Parshat Vayera – D’var Torah by Arli Segall

At the beginning of my Torah portion, Vayera, we read the story of Abraham seeing three strangers in the desert. He runs up to greet them in a great show of hospitality. He gives them shade and Sarah bakes a cake for them to eat, and he invites them to rest by his tent. Complete strangers! Then when God tells him that he’s planning to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah because of the unrighteous people that live there, Abraham begs for them to not be destroyed and makes an offer that if 10 righteous people are found in the cities, they would be saved. Then Sarah and Abraham ventured out to a kingdom. Abraham, afraid the king might kill him for Sarah, because she’s just that beautiful, says that Sarah is his sister. He saves himself by letting the King take Sarah. Eventually, she is returned, but I can’t imagine without significant trauma. Much later when Izack is born and they’re back home, Sarah asks Abraham to send away his other wife and child. Abraham seemingly sends them away into the desert without a second thought. When Izack is grown, God tells Abraham to sacrifice him to show his devotion. So Abraham brings his only son Izaak up the mountain to sacrifice him, but at the last minute, God is like, “never mind it’s all good, don’t sacrifice your son” and Abraham sacrifices a ram instead.

Something that interests me about the stories in my parsha is how the characters all have strengths & flaws. It’s what makes people, people. I’m particularly interested in the Torah’s labeling of people as righteous when not everything they do can be seen as a righteous act. Can someone even be completely good? A quote from genesis reminds me a bit about the situation with Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham says “The Judge of all the earth must not exercise justice too strictly” which teaches us if God really did judge the world and everyone in it for every single mistake and sin they do, there wouldn’t be any people. God made us all unique and different with all our quirks and flaws and there is no reason that you should try to be anyone different.  

Like in the media, you know when people completely change because of peer pressure and what other people want and then they’re not really themselves anymore. Like in my favorite book series, wings of fire, the character moon has to hide she’s a mind reader because she’s afraid everyone will hate her if they knew.  Or even yourself, of which sometimes you cover up for others, and sometimes you do it so much that you can’t even tell who you are anymore. You can’t have a completely perfect world and still have real live humans in it in the same way you can’t have pre-solved puzzles, which are one, pointless, and too boring. 

Our Torah presents the flawed nature of our tradition’s patriarchs and matriarchs – even God! At the beginning of the story, Abraham welcomes 3 strangers and gives them food and shade, and a place to rest. But later in the story he’s sending away his other wife and child and sacrificing his son. Sarah is also hospitable to guests but then casts out Hagar and Ishmael to an unknown fate. God also does things that arent always seen as morally correct and was the one to tell Abraham to sacrifice his son in the first place as a silly funny joke, and then carrying out the destruction of entire cities! 

If we saw these acts individually – separated from a bigger sense of the story –  we might think a certain way about Abraham or Sarah or God. Like how could you sacrifice your son?! Only a bad person would do that. But he’s also SO hospitable and lovely to strangers. How do we reconcile? Abraham – and really all of us – isn’t made up of his individual acts. He’s all of them – he’s a flawed human, like us, that’s just trying his best. 

There’s a story I’d like to share that teaches more about this. Once, the Hasidic rabbi Zusya came to his followers with tears in his eyes. They asked him:”Zusya, what’s the matter? And he told them about his vision; “I learned the question that the angels will one day ask me about my life.” The followers were puzzled. 

“Zusya, you are devoted to your religion, you study and don’t brag about your smarts. You have helped so many of us. What question about your life could be so terrifying that you would be frightened to answer it?” 

Zusya replied; “I have learned that the angels will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you a Moses, leading your people out of slavery?’ and that the angels will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you like Joshua, leading your people into the promised land?”‘ Zusya sighed; “They will say to me, ‘Zusya, why weren’t you Zusya?’”

Judaism teaches that we are all created as b’tzelem elohim, in the image of god, yet a lot of us try to be someone we’re not. As humans we compare ourselves a lot to others, looking at other people’s accomplishments and comparing them to our own. No one is perfect and we need to remember that we are our own, unique person just as holy as the next and just as deserving of kindness and respect. 

Shabbat Shalom!

 

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. 

Parshat Eikev – D’var Torah by Eli Tobel

Have you ever heard of the expression “righteous anger”? 

Have you ever really thought about it? 

