Dvar Torah: Hakarat HaTov and Bar/Bat Mitzvah

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 18 March 2022

If we think back to those early weeks of Covid, two years ago, there were a number of themes that swirled around us and between us alongside the fear and confusion:

Perhaps, we realised, we had become overly critical – needed to work to be more gentle and forgiving;
might we come out of lockdown with a new openness – less about ourselves, try harder to see the need of others; we should seek to appreciate the good in what we have.

On the second Erev Shabbat of the first Covid lockdown – 27 March 2020 – I spoke about the principle of hakarat hatov – of recognising the good; of never again taking for granted the everyday things that we had suddenly found ourselves unable to experience.
This evening I want to return to this idea.

Acknowledging, being grateful for the everyday. Seeing, being present to, the things it is so easy not to see.
As it says in the ‘modim’ that we read in our Amidah – al nissecha sheb’chol yom immanu – for Your miracles that are with us daily – thanking God, in the words of Arthur Green ‘for the greatest gift of all: our ability to see the miraculous within the everyday”

Hakarat Hatov is fundamental to our sense of wellbeing. Fundamental, too, to our Jewish and communal life. The most important things that we do here, in synagogue, are not the big events, the gimmicks, the spectaculars – fun as they are… but the regular – what we do week after week – prayer, study, the care that we show for one another, accompanying others through times of joy and of sadness, ensuring that we have learning and gathering for those early in their Jewish lives. The small moments of connection in a world that seems determined to pull us apart. When I look back on the last two years it is that of which I am most proud – that all of this remained – in new and different ways despite it all.

And part of that, for us is B’nei Mitzvah. Even during the height of a pandemic, 70 young people read Torah for their community for the first time away from this bimah.

Since I joined Alyth in November 2008, we have celebrated 566 b’nei mitzvah – at an average of 3 or 4 a month; more recently. I’ve had the personal privilege of officiating at just under 40% of those – Ethan you’re my no.215.

It is so easy to take it for granted – not to recognise the work that goes into it, but also not to recognise the gift that this is; not to see the beauty in this everyday – or every week – experience each one a moment of connection, each one an opportunity, each one a special moment of transition for a young person and their family.

And something else we take for granted. Of those 566, 261 have been b’not mitzvah. Not quite half but nearly. We celebrate bat mitzvah so often that we forget that each one is still an extraordinary thing – that most Jewish girls in this country do not have the opportunity to read Torah as ours do, and that Bat Mitzvah at all remains a historical novelty.

Today is exactly 100 years to the day since what is sometimes referred to as the first modern Bat Mitzvah – that of Judith Kaplan, the daughter of Mordechai Kaplan. It wasn’t really – at least not as we understand it – she did not read from the Torah but from a chumash away from the bimah; and there is plenty of evidence of earlier synagogue celebrations – mainly for groups of young women together – and some individual ones – including one in 1902 in Lviv, now at the centre of our news.

But it is a reminder that Bat Mitzvah as a regular part of communal life, and especially involving reading of Torah, is new. Bat Mitzvah as we do it probably became part of Reform Jewish life in this country no earlier than the 1960s. So every one of the 261 B’not Mitzvah since I joined this community has also been a pioneer.

There are so many ways in which what we have is extraordinary.
For a brief period in 2020 we found it in ourselves to recognise this. We committed to trying to see the good. Inevitably, after two years rather than just two weeks – it has been hard to keep to those commitments that we made to ourselves and to each other.
But perhaps, this Shabbat we can recommit to hakarat hatov, starting with this – the joy of prayer, the blessing of Bar and Bat Mitzvah, the gift of community.