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Shabbat Vayetze 13.11.21

Phoenix Moore

How do you escape society’s expectations or pressures?

This is the question that I have been exploring, both in my life and in my learning about my b’nei mitzvah portion.

Today we are hearing part of the story of Jacob’s life. Last week in the Torah we read about how Jacob was born second, after his brother Esau. This meant that he lost out on the birthright and his life had already been written before he was even born. By being born second he would not inherit from his father, and he also would also not be first in line for a blessing. Jacob was trapped by society’s expectations and standards that are placed upon the second child - maybe just as much as his older brother Esau might have been trapped by what was expected of an older child. 

We pick up the story this week when Jacob is fleeing from his home after tricking his father into giving him the blessing and stealing the birthright from his brother. He lies down to sleep and he has a dream, he sees angels, or messengers of god going up and down a ladder. God stands beside Jacob and says to him that his descendents will spread out across the earth, and through them all the nations of the earth shall be blessed. When I read this I thought how different this is to the experience of blessings in Jacob’s childhood, where only one person and not all the descendents are able to give and receive blessing. In Jacob's dream he is freed from the idea that blessings only belong to a narrow set of people. 

I like the idea of angels who go up and down, and who can be both close to God and power, and also down on earth near people. Although this is Jacob's dream, it is not yet his reality, and it will take another few chapters of Torah for him to finally shake off his name and to become the person he is meant to be. Some of you may have known me before as Charlotte or Lottie, but I have recently shaken off my old name and found a name that feels truer to who I am because it is more gender neutral and it embodies the idea of transformation without losing the things that make me who I am. 

There is something in Jacobs' story of struggling with expectations, and trying to figure out what he is really destined to do that I can relate to. I have recently been diagnosed with Autism, however I have always been aware of the difference in my thinking and behaviour to those around me. I think a lot about how there are these expectations in society about the way you are supposed to look and act. When I tell people I am autistic they say things like ‘You don't look autistic’ and I want to ask ‘why is there this pressure to look and act a certain way to be seen as valid’. 

It's hard to communicate what these expectations feel like in words, so I have done it in art instead. Last month I made this sculpture that you can see on the screen or here in the room. 
This is what I wrote to go alongside my sculpture for a competition. 

“Freedom to me is being free from mental restrictions and freeing your brain’s creativity, thoughts and feelings. My artwork is a representation of me trying to free my mind. The cell symbolises the restrictions and captivity of society, along with the pressures of trying to be like everyone else. I want to free myself from the expectations, mental health struggles and unrealistic expectations of my mind and body. I know that will take time and it will be a challenge but I will carry on climbing the cage to reach the key. I will free myself”.

This last stretch of preparation for B’nei mitzvah has been about taking these ideas and having the confidence to put them into practice. I started off feeling worried and concerned and stressed about the fact that I couldn't get through a single sentence of Hebrew without stumbling. I felt really insecure when I had to read to someone because it felt like I was failing or wasn't as good as other people and it made me feel really bad about myself. When I asked my friends for tips they were all like “oh it came really easy for me” and that didn’t help.

I learnt about the ancient tradition of the meturgaman who was really important for reading the Torah in public in places where people didn't know Hebrew. A person would read Hebrew from the scroll but the person who the community learnt from was the translator, who told the story in a way they could all understand - usually in Aramaic  - but don’t worry I'm not doing that today! 

When I heard about this I realised this could be my role, and this was just as valid a way as reading from the Torah and sharing it with the community as reading from the scroll itself. If I could talk to my former self or to someone who is in the same position as I was in I would say it's ok for your b’nei mitzvah to not look like someone else's, it's completely up to you, and it's who you are that really counts. 

Mon, 6 December 2021 2 Tevet 5782