Oz Madar Feb 23, 2019


Shabbat Shalom! Thank you for coming to my Bar Mitzvah. You’ve just heard me chant Torah and my Haftarah. So now, this is my Dvar Torah! What’s a Dvar Torah, you ask? It’s a speech about my Torah portion and what we’ve read today. Everyone, ready for this? If you pay attention to me, this can be a once in a lifetime experience to hear ME give a Jewish lecture! It’s kind of like being on Oprah Cause YOU GET A LECTURE, AND YOU GET A LECTURE, AND YOU GET A LECTURE! EVERYBODY GETS A LECTURE!

My Torah portion is about the Golden Calf and the Israelites who worshipped it after they lost faith in G-d. Many, if not most of you, know the story of the Golden Calf as it is one of the most well-known Torah portions that forms one of the most basic tenets of Judaism: that there is only one God and that Jews do not bow down to idols. We know this one pretty well, like when we say the Sh’ma.

I wanted to focus on learning something new, so therefore I’m going to focus on my Haftorah today. My haftorah is about the prophet Elijah challenging the prophets of a foreign god named Ba’al. This connects to my Torah portion because both are about not worshipping idols, but praying to God instead. I want to  tell you some interesting things about Elijah - one of the most famous prophets in Judaism. If you’re lucky, you might just hear me make a connection to the Golden Calf, too

What do you know about Elijah? Anyone, anyone? (As each person talks, repeat what people say about Elijah)

Most people think of Elijah as a prophet of God who is a kind and loving person. Maybe you have heard stories about Elijah helping poor people. But what you think of Elijah may not be the whole truth. Elijah can be kind and loving, but he can also be a ruthless and mean person who only cares about his beliefs and thinks that his beliefs are more important and better than everyone else’s.

Elijah challenged the prophets of Ba’al to see which God was real by asking their God (Ba’al) to set an offering of bulls on fire. To show that God accepted the gift, Elijah then asked the God he believed in to set his bull (which was on the altar) on fire, and a few seconds later, Boom Chaka Laka! a streak of fire came down and set the bull on fire. He did that because he wanted to show the worshippers of Ba’al which God was real, and which one was fake. Sort of like how Moses wants to show the Israelites that the Golden Calf was fake, too. We all know about fake news, right? :)

Elijah was a zealot. What does that mean? It means that Elijah was an extremist and would do anything to advance his cause. Elijah was very angry that the prophets of Ba’al were worshipping an idol and not God. He didn’t want the Israelites to worship Ba’al and lose faith in God. Elijah took a jab at the Ba’al prophets and mocked them by saying, “Shout louder! After all, he is a god. But maybe he’s on the phone, or maybe he’s stuck in traffic, or maybe he’s away on a business trip or maybe he’s taking a long nap?” (OK, OK, I updated it a little!) Elijah is a very interesting character. He’s more complicated than you thought.

But if Elijah was trying to stand up for God, wouldn’t you think that God would be happy that Elijah was trying to convince people to do the right thing? However, there is a midrash - a story that’s not in the Tanakh  but which tells us interpretations of stories in the Tanakh - where God said that Elijah was being too zealous. As a result, God gave Elijah eternal life and told him that he had to be at every single bris that would ever happen! Then he had to report back what happened and if they did it right. Elijah says to God, “Since I am zealous for the Lord and since I cannot tolerate any kind of sin or sinner, what will I do where the father of a child is a sinner? Certainly I cannot restrain myself.”

Wait a second! God thought that Elijah was being too zealous and then made him be at every bris? Why would God think this would help teach Elijah something about zealotry? The midrash continues to say that God would forgive the father, even if he was a sinner. Elijah then asked about what to do if he saw that the mohel and the father were both sinners? God said they would both be forgiven. Elijah asked what to do if he saw that everyone at the bris were sinners? And God said again that they would all be forgiven. God might have known that Elijah was the kind of person who would take things too far in his zealotry, that he would let his anger take control of him. I think that God wanted Elijah to learn to let things go. Maybe by sending Elijah to each bris, God wanted to teach us to be more in control of our behaviour and how we do things in life.  

This reminds me of another story in the Torah. When the Israelites were thirsty in the desert, Moses was told to talk to the rock to bring forth the water, but he took things too far there, as well. He struck the rock instead, which was not what God had told him to do. It was the exact opposite! The water came forth and the people drank, but God punished Moses there, just like the midrash says God punished Elijah. In both cases, we can interpret that God wants peace and not always a show of force. So the way that Elijah would accomplish his goal was that at every bris, the baby being circumcised would have to sit on Elijah’s chair (a pillow). That is how Elijah is achieving his eternal goal. But it’s also meant to teach us that we never lose faith in God.

There are tons of other stories that have to do with Elijah. This story is from the Talmud. It’s about Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi asking help from the Messiah. The story is this: Rabbi Yehoshua asked Elijah, “When will the Messiah come?” Elijah answered, “Go ask him.” The conversation went on until Rabbi Yehoshua went to the Messiah. When he arrived at the Messiah, he saw the Messiah sitting among the poor and ill and helping them unwrap dirty bandages and put on new bandages one by one. Rabbi Yehoshua was confused. He asked the Messiah, “Why do you take off one bandage at a time when you can take them all off at once?” The Messiah answered, “I take them off one by one because if I take them all off at once, I won’t be able to help someone that asked for my help right that second because I will still be putting on my bandages.” Rabbi Yehoshua realized the Messiah’s logic and agreed with him. The Rabbi needed hope in a time of sorrow and learned the Messiah was someone who was doing a lot of good to help make the world a better place. One moral of this story is that if you have time to do what you need to do, then take your time and do it right instead of doing it as fast as you can and messing it up or not doing it right.

But that’s not the end of the story. Rabbi Yehoshua also asked the Messiah, when will you come? The Messiah answered, “Today.” Rabbi Yehoshua thought, ooh, so it’s probably soon. But then he didn’t come. So Rabbi Yehoshua went back to Elijah and said the Messiah told me that he would come today. But he lied to me! Elijah explained, what he meant was he will come today if you will listen to his voice.

What this means is that we have to bring the Messiah. You have to earn it by doing the best that you can. You have to prepare for the Messiah to come. This story shows us that we should also do our part to help and do volunteer work in order to repair our broken world. This is called tikkun olam.

I’m also contributing to repair the broken world. For my Bar Mitzvah project, I knitted scarves to give to homeless people. I decided to do this project because I wanted to find a way to help homeless people in a way that felt personal. I mean; who doesn’t love a hand knit scarf, especially this season when it was freezing?? I figured maybe a small gesture like giving someone something you made for them could make them feel more human in what can sometimes be a very cruel world. By knitting the scarves, we take a little bit of time to do something that can help a lot of people. By doing small acts of kindness and showing compassion to those in need around us we can build a better stronger community for everyone. Thanks to my friend Elle for making some to make my donation even bigger.

Speaking of acts of kindness. I would like to thank my mom and my dad for spending an unbelievable amount of time setting up various different things for my Bar Mitzvah and for always making me practice my portion and my haftarah because without them making me practice, you guys would have heard some pretty bad stuff. I also want to thank my brother Barak. Second, I want to thank my tutor Josh for coming to my house every week to tutor me for my big day. Third, I want to thank my Rabbi, Rabbi Penzner for helping me get this whole speech up and running. I also want to thank my Zayde, and my family for coming all the way from Israel, in FEBRUARY, to celebrate with me.

סבה, סבתה, דודה גלית, ודודה לילך - תודה רבה רבה שבאתם. אני אוהב אותכם כל כך הרבה!!!  

And last but not least, I want to thank everyone who changed their vacations plans to make it here today.  

Shabbat shalom.

Posted on February 25, 2019 .

Theo Coben - Shabbat YItro - January 26, 2019

Shabbat Shalom.

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For all of you who came out to see me today: 1) Thank you; 2) I apologize, for many of you have traveled far and wide only to be underwhelmed by the presence of a 4’8” parrot squawk out some language none of us really understand. While I cannot control my short stature and unbearably high voice, I can, however, break down the story told this morning into (almost) comprehensible English.

My portion, Yitro, is actually a text many of you are familiar with - it contains the Ten Commandments. The prophet Moses receives the Ten Commandments from God at Mount Sinai, where he retells them to the anxious people he leads out of Egypt. These commandments cover basic rules and morals that current laws and societal norms are based on. Today, I’d like to focus on the commandment that addresses thought and feeling in the midst of nine other commandments that primarily address action and behavior - “Thou shalt not covet”

But how would anyone know you have coveted? Your friends, family, strangers, not even God will know whether or not you have coveted, only yourself. So what place does a commandment about “thinking” have in a “doing” religion?

The Torah says, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s”

First, understanding the commandment requires a definition for what coveting is. Coveting can be defined as a driven desire for something solely because someone else has it. In this sense, the expression “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence” may be coveting in some ways. A desire for green grass is a desire for green grass, but a desire for grass greener than someone else’s (enough to drive a desire to do something destructive) is coveting. Theft, murder, adultery are all effects of coveting, as they are destructive acts that may arise from coveting.

