Shabbat Shalom! Hello to all of the congregation, friends, and family who have joined me today! I will be talking about my Torah Portion, Lech Lecha, and what its message means to me, as well as sharing some stories from my life, other’s lives, and the Torah.
My portion involves disputes (which I have absolutely, totally, 100% never ever experienced before), wars, and most importantly, the selfless rescue of captives.
In my portion, Abram who later becomes Abraham, his wife Sarai, who becomes Sarah, and his Nephew, Lot came to the land of Canaan. After many arguments over how they let their cattle graze, they went their separate ways. Lot went to the South to live in Sodom, where there were pastures for his flocks. Abram took his flocks north to Hebron. At that time in the land, five kings made war on four other local kings. After the war, some of the kings attacked Sodom and took Lot and the people of Sodom captive. Upon hearing this, Abram took his own army to fight the kings and to rescue Lot. He also brought back all the other captives and their possessions. Upon his return, the King of Sodom offered him riches for freeing the captives, but Abram refused to take them. Abram’s actions can serve as a model for us today as we think about doing Mitzvot, or Jewish obligations, and honoring God’s commandments.
As I wrestled with this portion and the commentaries it raised a question for me. “Why as Jews do we rescue, serve, give, and do Mitzvot, expecting nothing in return?”
Many commentators have tried to explain what made Abram act as he did.
First, Jewish tradition teaches that “Pidyon Shevuyin, or the Rescuing of Captives is one of the most important commandments of Judaism. Rabbi Harvey Fields explains, “Abram was ready to sacrifice his life in order to save Lot because he believed that saving a life by freeing a victim of oppression was one of the highest forms of serving God.” “[Abram realized that] ...When a person is taken captive, we must see him as a brother and rush to rescue him.”
The 13th century commentator Nachmanides wrote that Abram remembered that Lot had been a faithful companion and friend, and recognized that even though they had a disagreement, he still needed to treat him as a brother and rescue him.
If I were Abram, I would have saved Lot because even though Abram and Lot had parted ways, I would have still thought of him as an important person in my life. I would have rescued the citizens of Sodom who had been taken captive because they were also suffering, and just like with Lot, I would have treated them like brothers and rescued them.
Afterward, the King of Sodom offered Abram money for rescuing the captives. But Abram refused to take any reward. In the Jewish text, Pirke Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, we read, “Be not like servants who work for their master but only on condition that they receive payment, but be like the servants who work for their master without looking for any reward, and be filled with reverence for God”. The Rabbis of the Midrash suggest that Abram was worried that taking a reward might suggest that he had only gone to battle to increase his own wealth. He wanted people to know that he went to battle to rescue Lot, because it was commanded and the right thing to do, not to gain anything for himself. Also, he did not want to give the King power over him, as he says in the Torah. “You shall not say ‘It is I who made Abram rich”. He wanted there not to be a direct relationship between money and power.
Rabbi Yochanan argued that Abram could have used the opportunity to make Lot, the King of Sodom, and the people of Sodom believe in one God, and to change their ways. Sodom was later destroyed by God because the people there were behaving terribly. Rabbi Yochanan believed that Abram could have prevented that destruction.
However, most commentators disagree with Rabbi Yochanan because they felt that it was better for Abram to show them that there was a better path or idea instead of forcibly making them believe something. They instead chose to praise Abram for refusing a reward and setting an ethical model for us even today.
We also read in Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers: “Antigono of Socho teaches, the reward of one mitzvah is the opportunity to do another mitzvah, the punishment of a transgression is doing another.”
This means that doing good in the world forms a habit of doing good, while transgressing will lead you down a path of transgressions. This is an intrinsic reward, or a reward contained within the activity. The reward is contained in doing the mitzvah itself and continuing to do more mitzvot. I have experienced this as well, during my volunteering work with the Greater Boston Food Bank and Cradles to Crayons and other experiences in my life. Last winter, my mother and drove by a particular homeless person at the entrance to Storrow Drive on our way home from school. Each day, we would give him money or extra food from our lunch boxes. Sometimes, we would even pull over and give him gloves or socks. We formed a relationship with him and found out a little bit about him. Though we have not seen him since that winter, it was really special to have a more personal connection to his story. Actions like this help form a habit out of doing Mitzvot, which in turn, will help you be a better person and feel better about helping other people.
