ADULT B’NAI MITZVAH
Shabbat Shavuot 5780
* Krista Harper
Reading Parsha Re’eh, one gets a strange sense of déjà vu, as if we have already read these passages somewhere before. As is the case with much of D’varim, almost everything mentioned in the parsha appears earlier in the Torah. The one new piece of information, it seems, is that the Israelites are finally standing at the border of the Promised Land. They have been wandering in the desert for years, somehow surviving a hostile Pharoah and his army, hardship rations of matzah and manna, interpersonal conflicts and near-mutinies, and the temptation of false idols. The Israelites must have felt impatient to arrive at their destination, and yet they pause long enough to review the fundamentals of their religion. Our parsha is like a checklist of Judaism’s essentials: a Jewish Ritual Life for Dummies recap of the things already learned across the other books of the Torah. How did we get to this week’s stripped-down, “worst case scenario” version of Jewish practice–all the holidays and most important rituals condensed into a single parsha?
At the end of February this year, we read the parsha describing how the Israelites crafted the ark. Over the weeks of March, as our collective awareness of the COVID19 pandemic shifted from indistinct radio static to a loud and clear alarm, we read how the Israelites constructed a temporary tabernacle in the desert. A tent, portable but constructed the same way each time it was pitched as they wandered in the desert for decades. This is the Mishkan, the community’s spiritual dwelling place. It was not anchored to a specific set of coordinates but built for portability, to be carried everywhere in less than ideal conditions rather than visited as a pilgrimage.
This spring, we have had to quickly prepare to take our community into the desert of the pandemic. In between Shabbats, time flows unevenly: one day flies by and the next day drags on. We have lost the comfort of meeting together in the sanctuary and the pleasure of breaking bread after services–all the benefits of physical proximity. We have had to abandon our familiar ritual home, with no time to prepare for what comes next.
The ancient Jews did not feel prepared either. It was hard for Moses to convince them to leave the familiarity of Egypt (which was their only home, Pharaoh and all) and to step across the Sea of Reeds. They did not know where they were going or whether they would make it to safety. They had to move and react fast–hence, matzah. Hurtling into an unknown future, they must have felt fear. In the midst of all this, they created and crafted art for a portable ritual space, and they carried this mishkan on their backs into the desert, not knowing when they would once again have a home. They faced the strange slow times of wandering. Finally, when it was time to enter Canaan, for some reason, they paused and reminded themselves of the essential Jewish rituals that must be remembered and observed.
The Mishkan has been an image that has helped me hold steady during these strange times. It has been inspiring to see our community show up for each other through other means. We will endure this, and someday we will again be together in happier times. Then we will pause at the threshold and think of Parsha Re’eh, reminding us of the fundamentals that carried us through this strange and unsettling journey.
* Mila Sherman
In this week’s Torah portion God commands: “There shall be no needy among you.” Torah gives us lots of examples how to ensure that there is not a permanent underclass in our society. If people have hardships, there are provisions that every third year everybody should bring out a full tithe of their yield and leave it to orphans, widows and Levites. Such charity is required of all in the community and helps poor and people with no land to subsist. Torah also understands the negative implications of debt. And prevents personal bankruptcies by requiring that every seventh year everybody shall practice the remission of debt. This helps the society flourish and prevents a downward spiral in poverty.
Torah specifically provides provisions for people’s self-reliance and independence. A servant has to be freed on the seventh year. In addition, Torah specifically aims to prevent people from starting penniless and only increasing the probability of being indebted and be servants again. When freeing servants, they shall be given capital and supplies in order for them to live an independent life and minimize chances to be indebted again.
Even in tranquil economic times, there is poverty and injustice on local and global levels. During these current especially trying months of hardship, compounded by the fact that soup kitchens, religious buildings, and shelters are closed, what can we do? How can we fulfill this mitzvah that “there should be no needy among you” while respecting social distancing rules?
I believe we are invited now to be creative and heartful to avoid even more socio-economic disparity. Yes, life might seem chaotic, we are overwhelmed, so it might be tempting to protect yourself and your immediate family circle first and postpone thinking about the needy.