The commandments  “do not commit perjury” and “do not commit murder,” for example, are, dare I say it, set in stone in our minds. While there are many varied interpretations one can make about these commandments, I think all of us know what it means to not kill someone. Murdering or adultery is a behavior - an action that to an extent can be controlled and enforced.

Many commentators on this commandment mention the idea of satisfaction. A few commentaries I like come from Pirke Avot and from the Talmud, two texts that discuss religious morality and law. These texts address satisfaction and its connection to the tenth commandment. The Talmud states “Three things broaden the spirit of a person: a fine home, a fine spouse, and fine possessions.”

This statement is ambiguous - “fine” could mean many things. “Fine” could be okay, or not bad, or could be better but it doesn’t matter all that much. But “fine” could also be good, great, extraordinary, or of great wealth. Maybe it doesn’t matter what the dictionary definition of “fine” is in this case. Maybe “fine” is just whatever the spirit is satisfied with. Either way, the constant use of “fine” highlights self-discipline and the dangers of wanting too much.

    I like this quote as well from Pirke Avot, by ben Zoma, a wise rabbi from the second century CE: “Who is considered wealthy? One who is satisfied with their portion.”

    This quote breaks down what coveting really is. Do you really desire your neighbor’s ox because you want their ox, or do you desire internal satisfaction from having their ox? “Wealthy” also addresses what wealth really is. Is wealth material, like gold or silver, or is wealth internal, your satisfaction for what you have? I believe that the latter is correct, because you may always want more gold even if you already have more than enough or are considered “wealthy” by others. Additionally, “their portion” implies that everyone is entitled to something, but not everyone is entitled to the same things. But wealth is possible in any quantity or quality. In simpler terms, “you get what you get and you don’t get upset.”

    The Spanish philosopher Maimonides, one of the most influential Jewish philosophers of all time, has this interpretation in the Mishneh Torah. “Let a person not say: ‘envy, lust, honor and similar things are evil ways and remove a person from the world,’ and that one should separate oneself from them and go to the opposite extreme, not to eat meat, drink wine, marry, live in a nice house or dress in fine clothes, but dress only in sackcloth and hard wool like the idolatrous priests do. This too is an evil way and one who follows it is a sinner.”

In simpler terms, abstaining from anything that isn’t already forbidden is a sin in and of itself. Another danger is that you might be too self-disciplined and dissuade yourself from taking advantage of great opportunities that may make you wealthier. As a result you could feel deprived and become unsatisfied with what you have. Just because abiding by “thou shalt not covet” requires internal discipline and your own perspective and perception, vowing to never covet should not steer you away from these opportunities. For example, if a friend offers to take you somewhere you have always wanted to visit, if you refuse the offer on account of not wanting to covet, essentially you have sinned in a different way. By rejecting all of the good things given to you, you show ungratefulness for what you have been offered, which offends your friend. Also, you are rejecting an offer to broaden your perspective and perception, which defeats the purpose of the commandment in the first place.

Coveting is a heightened desire for satisfaction. If you aren’t satisfied with your ox, naturally you would desire to have a better ox that you are satisfied with. There is nothing wrong with wanting a better ox, as long as you don’t desire your neighbor’s ox specifically. Desire isn’t unhealthy or unnatural. Most of the time desire is actually constructive, not destructive, as in the case of coveting. If you want a better ox, instead of stealing your neighbor’s ox (a destructive outcome), this desire can be channeled productively by training or breeding stronger oxen. But the truth is, it’s important to realize there will always something better than what you have. Even desire, separate from coveting, always wanting, can become destructive to your spirit at a certain point. The purpose of this commandment is to make you stop and question your desire for something better. Instead, we can look within and change how we view what you have and what we view as satisfactory.

So what place does the tenth commandment has in Judaism? Simply to make you happier and wealthier! After all, everyone wants to be wealthy in spirit, and by cutting coveting out of your life, you will be.

Yitro can teach us gratitude, and as part of my commitment to service, I’d like to shine a light on something that all of us take for granted: a voice. I’ve partnered with VocaliD, a program that many of you are now familiar with, that allows people who suffer from speechlessness to have a voice in the world. They might be in need as a result of physical conditions such as ALS or Parkinson’s. By recording yourself reading, VocaliD’s software creates a unique voice for someone in need. I organized a voice drive, similar to a blood drive, where participants can join together to donate their voices online. This drive is still open until March 18th. What I learned from this project is that no matter how much you desire for greater, better things, someone will always value the essential things that you have. Additionally, the tenth commandment focuses so much on taking, wanting, desiring things as an individual. Let us keep in mind that taking requires someone or something to give, and being a giver can broaden your spirit, perspective, and satisfaction as well.

    Next, I would like to thank everyone who has made my Bar Mitzvah possible. First, the entire HBT congregation for accepting and supporting not only me but also every member of the congregation. Thank you to Tracy Rich, my amazing tutor and fellow cat-lover. Thank you to My Chaverim School class, for enduring my horrendous puns. Also, thank you to Hillary, Moreno, and Benita for helping organize this entire event and making sure the temple and school run smoothly. I’m thankful for all of my friends and teachers who have taught me so much in my life intellectually and socially. Additionally, thank you to my brilliant cousins for keeping my life lively and exciting, as well as my aunts and uncles for great conversations and experiences. Thank you to my grandparents, for all of the wisdom and unconditional love you have given to me. Thank you, Nathaniel and Rena, my bro and sis, for being my partners in crime since day one. Thank you especially to my mom and dad for putting up with our shenanigans, and of course, you know, like raising me and stuff. You both have always supported me, helped me whenever I have fallen and made sure I would fly high like a squeaky parrot. I love you to the end of the earth. Lastly, thank you to Rabbi Barbara, who has assisted me throughout my various (and I mean various) stages of becoming a Bar Mitzvah. Thank you all very much.

    Shabbat Shalom.

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Posted on January 29, 2019 .

Eli Mamuya Oct 27

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Shabbat shalom everyone.  Although we are all gathered here on Shabbat to worship, we probably all have different ideas and beliefs about God. I would like to ask what does it mean to have blind faith in God?

My torah portion, Vayera, which includes the story of the “Akedah” or the binding of Isaac is one of the more disturbing stories of the torah. God decides to test Abraham by asking him to take his son, Isaac to the land of Moriah and sacrifice him on the top of a mountain that God points out. Abraham saddles his donkey and leaves the next morning. Once Abraham, Isaac, and the servants reach the lands around the mountain, Abraham orders the servants to stay and says “The boy and I will go up there, we will worship and we will return to you.” Then Abraham and Isaac set off. On the way to the peak, Isaac asks his father where the sheep for the offering are and Abraham says that “God will see to the sheep for his burnt offering my son.” At the peak, Abraham sets up the altar and binds Isaac to the altar. As Abraham raises the knife to carry out the sacrifice of his beloved son, an angel cries his name twice and Abraham replies “here I am.” The Angel tells Abraham to let Isaac live because it was clear that Abraham had  the utmost trust and faith in God. Abraham is told to sacrifice a ram that had appeared instead and Abraham is blessed by the Angel.

So, back to my question regarding blind faith. I think blind faith means to go through with any action that someone asks you to do, no matter if you doubt it and ask questions or not. From our 21st century perspective, we could see Abraham’s willingness to carry out the sacrifice as an example of blind faith. Commentators on this story of the Akedah point out that Abraham questioned God about which son to sacrifice and that he did not leave immediately for Moriah but instead left the following morning as possible evidence of  Abraham’s doubts regarding God’s commandment. Does questioning and delaying mean that Abraham did not have blind faith? I think that despite his doubts, Abraham intended to carry out God’s order to sacrifice his beloved son, Sarah’s only child, and got to the point of raising a knife over his bound son before being told to stop. That indicates a rather deep faith that God must be obeyed, no matter how awful the commandment and no matter the consequences to his family.

What are the consequences of Abraham's  faith in God? One commentary suggests that Sarah died from a broken heart when she realized that Abraham intended to sacrifice Isaac. Abraham’s act of faith  also damaged Isaac and Abraham’s relationship, as Isaac and Abraham never spoke after that. If you think about it from a child's perspective, Isaac would have probably had trust issues after the binding. Parents can damage or destroy children's trust in them by abusing them, both verbally and physically. Children’s blind faith in their parents can be compared to blind faith in God. Isaac's blind faith in Abraham could have also led to Isaac's more passive tendencies. We hear very little about Isaac in later passages of the Torah. In the Akedah story, he seems somewhat passive.

I propose that Isaac’s faith in God combined with his absolute trust in his father led to his passive acceptance of his sacrifice and later the trauma of that experience scarred him.  Although Abraham and probably Isaac passed the test of faith in the story of the Akedah,the consequence of that faith was the destruction of Abraham’s immediate family. I think this Torah portion shows us that we must all think for ourselves, question authority and do what we believe is right and moral and hopefully maintain our loving family relationships.

