In This House, We Believe – Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5783

In this house, we believe:

Black Lives Matter / Women’s Rights Are Human Rights / No Human Is Illegal / Science Is Real / Love Is Love/ Kindness Is Everything.

There are other lawn signs of this ilk out there as well – some with universal messages, and sadly others with hostile and provocative messages, even occasionally funny ones like: “No lives matter. You all suck equally.”

With these and other messages in mind, I contemplated how we might inspire one another in this longed-for and incredible in-person ingathering. That, in turn, brought up some fundamental thoughts about what being part of our temple community is really about for me. And that caused me to recall the first time I walked into our building at 1827 California Ave. It was just after the ratification of the merger between Beth Sholom Temple, the oldest synagogue in Santa Monica, and Temple Shir Shalom, then renting space in the basement of St. Bede’s Episcopal Church in Mar Vista. I was the founding rabbi of Temple Shir Shalom, and I’d spent twelve years in an office in the church’s basement. When we did Shabbat services upstairs in the sanctuary, we respectfully shrouded the large cross behind the altar, brought up our portable ark, and plugged in our eternal light (clearly not eternal!). So, on that first day after the merger, when our Office Manager and I walked into 1827, I exclaimed, “Barbara, it’s a JEWISH building!” Among the identifying markers were a Jewish star, a Magen David, a Jewish star on the railing of the steps to the front door, a mezuzah on the front doorpost, and mezuzot on the inside doorways as well. Adorning one wall were photos of confirmation classes dating back to when…Moses’ kids were confirmed. A classically fashioned, Ashkenazi-style ark set deep into the raised bima, the pulpit, and a Ner Tamid, a permanently lit eternal light, hung suspended above. In the rear of the sanctuary was a “Yahrtzeit Wall,” with most of the memorial plaques already engraved or reserved for the future. Even though it was my first day as the rabbi in our building, it felt familiar, comfortable, venerable, home. 

What about all those sacred signs and symbols that made 1827 a “Jewish building” for me? Some of you have heard me pass on a teaching from my liturgy professor, Rabbi Dr. Larry Hoffman, who said, “The phrase merely symbolic should be stricken from the English language. Things are symbolic, or they’re not.” He firmly believes that once an object or a place is long-vested with specific symbolism, either by an individual, a family, or a group of people, especially if customs and rituals re-enforce them, others could not blithely strip that symbolism away. So it was for me at and within 1827 California. 

The Torah contains a story about the earliest distinguishing of Jewish spaces. The story concerns a non-Jewish soothsayer named Balaam, whom a king hires to curse the Jewish people. He blesses our homes instead. He does not do so of his own volition. He hears the voice of God within him, and the Voice mandates that he substitute the curse with a blessing. The words of the blessing are equally well-known, perhaps to some of us here. The blessing says, 

מַה־טֹּ֥בוּ אֹהָלֶ֖יךָ יַעֲקֹ֑ב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶ֖יךָ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃, 

Ma tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishk’notecha Yisrael, “How goodly are your tents O Jacob your dwelling places O Israel.” 

Many synagogues have these words written on a wall of the sanctuary, indicating that the place is also a “goodly tent,” a descendant of the tents Balaam viewed as he proclaimed the blessing. While we don’t have the phrase on our walls at 1827, I hope that many, if not most of us, feel our building is a “goodly tent.” 

Our tradition says we can “turn” the words of the Torah over and over, and we can always find something new in them. This year, I saw something new in this Torah story. I realized the famous words of Mah Tovu were not the only blessing given to the Jewish people by Balaam. The Moabite king, Balak, took him to three different vantage points overlooking the encampment of the Israelites just outside the king’s realm while encouraging Balaam to invoke a curse. Each time Balaam filled his words with praise and adoration for the Jews and their God. Each time the king’s fury grew hotter, and each time Balaam said,

 “I can only repeat faithfully what יהוה, Adonai, puts in my mouth.” 

There was, of course, a reason why King Balak desired a disabling curse upon the Jewish people. He feared them. The text recounts he knew well of our liberation from Egypt and how God cleared a path for us away from the Egyptians and enabled us to defeat many other kings and kingdoms along our journey. Balaam clearly states to Balak that this will be Balak and Moav’s fate as well should Balak try to oppose the Israelites and יהוה, Adonai. After the second curse that became a blessing, Balaam describes our ancient Israelite ancestors saying, 

“Lo, a people that rises like a lioness/Leaps up like a lion/Rests not till it has feasted on prey/And drunk the blood of the slain.”