Maimonides mentions that the highest level of charity is enabling somebody to be self-supporting. Individually and as a part of the community we are coming up with innovative ways of raising money for local businesses — on-line ordering from local farms, continuing to pay those who do gardening and cleaning of your house even if we do not use their services during these times.
How can you enable somebody to be self-supporting? Which skill can you teach those in need? Some of us who are finance professionals and educators are teaching financial literacy skills. Think about all the school children whose school is cancelled and all summer camps and activities are cancelled. Can you share a skill with such kids to empower both them and their parents? I will encourage us all to think of ways we can support each other and fulfill the mitzvah, especially in these trying times.
We are reminded every morning — in the first blessing of the morning, to remove sleep from our eyes and slumber from our eyelids.
In these times let us take it to mean moving beyond our usual understanding of what we are capable of and opening our eyes and hearts to see deeply what we can offer to others.
* David Gottsegen
Exactly 50 years ago would have been my celebration of confirmation — that add-on to Reform Judaism in the 19th century, usually celebrated on Shavuot. I dropped out of my confirmation class because of what I saw as the hypocrisy of religion – which preached rules and ritual but ignored the tremendous suffering in the world and the violence perpetuated by our own government.
Now, during this worst pandemic in 100 years, where both suffering and the tyranny of those in power have reached Biblical proportions, I see a need for rules and regulations for ethical behavior as never before. Thus Deuteronomy, which we read from today, is more relevant than ever before. I’ve seen lots of signs around town instructing us to “Be Kind”. No one can disagree. But though Covid 19 has brought out some of the best in people, it has also led to people hording toilet paper, bigots terrorizing Chinese citizens, and our Pharaoh in Washington using the crisis as a political football.
Human beings need specifics. The 613 laws of the Old Testament range from the sublime to the ridiculous to the scary. But many of these specific laws carry truths that may be generalized to the way we should live our lives in the pandemonium of this uncertain millennium.
In his book “Longing”, Rabbi Justin David, the compassionate and activist rabbi who married my wife and I, endorses the views of the French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, explaining “the quality of holiness between people is itself the most convincing manifestation of God.” The foundation of Judaism -the belief in Adonai – is based on our ethical and humane interactions with fellow human beings.
I am privileged to read from Deuteronomy 14:22-29. We are first told that it is good to eat, drink, and be merry. Judaism is not a religion that denies us the pleasures of good company, song, dance, wine, food, and comedy. It is an essential part of our culture, and a foundation that has helped survive 5000 often difficult years.
The Levites do not exist as they did in the Bible. But there are still millions of non-land owning people who take care of our “tents of meetings”. One of them, an electrician living in an apartment in Worcester, happens to be a good friend of mine who almost died of Covid 19. The writers of the Old Testament were prophetic since most Jews in the western world were not allowed to own land for centuries to come. The concept of sharing with a group that has does not have access to agricultural resources is extremely relevant.
As the chasm between rich and poor has never been so great as it is now, this mitzvah – to feed “the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow” has never been so germane. If we had a Bar or Bat Mitzvah project to do, like our 13-year-old children or grandchildren, I would have made mine Monte’s March, a 42-mile 2-day march from Springfield to raise money for the Western Mass. Food Bank, which I have done for the last three years. In this, the tenth year of the march, we raised over a quarter of a million dollars for the Western Mass Food Bank. A third of the families at Holyoke Pediatric Associates, where I practice medicine, utilize their services. I am proud of the support for local farms in this area, and their ability to contribute food that low-income families can get with SNAP benefits. And I am honored to be part of a congregation that gives so generously to the Amherst Survival Center and, in this time of great need, to give to area restaurants so they can make meals for the homeless and unemployed.
Times of pandemic and plague bring out the best and the worst in what Rene Dubois called “so human an animal”. The passages that I and my dear friends in our B’nai Mitzvah cohort chant provide a guide for thought, prayer and action during these uncertain times.
* Lisa Kent
My parsha, Deuteronomy chapter 14 verses 22 through 25, describes what a Jew must do to begin the annual tithing process. When I first read it, my lawyer neurons lit up. It reminded me of the federal income tax code. Take one-tenth of what you earn every year, go to the Temple and spend it there.