Can “anger” actually be “righteous”? 

Another way of asking this: is it ever RIGHT to be ANGRY?

 My Torah portion recalls the time Moses went up to the top of Mt. Sinai to get the tablets with the 10 commandments. After being gone for what seemed like an eternity to the Israelites, Moses came down and saw that they had built an idol – a golden calf – and they were praying to it. The Torah tells us that Moses gets so angry that flung the two tablets to the ground, smashing them before the Israelites.

This kind of anger is understandable – think about whether something like this has ever happened to you. I’m not talking about whether you’ve ever smashed holy tablets given to you by God…but think about a time that you felt betrayed by someone you trusted and you just wanted to… grrrrrrrrrrr. You probably felt JUSTIFIED in your anger, and that you had a RIGHT – even a responsibility — to punish the person who made you feel that way. Moses felt this way, too.  

But when Moses went to tell God what the Israelites had done, God told Moses that HE would be punished. Moses was like, “What?!?!? Me!?!?? But they were the ones that sinned against you. Why am I being punished?”

God punished Moses because he made a bad situation even worse, because it led him to break something holy: the tablets and the commandments, represent the things that are holiest to the Jewish people. 

Jewish tradition teaches that the tablets weighed thousands of pounds and would have been impossible for Moses to carry. But their holy words carried a special power that magically made the tablets weightless.  When Moses became angry, the special power that enabled him to carry the heavy tablets left the writing, and the tablets became super heavy again. 

So Moses dropped and broke the most holy thing the Jews had ever been given. In your life, what is the thing that is most important to you? Who are the people that you care most about? Those relationships are as holy to you as the commandments are to the Jewish people. And when we get angry at someone we care about, we also have the potential to hurt that relationship… or even break it.

When we’re angry, we have a choice. It may not feel like we do, because our anger can feel overwhelming, as it did to Moses. But if Moses had just taken a deep breath up there, he might have realized that getting angry was not the only possible reaction. As hard as it might have been to overcome that very natural and powerful feeling of anger, what could he have done instead to make the situation better? What could we do going forward in our lives?

Picture you walk into your house to find your kid had been on YouTube all afternoon instead of doing his homework. Instead of yelling at your kid, you could calmly sit them down and explain to them that they could make a better and more mature choice

Or, imagine the next time you have a school project and someone steals your idea. Instead of harshly blaming them and yelling, even though your anger feels justified, you can quietly speak to them off to the side of your group

So next time you feel angry, think about Moses and his tablets, and envision that instead of breaking them, you’re putting them down gently – then try using calm words instead of anger and violence to make things better. We create worlds with our words, so what kind of world do you want to create?

Parshat Emor – D’var Torah by Ruby Dembo

Throughout my entire life up to this point, speaking has been a favorite activity of mine. As a baby, I partook in many baby groups. There was no ultimate goal of baby groups except to play, eat snacks, and potentially socialize, but I completely rocked them nonetheless. While all the other babies were almost completely nonverbal, I was speaking in full sentences, and quite a lot of them. Now, I continue to talk. Though, some say that I talk too much. I have been kicked out of swim practice multiple times for that exact offense. Still, I absolutely love speaking. So, when I heard that I would be reading Parshat Emor – which is the command to speak – I was very excited to speak about speaking.

My Torah portion is Emor from the book of Leviticus. In the parashah, God has given Moses instructions, which he relays to the people of Israel. These instructions include the way sacrificial offerings work and provide a calendar of celebrations, such as Shabbat, Pesach, and Sukkot. Towards the end, the parashah clarifies the laws of blasphemy as well as those of profanity, murder, and the maiming of others. While the specific events of the parashah are important, I want to step back and focus on Emor’s meaning and the way in which Moses communicated the instructions to the people of Israel.

Emor means “speak,” and that’s exactly what Moses did. Moses shaped the world of the Israelites by speaking to them. This is a recurring theme in Jewish history. In the creation story too, God creates the world through words. God says “Let there be light” and there was light. When Moses spoke his instructions to the Israelites, he spoke of the world as it could be.

