When do you take ownership of your life? In America, some say it’s at eighteen when you become an ‘adult’ and can vote and are registered for the draft. It could be at twenty-six when you can no longer be on your parent’s health insurance. It can be earlier, at sixteen when some start driving. In Judaism we often say that becoming a bat mitzvah at thirteen is when a child takes ownership of their Jewish life.
The fact is, none of that is true.
There’s no arbitrary age where one suddenly and magically shifts from being a guest in life to being an owner of life. No ceremony or magical words or blessing can change us. I ask families preparing for life cycle events if they think the rituals of Judaism are magic. Through those discussions, whether it’s a couple getting married, a family preparing for a bar mitzvah, or sitting shiva, we come to understand a fundamental truth – that all of us live balancing the circumstances that unfold around us with our own ability to make choices to shape those circumstances.
What we do in life’s unfolding brings us to the question of ownership. As a young person, we are fashioned mostly by the environment around us. There are circumstances and stories that shape your life, mostly made by others and their choices for you. From everything that you ate and what you wore (like that outfit your mom thought was cute and you hated) to your first friends. All of it shaped by others.
There are also those reading this whose lives were traumatized by the choices of others. Choices made for you when you were innocent and fragile, choices made that harmed you when you were vulnerable. Choices made to try to take away the ownership of your life. Those choices especially created circumstances that shaped a life for you that is traumatic and difficult. These circumstances are neither fair nor right, but must be brought to light if we ever want healing.
Finally, all of us have been affected by the pandemic. With hundreds of thousands lost, millions of jobs lost, holidays and birthdays celebrated from a distance, there is not a soul on this planet whose life has not changed because of COVID. If anything, this virus reminds us of how little control we have and that life has a way of happening to us instead of with us.
But for all the times we feel like a guest on earth, we must also know that the one thing we do own is our lives. You can spend your days blaming the world for what has happened: for the pandemic, for injustice, for trauma, for hatred, or for everything that comes at you, but even if life as it happens to you is not your fault, what you choose to do with life’s unfolding is your responsibility. Because the deepest truth is this:
You own your life the moment you choose to.
If you need help because of your addiction or depression, for example, there are so many people including my own community that want to help you, but the choice to seek help is yours to make.
There is no ceremony or magic number that will shape you into an owner. Our rituals and ceremonies are meant to bring to the surface the underlying spiritual dynamics of your life choices. This week’s Torah portion, Acharei Mot – Kedoshim, shows us precisely the dynamic between being a guest and owner of your life and how God wants you to take responsibility for your future. The Book of Leviticus, as I’ve been writing these past few weeks, is the most intimate book of the Bible because its authors know more about how to live with life’s difficulties than any other book including the brokenness of our bodies, the stunned silence of tragedy, the possibility of hope, and in this week’s Torah portion, the foundation of love. No other book in the Bible deals with the breath of human living like this one. No other book puts you at the center of the spiritual drama of life like Leviticus. It’s extraordinary.
Getting back to our Torah portion, having made our way through the lists of sacrificial rites and preparations of the altar, we come to the center. It is here we find the Holiness Code, a collection of laws that form the ethical basis of charity, business transactions, social and family relationships and ritual observances, all under the guidance of holiness. “You shall be holy, for I, the LORD am Holy.” (Leviticus 19:2) To the rabbis, the entire wisdom of the Torah itself can be found in this verse. The midrash adds, shockingly, “You shall be holy, I, the LORD, am holy – If you sanctify yourselves, I will consider it as if you had sanctified Me, and if you do not sanctify yourselves, I will consider it as if you had not sanctified Me. (Sifra Kedoshim 1)
What the rabbis are saying is that God’s sanctity, God’s very essence, is partnered with our ability to act godly. It teaches us that ethics are as foundational as prayer, as foundational as sacrifice, and as foundational as personal piety. What God wants in Leviticus is not loyal subjects, but willing partners to take the messy trauma of life and make something wonderful out of it. Praying to God to change our outcomes has never been the focus; what God really wants us to do is to change our choices. When we stop involving God in the consequences of our life, but in our agency to make the right choices in life, we align ourselves with the holy and become owners of our future. When a Jew prays and says asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav, “God makes us holy through the commandments,” our prayers acknowledge the very moment in time where we take ownership of our lives. When we bless the Sabbath, when we bless our children, when we learn Torah, and when we do justice. When you say a blessing, you take ownership of your life.
The most spiritually powerful thing you can do is make the choice for a better life by realizing that everything that has happened to you might not be your fault, but from this moment forward it is your responsibility. You don’t need a ceremony or a ritual to get started. God invites you every day to be a partner and an owner.