Before we become too outraged about what the text tells us about that early history, let us remember who this text’s real audience was. It wasn’t Balaam and Balak. The target was the fledgling Jewish people who needed to be assured that God would be with them through their wilderness pilgrimage and beyond. 

Still, I assume some, if not many of us, don’t resonate well with a text telling us our ancestors drank the blood of their vanquished enemies! Further, for some, our theologies are tainted by cynicism in the wake of the Holocaust, other world events, and personal tragedies. We have difficulty believing in a God who defeats our enemies and is the omniscient and omnipresent guardian of the Jewish people or anyone else. 

The dissonance produced by the clash of our mores with those of our ancestors might cause us to ask, “What can an ancient tale like this do for me in 2022, in the midst of a persistent pandemic, the planet teetering on the edge of climate disaster and too much of the world in or near the folly of war?” The answer both stares us in the face and hides in plain sight, much like a lawn sign we see and forget.

We find that answer in the words that Balaam kept saying each time he ignored King Balak’s command to curse the Jewish people, 

“Only that which the Eternal designates for my speech must I heed and speak.” 

However, just before the final blessing, Balaam changes his phrasing, saying, 

“But I told you: Whatever יהוה says, that I must do.” 

In this instance, Balaam goes beyond merely reiterating God’s dictated words of praise and admiration. Now, he’s talking about how he feels he must behave. Proclaiming a moral message verbally – or on a lawn sign – is one thing. Acting in a spiritually inspired manner is quite another. Balaam declares he feels a holy mandate to conduct himself in a particular fashion. 

Holy mandates of conduct have been the Jewish people’s way of being since Egypt. As you probably know, we call them mitzvot, commandments. They define who we are for ourselves and the world at large, but I believe we have a misperception of the source of those mandates. 

The traditional perspective is that God gives those commandments, and we, the Jewish people, fulfilling our part of the covenant, respond. In turn, God protects. However, when we see horrible calamities crashing in upon the lives of innocents, a challenge arises, especially for Reform Jews, between the tradition of “Commander and commanded” and the world around us we understand all too well. God command//we follow/God shelters-and-defends doesn’t seem to work. We can either face this challenge or walk away. Many of us have already thrown up our hands in frustration, even anger, at a theological construct that appears unfair and harsh. We feel no obligation to adhere to what the tradition says are divine mandates because divine recognition for our compliance seems completely absent. Moreover, the dense shadow of the Holocaust shatters the belief that fulfilling the commandments translates into God being our shield. How many thousands of observant Jews did the Nazis slaughter whose faithfulness should have saved them? 

However, later Jewish tradition argues that we should not expect a response from God when we light candles for Shabbat or decide not to have a bacon cheeseburger. In Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Sages, we are advised that our actions will not result in some sort of compensation. (1:3) Antigonus of Socho, speaking from the teachings of Shimon the Righteous, says, “Do not be like servants who serve a master in the expectation of receiving a reward…” (2:1) Yehuda haNasi says: “…You do not know the reward for the fulfillment of the commandments…” 

Finally, (5:23), a rabbi with the great name of Ben Hey Hey goes even further, saying: “Effort is its own reward.” For one of my favorite teachers, Rabbi Rami Shapiro, this means: “The reward for your effort is the effort itself. Do not imagine that you will earn something at the end of your life; your life itself is the gift. There is no point to living; living is the point. There is no purpose to living; living is the purpose. As long as you imagine that doing leads to getting, you will never appreciate the act of doing.”

Here’s an example from my rabbinate’s early years of the kind of “reward” Rabbi Shapiro elucidates. In 1987 then-Governor George Deukmejian signed a bill granting tax rebates to Californians totaling $1.1 billion. As soon as I became aware of this windfall we were all about to receive, I asked Temple Shir Shalom whether they would join me in signing over their checks to the temple so that we could, in turn, give the money to the homeless and poor. A significant percentage of our members did so, one of whom, Leonard Vine, volunteered to make a giant “Publishers’ Clearing House-style” check to present to a local agency. Shortly thereafter, we handed that check to a local social service organization during a Shabbat celebration.

