Today I’m going to talk about God’s covenant with the Jewish people. A covenant is like a promise but on legal natural organic gluten free steroids. You might promise your sister that you will give her phone back to her if she won’t tell mom you broke her favorite coffee mug. A covenant has a much bigger impact and is way more serious. Moses tells the Israelites that if they accept the covenant “the lord your god will grant you abounding prosperity in all your undertakings, in the issue of your womb, the offspring of your cattle, and the produce of your soil.” But if they don’t follow the covenant, the Lord will inflict pain and suffering and eternal wrath on your family, destroying your wifi router in the process and forcing you to be on a call with Verizon for eternity with hold music from High School Musical. The covenant, if you honor it, is like a lifetime protection plan not only for your family, including generations to come, but for the entirety of the Jewish people, your whole community of friends and family.
My portion is Nitzavim-Vayelech from Deuteronomy. NItzavim means we stand. The portion starts with Moses speaking to the Israelites who are standing before him. The entire Book of Deuteronomy is his final speech to the Israelites. Moses knows that he will die in the desert and not enter the promised land.
My portion begins: “You stand this day, all of you before the Lord your God- your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer-” God specifically says “from woodchopper to water drawer,” because people doing these jobs are from the lowest social classes. God is saying that the covenant includes all social classes, ages, genders, sizes, shapes, and colors and you don’t need to be a spiritual leader, or a tribal head either. Not just the wealthiest, or the kindest, or the most dedicated to prayer. Everybody.
Then, the torah portion says “I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone but both with those who are standing here with us this day before God and with those who are not with us here this day.”
This covenant still stands for Jews today. It was there for our parents, their parents, their parents parents, and so on, and will be there, L’dor Vador, from generation to generation.
In my portion, god tells the Israelites not to worship false gods, and pray to idols, fetishes of wood and stone and says that if you do, curses will be thrown at you and you will be banished to another land, and the lord will blot your “name from under the heavens.”
When I read this I thought, that’s harsh. What about forgiveness? But later in Nitzavim it says, “When all these things befall you- the curse that I have set before you-and you take them to heart amidst the various nations to which the lord has banished you, and you return to God, and you and your children heed God’s command with all your heart and soul, just as I enjoin upon you this day, then God will restore your fortunes and take you back in love. God will bring you together again from all the peoples where the lord your god has scattered you.” This is the forgiveness. If you love god, and ask for forgiveness, God will give it.
Later, in verse 11 it says, “Surely, this instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it.” God is saying that the covenant is not too complicated. There are no good excuses for not following the rules.It also says, “Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it.’ No, the thing is very close to you. In your mouth and in your heart to observe it.” In ancient Mesopotamian literature, it says that only heroes and gods can cross seas, but in Jewish tradition, you don’t have to be a hero, or the most connected to prayer to be a part of the covenant.
One commentary I read on Nitzavim is a contemporary essay by Rabbi Dr. Analia Bortz. She was the first woman Rabbi ordained in Latin America. Rabbi Bortz makes a comparison between the ancient Jewish covenant and social networking today. She argues that Jews are part of an ancient social network that demands “commitments actions and a deep level of understanding.” I’m not sure how deep the level of understanding has to be, since God says the covenant should not be too baffling!
In her commentary, she argues that the covenant was an easy way for the ancient Jews to connect and have a relationship or bond to one another. Rabbi Bortz said that for those who were present, all standing before Moses, it was similar to facetime on Facebook. I think that comparison is very hard to defend between texting, tweeting, snapchatting, etc. and the life and death seriousness of God’s punishment. It wasn't a choice for which clothes to wear to a party, it was to choose between an excruciating death and wealth, prosperity, and happiness for generations to come.
In facebook the connections between people are as thin as the new iphone screen. Facebook has people taking a selfie with their mornin’ frap. The covenant on the other hand, is a consequential, momentous connection between millions of people over thousands of years.
Facebook is also a hierarchy. At the top of the hierarchy are the most avid and addicted users. People with the most connections, the most avid users. But the covenant is not a popularity contest. It is not a hierarchy. The covenant is simple. You follow the covenant, and you and your future generations thrive. You do not follow it, god will put curses on you. But even if you do make a mistake, God will always forgive you, and you can right your wrongs, correct your sins. Facebook will not right our wrongs.
The covenant is somewhat similar to facebook in the way that it connects people with similar backgrounds to each other, but facebook keeps you connected with current events and friends, and the covenant is a connection to past and future generations.