Although my mitzvah project seems to have no connection to the story of the binding of Isaac, it does have some connection to family relationships. For my mitzvah project I played my viola for some of the frailer residents at Hebrew Senior Life and I enlisted my family to help me. As part of my performance, my brother played a Beethoven duet with me. My Mom supported me by driving us to Newbridge and helping with scheduling. We worked as a close family to bring joy to some of the most impaired residents of hebrew senior life.  During my performance many people started tapping their feet or hands and smiling, and my music also caused them to remember their children learning music. It felt really enjoyable to contribute and bring joy to the old people who rarely get to experience live music. One thing I learned from my mitzvah project is how satisfying it is to use skills that i possess to benefit others.

While preparing for my Bar mitzvah I learned an important thing about Judaism. While people don't always agree with others, or some people question god and some don't everyone treats everyone with respect. In general many different opinions about Judaism are tolerated and respected. The Rabbi might not agree with multiple points in this Dvar but she still treated me with respect, and helped me write this. Tolerance is even more important today in a society growing less tolerant to different opinions  

I would probably not have been a Bar mitzvah if it was not for a bunch of people. The first person I would like to thank is my mom, who did a lot of the planning behind the scenes, drove me to all my bar mitzvah tutoring and meetings with the rabbi, helped me brainstorm my d’var torah and most of all made me practice my torah portion and haftarah and pushed me to learn as much as I could. Thanks to my dad for injecting a little humor and calm into the whole proceedings. I would like to thank my tutor, Missy, for her encouraging and supportive teaching that prepared me so well for today. I would like to thank the Rabbi for helping me figure out what I wanted to say for my dvar torah and making this experience so meaningful. Thank you to my Grandmother for her support, organization and love. Thank you to my brother Lev for his support and for contributing to my mitzvah project. Thank you Gillian Rogell for helping me learn the Bach that I will play for you today.  Finally, thank you to all my wonderful family and friends for sharing this special day in my life.

Shabbat Shalom

Posted on October 29, 2018 .

Bobby Zabin Oct 13

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Shabbat Shalom! 

This week’s parsha is Noah, but I bet when a lot of you think of Noah, you think of catastrophic floods, or olive branches. But there’s another story that is passed over: The Tower of Babel.
The Torah tells us of a people who journeyed from the east and landed in a place called Shinar. Everett Fox, a biblical scholar, places Shinar in former Mesopotamia, or modern Iraq. The Torah makes a point to tell us that these people had one language. To make sure that they would not be forgotten, the people decided to build a city with a tower. This tower was to serve as a marker for the people, so that they would not be scattered and separated from each other. God then looked down at the city-builders, and said, “Here they are, one people with one language and this is merely the first of their doings-- now there will be no barrier for them in all that they plan to do.”
So what does God do? God confuses their language and turns it into many different ones, so that they can’t understand each other. God then dispersed the people all over the world. For me, as a reader, I have two questions: What went wrong at Babel? Why did God do this?

The ancients who inherited the story of Babel used it as an origin story to explain the emergence of the diversity of language. Even today, we still have no concrete theory as to the origin of human speech. Babel was an example of language used for punishment. But what went wrong at Babel? The first recorded city after Noah’s apocalypse failed, but why?

Let’s examine how others have tried to answer these questions.

Religious author Judy Klitsner in her book Subversive Sequels in the Bible theorizes that the city was the problem, not the tower. She mentions that “the word city...recurs more often than the word tower...God obstructs the building of the city, but makes no reference at all to the tower” (35). From this we can glean that the crime was in the city, not the tower. But the question still remains: what was wrong with the city?

A popular interpretation taught in schools, including the one I learned in first grade, says that the ‘sin’ of the people was their attempt to challenge God. By building a tower, they attempted to spear the heavens and wage war against God. But this view doesn’t include the city, which we have decided was the location of the wrongdoing. However, this explanation is consistent with the narrative held by traditional torah commentators that the Babelites were arrogant. They believed they could challenge God, but they failed, and the lesson is that one shouldn’t be arrogant or proud. In my opinion, this interpretation simplifies the story, distilling it into a basic ‘they were bad, they got punished, we learn their lesson’ type of story. I believe the story of Babel veers away from this arc.

An explanation  of the mistake at Babel that appeals to me is that this group of people who were the descendants of the survivors of the flood were overly concerned about their own survival. They wanted to build the tower for the purpose of either holding up the sky, or piercing it to drain the water out. By reducing the water, or stabilizing the sky, there was no chance another flood could happen. This interpretation is more realistic, as it shows how people would react after an apocalyptic event; try not to have another apocalypse. This view was held by the school of Rabbi Shela, and various other midrash teachers. Again, this story focuses on the tower, and is critical of God. A God who wants to halt the efforts of self-preservation and the continuity of the human race would not be a very nice person. It’s interesting to think about how people justify actions like that, and how Rabbi Shela would justify a God who does those things.

The last interpretation I want to share with you is by the Netziv, a famous 19th century Rabbi who believed an incredible story. The Netziv believed that the people who settled Babel were trying to create an ideal society where individuality and nonconformity was erased and replaced with anonymity and homogeneity. These settlers believed that cultural diversity was an evil and should be replaced with cultural uniformity. Babel was supposed to be the capital of the new world, and each city built would be under Babel’s hegemony, and would serve as a smaller clone. The tower was to serve as a watchtower to view the citizens and to be the ‘control’ center of the city.

The Netziv’s interpretation sheds a light on the psychology of 19th century people. The Netziv may have been influenced by Rabbis living in 15th century Spain, right at the beginning of the Inquisition. The Spanish Inquisition is a textbook example of forced assimilation and cultural genocide, and influenced the rabbi Obadiah Sforno in his interpretation of Babel. Coincidentally, the Inquisition happened at about the same time as the first colonization of the Americas. The colonization efforts dramatically reduced the population of native people, killing them through disease or murder. The diverse languages and language families of the Natives were lost and forcibly destroyed by the brutal colonists.

Applying this thinking to Babel, we can see how the people, as we established, were under one of the first oppressive societies. The colonists of Babel settled the plain and began to urbanize, like what the Europeans did in the Americas. They all spoke the same language and presumably tried to force it on everyone. The people’s sin was their idea of a perfect world: A world with one culture, one language, and one set of beliefs, with no diversity of opinion, language, or culture.

God destroyed this dystopia by confusing their language.

It’s so much easier to work and live with people who agree and think the same way we do. But the simple reality is that people are different. We need to give people the opportunity to work with people of different beliefs, ideas and perspectives. This is how our tower and city won’t be halted in its tracks.

As a way to do my own version of helping the world as a bar mitzvah, I did a bar mitzvah project. For my mitzvah project, I raised money and ran a race to raise money for SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) research, currently being done in the Robert’s Program at Children’s Hospital. Helping understand the unexplainable death of months old infants is, I think, related to a key part of Judaism: tikkun olam, or fixing the world. We have to do, whenever an opportunity arises, as much good as we can in repairing the world.

Lastly as a way to repay everyone for their part in this day, I want to thank everyone for coming today.

Quiero agradecer especialmente a mi abuelito Humberto, que vino de Bogotá y a la familia que vino de West Virginia y Florida.

I also want to thank my other side of the family, who came from Minnesota, Connecticut, New York, or anywhere else.

I also want to especially thank my Teacher Avi, who helped me so much right up to this day, and Rabbi Penzner, who helped me prepare and made this day special.

I want to also thank my immediate family, Paloma who took an entire aliyah all for herself, and my parents.

Shabbat Shalom!

Posted on October 29, 2018 .

Sam Langner


Shabbat Shalom. Thank you for coming here to celebrate this day with me. Today I’m here to teach you about my Torah Portion, Ki Tissa. In this Portion, Moses goes up to Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments from God. Moses leaves for forty days and nights without coming back. Moses was going up to Mount Sinai, and asked if the people wanted to go, and they said no, you should go alone. When they realized he was going to be gone for a while, they got nervous and anxious because they were so used to having a leader in Moses.

The people asked Aaron, Moses’ brother, to help. Aaron told them to take off all of their gold. They gave their earrings to Aaron, and he molded them into a calf. The people said “This is your God, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” God told Moses about what happened, and when Moses saw the people had made a golden calf, he was furious. He destroyed the tablets by throwing them and asked Aaron what had happened. Aaron, trying to avoid responsibility, blamed it on the people. Moses then proceeded to grind the calf into powder, and made the people drink it. The next day, Moses went up to God and God said He would kill everyone for their sin. Moses pleaded with God and finally convinced God not to destroy the people

I’m also here to answer the big question of my Portion. The big question is: Why did Moses defend the people? This is an important question because almost nobody would want to help out a group of people who betrayed them.

Many rabbis and commentators have found different answers to this question.