The world of the Isralites, however, was hard and oppressive. Moses’ own story began with chaos. He was born into a world where Pharaoh killed the newborn Israelites and so, his mother floated her newborn down the Nile, luckily being taken in by Pharaoh’s daughter and raised in Pharaoh’s palace. After a cushy palace upbringing, Moses feels for the oppressed Israelites and kills an Egyptian acting cruelly towards them. Sensing the danger he put himself in, Moses flees to the land of Midian. During his time there God calls on Moses in the burning bush and instructs him to return to Egypt and save the Israelites from Pharaoh. When the Israelites are eventually freed, he leads them into the wilderness. There he receives God’s instructions and relays them to the people. The world of oppression and slavery was over. A vision of the promised land emerged.

Moses spoke of the much more enticing land of milk and honey, a land of redemption for the Israelites. He spoke of the world that the Torah envisioned in Genesis – a just society of caring people who look out for the vulnerable and care for the strangers among them. He spoke of a world of peace and prosperity if the Israelites changed their ways and followed Moses’ instructions. 

This idea of “the world as it is” and “the world as it could be” is an oratory style used by everyone from God to Martin Luther King Jr. to Steve Jobs. I think we can all see the world as it is and dream of the world as it could be. Today, the world is just as flawed as it was in the times of Moses. Climate change is wreaking havoc on the environment. Russia is attacking Ukraine. There are a myriad of social justice issues. Not to mention the spread of COVID, fueled by those who deny its existence. This is the world as it is and sometimes it feels helpless.

One of the ways Judaism addresses a broken world is by speaking a better world into existence. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches that: “Words are themselves sacred, God’s tool for creating the universe, and our tools for bringing holiness — or evil — into the world.” He taught that, “The Holocaust did not begin with the building of crematoria, and Hitler did not come to power with tanks and guns; it all began with uttering evil words, with defamation, with language and propaganda. Words create worlds; they must be used very carefully. Some words, once having been uttered, gain eternity and can never be withdrawn. [The Book of Proverbs reminds us that death and life are in the power of the tongue.]”

I see the world as it is, I see the war, the inequality, the poverty, and then I see that world as it could be, a beautiful, peaceful, unified place that we can get to if only we work to change it. As I become a Bat Mitzvah, I recognize the power of words and realize that my excessive speaking may not be such a bad thing, as long as I use it correctly. I try to speak with purpose and use my words to bring the world I dream of into reality. Judaism implores us to understand the power of our words and recognize that the way we use them can change the world – for better or for worse. 


Shabbat Shalom!

Parshat Acharei Mot – D’var Torah by Jonah Greenfeld

Good morning everyone, I am so glad to see all of you here on such a special day. My Torah portion, or parsha, Acharei Mot is in the book of Leviticus. Today I’ll be reading from chapter 16 which outlines God’s rules and procedures that are to be followed on the Day of Atonement – also known as Yom Kippur. The Day of Atonement is a day for Aharon to atone for himself and his entire family. It details the process that Aharon had to go through on the Day of Atonement. After entering the Meeting Tent, he must take off his linen clothes and wash his entire body with the water from a holy place. He then must put his clothes back on and offer the burnt offering for himself and for his people. From there, the skins and other parts of the sacrificed animals were burned in a fire outside the camp. The Jews here will recognize this ritual from Beth Shir Shalom’s annual animal sacrifice at SanMoHi. 

 

Though Yom Kippur is very different in practice today, one of the main ideas in ancient practice that I find relevant today is the Scapegoat ritual. This is where a goat is sacrificed to Azazel. Azazel has never been exactly pinpointed. Even today rabbis all over the world are somewhat stumped by what Azazel truly is. Most believe that it was a demon or evil spirit to whom, in the ancient rite of Yom Kippur, a scapegoat was sent to. Two male goats were chosen for the ritual, one designated by lots “for the Lord” and sacrificed, while the other is ritually burdened with the sins of the Israelites and sent into the wilderness for Azazel. 

 

The meaning of scapegoat has evolved over the centuries. It has come to mean any group or individual that innocently bears the blame of others. When reading through my Parsha, I was surprised to see the idea of the scapegoat come up. Until reading about it in my Torah portion and studying it in depth, I never fully understood it. This idea of the scapegoat was very important in my Parsha, and it is today. 

In the Torah, the scapegoat was less of a name given to someone or a group of people, but instead, it was much more literal. With an actual goat being sacrificed and burned to represent the burning of the Israelites’ sins. However, even though it was much more literal and direct in the Torah after further reading and studying I understood the underlying idea. 

