I am very proud and excited to be standing here today giving a d’var Torah to celebrate my Bat Mitzvah. To me, becoming an adult means that I am a true member of the Jewish religion – my mitzvot are now real, and I have the responsibilities and opportunities of all Jewish adults.
My parsha is Matot, which opens with the laws of vows and when they can and cannot be cancelled. Breaking your vow is considered very serious in Judaism, and that is why on the day before Rosh Hashanah, and again on the night of Yom Kippur at Kol Nidrei, we make declarations saying that we want any vows we have made to be cancelled, and declare any future vows void. Judaism takes the power of the word very seriously, whether it is making a promise you cannot keep, telling a lie, or speaking negatively about someone. On the other hand, words can be used for so many mitzvot and positive deeds. A kind word can make someone feel better about themselves. When we pray Judaism says we have to actually say the words and not just think or feel them, and these prayers have the power to connect us to God. Learning and discussing Torah – again said aloud – is one of the most important Mitzvot we can do. I have learnt from the passage at the start of my parsha to always appreciate how powerful words can be.
Names too have meaning and can be powerful. My Hebrew name is Esther Pesha. I am named after my two great grandmothers- Grandma Elsie, whose Hebrew name was Esther, and Grandma Peggy, whose Hebrew name was Pesha.
Esther is one of the true heroines of the Torah. She was taken away by king Achashverosh’s men to become his wife. She lived in the royal palace, keeping her Judaism in secret. After living like a prisoner for several years, she responded to Mordachai’s request to save the Jewish people. Risking her own life by revealing she is Jewish, she pleads with the King to overrule Haman’s decrees. Through her bravery she and Mordechai, and the Jewish people are saved. Esther is special to me because she kept her Judaism even though it was immensely difficult to do so. She also risked everything to save others.
Now Pesha, which is Yiddish, comes from the name ‘Batya’. Batya was the daughter of Pharoah who rescued Moshe from the river. She risked her life to save a Jewish child in the shadow of the man who was trying to kill the Jews. She, like Esther, was brave because she was dedicated to protecting and saving others. Both of these righteous women stood up and took action to do what was right and were able to tune in to what Hashem needed them to do.
Being righteous and true to myself makes me happy. As part of my Bat Mitzvah studies I have been learning what Judaism says about happiness. Every day as part of the morning prayers we say, ‘Serve God with Joy’. Towards the end of the Torah, God rebukes the Jewish people for ‘not serving Him with joy’.
The Torah gives two ways in which we can work on becoming happier people. We are commanded to say blessings every time we enjoy this world, whether it’s through taste, sound, smell, sight… or even achievement. Personally, I enjoy maths, history, baking, music and drama. Whenever we do the things we enjoy, we should be excited and stop to take things in! We should take a minute to say a bracha, saying thank you to Hashem for giving us this opportunity.. Stopping and thinking about what we are doing, about how fantastic something is, helps us appreciate the world around us. Through appreciation, even of the smallest things, we can enjoy life more and live as happier people.
The other way to be more joyful is by training ourselves to look at the world differently. In Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Fathers, it says, ‘who is happy? – the one who is satisfied with his lot’. We can choose to look at the glass half empty or half full. There was a beautiful story in the news recently about a woman who was deaf, who had implants to help her hear. As this woman hears for the first time in her life you can see the look of joy and emotion on her face – it is simply incredible… and hearing is something that most of us take for granted.
The Torah says that with training and practice, it can become second nature to always appreciate the wonderful gifts we have but generally don’t notice.
In conclusion, as I become Bat Mitzvah, a daughter of the mitzvot, I hope that I am able to make these Jewish ideas a part of myself as I continue to grow and develop as a Jewish woman. I hope I am always able to use words to make people happy, and to appreciate how important it is to keep my word. I hope that I am able to emulate the ways of my own great-grandmothers and Jewish matriarchs by being brave and dedicated to protecting life.
And finally I pray I am always able to appreciate the many gifts that God gives me. In this way, I hope that I am able to bring pride and joy to my own parents, grandparents and family always.