Rav Huna, a Rabbi from Babylonia in the third century, explained his thoughts about this story. He believed that the people were innocent. He compared the story to when a father put his son at a job on a street full of criminals. When the father saw the son acting badly, he threatened to punish him. A friend of the son intervened, and told the father not to punish him, and said, “You are as guilty as your son. Did you not place him on a street of evildoers, in a place where he could pick up bad habits?” The story is very similar to the way Moses talks to God. God was just like the father in the story, and Moses was just like the son’s friend. Moses was telling God not to destroy the people, just like the son told the father not to punish the son. Moses said something very similar to, “Why do you want to destroy the people? For habit has become a second nature to them, and after being in Egypt, where there was idolatry, they were used to worshiping idols. That was what led them to build and worship the Golden Calf.”

Nehama Lebowitz was an Israeli commentator from the twentieth century. She believed that even though the people made the golden calf, they made a mistake, and they should be forgiven. The people created the Golden Calf, and Moses was defending them. Nehama Lebowitz says that it takes a long time for people to learn the laws of Torah and that it takes Moses a long time to teach them. She also says that the people of Israel, and all people, including people today, make mistakes, and they are forgiven. For example, there was one day over April break where we just stayed in the house. It was a few days after the Boston Marathon Bombing, and the killer was on the loose. To stay safe, everyone had to stay in their house on lockdown. My brother, Josh and I were upstairs, in my parents’ bedroom, and were getting in an argument. I decided it was a good idea to push him off the bed. I made a bad mistake. I’m sorry, Josh. Just like me, the people made a mistake, and should be forgiven, if they aren’t already. I would take this and say that people should be forgiven, and once you make the mistake, you now know right from wrong, so the next time that same thing happens, you know what to do, and you should always be thinking “What is the next mitzvah I should do.

Yehuda Halevi was a rabbi who was born in Spain in the eleventh century. He believed that there were only a few that were truly idolaters, about 3,000 out of the 600,000 Israelites that truly wanted the Golden Calf to be created. The few that were true idolaters just wanted a tangible God. Now I know you’re thinking, ‘How would only 3,000 people get what they want, there are more than 590,000 who didn’t agree?’ The reason why is because the other 500,000 or so people were in a bad state. They were frustrated, confused, and couldn’t make up their minds. However, there were enough people who agreed amongst themselves to gain power, to be heard, and to be seen fighting for what they want. What I am trying to tell you is, if there are enough people disagreeing and arguing over who is right, the smaller minority who can agree with each other, even if it is just a few dozen people, can make an impact with how well they agree and by how their opinions and voice make them known. Yehuda Halevi is just saying, you can win over larger amounts of people who are willing to follow the minority, even if what they say is wrong.

I think Rabbi Huna makes a valid point. The people of Israel shouldn’t be blamed. Moses had left for 40 days to talk to God, and the people had no one to help. They were uncomfortable without being able to talk to Moses or God, that’s why they built the golden calf. Habit is a second nature to them, and they fell back on their old ways, so you can’t blame the people. Everyone makes mistakes, and that ties in perfectly in with Nehama Leibowitz’s point of view. She believes that the people made a mistake, and that even though it was their fault, they should be forgiven. In all generations, mistakes happen, but the people get forgiven for their actions. You always are faced with new choices, and sometimes, we humans make wrong choices. Making the bad decision is what teaches us right from wrong, so we know what to decide the next time the decision has to be made. I also agree with Yehuda Halevi. He is right that a small group can win over other groups who can’t agree among themselves. If you are confused and frustrated, the way Halevi portrays the Israelites, then you won’t make good choices, like what Nehama Leibowitz thinks the Israelites did. I already had the idea that I wanted to do something to help out other people, so  I knew I made the right choice with what I chose for my Mitzvah Project.

I decided my Bar Mitzvah project would be at Cradles to Crayons. Cradles to Crayons is an organization where they donate toys and clothes for kids, and they donate to people who are in need newborns to kids age 12. They take everything as long as it is like new. So give them games and toys where everything is still in the box, neatly and complete, and the clothes are still wearable, with no holes and no stains. There is sometimes a pair of shoes that are beat up, or an item of clothing where there is a hole, and when that happens, you put the shoe in a red bin, and the organization takes it to another factory, where they fix the broken shoe, and ship it off to someone else. So, if you have clothes or toys at you home that you don’t use anymore, make sure they are in good condition, and you can donate it to the factory.  

My friends and I put out a couple of boxes at our school to help collect toys and clothes to donate to others. We put signs up, we made an announcement, and within the first week or so, all of the boxes were filled until the donations had to be put next to the boxes because they were so full. I also did a couple sessions at the factory, where I sorted clothes and shoes so they could be distributed to people who need them. At the last meeting of my two month go round of working at Cradles to Crayons, the leader of our group, Troy Heffron told us that we had done such a great job helping donate things to them. He also said that he got an emergency request about someone needing a stroller. We had got a stroller from the donations at our school, so we were able to get the stroller to the factory, and they got the stroller to the person who needed it within a day. In the end, I enjoyed working with Cradles to Crayons; it was a great experience for me. I liked hearing about the stories, and hearing how what we did really helped people’s lives easier.

First off, I would like to say thank you to the whole HBT Congregation, for celebrating becoming a Bar Mitzvah with me. I would also like to thank my friends, to see me do what probably looks very dull to them, but they also decided to see me become a Jewish adult. Thank you to the Rabbi, for directing me from right and wrong making this D’var. Thank you to my tutor, Tracy, for also helping me when I was frustrated, and for teaching me everything I need to know, and for setting the bar high as a standard, making me go above and beyond. Thank you to my mom, Sarah, my dad, Eugene, and my brother, Josh for helping me out when I got frustrated and having my back every step of the way. I would like to thank Hillary for setting up the education system, and to all of my teachers for educating me. Thank you to Benita for looking after us, and acting as the mom of the Temple. And A Special Thanks to Moreno, for all he does to keep the building clean, setting up parties and events, and always being so caring, thoughtful, and nice to me and everyone here at the Temple.

Last but certainly not least I would like to thank my grandfather, Bernie. Ever since I was young, he has been looking out for me. He makes sure I’m being careful and safe, avoiding anything that could risk my health or losing an important item that I need. He will always help with my homework, looking over everything at the end to make sure all of it is correct. He’s always the right person when you’re home alone, whether you’re bored or you want to have a conversation, he always will give you company, he will always make your day better, and he will always be willing to have a conversation. He will also always be willing to have the family over at his house, no matter how busy he is, and no matter what it is, he can make the best dinner out of any food you give him, and he’ll never come unprepared when we have dessert. I don’t remember the last time I have been to his house and left hungry. Seriously, he makes some real good food. Now, the best thing about him, disregarding the homework, and the food, and everything else, is he’s just a nice, genuine person. He never acts like he’s faking happiness, if he’s unhappy, he’ll tell me what’s wrong. By the end of the our time together, he’ll be much happier than before, for getting his anger or his problem out, and having me give him advice on the problem. At this point in life, I don’t know what I would be able to do without him by my side.

Shabbat Shalom.

Posted on April 3, 2018 .

Sarah Albert


Shabbat shalom! My Torah portion is Parshat Bo. In my portion, the Israelites are in Egypt, still in slavery. According to the Torah, God sends ten plagues to the Egyptians to make Pharaoh free the Israelites. (Extra credit points on the test if anyone can name all ten! Wait, seriously, can we get extra points on the term finals for that?) After each plague, Pharaoh plans on freeing the Israelites, but suddenly “hardens his heart,” and decides not to allow them to leave. For the first five plagues, the Torah says that Pharaoh hardened his heart, but for the last five plagues, the Torah reads, “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.”

This repeated statement raises the question: If God truly wants what is best for the Israelites and tries to get them out of slavery in Egypt, why did God continue to harden Pharaoh’s heart? The Torah also says that God sends Moses to Pharaoh and instructs Moses to tell him, “Let my people go.” That means that God was both making Moses tell Pharaoh to free the Israelites and making Pharaoh refuse to let the Israelites go. So who exactly is God, and what gives God the right or a reason to play the somewhat twisted cat-and-mouse game described in the Torah?

Many commentators have tried to find different solutions to this question. Centuries ago, Rabbi Yochanan tried to answer this question. He claimed that God was trying to prove a point to Pharaoh that God has control over everyone and everything on Earth. This suggests that no human is truly free to make their own decisions, and that all of our moral decisions are simply an illusion. Rabbi Simeon ben Lakish, who is a brother-in-law to Rabbi Yochanan, also tried to answer the question of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart. Simeon ben Lakish stated that the plagues were warnings to the Egyptians, saying that “Since God warned him five times and Pharaoh refused to pay attention and stiffened his heart, God told him ‘I will now add more trouble to what you have made for yourself.’ ” The point of view shown in these two commentaries is that God is a being with control over everything, and that God gets angry at people and punishes them when they think otherwise. In this case, Simeon ben Lakish suggests that because Pharaoh was considered to be a god, God punishes the Egyptians with not only ten plagues, but also a leader (i.e. Pharaoh) that cannot make the choice to stop them.