 

The goat is just a mere animal that gets dubbed as the bearer of sin which makes the Israelites feel better without ever taking action to change their sinful behavior. This idea of the scapegoat, and using and taking advantage of another’s innocence to shift blame and make oneself feel better is seen throughout history. From the Torah to my daily life at school, scapegoating is common can take many forms and levels of severity. Whether it’s used intentionally or unintentionally, maliciously or innocently, it is still there. 

Ironically, the Jewish people have been the victim of scapegoating throughout history. One of the most well-known examples happened in Nazi Germany. 

 

Ever since the rise of the Christian church, Jews have been the target of antisemitism, bigotry, and scapegoating. Antisemitism had been deeply ingrained in Europe for centuries and the Jews were frequently blamed for society’s ills, leading to the suffering and persecution of Jewish communities around the world. At the time of Hitler’s rise to power, Germany was experiencing great economic hardship and inflation, and Hitler used the Jews – and other minorities – as a scapegoat. 

 

He and the rest of the German politicians blamed them for the collapse of German society. This is one of the reasons the Nazis found so many willing adherents to the Nazi cause against the Jews, which led to many Germans and other Europeans turning a blind eye to the events happening in the Holocaust. Because of this scapegoating, millions and millions of Jews suffered and died. As the renowned Scientist Albert Einstein once said, “The world is a dangerous place to live. Not because of the people who do evil, but the ones who do nothing to stop it.”

 

My dad always tells me that to gain autonomy I must first show responsibility. This is something I have been thinking about regarding my Bar Mitzvah and my Torah portion. As I become an adult in the Jewish Community with newfound responsibilities, I want to be thoughtful and do my best to stay acountable. When I was younger I could get off the hook with a little lie. Saying something about how I brushed my teeth when I hadn’t, or saying I only ate one cookie when 4 or 5 was closer to the truth. But now that I am older I want to hold myself to a higher standard.  

I don’t want little lies or scapegoating to be okay anymore. Even though I got away with certain things when I was younger, as I become a Bar Mitzvah I want to hold myself accountable. When I’m wrong I need to acknowledge it and not just blame others. When I make a mistake, I need to own up to my actions and acknowledge when I haven’t put my best foot forward. 

 

Uncle Ben from Spiderman famously said, “With great power comes great responsibility.” As I become a Bar Mitzvah, I realize that we all have great power within us but we don’t always use it responsibly. The world might be a lot better if we did.

 

Shabbat Shalom!

Passover – D’var Torah by Katie Rison

If you’ve ever read the series Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, you know that the book doesn’t exactly end the way everyone wants it to. Spoiler alert: The last book in the trilogy, Mockingjay, ends with Gale killing the majority of the Capitol children, for the sake of freedom. To sum up the plot for anyone who hasn’t read it, the book is set in a dystopian world where “districts” are the poor and underserved slaves of Panema, and the Capitol is the place where all the rich and wealthy people live. The Capitol’s president, Snow, forces all the districts to compete in an annual Hunger Games. That is where two contestants from each district are forced into an arena to fight to the death. This is supposedly to remind the districts that the Capitol is still in power. 


In the last book of the trilogy, the main characters are rebelling and fighting for freedom against the Capitol. When President Snow knows he is in danger, he forms a wall of children to protect himself from the rebels.Gale, one of the main characters, decides on his own to bomb all the children of the Capitol, forcing Snow to give up and end the Hunger Games once and for all. Not only that, but he ends up accidentally killing Prim, the main character’s sister, who was just trying to help the children. But he only considers her collateral damage. This is very similar to my Torah portion when it comes to killing innocent people for the sake of freedom. Both ask the moral question, “When is violence okay?”

My Torah portion is about Passover, specifically the darker parts of the Jewish holiday that eventually led to freedom. As the last of the ten plagues, Moses calls upon Adonai to slaughter all the firstborn in Egypt. For over 430 years, the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt under Pharaoh’s rule. They were beaten and killed. Not only that, but generations of Israelites were born into slavery too. The Israelites asked God for help and God delivered the ten plagues, one at a time. The plagues got increasingly worse, but Pharaoh would not release the Israelites. Finally, God instructed the Angel of Death to slaughter all the firstborn sons in Egypt, sparing the Israelites’ firstborns. This last resort forces Pharaoh to release the Israelites, after his own first born son dies. Here we see a path to freedom that includes violence.

