other the space to grow and develop. We developed trust for one another, which then gives us the foundation to try new things, explore new opportunities. The longevity has been nurturing and mutually beneficial. And with it also comes a lot of change.

Over the course of 13 years I have been able to be with people throughout their spiritual journeys, welcomed new people in, been present in times of need. I have officiated at weddings for past b’nai mitzvah, and soon I will officiate at b’nai mitzvah for those I welcomed at birth.

READ: Jewish Newborn Ceremonies 101

At the same time, there has been a lot of loss. Senior members of the congregation (and unfortunately, sometimes, not so senior) pass on, congregants  move away because of retirement or new opportunities, staff members have come and gone.

When we tell the Torah story of the wanderings of the Israelites in the desert, fleeing Egyptian slavery and making their way to a new life in the Promised Land, we tend to forget that what turned out to be a 40-year journey was actually supposed to be a short trip. Aside from a detour to Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, the original plan was a quick journey from Egypt to Canaan.

It is in this week’s Torah portion that the plan changes, and the 40-year sentence is imposed by God for the Israelite’s unfaithfulness. In the portion, Shlach, Moses sends 12 scouts into the land to check it out. Ten come back with a negative report and a pessimistic view of the road ahead, two — Joshua and Caleb — are more optimistic and hopeful for the next stage. (See my colleague Heidi Hoover’s great piece connecting this to the Brexit vote). The Israelites are swayed by the 10 over the two, and cry out to God. God, upset at the insubordination, decrees that all those who have left Egypt will die in the wilderness, and it is only the next generation that will enter the land. Only Joshua and Caleb will evade this fate.

Joshua later becomes the leader of the Israelites after Moses is also destined to die in the wilderness having not reached the Promised Land; Joshua will be the one to lead this new generation into the next stage of their journey.

I’m thinking a lot about Joshua as I read this portion this week, celebrating my “Rabar Mitzvah” (?!), and trying to gain perspective. In the Torah, the generation that began the journey will not be the one to end it. In the same way, with all the growth and loss, I look around at my 13th year and see that the congregation I started serving is not the same congregation I am serving now. I can imagine the strong mixed feelings of pleasure and pain Joshua must feel as the constant presence among so much change.

Every bar mitzvah carries with it the promise of the future and the possibilities that brings. I plan to carry that intention into my 13th rabbinic year. And it is an intention that is not exclusive to 13 years, it is a practice we can always be engaging in: remembering what was, mourning the losses, celebrating the victories and keeping an open heart and mind for an unknown future.

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