What Does a Promise Really Mean?

After a Bar/Bat Mitzvah Service parents often tell me how surprised they were of their own reaction to the event. They naturally expected to be somewhat emotional seeing their daughter or son on the bimah.  They knew they would be proud and happy, but what they felt (as I experienced first hand over a year ago during my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah) was much deeper and unanticipated. "I knew she would do well, I saw how much effort she put into it, so why couldn’t I believe that I was looking at my own daughter?" asked one mother, and another commented "I'm used to seeing my child excel on stage (acting, dancing, playing a musical instrument), so why does this feel so different?" 

In preparation for the class I taught on the Book of Genesis, I spent a lot of time reading and thinking about our first patriarch and matriarch, Abraham and Sarah. One of the questions I struggled with was the fact that God repeated His promise to them of land and progeny five times. In chapter 13, for example, God instructs Abraham “Lift up your eyes from where you are and look north, south, east and west. All the land that you see, I will give you and your offspring forever . . . Go, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I am giving it to you.” Similar promises were given regarding children,  “I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of the sky and as the sand on the seashore.” (22:17). The problem is that despite all the promises, by the time of Sarah's death they didn't own even one inch of land and had only one unmarried child. Wouldn’t we expect God to live up to the promises that were made? 

It took many generations before Abraham and Sarah’s descendants finally became a people and possessed the promised (literally) land. But the most important lesson we learned is that when God makes a promise it does not mean that God will act while we remain passive. When God promises, God shows us our potential and invites us to live up to it. The outcome will be what God said it would, but only if we are totally committed – ultimately, it is up to us.  

After the B’nei Mitzvah speech it is the parent’s turn to talk to their children. Many begin by talking about their own emotions at the birth of their child 13 years earlier. I am always fascinated seeing them relive that magical moment of birth while connecting with the same child 13 years later. For a brief moment, parents are simultaneously looking at and loving two different children who are one.  The new baby they remember was beautiful, full of potential, brimming with promises. The Bat/Bar Mitzvah in front of them is a reality check; not of their academic, athletic and artistic achievements, but of how they are turning out to be as human beings.  

Every day I get an email from edline (the online method used by the public school system to keep parents and students informed) telling me more than I need to know about how my children are doing at school. For kids who are into sports, their parents go to games, meets and races and get constant feedback. The same applies to other extracurricular activities. But how often do we get an opportunity to see our child as a mensch, a spiritual person, a good friend, a leader? When they are on the bimah, leading a Service, guiding the congregation, and talking publically about Torah and Mitzvot we see how the promise begins to turn into reality. At that moment, we are overcome with emotions of gratitude, pride and yes – fear. We see what they are becoming, but the promise has a long way to go before it is fully realized.  

Happy Chanukah, 
Rabbi Alon Levkovitz