Sometimes violence seems like the only solution, considering Pharaoh wouldn’t listen after the first nine plagues. However, you have to consider that the firstborn children of Egypt had nothing to do with the enslaving of the Israelites and were merely taught that it was a good thing.
The reason they were killed was also why the Capitol children were killed, to make a statement in hopes of freedom or redemption from the real villain. In the Torah, it worked. Pharaoh let the Israelites go and they fled Egypt. But in the Hunger Games, it only causes complications and loses the trust of the other districts. This helps us see both outcomes of using violence for freedom. So I want to ask you, is violence ever morally acceptable?

A well known historical comparison is the difference between Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Martin Luther King Jr. was known for his peaceful protesting against white supremacy and racial injustice. You’ve probably been taught a great deal about him in school, you’ve heard his speeches, studied his backstory, and learned how he used to deal with racial injustice through peaceful protest and civil disobedience. Malcolm X is a different, more complicated story.

Malcolm X grew up having experienced racial terrorism against him and his father. He was taught that he had the right to stand up for himself and fight back if people tried to oppress him or his community. Because of his background, he fought fire with fire and was determined to earn freedom no matter the cost. As a result, people today tend to favor MLK’s peaceful approach. We teach about him more in schools, have a nationally celebrated holiday for him, and numerous books are written about him. But, MLK would have had a different approach to Pharaoh in Egypt. It seems Malcolm X’s approach is more akin to God’s in my Torah portion than MLK.

In case you didn’t catch all that or zoned out at some point, I’ll summarize it for you: My Torah portion, a section of our Passover story, includes the killing of innocent Egyptian children for the freedom and redemption of the Israelites. We’ve seen similar stories throughout time, from the Hunger Games to MLK and Malcolm X, and Jewish history in general. Humans often resort to violence to achieve goals, I think because it’s in humans’ nature to think we’re better than those who are different than us. Instead of coming together, people try to conquer and kill in hopes of making themselves more powerful, as we see with the Russian aggression against Ukraine.

However, it’s also in human nature to evolve. We can learn to overcome our inclination towards violence and domination. The world has worked together to make so many scientific advancements, whether it’s vaccines, space exploration, or creating new technology to improve the lives of people all over the world. I believe we have the ability to unite and one day we’ll finally learn to come together and view each other b’tzelem elohim – created in the image of God. If we are able to achieve that, we can solve anything the world throws at us.

Parshat Shemini – D’var Torah by Eli Kadish

My parsha is the third portion in the book of Leviticus, which deals heavily with the laws of sacrifices, agriculture and holidays. My portion, Shemini, talks about why the Israelites sacrificed and specifically how they made offerings.  There is also the cautionary tale of Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s sons who were consumed by fire after not offering an appropriate sacrifice. Shemini also talks about some ethical rules to follow and the dietary laws of the Israelites, which are called kashrut – which you might know as keeping kosher. And if you know me you wouldn’t be surprised to learn that I chose to chant the section that talks about food.

 

As I read my parsha, the first thing that came to mind was why? Why did God command Aaron and Moses to tell us the kashrut laws? Why are they so important to our religion? And why do people keep kosher at all? I mean, who can resist a good cheeseburger.  Actually, I don’t like cheese on my burgers, but I do like oysters, and those aren’t really kosher either.

 

The 12th century physician and philosopher Maimonides believed that “ food that is forbidden by the laws of Torah is unfit for human consumption.” This doesn’t seem plausible because there is no medical or dietary justification for why we can’t eat things like shrimp, crab, scallops, or pork. There are a lot of different opinions on why there are the laws of kashrut.  Some, like the 15th century commentator Abarbanel, say that “the foods forbidden by the Torah are to protect our spiritual health, and those who consume these foods will bring spiritual disaster upon them and drive out the pure and holy spirit.” There are also a lot of people who believe that observing kashrut is a constant reminder of our unique values, traditions, and obligations as a Jew. In other words, these dietary laws regulate what we can and can not eat – and therefore where we eat and with who – as a way of preserving our Jewish identity and loyalty to God. So, it’s really up to you on how you find holiness through food.

