The life-affirming rite of passage of the bar or bat mitzvah is born of the most basic notion in Judaism: the idea of being “chosen.” To be a Jew is to understand that your life is a purposeful creation; you have been selected by God to exist. The belief that one’s existence is intentional lends meaning to all aspects of the struggle—each day and experience, whether painful or joyous, is significant.
From what I can tell, it’s this notion—the belief in being “chosen”—more than any other that seems to rub non-Jews the wrong way. The problem, I think, is one of misunderstanding: “I am here on purpose” may get interpreted as “God favors me above you.” Or maybe non-Jews understand perfectly well, but the willingness to embrace such a bold claim runs counter to every fiber in their beings. Yet, Jews intended this belief to be embraced by all of humanity, which is why Genesis begins with one man and one woman, both intentionally created, from which all people descend. It is so radical a notion, so powerfully positive. Could it be the bedrock of other affirmative ideas like love and gratitude?
The Jews I grew up with didn’t go around talking about being “chosen.” They never once made reference to it or acted like they were better than anyone else. Yet I sensed a subtle difference in how they existed in the world. They didn’t seem uncertain about whether they deserved to be here, as I was. They may have had a host of other insecurities, but that most fundamental one didn’t appear to be among them. They took up their little bit of space in the world with a confidence I hadn’t realized was possible. During my teenage years, I remained tentative, but my proximity to an alternative outlook was a powerful antidote. I believe it was just enough get me through.
Rosh Hashanah’s encouragement to review my misdeeds brought up these memories because for all the good my time in L.A. did me, and despite how much I appreciated my friends and classmates, once I left the city I rarely returned. My constant moving made staying in touch with anyone from my past challenging and over the years the lines of communication between me and my L.A. gang slowly unraveled. I kept in sporadic contact with one of them, Lisa, who acted as a sort of a lifeline to the others.
In the time since I had last seen my L.A. friends, they had endured the usual hardships 20 years in any life brings, including the death of parents and, heartbreakingly, a would-be fiancé in a horrific auto accident. Yet, I had not offered a phone call or even an email of condolence. What did this failure to reach out say about me? What kind of friend was I? What kind of person?