BUT—there’s a “hardship” clause, too: “If the Journey be beyond you/If you will be unable to carry it because the place is distant for you….you will substitute coins.” In other words, if the Temple is too far, you can liquidate that ten percent, and turn it into coins, to make your travel easier.
It’s beautiful how the Torah gives us some flexibility, and a recognition that people are in different places. People are in different places spiritually and emotionally, too. One traditional reading of the text is that Jews who have “gotten off track” with their observance might find the journey “far.” The “hardship clause” makes it easier for them to get back to a place of holiness.
But where is this Temple, post-diaspora? Literally the text refers to a fixed place where all Jews would congregate annually, like a festival. But what makes sense for me, my own reading, is that it’s not a fixed place. How could it be, post-Diaspora? We’re not commanded to make pilgrimage to Mecca, as Muslims do, annually.
This questioning and questing streak in me started early. When I was 13 or 14, and investigating Judaism, I made multiple journeys away from my usual Temple in Short Hills, New Jersey. I frequently went to services at different synagogues in the area. I was restless and curious. And I was very dissatisfied with the abbreviated, Thursday morning Bat Mitzvah ceremony that my synagogue of origin had offered to me. So I took my coins and started on my own path.
This interpretation is based on the Torah’s use of the word HaMakom, a double entendre meaning both “the place” and “God.” It can translate as “Omnipresent.” We say to mourners, “Hamakom yenakhem etekhem betokh….” “May the Omnipresent comfort you.”
But, if God is omnipresent, why can’t we stay where we are and tithe and celebrate? Can we be relieved of the obligation to travel, literally, to the God-Place? Can we all just sit on our couches and Zoom in from now on?
Maybe so, during these extraordinary times, while we are social distancing. But I don’t think we’re excused entirely from travel. Twice in the portion we are reminded, with the persistence of a Jewish grandmother asking when we’re coming to see her: “ki yivarechecha Adonai elocheha” –“For Adonai your God has blessed you.” Being blessed, we are obliged to act.
But how? I think it boils down to this: First, you take your wealth, in whatever form, and whatever amount, and bundle it up. Second, you move, you set forth on a journey. Heroes in fables always journey before reaching their goal. It’s as though travel, in some form, is the spark of the chemical reaction. When mixed with the other components, of wealth-gathering and blessing, then we can find “ha makom.” Once there, we enjoy, literally, our “yield,” the fruits of our labors.
In my middle age, in the process of B’nai mitzvah study with my friends and wonderful teacher, Randi Stein, I have continued the journey that started when I was 13. I am wealthy, not perhaps in kasef, but in “yield” from my work as a mother, a lawyer, and as a student of Torah. When I was thirteen years old, I didn’t get to take the “usual route” to ha makom. Forty-five years later, I realize, the journey is the reward.
* Joni Beck Brewer
Deuteronomy 15:10 and 15:11 focus on caring for the poor and needy. Social work was my career of choice for 40 years, and now in retirement, I continue to spend much of my time volunteering in the community. Maybe I give of myself because it is what I must do, as a person with something to give, and yes, as a Jew.
I have been thinking a lot about how all of my recent Jewish learning and growing fits into my everyday life. How do I reconcile all of this with my North Hadley Congregational Church family, and how am I Jewish when I am not at the JCA?
I have always felt “Jewish” but what does that really mean in how I live my daily life? Almost every Sunday I am in church with my husband, a Christian, in a small, warm community of folks that have become like extended family over the last 30 years. They are all excited to hear about my bat mitzvah journey. Their support has always included a great respect for the ways in which I am different from them, never asking me to do anything that I am not comfortable with. Both the church and the JCA have an atmosphere of acceptance, where “questioning believers” are welcome. In a recent conversation with the church minister, we talked about the many similarities between the JCA’s reconstructionist approach and this church’s acceptance of people with varied beliefs and practices. Both honor the past traditions while allowing (even encouraging) questioning, discussion, and seeking ways to bring our faith into our modern lives.
