Walking home from shul the night before her cousin Tyler’s bar mitzvah, my six-year-old daughter asked, “Will Uncle Avi teach me for my bat mitzvah, too? And how will I choose what to layn for my bat mitzvah?”
These questions were music to my ears – her default assumption is that she will fully participate in ritual observance. I would not have made that assumption at six. When I was twelve, the option of reading Torah for my bat mitzvah was not a possibility I considered. I studied Tanach at school, and was well on my way to defining myself as a ‘Tanach person’ through my weekly involvement in preparation for Chidon HaTanach (national Bible Contest). Even though we all knew that the boys who could layn were at a distinct advantage, I don’t think I ever considered learning to layn.
So I didn’t – not until after we started talking about this bat mitzvah, tentatively scheduled for December 2022.
As a mother, the only thing I’ve ever wanted for my daughters is for them to have a full range of options in life. Ritual observance is an area where girls in Jewish day schools can easily pick up the message that they are not full participants – so I’ve gone out of my way to show her that I’m as full a participant as I can manage. In our house, Ima makes kiddush and Abba makes hamotzi. Ima goes to Tikkun Leyl Shavuot and Ima learns Torah with her daughters.
As a mother, the only thing I’ve ever wanted for my daughters is for them to have a full range of options in life.
After she and I had that conversation, it became clear to me that perhaps Ima was a bit of a hypocrite. I am not 12 anymore, and I can no longer say that cultural expectations and lack of access to resources keeps me from layning Torah. As someone who studied Tanach in midrasha as well as university, and one who has taught Torah for many years, I started to think, “It’s absurd that I don’t know how to layn.” So I told myself I’d learn to layn. I told other people I’d learn to layn this summer. I painted myself into a corner wherein I had to learn to layn – or else I’d be breaking a promise to myself.
And so, last Thursday, I stood up in front of 20 women from my shul and a handful of children hopped up on candy, and I layned Revi’i of Vezot Habracha three times.
I’ve always loved VeZot Habracha – as a student I chose it for special study, and as a teacher I assigned it to my students for a major project. It opens with the intertwined bracha to the tribes of Zevulun and Issachar,
וְלִזְבוּלֻ֣ן אָמַ֔ר שְׂמַ֥ח זְבוּלֻ֖ן בְּצֵאתֶ֑ךָ וְיִשָּׂשכָ֖ר בְּאֹהָלֶֽיךָ
And of Zebulun he said: Rejoice, O Zebulun, on your journeys, And Issachar, in your tents. (Deuteronomy 33:18)
In the biblical era, these brachot were destiny and you were stuck if you were born into Zevulun and didn’t want to be a sea-faring merchant or born into Yissachar and you did. In our era, though, I appreciate the idea that it takes many different kinds of people to make up our nation. We don’t know what tribe we are in, so perhaps we can look past the tribalism and see different ways to achieve our purpose. Perhaps what tribe we affiliate with can change over time. All my life, I have been Issachar, (more or less) happy in my tent. Now I am Zevulun, happy on my journey outward.
In our house, Ima makes kiddush and Abba makes hamotzi. Ima goes to Tikkun Leyl Shavuot and Ima learns Torah with her daughters.
As a feminist mom, I have really strong desires for my daughters to choose for themselves as I would choose for them. But that’s not my role. My role is to present them with choices, and to live by example as one who chooses deliberately and thoughtfully. That way, when the time comes for them to be adult women, they will know how to make these choices.
There’s really nothing like two kids, a job and a mortgage to keep you from finding the ten minutes for that one really important thing you are trying to do. It would have been so easy for me to say that I was too busy to learn to layn. But, as a 30-something, I am cognizant that life moves quickly and opportunities I have today may evaporate by tomorrow. So I Skyped with Uncle Avi, bar mitzvah tutor extraordinaire, and he walked me through learning the layning.
… all those decades ago, I had not considered the possibility that I could layn, but they never imagined that I couldn’t.
I built this up for myself as a huge moment for me personally and as a mother. I made sure my daughters were in the room to witness this important moment of mine. I looked over after I finished reading the aliyah the first time, and they were playing quietly on the side. They didn’t think anything out of the ordinary had taken place. It took me a few minutes to realize that this was the best possible occurrence – all those decades ago, I had not considered the possibility that I could layn, but they never imagined that I couldn’t. And I would never have to answer the question, “But Ima, why don’t you layn?” Because now, I do.
Aliza Libman Baronofsky teaches at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, MD. She taught Tanach and math to middle and high school students at the Maimonides School in Brookline for 11 years. Aliza is the creator of www.chumashandmath.blogspot
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