Thursday, April 1, 2010

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Jessica Schwartz on Tzav

As you undoubtedly know, Passover begins this coming week. Today is Shabbat Hagadol, the special Shabbat just before the holiday. I love Passover because it’s one of the very few times all year, when both sides of my family come together and everyone is in the same place for the same reason. Because it’s my bat mitzvah it’s great, we can extend the celebration for a few more days!

Passover has many messages, but maybe the most significant one of all is that it teaches us how important it is to overcome fear.

The Exodus story has two major decision points, where, if the Israelites had made the wrong choice, we would still be slaves in Egypt today. Worst of all, we wouldn’t get the chance to eat matzah, and believe it or not, I LOVE matzah.

The first example of the Israelites overcoming their fear was when they had to mark their doorpost with lamb’s blood so that the angel of death would pass over their houses. It wasn’t easy to do that knowing that their neighbors would know they are Jews and could take revenge against them. This also took a lot courage knowing that they were still slaves.

The second big moment was at the Red Sea. The Jews had to decide whether to go through. There is a midrash about Nachshon, who was the first Israelite to enter the sea when Pharaoh's army pursued the fleeing slaves. Legend has it that he went in the water up to his neck, not even knowing to how swim before the water finally parted. It took real courage to risk his life and hope that G-d would save him.

Whenever you face a moment of truth or a big decision, you have to go with your gut instinct – the voice inside that either says, “Do it,” or “don’t.”

I know that feeling. It’s the voice that helps you to overcome the fear that can keep you from doubting yourself and never moving forward.

I hear that voice whenever I put on a pair of skis.

The first time I skied was when I was around three. I loved it right away. I started off on the bunny hills just like everyone else, and quickly progressed through different ability levels. Now i have been competing for the past four years on the Mount Snow Freestyle Team. In the past my ranking has qualified me to compete in Eastern Championships. Freestyle skiing is a very subjective sport, but for me what’s more important than what judges think, is that I am always trying to improve myself.

Improvement is more than about developing new skills. It usually means overcoming fear. My favorite competition is Big Air or otherwise known as aerials. The way you are judged in Aerials is based off how you execute your trick, how high you went off the jump, and your landing. No matter how good I get there is always a fear factor to overcome.

As I build up speed and approach the jump, I literally tell myself “Go straight.” Sometimes I sing. Sometimes I scream. Actually, I always scream. One time the judges took away points because i screamed to loud. But somehow the screaming seems not to hurt my scores – and if I focused on not screaming it would probably distract me and hurt my scores. In a way you can build off of your fear to accomplish great things.

At one competition about a month ago – and yes, I was jumping a month before my bat mitzvah! – I decided to build up the confidence to go off the higher jump. It was the first time I was jumping from something that big – and it was extremely scary. I was jumping 20 feet off the ground. Well, I was crying in the air – while screaming. And yes, this time I got some points deducted. And I didn’t quite land it – but I was so happy that I tried to do the jump, something that few girls in the competition dared to try. Although i was far from successful, I overcame my fear.

One thing I’ve learned from skiing. Is that if you think, “I’m going to fall,” chances are you will. If you think positively things usually have a way of working itself out. Half the battle is building up the confidence.

The same is true with becoming a bat mitzvah. It takes real courage to stand up here. Which is harder – doing today’s haftarah or a new trick on a jump? I’m not sure, but both take a lot of work and practice.

Becoming a bat mitzvah is about much more than what I am doing up here today. It’s about practicing and learning – and then applying it. In skiing I have competitions. In Judaism, the competition is not today, but every time I have to make an important decision to do something that could help the world. And another difference is that there’s no loser when you make the right decision. Everyone wins.

There’s another difference between overcoming fear on the slopes and on the bima. When I’m up here, I’ve really been trying not to scream!

For my mitzvah project, this will be the second year that i will participate in Relay for Life. Relay for life is an overnight event that brings communities together in a fight against cancer. It is a way to celebrate cancer survivors, remember loved ones, and fight back against the disease that's takes too much for too many. We relay overnight because cancer never sleeps, and we will keep fighting until we find cures. I relay to be part of the change. I relay because cancer affects people in a horrible way and takes loved ones from us far to quickly. I relay to remanded hopeful that we can fight back and make a difference.

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