I think about how I live as a Jew, and how that might be different than living as a responsible, caring and loving person who does not identify as a person of faith. Or how it is different from the kind of Christians I have come to love in my life, most importantly my husband of 40 years. Or is there a real difference? Am I looking for some difference that really isn’t there?
Both this small church and the JCA have surrounded me with loving, involved people who are doing their best to follow the message of Deuteronomy 15:10, in giving to those in need, without expecting something in return. May they receive, as this verse says,
G-d’s blessings for all that they give.
So I flow from one to another, from synagogue to church, but always back to synagogue. Is it just more about the people, the community, than the liturgy? It feels right to me, and maybe that is what is most important?
Am I even asking the right question? Is it really about what is the same and what is different in my two religious families, or is it about how I live my life, how I do my best to carry out the spirit of Deuteronomy 15:10, which says: “Give to him readily and have no regrets when you do so, for in return the LORD your G-d will bless you in all your efforts and in all your undertakings.”
G-d has indeed blessed me by allowing me to feel that satisfaction, that rightness of doing for others. My spiritual journey of bat mitzvah has brought me back to my roots, but they are much deeper roots than in my earlier life, and are supported by two loving faith communities.
* Jena Schwartz
Since the quarantine began, my running game has been strong. It gets me outside, into the body, connected to nature. It has been a much-needed counterbalance to the amount of time I spend online. The truth is, some Saturday mornings — especially now that we can’t walk through the doors of the JCA, something I’d begun to look forward to over the course of the last year — I’d rather be outside. Adjusting to praying “alone together” at home has not come easily, and I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you I’ve noticed the impulse to recede. After all, I’ve asked myself, who will notice if my little square isn’t here?
In other words, the pandemic has given me yet another opportunity to wrestle with what I’ve come to see as a central element of consciously living a Jewish life: The tension between yirah and ahava, fear and love.
Twenty years ago, I served as a Hillel director. I remember telling students not ten years younger than me that there was no such thing as a “good” Jew or a “bad” Jew. This belief remains one of the constants on my Jewish journey. I have grappled with going to synagogue out of guilt and obligation — yirah — and I have leaned into the community out of ahava, learning your voices and faces and coming to take comfort in your presence.
Over the course of preparing for this day, and now in the midst of conditions unimaginable even just a few months ago, I see that we must step out beyond this binary into some space between either/ors. I am reminded of a famous section of the Rumi poem, “A Great Wagon.” You might recognize the first two lines:
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other”
doesn’t make any sense.
The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.
This year of study and preparation has woken up new aspects of my neshama, my Jewish soul, a soul that has stirred in me from a young age, since long before I really understood that I was even Jewish and had no form into which to pour the fullness of my Jewish being.
Now I have form — prayer, community, study, song. I do not want to go back to sleep. And maybe, like Rumi, wrote, what compels me to show up is less important than the showing up itself. Beyond wrongdoing and rightdoing, beyond good Jew and bad Jew, in a time when we can no longer walk through the physical doors to our place of meeting, we can gather here, in this virtual field of connection and community.
Just as our ancestors have always found a way to keep tradition alive during dark times, we will find sparks of continuity in the midst of crisis and change. Maybe sometimes obligation and love, yirah and ahava, are not so different after all. Whatever gets you across the doorsill where the two worlds touch — I’ll keep meeting you there.
* Jay Alpert
The piyyut, liturgical poem, El ADON, expresses in words written down thousands of years ago the splendor of the heavens and the magnificence of God’s creation.
We are told that the big bang occurred 13.8 billion years ago. I read that the Hubble Space Telescope was trained for a number of days on a minute spot in the heavens that showed no readily observable light. It was hoped that if they just kept it focused on that one small black spot, there might be something to see. What came back to Hubble was light that was collected from thousands of previously hidden galaxies. The light recorded from the galaxy farthest away is estimated to have traveled 13.2 billion years in order to reach the lens on Hubble. That is from almost the time our current universe was formed.
No matter how much we learn about the complexity and size of the universe and all that is within it, God’s creation remains a source wonderment and inspiration, which is what is expressed when we sing El Adon.