Such a “reward” happened again three years later, almost immediately after the merger. Two long-time Beth Sholom members, Doris and Norty Smirlock, who volunteered weekly for “Meals on Wheels,” approached me with a concern. They said Meals on Wheels did not operate on Christmas Day and thought the newly formed Beth Shir Shalom should take over. So we did, and so we’ve continued to do for thirty-one years. Why did we do these things? That California tax rebate was rightfully ours to keep and spend individually. No one “told” us to give the funds away. Instead, we did it because we felt an internal spiritual and social mandate. Likewise, Norty, Doris, and the countless volunteers over three decades who made a Christmas Day meal for Meals on Wheels clients felt a call from their kishkes. The soothsayer Balaam might say, “God told them to do it.” I don’t think that all, or even most of those who gave and continue to give, feel that. Instead, a sense arose in this community, creating a determination that something barely seen as a possibility needed to become a must.

That legacy rests on our shoulders and hearts. What are our “musts?” Where are the places we must show up? What are the actions we must take, the petitions we must sign, the letters we must write, the social responsibilities we must take on? 

We may look no further than a lawn sign for the answer, but there’s a Jewish version of these notions that, I believe, should be the lawn sign of our building at 1827 California and perhaps our homes as well. Our version comes from a Mishnah, our oldest rabbinic Torah commentary. Versus the now ubiquitous emblem, this lawn sign doesn’t say what we believe. Instead, it declares what we do. So, the sign I envision would say: “These are our actions. Their value is priceless. In and outside this house we:

Respect the past and, in it, implant new seeds. 

Act with loving kindness. 

Engage in lifelong education. 

Welcome the stranger. 

Celebrate all loving families. 

Honor the circle of life. 

Pray with our hands, our hearts, our breath, our minds, our eyes, our ears, our mouths, and our legs.

Much as I felt the impact of those Jewish symbols that first day at 1827, I was wrong. What defines Beth Shir Shalom as a Jewish community is not the various accouterments and accessories commonly extant in Jewish buildings. It’s not our beliefs either. It’s what we do. Our synagogue isn’t a “goodly, Jewish tent” because we’re in it. Our tent is “goodly” because of how we choose to behave in it and what we do from it – outside its walls. 

Here, in this beautiful moment, as we meet in person for the first time in two years for our holiest days, we lift up our values and mandates and commit ourselves to the actions that make us a Jewish community, the Beth Shir Shalom community. 

From the depths of my heart and soul, I wish you a good year – reflective, fulfilling, and healthy. Shana Tova

On River Crossings – Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5783

Growing up in Philadelphia made me feel close to history. If you’ve ever visited the Old City – or seen the movie National Treasure – you’ve seen the *riveting* Liberty Bell, inscribed with the words of Leviticus. Across the street, where the bell once rang, is Independence Hall – the site where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were drafted. There’s the reconstructed foundation of The President’s House where George Washington & John Adams lived when Philadelphia was the nation’s capital, and Elfreth’s Alley, one of the oldest continually lived on residential streets in America adorned with cobblestone and all. Philadelphia is even home to the oldest, continually operating synagogue, Mikveh Israel, which has been active since 1740.

But living in Philadelphia also means your life sometimes coincides with history. My mom’s family celebrated Christmas and so, we too celebrated at my grandmother’s in New Jersey. Every Christmas evening, on our way home from the festivites, we’d cross the Delaware River and some years as we did I thought about how George Washington had turned the tide of the Revolutionary War by doing the same on the same day in 1776. Some years as we crossed, I thought – yikes, this weather is atrocious. I cannot imagine being in a little ferry crossing the ice-choked waters of the Delaware. Some years as we crossed, I thought – Washington would’ve loved this 65-degree Christmas. 

Washington’s Crossing of the Delaware River was an important turning point in the Revolutionary war. In November of 1776, the Continental Army didn’t have much of an army left. They were soundly defeated in New York and limping their way south through New Jersey. More New York and New Jersey colonists were signing up for the British army than George Washington’s. The remaining troops were exhausted, demoralized, and low on resources. 

