When I was in middle school my grandmother gave me a sweatshirt that read: “God created man before woman, but then you always create a rough draft before you create a masterpiece.” It was a funny one-liner, and at that time in my life when the differences between boys and girls were becoming more and more pronounced and when they were starting to notice those differences, this sweatshirt quickly became my favorite.
I wasn’t your average twelve-year-old girl. I craved religion and a leadership role in the synagogue. But in my home congregation, women were not counted in a minyan or allowed to lead any service other than Kabbalat Shabbat or Psukei d’zimra. Many women didn’t wear tallitot, and I’d never seen any wear tefillin. But at twelve years old, I wanted it all.
I begged to lead as much of the service as they’d allow, and my mind was made up that I was going to wear tefillin. I don’t know what it was about those little black boxes with leather straps, but I was drawn to them. The boys and the other girls made fun of me because of it. The older men in the congregation thought it was wrong. Many of them stared. I didn’t care; I absolutely loved putting on my tefillin in the morning. I chose the mitzvah, and I didn’t care what anybody else thought. Looking back on that experience, I know in my heart that my attachment came partly from being raised in a family that loved being Jewish and partly from my ability to choose to take on this responsibility.
Our parshah this week, parshat Yitro, continues the narrative of Moshe as the new leader of a newly freed nation of Israel. After generations of slavery, the freedom of choice was not a familiar concept. And as the people were learning to discover freedom, Moshe learned every day what it meant to be a leader. Even Moses, the great leader of the Israelites, didn’t really choose that title. He insisted that he was the wrong person for the job, and God would hear none of it. We see Moses the leader struggling to find the passion in doing something he’s been told to do.
It can be difficult to love a job if you aren’t free to choose whether or not you want to do it. It happens all the time with adults and children. A student will write beautiful poetry . . . right up until poetry becomes an assignment, and the student shuts down. I hated carrots growing up, but I was required to eat my carrots at dinner. Years later, when no one was waiting for me to finish the vegetables on my plate, I actually found that I didn’t hate carrots at all. I just hated being told to eat them.
In parshat Yitro, God utters ten phrases that are often viewed as the be all and end all, ten demands and obligations upon us as Jews. But I believe that each one presents us with a choice. These utterances give us the choice to decide how we will act. Some come with explicit consequences attached, others leave it up to the individual to understand, but each one presents an opportunity.
- “I am the Lord your God.” Right at the start we are given the choice to believe and move forward on this Jewish path or walk away from faith.
- “Have no other Gods but me, and make no images.” Here we learn that apparently less is more, and the choice is ours to unbind ourselves from the physical and give meaning to the spiritual.
- “Do not use the name of God in vain.” Choose your words wisely and make each one count.
- “Remember Shabbat and make it holy.” You are in control of how you use your time. If you choose Shabbat, that holiness becomes a weekly part of life.
- “Honor your father and mother.” Choose to keep family and loved ones close or choose a life of solitude.
- “Do not murder.” Choose to sustain and maintain life.
- “Do not commit adultery.” As we tell children, choose to keep your hands to yourself.
- “Do not steal.” Choose to consider what you take away from others and what you give to them.
- “Do not bear false witness against your neighbor.” Choose an honest life, do the right thing, and give others the benefit of the doubt.
- “Do not covet.” Choose to accept and appreciate what you have, and choose to find balance in the material and the spiritual.
These mitzvot seem universal to us, so it’s odd to think of any of these ten having exemptions, but the world of Jewish responsibility is a tricky one. Some of our other mitzvot, like wearing tefillin six mornings a week, are time-bound obligations for men, while women are exempt. When I was twelve, I’m not sure I knew what “exempt” meant, but I knew I had a choice.
I’ve been asked, “What’s it like to be a female rabbi?” or “What can you offer as a female rabbi that a male rabbi cannot?” Truthfully, I believe that each human being offers something that no other human can, regardless of gender. But when I stop to think about it, as a female rabbi – and a female Jew for that matter – I have a distinct advantage. Besides being able to build and bridge relationships from a new perspective and serve as a positive Jewish role model for both men and women, I have an enormous opportunity. I have choice.
For me, the most powerful answer to the question of being a female rabbi comes from our parshah this week. At the beginning of Yitro, Moshe’s father in law asks Moshe about this Israelite religion, and then chooses to become a part of it. He chooses to join our people on their journey and chooses to accept the Ten Commandments and Jewish living not because he is obligated to, but because he wants to.
As a female rabbi and as a Jewish woman, I have the unique advantage of approaching my Jewish prayer, ritual, and life from the perspective of choice. I put on my tallit and tefillin not only because the text tells me to or because someone made me or even asked me to. I put them on because I want to, because I was able to explore their meaning and find my own connection. When I put on my tallit and tefillin, it is out of a passionate love for the traditions that bind me to my past, to God, and to the Jewish people.
Watching the younger children in services is heartwarming. They love tefillot, they are excited about the prayers, especially when they finally learn that one that they’ve been struggling with. You see, no one has told them yet that in just a few years they’ll be obligated to pray. When the students become b’nai mitzvah age, suddenly Judaism becomes a chore. Someone’s telling me I have to do this, therefore it must not be fun.
Living a Jewish life, especially when you’re in middle school, is often presented as a have to, a must, and not a choice. When we explain to teenagers the obligations we expect of them, sometimes the message we’re really sending is “It’s a good thing we’re making you do this, otherwise you wouldn’t want to.” For example, when we end the discussion of kashrut by simply saying that we keep these laws because God said so, we lose a precious opportunity to explain that we observe because we are asked to, but also because it fills every day with the recognition that we are a part of something bigger.
Choice is a pretty powerful thing. And if we can empower each other with the idea of living Jewish tradition by choice, regardless of age or gender, together we’re creating a masterpiece.