* Susan Zarchin
I stand here gathering the four corners of my tallit, bringing together the many parts of myself that reflect and unite the torahs that have given meaning to my life and brought me to this moment of b’nai mitzvah.
In my parasha, RE’EH, we are focusing on the obligation to care for the needy and the stranger among us. This was the Judaism I grew up with, not always focusing on the prayers or the belief in God, but the tenets of Judaism. I learned about unclenching the fist and opening the hand in the spirit of generosity. And that what God desires, Isiah declares, is that we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, comfort the grieving and free the enslaved. God doesn’t just want our prayers, God also wants us to be of service in the world.
We read this poem by Rabbi Jack Riemer at each of my children’s b’nai mitzvah. I share it now.
We cannot merely pray to God to end war;
For the world was made in such a way
That we must find our own path of peace
Within ourselves and with our neighbor.
We canot merely pray to God to root out prejudice;
For we already have eyes
With which to see the good in all people
If only we would use them rightly.
We cannot merely pray to God to end starvation;
For we already have the resources
With which to feed the entire world
If we would only use them wisely.
We cannot merely pray to God to end despair;
For we already have the power
To clear away slums and to give hope
If we would only use them justly.
We cannot merely pray to God to end disease;
For we already have great minds
With which to search out cures and healing
If only we would use them constructively.
Therefore we pray instead
For strength, determination, and will power,
To do instead of merely to pray
To become intead of merely to wish.
That our lives may be safe,
And that our lives may be blessed.
And now we are in a pregnant pause in our lives. Mother Earth is talking to us. Now is the time to find the divine spark within ourselves and others. Now is the time to pray from deep within our hearts, allowing the prayers to flow freely. That is how we will now touch each other, with gratitude, love and compassion.
* Caryn Markson
When I began to write my D’var months ago, I spoke of standing on the Bima taking an Aliyah, looking at the Torah as it was being read. I spoke of being with God in a new way. Although born Jewish, I never learned one letter of Hebrew and here I am today chanting Hebrew from the Torah. The challenge on this journey has become a challenge to stay centered, to continue to walk toward God, trusting myself and God, and having the courage to take the next step forward.
My lines of the parashah Re’eh invite me to remember the state of slavery in order to provide for those who cry for freedom. I hear Egypt as a state of mind, a part of ourselves, of myself, that can possess us, exploit us, exile us from ourselves, from our true nature. I also hear words that awaken me to that aspect of ourselves, of myself, that seeks and longs to be free and needs to be supported and nurtured.
So, my words now:
Every day my heart breaks and re-forms
Hearing people lost in this unknown world, longing for home as we are alone in our homes
All that we hold in our powerlessness and fear
All that we hold in our strength and stability
Seeing, hearing, feeling expressions of loss and grief
Opening to expressions of love, devotion, of deep exploration of the soul
Bring me your tears, I say
Let us hold them together
As the buds on the trees bloom as though it is a normal Spring
Take my hand, I say, see how it is reaching for yours
I will feel all your words as they flow into my heart
Let my face be the mirror of all that you feel,
all that you need to truly know and see
* Hattie Nestel
Deuteronomy 16:1-3 reminds us of Exodus as the verses declare that Adonai took us out of our slavery in Egypt by night. During the hasty departure, our ancestors ate unleavened bread at Adonai’s command. To commemorate, we eat unleavened bread for eight days every year during Passover. The passage clarifies that we must possess no leavened bread, called chametz, during Passover.
I have wonderful memories of celebrating the holiday named in remembrance of the angel of death passing over and sparing the houses and firstborn of our ancestors.
For several days before the holiday, my mother went around pantry cupboards with a dustpan and broom to make sure not a single crumb of chametz remained.
Soon, extra tables and chairs appeared, and the task of setting the places began. My Grandfather Samuel led the Seder, and he had the club chair with an extra pillow. My mother supervised laying of special tablecloths, wine bottles, and special wine. She set sparkling wineglasses—even for the children. At every place, she put the Haggadah that my grandfather had us all read during the evening.
I remember tables and chairs stretching from the dining room into the large hall and living room. An embroidered cloth covered matzo waiting to be hidden for the children to find.