 

 I don’t keep kosher. I can’t stand the idea of not being able to eat things like scallops and shrimp or a milkshake with my burger. Whether you’re like me and don’t keep kosher or if you do, I invite you to think about this. How can we find holiness in food, and how do these choices impact ourselves and those around us?

 

Specifically for those who don’t keep kosher, how can we feel more connected to God or to our Jewish identity through food?  For me, I find holiness, in eating Jewish foods like Matzah Ball Soup or Shakshuka. These foods to me represent a connection between my love for food and Judaism like turkey and Thanksgiving. 

 

I find holiness in eating when I’m at camp surrounded by my friends on Shabbat. Or, who knows? You could find holiness in eating meat that was well cared for and killed humanely or by eating vegetarian or vegan. Maybe the next trendy diet could be the stop-climate-change-diet. God should add some rules to the kosher laws so we don’t all die from cow farts in 30 years. 

 

Besides the point,  it could maybe be eating in places that you find holy, where you find you are more connected to God, or your Jewish identity. It could also mean eating with friends or family that are Jewish.

 

At my sleep-away camp, Camp Newman, we pray before and after we eat every meal. These prayers thank God and the people who helped bring our food to the table. To be honest I have very rarely taken a moment to be thankful for the food in front of me outside of camp and I think many of you might relate to that. When was the last time you paused before a meal to be grateful for the food in front of you? One way Judaism encourages us to sanctify food is through gratitude, and so I invite you today after the service to pause before eating your burger – with or without cheese – and take a moment to appreciate knowing where your next meal is coming from.

 

Another meaningful way that I practice Judaism with my family is volunteering to address food insecurity in our community. As a Jew and someone who is privileged to come back from school everyday to a homemade dinner, I have an obligation to give to those who aren’t as fortunate. I find that this kind of tzedakah also brings me holiness through food, in ways that aren’t just through eating. 

 

Michelin Star Chef Jose Andres founded the World Central Kitchen, a non-profit devoted to providing meals in the wake of natural disasters all over the world. In December he went to Kentucky with his team and delivered meals in places that were hard hit by the devastating tornadoes. He also delivered meals in Spain after a volcanic eruption, in Haiti following an earthquake, and in Louisiana after hurricane Ida. This month he traveled to the Polish border along Ukraine, to deliver meals for refugees fleeing the war. Even though I can not travel the world to give meals to those in need I can do my part to help here in LA. I have worked in food banks to organize food boxes, done Meals on Wheels to deliver meals to those who can’t leave their homes, and prepared and delivered homemade meals to the homeless. Here at Beth Shir Shalom, we’ve hosted Feeding Families this year which delivers healthy food boxes to families in our community who are food insecure.

 

As I become a Bar Mitzvah, it’s important to me to practice my Judaism through food: Whether it’s helping those in need, eating Jewish foods, or sharing meals with friends & family, food plays an important role in how I connect to my Jewish Identity. I encourage you to think about how food plays a role in your life, and how we can find holiness through it.

 

Shabbat shalom!

Parshat Ki Tisa – D’var Torah by Arlo Lamm

In my Parsha, Ki Tisa, it’s been a few months since the Israelites have escaped Egypt and they’re now at the base of Mt. Sinai.  They have just made a formal agreement with God, known as a covenant, for them to agree to God’s laws in exchange for God’s protection & blessing.  Moses goes up to the top of Mt. Sinai to convene with God.  

To the Israelites at the base it seems like Moses has disappeared.  So it’s a time of great confusion.  They’re scared and they’re not sure if they have any leadership and they want to go back to the old gods – so they create a Golden Calf. 

Moses sees the Israelites with the golden calf and in a fit of rage smashes the tablets that God has just given him. Then he orders 3000 Israelites to be killed for abandoning God and worshipping an idol. When the idol worshippers are killed, he pleads for God to not kill the rest of the Israelites.   

What stood out to me in this story is God’s wrath.  God is mad at the Israelites for making a golden calf, but as Rabbi Huna taught, “It’s as if a parent opened a business for his child on a street filled with evildoers but when the child began acting unethically the parent became angry and threatened to punish them. A friend intervenes and tells the parent: you are as guilty as your child. Did you not place them on a street of evildoers in a place where they could have picked up bad habits? Did you not expect that the environment would have an influence upon them?”