There are two more commentaries that I found important. These are that of Moses Maimonides, the great Jewish scholar of the 12th century and 20th century psychologist Erich Fromm. Maimonides was one of the first to suggest that God was not truly the one hardening Pharaoh’s heart, and that Pharaoh made one bad choice after another, eventually leading him to a point where he had fewer and fewer options on what to do. Around 800 years later, Fromm amplifies this idea and describes this as Pharaoh reaching “a point of no return.” Fromm also explains that every evil act committed by a person leads to more evil acts and eventually a hardened or quote “deadened” heart, while every good act causes more good acts and leads to a softer or quote “more alive” heart. The step that Fromm described as reaching a point of no return is when eventually, when your heart is completely hardened, evil acts no longer become choices, and they simply continue until there is nothing left.

Before I talk about my opinions on the matter, I first need to step back and talk about one big, general question: who and what is God? One of the first things that got me thinking about an answer to this question happened during my mitzvah project. For my project, I worked with my mom at her job at Jewish Family and Children’s Services Family Table. Family Table is New England’s largest kosher food pantry. According to the JF&CS website, “Everyone should have enough nutritious food to feed their family. Family Table provides healthy food on a monthly and emergency basis to individuals and families in need. Our mission is to offer food in a way that meets nutritional and spiritual needs.” (For more information on Family Table, check out the JF&CS website.) Distributions of food to needy families take place one Sunday a month. Every month, I went to Waltham with my mom to set out rows and rows of shelf-stable food, pack bags for people coming to pick up their groceries, and help other volunteers who were packing food to deliver to clients.

The thing that struck me most about the whole experience is that there were large amounts of people who came month after month after month to volunteer. They all could have decided that it was a waste of their perfectly good Sunday. They could have thought it would be a better idea to stay home and sleep late, and sit on the couch with a cup of coffee. (I know that I wished that’s what I was doing the first few times I volunteered.) But they didn’t. They came all the way down to Waltham and worked as hard as they could to make sure that these families got what they needed. These incredible people have helped me come to a conclusion: they were working because their conscience told them that it was the right thing to do. Their conscience told them that if everybody was selfish and stayed home to take a break for themselves, Family Table wouldn’t be able to run the way it does, and the people who rely on it would be in dire situations.

Thanks to this incredible experience, I have been able to see God in a new light. I stopped trying to picture God as something in stories that I could never believe in and began thinking of God as our conscience and our ability to feel empathy. Every person has God inside of them, and it’s up to us whether or not we pay any attention. And just like our conscience, the more we ignore God, the easier it becomes to completely forget that God exists. Based on that new image of God, I believe that a “hardened heart” is actually a heart that has made so many selfish decisions that completely ignore God that God is no longer even there.

But being a selfish person isn’t the only way to have a hardened heart. There are also sometimes situations that we are born into that make it practically impossible not to have a hardened heart. For example, Pharaoh was never taught that it was necessary to show empathy towards other people. Imagine being a little kid growing up with everything you could ever want. You’ve never been put into a position where you need to consider how your actions affect other people’s feelings. All you have been told is that one day, you will be in charge, and that you need to consider how your actions will benefit your country. With that single goal in mind, Pharaoh doesn’t stop to think about how the Israelites or his people feel, and only thinks about if it is in the economic benefit of Egypt to keep slaves. And, unfortunately, in a nation that’s entire survival is based around slaves making things for the Egyptians, it makes a whole lot of sense to keep them there.

I’d say that the biggest thing I have learned about what it means to have a hardened heart is that you should try your best to never ignore your conscience; God is inside of every person for a reason. Pharaoh took his own partially hardened heart and amplified the damage, but eventually, he had gone so far down the road of “evil acts” that God has finally left him, and in that way it is not God choosing to harden Pharaoh’s heart, but more the absence of God that forces Pharaoh to continue keeping the Israelites as slaves.

A big mistake that people make is forgetting that this voice is in everybody. Somewhat recently, I have been in a situation where I was having trouble deciding the right thing to do. With the somewhat forceful help of a few amazing friends, I was able to contact someone who has the ability to help sort out the problem. However, I was internally conflicted. I couldn’t shake the feeling that the people causing me problems didn’t deserve to be treated with as much respect as the people who helped me, but that is where people often go wrong. People, myself included, often forget that the people we don’t respect  are people, and that they have feelings too. Because of this, we end up making the problems worse and worse because those feelings don’t allow us to see the other person as human enough to sit down and have an honest conversation with them. We then enter a vicious cycle. We dislike the person, so we have less empathy towards them, so we don’t think rationally and assertively about the problem, so we dislike the person more, and so on. It’s possible to make sure that you don’t enter this cycle. When you are in a situation where you could treat someone without respect, stop and think. What could this person be thinking about what just happened? I can’t say that you will like everyone and be friends with the entire world, but I can tell you that there is in fact a right way and a wrong way to dislike a person. I know it sounds a bit too idealistic, but if you remember about everyone else’s thoughts as well as your own, you won’t have as much of a bad experience. When you remember other people’s thoughts, your heart will not be hardened, and you will still have the ability to make these decisions for yourself instead of being disrespectful on impulse.

There are many people that have helped me a lot over this entire process. First of all, I would like to thank my parents for being supportive of me every step of my journey, and to my brother Eli, who somehow managed to not forget about me even through his senior year of high school, something that I can’t imagine was easy to do. I want to thank my tutor Beth Polasky for teaching me how to chant my Torah and Haftarah, all of my teachers here at the HBT Chaverim school, both current and former, for giving me a strong background in reading Hebrew and chanting all the blessings and prayers, and of course Rabbi Penzner for helping me write my d’var Torah. I want to thank all of my friends for helping to calm me down when I was stressing out (so, almost every day,). Finally, I of course want to thank everyone who came today to support me. I can’t express how much it means to me that you all care enough to come out, even if it meant long car or plane rides to make it into Boston. Shabbat shalom!

Posted on March 26, 2018 .

Vijay Fisch


Shabbat shalom


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.

Posted on December 27, 2017 .

Maia Frost

Shabbat Shalom,


One way that I relate my Torah portion with my life is through...CATS! You may be wondering, what in the world do cats have to do with your portion? Well! That’s for me to know, and you to find out!

My Torah portion today was vayishlach. In this portion, Jacob receives word of his brother Esau coming to meet him, bringing four hundred men with him. This frightens Jacob because many years ago, Jacob had stolen Esau’s blessing and Esau had threatened to kill him. That’s why he ran away. Now that Jacob is returning home, he tries to make peace with his brother while protecting his family at the same time. Jacob sends Esau a letter saying he will give Esau part of his flock. Jacob then sends his wives, his maidservants, and his kids across the river . And that leaves him alone. The Torah says that a man wrestled with Jacob all night, wrenching out Jacob’s hip. Jacob does not let the man flee until the man blesses him. The man blesses Jacob with the new name “Israel”.

What I would like to ask is this: Who was the man?

The Torah says “a man”. It doesn’t describe him as a human, or an angel, or a divine being. However, the Man said when blessing Jacob, “‘Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human and have prevailed.’” As far as the Torah goes, Jacob had never striven with anything divine before then, so if the angel is telling Jacob he had striven with a divine being, he would most likely be that being.

When the Man left, Jacob named the place Peniel, which means, “‘I have seen a divine being face to face, yet my life has been preserved. Jacob also says “divine being”. The Torah states, “Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him all night.” Did you hear that “And”? “And” is a key word. If you listen to the way these two sentences are written, you’ll see that the “and” is saying “At the same time”, or “Also”. Jacob was alone, but he was also wrestling with a Man? Strange, right?

Other commentators answered the question with many different possibilities. Rashi (one of the greatest Torah scholars, who lived in the 11th century) said that the man was “Esau’s Angel”, who was giving Jacob a chance to apologize for stealing his blessing.

Commentator Nina Kallen (1900s to 2000s) said that the man was a vampire that would turn to dust when the sun touches its skin, which is why it wanted to leave before the dawn broke.

Rabbi Morris Adler, an American rabbi in the 20th century, said God sent an angel to prevent Jacob from running away. He also said Jacob’s greatest enemy was not Esau, but all the evil things inside of him. These evil things were things such as fearfulness and deception . After he had this confrontation, he tried hard to not deceive people as much.

Elie Wiesel says that Jacob is fighting with himself. He believes that there were two Jacobs inside him: the Jacob that thought negative thoughts and the Jacob that thought positive thoughts. Ever heard the saying “The angel and devil on your shoulders”? I guess that’s kind of what Wiesel said happened to Jacob. Jacob had to fight positive against negative, good against bad, lying and truthfulness, until eventually, positive--being honest and truthful-- won.

My opinion is that Jacob was, in fact, alone, but he was dreaming. The divine being came to him in his dream, so Jacob was technically still alone. However, divine beings are, well, divine, so it is possible that he could have wrenched out Jacob’s hip in the dream, and in real life. We know Jacob’s hip must have been actually wrenched out, because after the angel left, he was limping.