Now my grandparents and parents, aunts and uncles have passed over, but their dedication to my Jewish experience still lives in me.
To flee brutal anti-Semitism, pogroms, and discrimination, my great-grandparents, Samuel’s parents Yakob and Masha Axelrod, left Rostov Oblast near the Black Sea. By emigrating to the United States instead of a closer European destination, they counted among few lucky ones whose descendants escaped the Holocaust.
I owe my life to my brave unknown relatives.
Our ancestors honored their Jewishness despite persecution and anti-Semitism. I doubt we have ever seen a century without anti-Semitism. Recently, we have seen killings of Jews worshipping in their synagogue where the murderer cried, “All Jews must die.” We hear the chant “Jews will not replace us” as haters march with Nazi flags and rifles. We worry about how to respond if we find ourselves in the crosshairs. We see schools and colleges in Massachusetts with swastika graffiti and hateful anti-Jewish slogans.
I answer by trying my best to live, act, and think Jewishly. I am fortunate as a woman of my generation soon to be Bat Mitzvah!
More than twenty-five years ago, during a Nipponzan Myohoji pilgrimage, I sat for seven days fasting with others on the tracks next to the chimneys at Birkinau to commemorate our ancestors taken by the Holocaust.
As night fell, I looked up and saw them in the stars.
* Frieda Howards
When I learned that the JCA was offering a B’nai Mitzvah class for adults my heart skipped a beat. This was something my husband, Irv, had always wanted to do. Every time our sons and grandchildren became B’nai Mitzvah he always had an aliya. He was active in the Jewish community wherever we lived but that wasn’t enough for him. He had grown up in a small town with no Jewish community – many friends but none were Jewish. His mother was observant – kept a Kosher home and instilled in him a love for Judaism. Yet he yearned for a religious bone fide.
My experience was different. I was raised in a city with a large Jewish population and most of my friends were Jewish. My parents maintained a Jewish household and my father was active in the Poylishe shul. My sister and I attended Talmud Torah after school but becoming Bat Mitzvah was not an option.
When we married Irv and I decided to raise our family in a Jewish home. No matter where we lived we affiliated with a synagogue – even in Spring Valley. Illinois, a small coal-mining town where six families supported the synagogue, a Rabbi and a Sunday school. In southern Illinois we helped to found Bnai Jacob and he started a Hillel. In Amherst we became involved in founding the JCA and Irv became President in the early years. He even committed time to the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School program to seek a deeper understanding of Judaism.
Nevertheless, Irv’s desire to become a Bar Mitzvah gnawed at him.
That’s why our family decided to celebrate his 80th birthday by staging a Bar Mitzvah at our house on the Cape. On a beautiful Shabbos – June, 2005 – he chanted his Torah parsha using one of his antique large radios as a Bima. My brother stood in as the religious leader. For the family and close friends who surrounded him it was a truly special occasion, as meaningful and sweet as any other Bar Mitzvah. He even received a fountain pen, the traditional gift for young boys for many decades. A string quartet played on the porch as we celebrated.
We often reminisced about the event, but he always regretted that he didn’t read his Parsha from an actual Torah. For 66 years, we had shared so many wonderful experiences. This B’nai Mitzvah class was my opportunity to fulfill his wish to read from the Torah,
How ironic! Our group will not be reading from an actual Torah. But our experience will be just as important and dear. Who could have predicted a Pandemic (11th Plague?)
Der mentsh tracht un Got lacht (The person plans and God laughs)
* Kol Goodstein
Vi ken ikh gerufen zayn on keyn yiddishn nomen?
How can I be called to the Torah without a Jewish name?
Dem tatn hot mikh Suzele geheysn vi
a nomen fun a gelibte kind
s’ken zayn er hot gehat
Baym suf zayn lebn in kas az er shtarbt
– er, un nisht ikh – iz dem nomen gevorn
“nisht mayn tokhter”
Un dokh, vi ruft men mikh?
Bat vemen? Nisht dem tatn?