In other words, Rabbi Huna said it is not the Israelites’ fault, it should be God’s fault  because he left them in exile for so long surrounded by people who are polytheistic, that’s what they knew. That’s what everyone around them did so they are the odd ones out. It’s like the kids going into the Willy Wonka factory, with promises of so much delicious candy, but they are expected to behave perfectly or they will meet a “sticky end.” 

To me this feels unjust, and even though Moses had 3000 people murdered, I think Moses didn’t have to order the 3000 to be killed.  He could have just exiled them instead of slaughtering them. What this makes me think about is rage.  

One example of rage that I saw was one time when me and my friend were walking his dog and saw a guy spray painting a fence around a house under construction.  Somebody on the inside innocently pushed out the fence and it accidentally hit the guy in the face. In a fit of rage he pulled out a gun on the contractor. We quickly ran away and called the police, but it was a pretty scary thing to witness.  

I also see rage in politics from things like the January 6 insurrection, where rage fueled a violent breaching of the Capitol and killed multiple people. So rage is a dangerous emotion that we should all work on.

In this parsha, the Israelites lost faith and were punished harshly by Moses and almost by God. What I have learned from God and Moses is that we all have rage – even God. We all over react, and even if we feel full on justified we should take the time to really think before we do, especially when it comes to anger. If we can do this then there would be a lot more peace in the world.

Parshat Vayikra – D’var Torah by Bailey Hughes

The book of Leviticus, or Vaykira in Hebrew, is all about sacrifice. God instructs Moses about sacrifices that can be offered in the sanctuary to ask for forgiveness for mistakes and sins. 

 

As I first read my portion, it was so boring. I didn’t understand how these sacrifices were supposed to make up for mistakes and sins. There was a burnt offering and a sin offering and penalty offering and none of it seemed to relate to my understanding of forgiveness or atonement. As I read through my portion I realized that maybe it was relevant in a different way then I had thought and that there was a more modern way to interpret this. 

 

Even though we don’t sacrifice animals today or kill them to practice our religion, the ideas behind these rituals are surprisingly relevant. In Judaism, after the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 CE, the rabbis substituted prayer for sacrifice, and we continue to say prayers for gratitude, well being, and forgiveness today. Vayikra as a whole is more relevant than I would have anticipated when I first read my Bat Mitzvah portion.

 

Dr. Tamara Eskenazi, a local Los Angeles scholar teaches that “Vayikra is an optimistic book. It assumes the world is a well-integrated ecosystem that comes with a troubleshooting guide for when things go wrong. Vayikra doesn’t blame people for things going wrong, it offers a toolkit to restore the ecosystem.”

 

As a dancer, I make mistakes constantly – we all do. It’s part of learning combinations and routines. Mistakes help you learn and grow as a person. In dance, there is a system to fixing what goes wrong. I take the time to think about where I made a mistake and what I can do to fix it the next time. My teacher is watching to see where I may have struggled to give me some tips for improving upon it. I then try to incorporate the feedback and practice the part where I messed up a few times with her tips. Dancing is a process – just like life. It doesn’t fault the dancer for making mistakes but views them as a natural path to growth and improvement.

 

Though we no longer restore our broken ecosystems with animal sacrifice, prayer can be used to reflect on mistakes and meditate on forgiveness. As a human being, like all of us, I definitely make mistakes, and when we do we have two choices.

We can ignore our mistakes and sins or we can spend time perhaps in prayer reflecting on them so we can correct them in the future and become a better version of ourselves.

 

As I become a Bat Mitzvah, I take comfort in the fact that everyone in the Torah  – including God! – is imperfect. They all have flaws and make mistakes but it helps them learn and become a better person. As a society, we still judge people for making mistakes and jump to find all the negatives. But mistakes are a great way to learn and in many ways a positive part of life – this is what I’m taking from the ideas in my Torah Portion Vayikra. When I make a mistake in life or do something I shouldn’t, I recognize that this is part of the process. 


Just like learning a new combination in dance, making mistakes helps you grow and having a system in place to help us grow and learn from our mistakes is a healthy, positive part of life. Mistakes shouldn’t be judged, they should be looked at as a way to grow, learn, and improve as a human being.


 So the next time you make a mistake, I hope instead of getting frustrated or beating yourself up about it, you see it as a moment of growth to learn from and share your experience with others so they can learn and grow too.

 

Shabbat Shalom!