The Bat Mitzvah Girl Who Loved Horses

Are there tasteful limits for B'nei Mitzvah? B Mitzvah! The Bar/Bat Mitzvah (R)evolution continues here

There was a twelve-year-old girl who loved horses. She was preparing to become bat mitzvah and insisted on horseback rides for her friends in the synagogue parking lot as well as centerpieces with famous horses depicted upon them. She also wanted to wear her riding hat when she read Torah. What to do? What’s a parent or rabbi to say?

Reb Goldie: “Ashley, I’m so impressed by your love of animals, especially horses, that I’ve brought you some information from Judaism about animals and horses.”

Ashley: “Judaism has something to say about animals and horses?”

Reb Goldie: “Oh yes. According to the Torah, Moses was kind to the sheep he herded for his father-in-law, Yitro (Jethro). Our sages teach this kindness was a major reason that Moses was chosen to lead the Jewish people out of Egypt. Another source is that when Rebecca finished giving Abraham’s emissary, Eliezer, a drink she said: ‘I will also draw [water] for your camels, until they have finished drinking’ (Genesis 24:19)”

Ashley: “I see you have more papers Reb Goldie, what are they?”

“More from Judaism about animals. An important Jewish commentary called the Talmud teaches that ‘It is forbidden for a person to even taste food until he has fed his animal, as it says [Deuteronomy 11:15]: “I will put grass in your fields for your animals, and you will eat and be satisfied” -- first your animals should eat, and only afterwards may you eat.’ [Gemara Gittin 62a]

“And, Ashley, a great rabbi, Judah Ha-Nasi, is described in the Talmud as being in pain for years because he was insensitive to the fear of a calf being led to slaughter.”

Ashley: “So Judaism is very concerned with animals. They are not just for work or play; they matter a lot in these stories.”

Reb Goldie: “Here’s one more, would you be willing to read it out loud?”

Ashley: “‘On this day [Shabbat, the seventh day], do no work, you, nor your son, nor your daughter, not a man who serves you, nor your maid, nor your animal, nor the stranger that is visiting.’

“Rabbi! Animals are not allowed to work on Shabbat? My dad is a doctor and he works on Shabbat, our housekeeper works on Shabbat, so why do I feel so sad to think about animals working on Shabbat? Maybe that’s what my uncle means when he says dad works like a dog and that he needs to slow down. Well, I can’t change Shabbat in the family, and I’m not sure if I want to, but I for sure am not going to have horse back rides at my bat mitzvah luncheon! No animal is going to work for me on Shabbat! “What about horses specifically, Reb Goldie? What does Judaism say about horses?

So for homework, I handed her a batch of stories called midrash, which I’d culled from Jewish sources on the topic of horses. One was about Shifregaz, the horse in the festival of Purim story, mounted first by King Ahasuerus and then by a Jewish man, Mordecai, who had saved the King’s life. Another was about the magnificent horse ridden by Pharaoh in the Exodus story, and a third about a horse who refused to eat. I asked her to read them at home and come back to me with her thoughts and a story of her own about what a human can learn from a horse.

Ashley came back with her own story about her horse having a foal and how tottery the foal was when she tried to stand up and how the mare used her face to help the foal stay upright. “I’m like a foal,” said Ashley. “I needed help to think more clearly about animals. And you helped me see how Torah and the midrash stories are like a mare, helping us to stay upright.”

Well, Ashley had just written her bat mitzvah d'var Torah, though I don’t think she realized it at that moment. Her table centerpieces did have horses on them, and each one had a flap for people to lift up with a different horse midrash on each one. “So my guests will learn the Torah of animals!” Ashley declared. And she had a surprise for me. She handed me a midrash she’d found on the internet about a person riding a donkey. And that incredible midrash changed my own view on prayer, but that is a story for another day!

And, yes, Ashley did put on her riding hat when she gave her Torah teaching at her bat mitzvah service. Under the circumstances it was the perfect thing to do.

So notice how, ultimately, Ashley didn’t erase the chain of tradition or run irreverently over it. She chose to integrate her love of horses respectfully into her bat mitzvah experience. Sensitive mentoring is crucial for life cycle events.

When another girl’s parents acceded to her wishes to ride into her bat mitzvah reception on a white horse, there was no grounding in tradition. She was not one of my students. The girl, now in college, looks back on that as a crass, irretrievably materialistic, utterly unspiritual, narcissistic act. “I thought it was all about me, me, me. No one helped me to realize it was about my becoming a capable member of the Jewish people and helping my distant relatives come together as a family and that the party was a mitzvah, that of welcoming guests, not them receiving me.”