The man wanted to leave before dawn broke, maybe because Jacob would wake up. So, putting it all together, Jacob was left alone, a divine force visited him in a dream, wrenched out Jacob’s hip, also doing so in real life, blessed Jacob because Jacob didn’t let him leave until he did so,

Jacob woke up, the divine being leaving as he did so, and Jacob named the place Peniel.

Now, this brings up a new question. Why did this being come? I used what I knew about my life to figure this out. When I’m embarrassed, or sad, or regretful, I usually feel like I want to go back in time. I want to do it over again, to get a second chance. Jacob got the new name “Israel”, giving him a second chance.

You know who else got a second chance? Cats! At the Second Chance Cat Shelter!

For my mitzvah project I went to The Second Chance Cat Shelter, which is an organization that finds homeless cats and cats that were thrown out by their owners, and basically gives them a second chance. They are taken in and taken care of until they can be adopted. I helped out Sheera, who was the owner, feeder, brusher, petter, and basically almost every other job you can think of that would be done at a cat shelter. My job was mostly getting the fur out of everything that the cats touched, helping to feed them, and brush a few. But, even though most of those sound like chores your mom would make you do, -love ya, mom- it was still really fun. I got to hang out with the cats watch  them interact with each other.

The two cats that really stand out to me are Neigel and Chubs. They are somewhat like Jacob and Esau. They fight, but are still good friends. Cats all have personalities, just like people. They all need to be taken care of for as long as possible. It’s not about the pleasure of living, but about the people who help make living pleasureful. Sheera knows that some of her cats will never be able to be adopted, whether it’s because they’re wild, or they have illnesses that need to be very carefully treated, or they just hate people, Sheera will take great care of them anyway.

Sheera helps so many cats, and there have been so many people who have helped me.

There are so many people I want to thank, I don’t know where to begin. Oh, wait! Yes I do! First, I would like to thank my parents, for taking me to tutoring, always being there for me, and most of all, helping make this day happen. I would like to thank my sister, Morgan, for telling me about her bat-mitzvah, and helping me get through mine. I would like to thank Tracy, my bat-mitzvah tutor and former teacher. I couldn’t be here without her. I would like to thank my relatives who came so far to get here just for me. And last, but certainly not least, I would like to thank all of my friends who have tried to understand my Torah portion, helped me write my d’var Torah, and even now, sitting through two hours of me saying and chanting and singing things in a language they don’t understand. I just  know where I would be without you guys. Thank you.

Shabbat Shalom.

Posted on December 18, 2017 .

Seth Haycock-Poller, D’Var Torah, October 2017

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.

Shabbat Shalom!

Posted on November 15, 2017 .

Jonah Levy

Shabbat Shalom,

(I know that it is not time for the thank yous already, but I would like to thank all the people who did not understand a thing, waiting for the time where you can understand everything. Well, here it is. Now you finally get to understand what we say!  The best part! So, let's begin. )

In my Haftarah portion from the Book of Joshua, Shelach Lecha,  Joshua is preparing the Children of Israel to enter the Promised land. He knows it will be challenging, so he sends two spies to Jericho to find out how to capture it. These spies go to house of Rahab. She tells them of the fear her country has of the Jews supported by G-d. Rahab hides them in straw when suddenly guards come in and ask if she is housing the prisoners. She says no and misleads the guards to go outside the gates. When she returns, she asks the spies to save her family because she has treated them well. The men tell her what she has to do in order to save her family and she agrees. Then the spies go on their way. When they return to Joshua, they tell him all they have learned.

The character who really stood out to me was Rahab. She risked her life because she believed in G-d, even though there had been no miracles that had happened to her. She had faith that the Israelites would win because of this. So she hid them and in return asked the spies to save her family. This act of wisdom inspired me because she had to be both selfless and courageous. Because of this, she became very well respected in the Jewish community, accepted by the people that was now supporting her. According to the Midrash, Jewish commentaries on the Bible, Rahab caught the eye of Joshua, and they married. The Midrash also says that she became one of the first to convert to Judaism and that Rahab and Joshua were the ancestors of nine prophets.

Rahab's actions are very similar to other important people in my life. Their names were Vasalina and Alexander Yarmolyuk, and they were a Ukrainian couple who protected my grandmother when she was a baby from the Nazis.  When my grandmother was just a baby, my great grandparents decided they were going to go into the woods to hide from Hitler and the Nazis. Because she was just a baby and she would not survive in the wilderness, she was given to the Ukrainian family.

The Yarmolyuks took her as their daughter, went to church, and baptized her, keeping my grandmother’s Jewish identity a secret. Many times, officers would come to the door and ask for the baby. When the family heard this, they invited the officers in and made them drunk so they would forget about what they had come for.

Rahab risked her life to protect the spies. The Yarmolyuks risked their lives to protect my grandmother. What are the influences that might give a person strength to do something risky?

Reason 1: One reason that someone might do something risky is they have nothing to lose. Rahab was a prostitute and most likely disrespected among the community. In verse 15 we read. “‘Rahab lived in a house built into the city wall.” According to the commentator Donna Nolan Fewell in The Women’s Bible Commentary, this means that she was an outsider, because she lived far from other people, in the boundary “between the inside and the outside” of the city. Because she was an outcast, who only had her family, why would you not keep spies in you home, who might offer you a better life?

Rahab abandoned the Jericho people who might have cared even a little about Rahab. However, she decided to abandon them so she could be respected in the Jewish community.  Rahab wanted the Jews to take over her country because she wanted to belong to a better community and be more respected. When the people of Jericho did not respect her as a person, they dug their own grave. That is why she betrayed her own. Because no one can lose someone's disrespect when they never had it in the first place? She probably felt wronged and that is why she had nothing to lose.

However, this is not the case in all situations. Some people take risks who have a lot to lose. The Yarmolyuks were very respected farmers where they were living in Poland. They risked their lives to save my baby grandmother. They kept it secret from all the people who respected them, no matter the cost. So even when you are respected, why would you do something risky? After seeing these examples, this reason was not as strong as I thought. So what else makes you do something risky?

Reason 2:  Another reason someone might do something risky is because it involves someone or something they care about.

It is human nature to care for things and people. This is why when someone is in trouble, you help them out, even when the risk reward ratio is on risk’s side.  This also includes giving attention, a thing that everyone needs. They take risks that would save someone else. Some pieces in life are too good to let go, and people take risks to keep or get that thing. Vasalina and Alexander put their lives in danger to save my grandmother. They used their wits to outsmart officers trying to kill the infant.

One time, Vasalina was instructed to bring my grandmother to a field.  She came in late, made an excuse about why she was late, and then when the officer asked for the baby, Vasalina refused to give the baby up. She put her life in danger for someone else, even though she knew that she and the infant might both die.

Rahab took the risk of keeping the spies, almost getting herself killed, to save her own family. She hoped that she could save her family, the one thing she had left, by hiding these strangers. This turned out to be successful for her and for her family. She succeeded by saving her family and then got the respect of her new neighbors.

Reason 3: Faith is one reason someone might do something risky. It is the belief in someone or something that gives you the strength to do what you need to, whatever the cost. By Merriam Webster’s definition, faith is allegiance to a duty or person. When I read this definition, it reminds me of sports. No one would want to play unless you had a faith in winning the game. Rahab has faith that G-d can exist and will help Joshua and his people. This is one reason that she keeps the spies hidden. She knows that G-d will overtake her country, as she says in verse 11, “for the Eternal your G-d is G-d in heaven above and here on earth”. She has faith in G-d and that is why she later becomes one of the first converted Jews.

In the Yarmolyuk’s case, it is faith that saves my Grandmother. Because they believed my great grandparents were dead, they took her as her own daughter. They believed that she was going to be theirs forever so she was baptized. They also did this because, in their Russian Orthodox religion, they believed in doing the right thing.

After writing this, it struck me: how can anyone understand being risky by hearing a speech about it?  There needed to be something to connect it down to earth. It could be as simple as handing in a test without double checking it (which I have TOTALLY not done) or as big as jumping off a cliff. The decision could be as quick as playing a card or as long as choosing your job you love.

This also connects to our world today.  Right now, we are seeing protests pop up everywhere. Millions of people are standing up for what we believe in.They are marching to disagree with people more powerful than them. They want this world to be a better place. Why do some people take the risk of being disrespected among their neighbors to express their opinions about politics or world issues? The answer is because they know that if everyone joins and supports, the large number who protest can change the opinions of a small amount of very powerful people. Just by Picketing. Protesting, and boycotting, we can change the world.

In this country, no matter how strange it seems, the powerful people need less powerful people to do their work. If there was an army of just important people, there would be no wars won, if there were just important people providing us food, how long would we be full? Every person in this country could change the world as one. Risk would be a big part of that. If we all take the risk of standing up for immigrants, getting a healthcare bill that will guarantee everyone to be healthy, or taking a stand for global warming, a lot of things could get done. Despite everything, this is still a democracy and there is more work done by less important people. If we take these risks today, our voices can make the world a better place. It is definitely worth taking these risks, but, like Rahab and like the Yarmolyuks, you need to be to caring  and have faith to do them.