Nisht bat Moishe fun Brooklyn
bar Leybyl fun Lomzhe
v’Chava fun Varshe
Der mame: Betty
Ir confirmatsiye nomen: Bernadette ,vos gefelt ir beser, ober Betty blaybt zi
Tokhter fun Catherine un Rocco fun ergets Italye – mir veysn nisht vu
Ikh bin nisht bat keyn Sara
Vos hot mikh gegebn di shabbos likhtlekh:
beyde di bronze – di hoykhe – un oykhet di kleynike
vos kenen zayn tsunoyftsukneytsht in zikh arayn un mitgetrogt
Az men iz vayt fun der heym ven shabbos kumt
How can I be called to the Torah without a Jewish name?
My father called me Suzele –
the name of a beloved child.
It’s possible he did.
At the end of his life, angry that he was dying
he, and not I – my name became
“not my daughter”
And so, how does one call me?
Daughter of who?
Not my father?
Not daughter of Moishe
son of Leybl from Lomzhe
and Chava, from Warsaw
My mother: Betty
Her confirmation name Bernadette,
which she liked better, but Betty she remained
Daughter of Catherine and of Rocco
from somewhere in Italy – we don’t know where
I am not the daughter of any Sarah
I am the daughter of Betty
who gave me shabbos candlesticks
the bronze ones, tall and sturdy
and the small ones that can be
folded into themselves and carried
if you find yourself
far from home
when shabbos comes
* Ina Porth
It has been written: “We each decide whether to make ourselves learned or ignorant, compassionate or cruel, generous or miserly. No one forces us. No one decides for us, no one drags us along one path or the other. We are responsible for what we are.”
These words are attributed to the Jewish philosopher, rabbi and physician, Moses Maimonides. Maimonides implies that we make choices in and how our lives will be lived.
Of course, we do not choose our parents or family. We do not choose to be a victim of a cruel illness. We do not choose to live in poverty. But we can choose how we respond to other aspects of life.
I am grateful to be able to choose today to become a bat mitzvah at the JCA. I did not get this choice as a child because it was not an option. My father, who came from an Old World Orthodox family, and my mother, who came from a non observant Jewish family, did not encourage me to do so. They found themselves comfortable in a Conservative congregation in Northern California, one that had not adopted the bat mitzvah service when I was 13 years old. Both my parents were active in Jewish organizations that supported social justice, Jewish education and the State of Israel, thereby giving me and my siblings an opportunity to learn by example.
In today’s Torah portion, Re’eh, Moses sets before the Israelites the choice between blessing and curse and he instructs them in the laws they are to observe. One is the mitzvah of tzedakah. Tzedakah does not mean “charity”. It means doing what is right and just. Charity is always voluntary but tzedakah is obligatory. In my parshah, (Re’eh 15:7-9), it states that “if there is a needy person among you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand but rather open your hand”. In the notes in Etz Hayim, we are told, “It is an obligation to generously support a kinsman who has fallen on hard times without calculating whether the help is repaid. This is not so much as a loan as an investment in a decent, compassionate, stable society”.
Maimonides devoted much of his life to writing and explaining tzedakah. He is the author of the Mishnah Torah, a 14 volume guide to the entire system of Jewish law. It took Maimonides 10 years to compile. In it, Maimonides explains Laws of Gifts to the Poor as a “Ladder of Tzedakah” with the highest level as the most honorable, and the lowest level as the least honorable. These are not based on the quantity of the gift but on the way the gift is given. All however are a means to encourage the giver to break the poverty cycle and enable the poor to establish themselves as independent and productive members of society. And yet there is no law which objects to the poor working while they are receiving their basic needs from society, as they too are encouraged to give to others.
The Torah exists to establish justice and the festival of Shavuot offers us an opportunity to recommit to tikkun olam, to repair the world. lt is our obligation to not only care for ourselves but to also be responsible for the society in which we live.
Mazel tov to my amazing classmates. It has been a great journey. May you each continue to feel this beautiful moment and go forth in good health, happiness and peace.
A bat mitzvah message would not be complete without the heartfelt appreciation to those who got me here today. A huge thank you to Jan Levy, my teacher, tutor and friend, and to Rabbi Weiner for his teaching, patience, humor and organization of this morning’s service. And a special thank you to the love of my life, my dear husband Eli, for all his encouragement and support.