One part of Rabbi Dr. Bortz’s article I agree with says, “In this ancient facebook, this book of our Jewish faces, you might think about “unfriending” the entire Jewish people. Are you sure? Just try to stay in the network. It's worth it, and you will not regret it.” I agree. Sometimes it is challenging to wake up at 8 on sunday mornings and some saturdays to come to temple, and it can be a hassle to learn all of your prayers, and some people might wish they could just leave and take a nap, but I agree that it is worth it to keep in touch. It is a blessing to have a community of friends and family to surround you, learning with our rabbi as one community in itself, loving and kind.
So what does the covenant mean to me today? And has the covenant changed? To me, the covenant connects me to the Israelites. As the torah gets passed down to me, I am becoming part of a cycle, a tradition from generation to generation. I am reading the same Hebrew words read by millions of people before me. Physically, the covenant hasn’t changed. The fact that you all are here today shows that we still take the covenant seriously, it's just that the ways we interpret god’s sayings may have changed slightly because of how humankind has progressed with our views. We don’t still have sacrifices, but we do honor and appreciate god through prayer. We still have bar mitzvahs, hear stories about the Israelites struggles and victories like being enslaved and leaving Egypt. Adding to our appreciation of God, at our home, we have shabbat, we light the candles and and celebrate with friends. We also celebrate Purim and Hanukkah, and celebrate our passage through treacherous struggles.
To me, being a Bar Mitzvah means a few things. First of all, I am truly a teenager now. Before my bar mitzvah, I could still worship, but now, I am considered an adult in the Jewish community. I am counted as an adult for minyan, which requires ten adults for the service. Now that I have reached age 13, I am less self centered and more capable of thinking about ethics and other’s views and feelings. I know that sometimes I might share the blame for something I wasn't fully responsible for. A few years ago, I would have been pointing fingers.
For my bar mitzvah project, I wanted to work with disabled kids or adults and help them. I wanted this because I worked with disabled kids in India and I connected to the kids there. Here in America, I have been going to the Chapel Hill group home in Hyde Park. It’s part of Cerebral Palsy of Greater Boston. They create homes for adults with disabilities. All of the residents are in a wheelchair. The reason for their disabilities range from getting shot, getting hit by a car, to problems at birth. I usually help serve dinner and clear the table. My role at the home changes depending whom I’m working with. I’ve changed names to protect privacy. For example, I take Jerry outside to play with the group homes small basketball hoop, learn sign language with him or even help him learn to speak.
In my experience at the group home, I have learned a lot about the lives of the people there, and tried to help the best I can to add another positive influence. I learned that enthusiasm and happiness in a tough situation can go a long way. I am also privileged to be here, in front of all of you today. Even though the members of the group home cannot stand up, they are standing in a way by making the best of their situation.
Before I had even heard of the group home, I had done other things for my community. In India, I helped at a center for children with kids having disabilities like autism called Asha Niketan. I helped them be active in there dancing, and they made a little dance skit from an Indian bollywood movie, Jai Ho. It was amazing. Even though I didn’t know Bengali, the prominent language in Calcutta, very well, they understood me in a different way. On one day, I taught the kids how to make paper airplanes. There were two kids in a wheelchair. I made them airplanes and even though they couldn't throw them and one of the kids ripped it in half, they were laughing and smiling, just knowing I had given them something. One child was having a lot of trouble. I noticed his attention span was less than 5 seconds. He wasn’t doing the exercises. Before I left on the last day at the place, I peeked in and saw him dancing and smiling.
My bar mitzvah project gives me a chance to help the community be a better place. That type of service honors the covenant through following my ancestors in doing rightful obligations beyond oneself such as kindness to the stranger or pulling away the stumbling block before the blind.
I didn’t prepare my bar mitzvah project and my bar mitzvah on my own. I would like to say some words to everyone who helped me get to this point today. I would like to thank Morah Tracy Ashley Adams, and the rabbi, for helping me work on my portion and D’var torah and do my best in preparing for today. I would like to thank my sister, Rina, for being sweet, kind, compassionate, and helping me do almost anything. I would also like to thank my parents for being there when I needed them, and even helping when I didn’t. Thanks to them also for not snapping at me even without many moments to themselves without rina and I bothering them. I would like to thank Moreh Justin and all my Hebrew school teachers and friends for helping me think about what it means to me to be a Bar Mitzvah, to be a Jewish man, and to give me more people to chat with about sports! I would also like to thank Moreno and Benita for helping my family get set up for today. I would also like to thank the folks over at the group home for allowing me to come and help out with their great operation in hyde park. Lastly, I would like to thank everyone today for waking up early and lugging themselves over here at 10:00, from in town, or from across the world.
Thank you. Shabbat shalom.