For my Mitzvah project, with the help of Jewish Family and Children’s Services, I visited a holocaust survivor. I came in wanting to know about this person's Holocaust experiences, but instead I got to learn about his triumphs, which were plentiful. This man gave me a lot more knowledge about perseverance. After coming to the US, he claimed 34 patents throughout his career, and some are still used today! Our visits were enjoyable and I really liked hearing all he had done in his lifetime. One thing that struck me, at the end of the first visit he said, “I don't want you  to feel bad for me, because if I stood in the mirror everyday thinking about how lucky I am to be alive, I would get nowhere.” He is now someone I look up to and admire for all the work he has done, as well as surviving the Holocaust.

I also went to the U.S. Holocaust Museum to help me understand more about the Holocaust. It was very touching to see the name of the people who helped my grandmother at the museum, and to light a candle in the hall of remembrance. I also was moved by Daniel's story, an exhibit to show what it was like for kids in WWII. These experiences meant a lot to me and taught me to be a Jewish adult and how to make an impact on the world. Preparing for this day taught me how to persevere through listening to the struggles of my people in the past, and having the faith that it will never happen again.

I would like to thank everyone who has helped me on my journey. I would like to thank Missy and Rabbi Penzner for helping me learn all I needed for today and giving me help whenever I needed it  I would like to thank Justin and Elijah and all my other Hebrew School teachers for helping me realize my Jewish identity. I would like to thank the HBT community for staying with me and always saying hi and how much I had grown, even if I did not know your name. I would like to thank my friends for making me happy when I needed it. I want to thank the Rolnick Lekach family for always finding time to be with me and the Levy Langner family for surrounding me with your liveliness. I would like to thank my grandpa Bernie, who taught me how to be kind to everyone, even the people that I did not like. I am also grateful for my brother, Ezra, for being the person that I could rely on when I was bored, even if that meant annoying you. I would also like to thank my mom for dealing with all my frustrations and for keeping me going, no matter what, even if I didn't want to, plus the things I did not even think about for this day. I would like to thank my dad for always keeping things light and always finding a time to joke around. I would finally like to thank all of you who could make it here today, whether from a couple blocks away or from California.

Shabbat Shalom

Posted on July 11, 2017 .

Zak Bashir

D’var Torah

By: Zak Bashir

            Shabbat Shalom!   This morning I am going to be talking about boils and skin rashes, I know it’s before lunch but bear with me.  For the past year I have been learning to chant my Torah portion Tazria –Metzora correctly, but knowing what it actually means gives me a whole new perspective on it. My Torah portion talks about what to do when faced with someone who has come down with an affliction, such as a leprous skin disease.

The one question I really wanted an answer to is how is any of this relevant to my life at all? Without looking deeper you might think this would be a pretty bland and gross topic to learn and write about. What I paid attention to though wasn’t what they said about what the diseases were like, but instead what they did to bring the person who was recovered from the disease back into the community. First the Kohen, a priest, would visit and judge a person’s illness and quarantine them for a certain amount of days, however the Kohen’s main goal was to return the person to the community. It says in the Torah that once the person has recovered they must clean their bodies and clothing and bring an offering to the sanctuary. They were required to bring a special offering of lambs or birds.  If they were poor and couldn’t bring that offering they were allowed to bring what they could afford to bring. After this they could go back and be part of the community as they were before.

The point here being that the Torah is teaching you to not be afraid of someone who had recently come down with a disease but instead to try and welcome them back into the community as best you can once they have gotten better.

Another issue related to my Torah portion is what to do when you want to visit someone who is sick. This portion meant a lot to me because I spent a lot of time visiting my grandmother when she was at the Hebrew Rehabilitation Center in Roslindale, MA.  I learned from the booklet, Give Me Your Hand about the traditional Jewish practices of visiting the sick and learned how to compare them to the modern ones. I realized that while there are many differences between the modern practices of visiting the sick and the traditional ones, there were a lot of similarities as well.

For example, I learned  that when visiting the sick talking is not necessary, and today it seems like that virtue has been retained.  I know from visiting my grandmother that often when I went to see her with my mother we might just sit and keep her company and she might sleep while we were there, but I still felt that she knew I was there and I felt good having spent that time with her. It didn’t matter if we talked or not, what was important was that I was there, and when she became sicker there were more visits like this, and I know that they were important to her and to me.

Another example has to do with the time of day that a person should visit someone who is sick.  Both the traditional and modern visiting times are very alike.  Traditionally you were not supposed to visit a sick person during the first 3 hours of the day and the last 3 hours of the day, because in the morning they usually feel the best and you might not understand how sick they are, and during the last 3 hours of the day they feel the sickest and it might make you believe they are not going to get better.  Now a days most of the time you are supposed to visit in the middle of the day not very early in the morning or late at night for reasons that are pretty much the same.  I would often go and visit with my grandmother when she was having her dinner or lunch and I would eat with her and we would bring her some of her favorite things she liked to eat.  This always seemed to be a good time to visit.

Maybe one of the most important guidance about visiting a sick person talks about touching the person.  I think there are people who might say they don’t think it is good to touch a sick person, and of course if there is a medical instruction not to than you must go by that, but both traditionally and in the modern view touching is one of the best things you can do.  I know how happy it made my grandma to hold my hand or have me give her a kiss. 

The things that I learned from spending time with my grandmother when she was sick, was how much she loved having me visit, eat with her, laugh with her.  Spending time with her motivated me to want to visit other people who are at the Hebrew Rehabilitation Center, but might not have someone to visit them. That is whey I have chosen that for my mitzvah project.

There are so many people who have helped me get to this day and become a bar mitzvah.  I want to thank my friends for supporting me.  I want to thank all my Hebrew school teachers throughout the years. I’d like to thank Tracy for making sure I learned all my Hebrew for today and the Rabbi for helping me with my d’var Torah.  And my mom and dad for being there my whole life and for helping through the process of becoming a bar mitzvah. 




Posted on May 24, 2017 .

Dvar Torah Rami Hayes - Messinger

Shabbat Shalom

My portion is Leviticus, Chapter 25, Behar Bechukotai. In my portion there is a lot of talk about the Jubilee and debt forgiveness. Every seventh year and in the fiftieth year you are not allowed to plant because it is the sabbatical year, a year of sabbath for the land to rest. You have to live off the stuff you made the last year and you let the land rest. Because of the sabbatical year, you are are supposed to be kind and fair in all land sales and dealings every single year, not just once every seven years. The chapter talks about not taking advantage of people especially if they are not doing well. In the jubilee year the land returns to the original owner.

As the Torah talks about jubilee and debt forgiveness and good dealings, it references how you should treat strangers. When discussing a kinsman giving themselves to you as a “slave”, “then you are to treat them well and free them if they have not yet freed themselves by the jubilee year. Resident aliens or strangers, on the other hand, are given many fewer rights. The Israelites were allowed to buy their children or a member of their family and treat them as a slave and they were to remain your property forever.

My big question for this portion is “Why do we often treat strangers badly and what can we do about it?”

            In my portion and other sections of the Torah, we are told that we were “strangers in the land of Egypt.”  So, actually no person is superior to any other and we are all strangers and must care for one another. Jews believe that when things repeat in the Torah, we know that it is because the point is really important.

The mitzvah of treating the stranger well comes up in the Torah 36 times. In Judaism 18 (which multiplied by 2 is 36) is a special number because it represents life. The mitzvah of treating the stranger well is also special because not only does it show up in the 248 mitzvot aseh --laws of things that you should do, or rather, have to do, but also in the 365 lo aseh--the laws of what not to do such as “do not oppress a stranger”

A problem is that we don’t always treat strangers well. Why is it so hard to treat strangers well? There are three well known commentators on the Torah who can help explain the problem.

One of the commentators name is Ramban, also known as Nachmanides. He lived in the 11th century in Spain and started commentating at a very young age. Ramban points to the verse in the Torah that says,”you should know that when you were strangers in Egypt, I saw the oppression… and I brought punishment upon them… “ Therefore, Ramban says this means, “do not afflict the stranger, thinking there is no one to save him. For he will be helped more than any other person”. Basically, he is saying treat the stranger well because the oppressed always win and because if you don’t God will punish you.

Another famous commentator, Rashi, was born in 1040 in France. Rashi pointed to the verse in the Torah that says,”you know the feelings of the stranger, you know how painful it is for him when you oppress him” Rashi says this that because the Israelites were oppressed in Egypt, so, now the Jews should not oppress others because they know how it feels.

The final commentator that I will be using to explain my portion is Nehama Leibowitz. She is one of the only famous female commentators. She was born in 1905 in Latvia and moved to Israel and lived until 1997. Leibowitz believes that neither Rashi’s nor Ramban’s explanations are correct by themselves but together they work. Following Rashi, she writes that oppression is a circle of abuse.

