At last! The Sabbath eve of my long anticipated Bas Mitzvah! More than the culmination of months of study, it was a step toward maturity. As I waited on the bimah during the Friday evening service, I savored the exciting thought that in just a few short moments I would officially enter into Jewish adulthood in the tradition of my forefathers.
From my seat next to the rabbi, I gazed down at the faces of my family and friends. How proud my parents looked—proud that their daughter was about to make a public commitment to the God of Israel.
I was filled with a combined sense of devotion and nervous expectation. My heart began to beat faster as the time drew near, until finally I was called! I walked over to the lectern, took a deep breath and slowly began with the brachah that is chanted before the Haftorah reading.
My rabbi had patiently taught me the Haftorah portion of Scripture for that week. It was Yithro, taken from Isaiah 6:1-13, which describes the call of the Prophet Isaiah to his ministry. Isaiah had a vision of God in the Temple. When the Lord asked who would go forth in His name, Isaiah answered, Hineni; shelachani!”—”Here am I; send me!” His willingness to serve God greatly impressed me as a powerful example that I, also, should follow.
After chanting this Haftorah, I was ready to begin my Bas Mitzvah speech. The rabbi and I had carefully written and rewritten this special message. Through it I desired to communicate my deep feelings of dedication to God and Judaism.
“Honored Rabbi, dear parents, relatives and friends: This Sabbath eve I am ready to take my place in the world as a Jew…”
I was confident that I knew the meaning of being Jewish. A Jew was a descendant of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, one who lived by the commandments and traditions of Judaism. I did not realize then that living according to a religious tradition was not enough to qualify me in God’s sight. Not until eight years later did I read the inspired words of a great rabbi, Paul, who taught that God is much more concerned with the heart’s inclination than with outward observance. He wrote:
“Circumcision (being Jewish) has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised (were not Jewish).…A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly.…No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God.”*
Eagerly, I continued with my carefully prepared speech:
“In the sense that Isaiah was willing to serve God, so, too, am I willing to accept any obligation that I as a Jew may meet.”
It was a sincere, but naive statement. The obligation of being a Jew would prove in time to be an awesome task for me, for God has requirements that must be met. In Leviticus 20:7 He commands:
“Consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am the LORD your God.”
Who could possibly measure up to that? I knew even at twelve that I was not holy. I couldn’t keep perfectly even the Ten Commandments, let alone all the 613 precepts of the faith. Yet, I earnestly desired to be worthy. Like Isaiah, I wanted to be “sent” by God. If I did my best, I rationalized, God would understand. He surely couldn’t expect perfection! But the Torah decrees in Deuteronomy 26, verse 18:
“And the LORD has declared this day that you are his people…and that you are to keep all his commands.”
I should have realized from my Haftorah reading that God does require perfect righteousness. Even Isaiah was not considered righteous enough to be sent until an angel had purified his lips with a live coal from the heavenly altar.…
And if Isaiah the Prophet was not worthy without special cleansing, what chance did I have? I went on to my next point:
“Judaism has survived throughout the centuries because we have remained faithful to Torah and to our traditions.”
I was wrong! The Jewish Scriptures teach that we as a people have survived not because of our faith or our might, but because of God’s faithfulness and by His might. Psalm 124 says that had He not upheld us, our enemies would have destroyed us long ago. In my speech I was claiming an achievement that I had not earned.
I didn’t understand any of these things that Bas Mitzvah evening. I concluded my speech with an affirmation of my highest ideals and loftiest goals:
“I pray that the spirit of dedication which fills my soul tonight will remain with me in the years that lie ahead, and that I might live in a manner which will bring pride and honor to my family and my people. To them and to God I say, ‘Hineni; here am I!'”
Although my Bas Mitzvah desire that night was to be sent by God, the direction of my life in the next several years was that of my own choosing. I still wanted to be a good Jew, but I found myself becoming less sure of what that really meant. I envied the closeness that Bible characters experienced with God. It hurt me to think that no one today could claim such a relationship with Him…at least no one I knew, not even my respected rabbi and teachers. I wanted to love the Lord with “all my heart, all my soul and all my might,” as we recited in synagogue; yet I knew I was failing at it.
The years passed. In college I was confronted with many new religious thoughts. I spent nearly four years trying to study and compare them all—all that is, except Christianity. I wanted no part of that religion which seemed to me to be the cause of so much anti-Semitism. I had felt its sting. Frequent affronts over the years by non-Jews had reinforced my Jewish identity, but at the same time had embittered me toward Gentiles, “their” Bible, and “their” God.
Then suddenly I was being bombarded with challenges from Christians to consider the case for Christianity. I took the challenge, not to find out if it was true, but to read the New Testament and to disprove it once and for all.
As I opened the New Testament and began to read, I was surprised that it made sense to me. It was a Jewish book! The words seemed charged with power and love, and there was no doubt in my mind that they had been inspired by God. No other religious book I had studied ever carried such an impact. The New Testament spoke of a Messiah, Jesus, who upheld every word of the Law and the Prophets and claimed to be the fulfillment of both. It said that through faith in this Messiah, I could have a personal knowledge of God! And so a few months after my graduation from college, I asked Jesus the Messiah to cleanse my heart and to take charge of my life.
Many who had been closest to me now reacted with vehemence against my commitment. I was a traitor to our people, they said. This hurt me deeply, because now I felt more Jewish than ever before. Now I knew the God of our fathers, and could serve Him as never before. I have often thought since then of that closing prayer of my Bas Mitzvah:
“I pray that the spirit of dedication which fills my soul…will remain with me…and that I might…bring pride and honor to my family and to my people. To them and to God I say, ‘Hineni; here am I!'”
As my soul was then filled with a spirit of dedication, it is now filled with the Spirit of God. For when I covenanted with God, “Here am I; I will live for You,” He took me at my word. He led me to know the Anointed One—the Messiah of Israel, of whom Isaiah himself prophesied. Now He teaches me His truths through the holy Scriptures and enables me by His strength to live for Him. And anyone else who wants to know and serve the God of Israel can find Him, as I did. Isaiah 58:9 says that when we call upon the Lord, He will answer our cry. He will say to us, “Hineni. Here am I!”
*Romans 2:25, 28, 29.