Luckily for Washington, one gentlemanly custom of 18th-century warfare was a solid Winter Break (much longer than UCLA’s); the armies did not fight during winter. This opened up an opportunity for Washington to plan a surprise attack, the first time in the war that the continental army went on the offensive. The first step in Washington’s meticulously planned attack was for four units to cross the Delaware River and attack Trenton on December 25th, 1776. 

A frigid storm that evening made the journey particularly perilous; only one unit succeeded in crossing the icy river as freezing rain pummeled the soldiers. Once across, Washington’s troops surprised the Hessian soldiers fighting for the British and quickly overtook the city. A few weeks later, Washington did the same in Princeton. These victories began to change the tide of the war, and they started with Washington’s bold move to cross the river.

Rivers in general, but in American History, particularly the Delaware River, provide a powerful metaphor for liminal space & for transition; for opportunity & for danger; for forward movement & for the unpredictable, uncontrollable unraveling of life. Rabbi Alan Lew teaches that, “Rivers only run one way. The home we leave to begin [our] journey [through life] is necessarily a different place than the home we arrive at in the end.” 

Our patriarch Avraham, the midrash teaches, gained the nickname Avram Ha-Ivri – the one who crossed the river. His biblical journey begins when God tells him, “Lech L’cha!” Go forth – or more literally – go to yourself. Leave this place, God tells Avram, so that you might find yourself, your destiny. Leave your father’s home and set out.  Cross the Euphrates river away from here to a land and a future that I will show you across another river, the Jordan river. But Avram Ha-Ivri & Sarai are not the only patriarch & matriarch to meaningfully cross a river in the Torah. 

When Jacob flees his home after stealing Esau’s birthright and blessing, he heads to Haran and leaves across the Jordan river. Like his grandfather, he journeys away from home to mature and discover. After twenty years away, he returns a different person. No longer is Jacob the meek, conniving, domestic, indoor kid. Now Jacob has journeyed hundreds of miles, wrestled with the divine and acquired a new name, Israel. He’s been married and had children. He’s acquired herds and wealth and aged. As he returns homeward, standing again at the Jordan, he notes the transformation:

“With my staff alone I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps.

Rabbi Ayala Miron teaches that, “Before crossing back, [Jacob had] to go through three confrontations: with his deceiving uncle and father-in-law [Laban], with his deceived brother Esau and with the angel of God, or [perhaps] with his higher self. She says then, that, “Crossing the river means leaping into a new stage in Jacob’s spiritual life: leaving his evasive nature to develop the courage to confront – to stand face to face against danger, against injustice, against his innermost feelings. It means becoming Yisra’el- the one who struggles- rather than Ya’akov, the follower. Crossing the Jordan thus represents transformation.” 

Consider the well-known saying, “You never step in the same river twice,” which is often used to refer to the changing nature of the world, and the water beneath our feet. But that’s only half the quote, and half of the meaning. The full adage, attributed to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, is “No man ever steps in the same river twice. For it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” 

A little over a year ago I found myself sitting alongside the other Philadelphia river, the one outsiders have a hard time pronouncing: the Schuylkill. Like others before me, I was in liminal space – amidst a transition – my life on the verge of massive transformation- and somehow, unintentionally, I had landed at a river. As the world shut down in March 2020, a cancer diagnosis rocked my world. The experience uncovered needs I didn’t know I had and changed my priorities overnight. In the same period, my experience of Judaism in our world was upended and reshaped into something new. And divorce loomed. Everything in my life seemed controlled, predictable, rosy – until it wasn’t. 

Two years, four surgeries, a global pandemic, and a divorce later – my journey through life is much different than I could’ve ever anticipated. I am so different physically, mentally, and spiritually than I could’ve ever anticipated. I’ve failed in ways I never thought I would and loved in ways I never thought I could. I’ve reached heights I yearned for and lows I that seemed inescapable. Life, it seems, runs much more like a winding river than the straight line Hollywood suggests, our one-way path chiseling the landscape beneath our feet. 

For some of us, Abraham’s path rings true. We were spared trauma in adolescence but crossed rivers in adulthood. After Abraham leaves home at 75, he experiences famine, marital strife, the birth of his son Ishmael with Hagar and their exile, the birth of Isaac with Sarah and the trauma of his near sacrifice.