“the answer to these cycles of abuse,...is to appeal to the intellect and to teach people sensitivity by allowing them to learn the harmful effects of violence through a study of history.”

Leibowitz, however, also thought that some people needed another form of education which draws on Ramban’s teachings: “the only way to break the cycle of violence,...is by shocking such people with the realization that they will pay a high price for taking advantage of the stranger.”

So why do I think we should care for strangers and the poor? The teaching to care for the stranger is still true; it teaches us how to behave in the world.

I think that caring for the stranger is important because we all are strangers. The U.S. is built on Native American land and we came into as strangers and took it. And even before that, humans came into being and were strangers on Earth. Leo Baeck another Jewish commentator, reminds us that the Torah says,”the land is mine; for you are strangers and settlers with me.” (Leviticus 25:23) So all of us are strangers on the land.

I personally connect to Nehama Leibowitz’s teachings the most. When I enter a new place, even when everyone is new, not knowing anybody and being different can make me feel like a stranger. Sometimes being in somebody’s place actually increases the oppression because you want that person to feel how much pain you had to go through. But empathy and the consequences of your actions can make you see clearly. 

Because I believe in caring about strangers, for my mitzvah project I chose to learn and teach about caring for immigrants. I first thought about the idea of my mitzvah project when I went to a workshop with my mom about sanctuary and sanctuary cities. Sanctuary cities are cities that won’t comply with ICE which is the Immigration and Customs Enforcement. If a city is not a sanctuary city, then the local law enforcement help out ICE by reporting people who they think might be undocumented immigrants and detaining them for ICE to question. Sanctuary cities on the other hand do not help ICE with their job. Sanctuaries are places of worship, like synagogues and churches. Law enforcement has not been allowed to enter a sanctuary in the past, so they are good safe havens.

I also went to an Islamophobia workshop. One of the interesting things I learned there is about how to deal with confrontations and how to be an “upstander” instead of a “bystander”.

What I decided to do was to make a learning session about what sanctuary and sanctuary cities are and about how we can help the immigrant community by changing the narrative about immigrants. When I think about the immigrants I know, I think about somebody helping to take care of my grandfather, a friendly loving father, and a family friend. When you hear or think about immigrants, what or who do you think about?

For me, when you care about an issue, it is important to take action. I have written a petition to Governor Charlie Baker urging him to support passing the Safe Communities Act. There is information about my petition in your program. It would be very helpful if people would sign it, especially kids as I believe it will make an even greater impact. I hope to get 500 signatures and to deliver them to Governor Baker in June.

In conclusion, I would like to say some thank yous.

First off I would like to thank Tracy my Bar Mitzvah tutor, she helped me to believe that I could learn my whole portion.

I would like to thank Justin for being a great Hebrew School teacher and all of my past Hebrew School teachers.

I would like to thank my friends for always making me happy.

I’d like to thank my sister for being so full of ideas about everything and always giving my spirit a boost.

I would like to thank my parents, they are always so supportive and loving even though I can be difficult.

Lastly I would like to thank you all for coming.

Shabbat shalom!

Posted on May 24, 2017 .

Nathan Rosenlev D'Vr Torah -- Parshat Kedoshim

Shabbat Shalom.

Near my house there’s a pond where my brother and I always loved to go. We would catch all sorts of things there: crayfish, frogs, snails, salamanders, fish, etc. But we never took home any of the things we caught. At the end of our hunting spree, we would look at all the things in our bucket, pick up all the frogs we caught (we always remembered whose was whose), and release them back into the water. One time when we went down there, we met a kid who caught an obese frog. Not just any obese frog, this was obese, obese. Its sides went out to here, and it was really tall. He gave it to us. After we got it, we held it, and then we let it go back into the water.

My portion is Kedoshim.  This portion deals with laws, how to be holy, and all those things that grownups face. The law that I’m dealing with today is about the environment, specifically how we are supposed to treat the earth.  One law says:

“When you enter the land and plant any tree for food, you shall regard its fruit as forbidden. Three years it shall be forbidden for you, not to be eaten. In the fourth year all its fruit shall be set aside for jubilation before the LORD and only in the fifth year may you use its fruit…” (Leviticus 19:23-25) 

Posted on July 5, 2016 .

Naomi Bethune D'var Torah--Parshat Bereishit: Genesis 1:1 - 6:8

Shabbat Shalom. Today is a very special day and I am so glad you are all here to share it with me. But I want to talk about something serious. Have you ever wondered why God sent the flood? Why did God not warn people that if they kept on being evil they would die? Why didn’t God give them a chance?    

My Torah Portion is Bereishit, from Genesis, the first of the five books of the Torah. In this portion, God says that God will wipe out the whole world in a giant flood because of all the evil and badness God saw in people. But not all people were bad...”Noah found favor with the Lord.” He was very dedicated to God and responded to God by following God’s instructions to make an ark to save animals and his family from the flood.

Posted on November 2, 2015 .

Nathaniel Coben D'var Torah-- Parshat Shelach Lecha (June 13, 2015)

    Shabbat Shalom, everyone. Have you ever had a moment where you were ungrateful for something, not realizing how important it is?  I sure have, and I’m sure many of you have as well.  Picture this: your grandma gives you a sweater that she knit. It says, “I love my grandma,” in the center of a heart.  You roll your eyes. “Uh, thanks,” you might say, imagining how embarrassing it would be to wear it around. People might then only know you as “Grandma’s Boy,” or something.  Cool name, right?  You forget that in another situation, that sweater might be the only thing you have to wear in the cold weather.  It’s something to be grateful for not just because of the practicality, but also because of the care and work that went into crafting it.  (And no, my grandparents wouldn’t actually make me an embarrassing sweater.)   In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Sh’lach l’cha, the Israelites took for granted a gift given to them just as you and I might.

Posted on June 15, 2015 .

Zoe Kronberg D'var Torah -- Parshat Shemot (January 10, 2015)

Shabbat Shalom

I want us to think about what Shifrah and Puah, the characters in today’s Torah portion, teach us about Ferguson Missouri.

My Torah portion consists of the first chapters in Shemot, or Exodus as it’s known in English. 

In the beginning of my portion, the Hebrew people were in Egypt, enslaved. 

The pharaoh told all the midwives to kill Hebrew baby boys because the Egyptians were afraid that the Hebrews would become so numerous that they would take Egypt away from the Egyptians. 

There were two midwives who helped the Hebrew women give birth -  Shifrah and Puah  - and these midwives were smart, street smart.   Shifrah and Puah defied Pharaoh’s order.

Why did Shifrah and Puah defy the Pharaoh?  The Torah says they defied Pharaoh because they feared God.

Posted on January 15, 2015 .

Jonathan Stolow D'var Torah -- Parshat Vayera (November 8, 2014)

Shabbat shalom!

You know you’re grown up when jeans and a sweater no longer qualify as "dressed up."

The portion I read from today is Vayera. In the portion Abraham is visited by three strangers which I’ll explain in depth in a couple minutes. He invites them inside and serves them food and water. He then sees them on their way. A short time later G-d tells Abraham that he plans to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham pleads with G-d not to destroy the city if there are 50 innocents in the city. He then bargains all the way down to the point where G-d promises not to destroy the city for the sake of 10 innocents.

Posted on November 18, 2014 .

Morgana Frost D'var Torah -- Parshat Nitzavim-Vayelech (25 Elul 5774/September 20, 2014)

Shabbat shalom.

Every once in a while, something happens that really makes you wonder why. Why do Jews study Judaism? Why is there suffering, pain? Why do we become Bar and Bat Mitzvahs? Going through the whole process of preparing for my bat Mitzvah, those were some of the questions I asked. I think I learned what this ritual is about, even the suffering and pain part. It gives you a chance to achieve something. Yes, it takes time and effort, but it is worth it--if you can find an optimistic state of mind.

My portion is Nitzavim-Vayelech. In these two combined portions, Moses talks to the Israelites. They have yet to reach the Promised Land, but Moses knows he will die before they arrive. His main struggle is to find his optimistic state of mind. There’s no denying his upcoming death, so what can he do to accept it?

Posted on October 29, 2014 .

Ben Reinstein D'var Torah--Parshat Noah (Rosh Hodesh Cheshvan/October 25, 2014)

Shabbat shalom. I want talk about some of the questions about how righteous a person Noah really was. One of the questions that comes up is, did Noah do enough by building the ark and saving his family and the animals as God commanded? Should he have done more?

In one of the commentaries that I was reading, the eighteenth-century Chasidic master Rabbi Elimelech of Lizensk said that there are two different kinds of tzadikim. One of them is “genuinely righteous” and the other is a phony tzadik. Both of them are like people who are suffering a cold winter and need to keep warm.  Rabbi Elimelech taught, “One will go out and collect wood for a fire.” And the other one “will wrap himself in his fur coat.” The one who starts the fire “invites others to warm themselves in the fire. He not only warms himself but others too”  while the other “tzadik” in the fur coat is only warming himself, and the others around him will freeze.  

Posted on October 29, 2014 .