Yet, this is not all that Mitzvot are. Mitzvot are commandments for us to live our lives in the best possible way. There are 613 Mitzvot mentioned in the Torah, 248 of them are positive, (things you should try to do), and 365 of them are negative, (things you should try not to do). Some of them are rational, (as in you can see the clear reason or point to do them or try not to do them), and some of them are non-rational, (as in you cannot see the clear point or reason to do them or try not to do them.) The non-rational Mitzvot are usually spiritual, like keeping kosher, while the rational ones are usually ethical Mitzvot, things like “do not kill” or “do not steal”. The ethical ones are guides for everyone, not just Jews, to help us live our lives the best we can in an ethical fashion, while the non-rational, spiritual Mitzvot are some of the practices that differentiate us as Jews.
Doing a mitzvah without looking for a reward, without any strings attached, and being happy with the intrinsic reward, is what Abram was able to do. Ironically, the Tallit, the prayer shawl we wear, has strings with knots in them that we pull on to remember these Mitzvot and to honor God. They also remind us to do these Mitzvot without attaching any strings to them. An example of an intrinsic reward is a story I heard on the news about a family who got caught in a rip-tide. Over 70 people on the beach banded together in a human chain to help pull the family out. After the family was on the shore, everyone clapped and cheered. Afterward, everyone just went about their lives. They didn't ask for any reward. This shows an ethical model that we as Jews follow to this day. I personally feel that you should refuse rewards for good deeds. I feel that it takes the focus away from the good deed. If you accept a reward, that becomes more important than who you helped or what you did. I also don’t feel that you should use the opportunity to take advantage of someone or to forcibly make them believe something. I think that you should try to show them that there is a better path and let them make the choice for themselves.
My Mitzvah Project has helped me see this concept firsthand through effort and work. I volunteered with the Kids that Care program at Greater Boston Food Bank. This is an important issue to me because I personally know people who rely on programs like these, along with food stamps to get food. I learned that 1 in 9 people in Greater Boston aren’t sure where their next meal is coming from, if they are getting a meal at all. That is a scary number to think about. That’s 72,876 people in all of Greater Boston. The Kids that Care program at the Greater Boston Food Bank helps alleviate this problem by sending food to 500+ distribution centers around Greater Boston. The food is mostly donated from sponsors like Eversource, and grocery stores like Whole Foods, Shaw's, and Stop & Shop.
I also volunteered at Cradles to Crayons. They run a program that provides families bags of resources, called “KidPacks”, that can be customized to whatever the family needs. It contains clothing, toys, books, and games for children to use. My time there was spent sorting clothes, and matching toys together, all to be put in bags sent out for kids and families in need.
At my first visit to Cradles to Crayons, I felt like I didn’t really want to be there. I wasn’t fully involved with it, and I didn’t feel very good about doing it. However, at my next visit to the Greater Boston Food Bank, I shifted my mindset. I stopped looking for something to get out of it, and started thinking of the work as something that I was doing to help, rather than something I was doing for fun. During the following sessions, I got to learn more about the people we were helping, and started to think more about who was benefitting. During my last volunteer session, instead of packing pallets in a warehouse, we were working at one of their distribution outlets. We got to work in a line, passing out food to people in the program. It was a learning experience for me, and seeing how people reacted and what they took was really different from just hearing about them. Some people didn’t take certain foods, and some people refused to take our excess food. Some people took more to share with people near them, while others tried to be inconspicuous about taking extra. I ended up having fun doing volunteer work, and feeling really good about knowing that I helped so many people. These sessions helped me learn a lot about what doing a Mitzvah without looking for a reward really means.
Thank you to everyone who has been my role model and taught me about Mitzvot and what it means, and thank you to everyone who joined me today on this occasion! I would like to thank Morah Paula, for providing me with a strong foundation in Hebrew for my future.Thank you to Morah Tracy, for the kind and gentle tutoring and fostering a belief in myself that led me to this day. Thank you to the Rabbi, for helping me write my D’var Torah, along with fostering interesting and engaging conversation. Thank you to Hillary, for all of her work with the school, and guidance. Thank you to Benita, for the way you make everything seamless, and thank you to Moreno, for preparing the Temple for this occasion. Thank you to my friends, who took the time out of your otherwise normal weekends to be with me during this event, and for making each other, and me happy. Finally, thank you to my Mom and Ema, for being incredibly supportive and working round the clock to plan everything and help me through all of the work of preparing for my Bar Mitzvah with loving guidance, support, and keeping me steady on the road to this day.