For some of us, Jacob is a more appropriate fit. We crossed rivers early in life, persevered through adversity in adolescence. Once Jacob leaves home at 17, he dreams of a ladder to the heavens and has a religious revelation. He is deceived repeatedly and saddled with the consequences. He is married twice and has thirteen children in seven years. He wrestles with God, himself, and his faith, an experience so pivotal that he changes his name to “the one that wrestles with God” – Israel. 

The rivers we cross – whether shallow or deep, raging or trickling, anticipated or unexpected, literal or figurative – offer a powerful lesson for all of us trying to traverse the terrain of our lives. 

How many of us have had our lives radically changed in the past year or two or five? OK, perhaps the better question is, who has NOT? Who has welcomed new life into the family? Who has lost a parent or sibling or friend? Who has been married or divorced? Who has been diagnosed with illness,hospitalized, or cured? Who has lost their job or financial resources or come into wealth and stability? Who has escaped a challenged relationship or found their bashert? 

The river Jordan, our Talmud tells us, originates in Gan Eden – the garden of Eden, in paradise – and “tracks its endpoint to the time of redemption.” Somewhere between those points, then – perhaps at a particular river crossing – is revelation. Theologian Martin Buber teaches that, “Creation is the origin, redemption the goal. But revelation is not a fixed, dated point poised between the two. The revelation at Sinai is not this midpoint itself, but the perceiving of it, and such perception is possible at any time.” 

Perhaps on the shores of the Delaware George Washington had a revelation “that the entire movement for American independence was on the verge of extinction” and he needed bold action. Perhaps crossing the river was the first act towards the redemption of the American dream. Perhaps Avram’s revelation in which God told him “Lech L’cha” was made real when he crossed the Euphrates river of his home and set the entire Jewish people on the path towards their future, towards a new home across a new river. Perhaps Jacob’s revelation had to happen after he crossed the Jordan a first time, and perhaps his personal redemption had to happen after he returned 20 years later to cross again. Or perhaps, the physical act of crossing a river in our narratives as Americans and Jews simply serves to mark the moments we move towards our destiny – towards our becoming – towards redemption. And we leave the previous chapters behind. 

“It is said that before entering the sea a river trembles with fear,” Poet Khalil Gibran writes in his poem Fear. 

“She looks back at the path she has traveled, 

from the peaks of the mountains, 

the long winding road crossing forests and villages. 

And in front of her, she sees an ocean so vast, 

that to enter there seems nothing more than to disappear forever 

but there is no other way. 

The river can not go back. 

Nobody can go back. 

To go back is impossible in existence. 

The river needs to take the risk of entering the ocean because only then will fear disappear, 

because that’s where the river will know it’s not about disappearing into the ocean, 

but of becoming the ocean.”

We must not fear becoming…growing…changing…evolving. For we are but sticks in a stream, borne along by a current we cannot impede. Sometimes becoming means we must leave the comfort of home to find a new home.  Sometimes growing means we might hurt others and get hurt along the way. Sometimes changing means we can no longer live up to promises we once made and must chart a new path. Sometimes evolving means we must adapt after failure and learn a new way forward. In other words, sometimes – perhaps often – we’re human. 

The Yamim Noraim – the Days of Awe – provide us with a moment to confront that humanness, that fallibility. We pause every year at this time to do cheshbon hanefesh – to do an honest accounting of our soul – and acknowledge where we were human, where we weren’t our best selves, where we failed. This afternoon, Jewish communities like ours will perform the ritual of Tashlich, casting our sins into the water and marking the transition to the new year. Most congregations meet at a creek, or a river – and don’t have the privilege of the Pacific outside our front door.

But whether we stand physically or spiritually on the riverbank of the year to come, we seek revelation from God, our tradition, and ourselves in order to cross the river towards redemption. As we move into a New Year, may we approach the crossings to come with humility and openness. May we embrace change and evolution in 5783. And may we take steps, together, toward who we becoming in the year ahead. 

Shana tova!


