A year ago, on Shabbat Ki Tetze, we called my daughter to the Torah as a bat mitzvah. Since the whole world was in pandemic mode, with no vaccine yet in sight, we had a handful of people in the Faye Rubinstein Weiss Sanctuary at Beth Shalom — my immediate family and a scant few others — and the rest of the attendees were all participating via Zoom. Prior to March of 2020, this was obviously not the way that most benei mitzvah were fêted, and even in August, it still seemed quite strange. There was no huge party in celebration of Hannah’s joining the ranks of Jewish adults; there was no florist, no caterer, no DJ. We had made a token few matching kippah/mask sets, and a video photo montage (which made me cry multiple times!) which we shared with friends and family online.
But, as with all of the benei mitzvah services in the COVID context, 19 of them at Beth Shalom since March, 2020, the experience was distilled to the essence of what celebrating benei mitzvah should be: a public acknowledgment that this child is now one of us, one who has inherited the mantle of mitzvot, the entire catalogue of holy opportunities that are the spiritual fulfillment of Jewish life. And it was a worthy reminder that this distillation is exactly what bat/bar mitzvah is all about. As my daughter chanted the opening of the Fifth Haftarah of Consolation, “Ronni, aqarah!” (“Shout with joy, O barren one!), and with it the promise that the barren shall soon be fruitful, I looked forward to a more joyous time, but understood that our celebration was not at all lessened by our diminished circumstances.
A full year later, as we have begun to gather again, cautiously, in person now, I am feeling a whole lot of delayed joy merely in seeing actual people in our sanctuary once again. And as we read Parshat Ki Tetze once again, with its many, many laws (74 mitzvot by one reckoning, the most of any parshat), I am reminded of the power that this framework of mitzvot still has over us, of the structure and holiness it brings. Although few of us own oxen or sheep, we are still guided by the obligation to return our neighbors’ lost items. Although few of us need to forage for food, we are still guided by the obligation to shoo away the mother bird before taking her chicks, so she will not see; it is a reminder to respect all creatures. Although few of us invite guests onto our roofs, we are still guided by the principle of building a parapet to prevent people from falling off, a guideline to safeguard the lives of others.
So all the more so, I am shouting with joy as we dive into Ki Tetze and that framework once again, not only as the proud father whose daughter has been reading Torah at Camp Ramah this summer, but also because we continue to teach and learn and celebrate and seek those holy opportunities that our tradition affords us. No virus will break that chain of tradition; no pandemic will prevent us from living and relating the wisdom of the Jewish bookshelf. I am grateful and joyous for our mitzvot and the opportunity to interpret them for our time, and I am hopeful that the benei mitzvah we celebrate from this point forward will be just as meaningful. PJC
Rabbi Seth Adelson is senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.