Parshat Nitzavim – D’var Torah by Athena Barefoot

My Torah portion, Nitzavim, starts with Moses relaying God’s message. God wanted the Israelites to agree to a covenant that would bring them blessings. But Moses foretells of a time when they rebel against God’s covenant and describes the evils that would then befall the Israelites. The covenant was a very big deal because the agreement wasn’t just for the Israelites’ present but for all the Israelites’ past, present, and future, and they were bound to it for all time. God warns that the covenant will only work if they do not worship any other gods. Also if they forsake the Torah’s commandments bad things will happen to them such as devastation, plagues, and curses. 

However, Moses promises that they won’t be entirely forsaken. And that if they return to Adonai and take the blessing and curses seriously, God will forgive them and restore them to their land, allowing them another opportunity to follow the laws of the Torah. Moses tells the Israelites that the choice of life and death is before them and God tells them to “choose life”. In obeying God’s commandments, the people choose life and will be able to enjoy the land that God promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. 

Choosing life could mean that they are choosing the path with the most blessings. Or the path that could benefit the most people. You should always choose something while thinking about the after-effects it can have. And think if you’re choosing life or if you’re actually choosing death. Like when God decided to flood the earth, and thought it was the right thing to do when in reality it was a path to death. Our tradition teaches that even God, someone of great power, can make mistakes and misjudge decisions.

Every day people need to make decisions for the greater good or a great cause. For example, climate change is a huge problem in the world, and every day people make the decision to make things better, make things stay the same, or make things worse. I’m sure most people would like to make things better so maybe a daily decision for people worldwide would be to throw away your trash or use reusable items. 

Since climate change affects all of us, like following God’s covenant would affect all Israelite’s past present and future, everyone needs to come together and make a decision. There were two different decisions that could have possibly been the “right” decision when looking at God’s covenant, the decision to follow it or not to follow it. That’s very similar to the global warming crisis right now, with global warming there’s also 2 different decisions, the decision to help out or not to help out. But in this situation there is one right answer when looking at a decision good for everyone, the decision to help out. 

Just like how God said Moses was setting a life or death choice, choosing between helping out the earth and doing nothing is a life or death choice that everyone needs to partake in. The choice is ours to do whatever we can to help climate change and global warming. Just the question now is why aren’t we? I’m sure that we all have made a choice selfishly without looking at the impacts it can have. And I’m sure that’s what’s happening now. When it comes to global warming there’s always that thought where “oh it’s fine someone else will do it” but if everyone thinks that then there is no one else. It’s just us. 

In Genesis 2:15, God commands humans to work and protect the land. God took a man and placed him in the garden of eden to protect and guard it. Knowing this, its easy to see that ever since the beginning of time we were taking care of nature so why now should we stop that? 

We need to do everything we can do protect the earth and keep it healthy, not just for us but forever everyone that comes after us. A lot of people may also think that it would be so much work to fix the planet and maybe it is but it’s work and time that needs to be spent for the greater good. So maybe next time throw away your trash or if you see trash in the ocean grab it and throw it away, get some reusable items, or maybe make the commitment to stop buying from non-eco friendly brands. There are so many ways you can support a cause and make a difference in this world so whenever you have a chance make it that choice.

The Talmud even has a quick story about a man named Honi who comes upon an elderly woman planting a tree. “Excuse me,” he says. “What kind of tree are you planting?”

“It is a carob tree,” she replies.

Carob huh? How long will it take the tree to bear fruit?

Well, she says, It will take 70 years.

70 YEARS! Cried Honi. Are you certain you will live another seventy years to enjoy the fruit of this tree?

“Perhaps not,” says the woman. But I was born into this world with many beautiful carob trees planted by those who came before me. Just as my ancestors planted trees for me, I am planting trees for my children and grandchildren so they will have carob to eat.

This quick story just shows that you should do things not just for yourself but for the people that come after us. Like for our future children or grandchildren and all the future generations to come. Just like how the woman in the story planted the carob tree so the future generations could enjoy the carob. So whenever you may be doing something thats not too great for the world think about the lives of the future generations and how they might have to live if we dont make an effort to change things. 

And now i just wanted to say thank you to everyone that made this happen especially my mom and my uncle for giving me new things to think about for my speech,my dad for supporting me, my grandma for always getting excited when I learned a new prayer, definitely Cantor Rebekah which couldn’t be here but was the key part in this whole thing and the person that put time and effort into making sure I learned all the prayers necessary for my Bat Mitzvah Cantor Eiton for helping me finish up my prayers and being here today, definitely Rabbi Alex for helping me through creating this speech and helping me down the whole Bat Mitzvah journey. And finally thank all of you so much for being here today!


Parshat Ki Tavo – D’var Torah by Bea Miller

 In my Torah portion, Ki Tavo, the Israelites are preparing to enter Israel and Moses is retelling the Israelites their history and trying to guide them. In the last paragraphs we learn about the many blessings and curses possible in response to the Israelites behavior. The Torah tells of a strange ritual that takes place on two opposing mountains, Mount Ebal, that is a barren mountain that represents curses, and the lush Mount Gerizim, the mountain of blessings. The tribes split in half with some going up to Mount Ebal to recite the possible curses and some going up Mount Gerizim to recite the possible blessings. The way it’s presented seems like our good or bad behavior controls the forces of nature, but I don’t see it like that. Blessings and curses, good and bad, right and wrong, are just parts of life and growth. I believe the universe unravels in such a way that we all experience good and bad, and we have the ability to find God in every situation.

Generally people think of blessings and curses as praying up to a guy in the clouds, and those prayers being returned with a “blessing”. If you’re like me, you think of curses like being turned into a frog. For me these ideas are silly like a story time – both being turned into a frog and praying up to a guy in the clouds – because I believe we are responsible for our own blessings, and our own curses. And as I studied my Torah portion I thought that we have a choice whether we think of our experiences in life as positively or negatively. 

The 20th century Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches that “deeds have serious, sometimes unknown, and long-range consequences. They possess enormous power to bring blessings or curses, rewards or punishment, fulfillment or despair. But they are also the means through which human beings celebrate or reject their partnership with God.” As I become a Bat Mitzvah, you can affect the world even with the smallest things – for good or for bad. You can help someone find their lost water bottle, and in the process accidentally make a lifelong friend. You can hold the door for someone who might be having an awful day and needs a small act of kindness to get them through. And then there are big things that may seem small like giving someone you pass on the street some food or money. That act might seem small to you but it could have a very big impact on them. The opposite is also true. 

Rabbi David Hartman teaches that “the curses and blessings mentioned in Ki Tavo are useful because they add urgency to our relationship with God. They help define the consequences of our actions although there are times when such consequences are beyond our understanding.” How we act also affects this, we can bestow curses without even realizing it, like making a joke about someone, and you may think it’s funny but the person the joke is about may get really hurt by it and feel terrible. You may think that saving that banana is worth it instead of giving it to that guy on the street, but you can get another banana anytime easily, maybe they can’t. Sometimes you can’t just pray and hope for something to change, but sometimes you have to take it into your own hands and make that blessing happen. Sometimes the universe unravels in a way that is challenging and isn’t the desired outcome. How do we react then?

Scholar Lawrence A. Hoffman teaches that “prayer is a form of art through which individuals bring order, integrity, and hope into their lives. When worship works we are artists in the finest sense of affirming wholeness through the power of our traditional images of time, space, and history.” But it’s not just prayer in which we are artists shaping the world around us – it’s all of life. We have the power to create blessings or curses every day – and do – but not just with our hands. 

It also depends on our mindset. Like the first person who gave a dollar to the birthday kid whose birthday was on a rainy day. We can view experiences as opportunities to bring blessing into the world, or bring curses into the world. Every day we all have the ability to make someone’s day brighter, often just with a smile or saying hi. But our mindset depends on us. Do we want to be kind and say hi or do we want to just keep doing what we were doing and ignore them. We can make so many blessings by just thinking about it positively. 

Before studying my torah portion I thought of blessings and curses like “oh cool you found a penny” or “I have stubbed my toe so much today”. Now I think of blessings and curses not as some supernatural forces, but decisions we make every day without much thought, the way those decisions impact people, and our general outlook on life. Since the world is so full of curses sometimes we can’t just pray up to that guy in the sky to fix it, a lot of the time we have to take it upon ourselves to fix a lot of the problems. As our prayer book says, “Pray as if everything depended on God. Act as if everything depended on you.” 

Ultimately in the end we have a choice, we can make our world as beautiful as the lush, green mount gerizim, full of blessings & life, or we can make it a dead wasteland like mount ebal full of curses. We have the choice on which mountain we want to be on; we just have to act on it.