Chag Shavuot same’ach and Shabbat shalom.
* Shelly Gottsegen
16:7 – You shall cook and eat it at the place that the Lord Your God chooses; and in the morning you may start back on your journey home. 16:8 – After eating unleavened bread six days you shall hold a solemn gathering for the Lord your God on the seventh day; you shall do no work.
Eating Matzah while I “shelter in place” during this time of the coronavirus pandemic, had a deeper resonance of meaning than it had in the past. First of all it was hard to get matzah, second of all getting matzah had an element of danger. My husband did it. He put on a mask and gloves and bravely walked into our local Stop & Shop to retrieve it. And then of course we disinfected the outside of everything we bought. So pulling the matzah out of the clean boxes felt like we had really accomplished something. So why did we risk our lives to eat matzah for 8 days instead of leavened bread?
I cannot read the Torah and take it literally. I look for the meaning that resonates with me about my life at the time of the reading or at the time of performing a particular ritual. I look to the metaphors of the stories or rituals for meaning. Every year it is different.
Viktor E Frankl said in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning (p.102) based on his experiences in concentration camps; “Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who has asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.”
So when I read Torah or participate in a Jewish ritual, I answer the questions: what does this mean to me and why am I doing this? How can this experience give me a deeper understanding about the meaning of life and bring me closer to G-D?
For example I always participate in the ritual of eating matzah for 8 days while giving up all foods that rise. During this pandemic, the meaning I find in the Torah and in the ritual of eating Matzah pertains to the time in space, the time in my existence. This year was unlike any of the past Pesachs.
Last year during the eight days of eating matzah, my beloved dog, Blue was dying. Eating Matzah to me was about helping him be comfortable to ease his suffering and to remember the 16 years I had with him and wondering how I could continue without him. I knew Blue would be free of his suffering soon but I was still struggling with letting him go. Such a sad Pesach for me that year.
The year before that I was recovering from a kidney transplant. The practice of eating matzah for eight days was about appreciating and feeling grateful for my new kidney and the opportunity it gave me to continue living. If I hadn’t received my son’s kidney I would have died. Both of us, alive, with one kidney. And now I would be free to live, raising the Matzah to life!
This year we were experiencing the worst pandemic of my lifetime. While I ate matzah the world was suffering, people were dying. I had a dear friend who was in the hospital on oxygen struggling to breathe. Missing him terribly at our zoom Seder, I remembered all the years he came to our Seders and lovingly contributed his stories of growing up as a Jew in Argentina. Eating the matzah this year seemed almost trivial but I did it anyway. My heart was broken and I was scared.
The search for meaning in the days of being sheltered “in the place that the Lord Your God chooses” is in my home that I am so fortunate to have. “In the morning you may start back on your journey home”, so I do yoga, journeying to a place within to ease my fear and sadness. “After eating unleavened bread” and having two zoom seders “a solemn gathering” one with my family and one with our Rabbi and Congregation, the ritual of the Seder gave me the opportunity to experience the fullness in my life. Eating Matzah for eight days reminded me to cherish the love of my friends and family, and the freedom to be together even through zoom.
In the words of Rabbi Shefa Gold: “ This is the challenge we are given as we recieve Torah: to step right into the conversation in midstream. The miracle of Revelation happens in the conversation. And it is our sacred responsibility to hold up our end.”
And so what I have discovered on my Bat Mitzvah journey is that reading Torah is truly a blessing that can reflect your life in deep and meaningful ways.
* Ken Bernstein
This Parsha doesn’t begin with the word, ’Sh’ma’, inviting us to ‘Listen’, but, rather, ‘Re’eh’, or ’See’.
Deuteronomy tells us that three times a year, people shall appear before the Lord, our God, in a place that They shall choose, but not empty handed…rather, with a gift, according to the Blessing the Lord has bestowed upon each of us.
Rabbi Shefa Gold, in ‘Torah Journeys’ cautions, that ‘only when our vision isn’t obscured by ‘false beliefs, fear, or, the illusion of separateness can we experience the freedom to choose the Blessing that is being offered…’
And…we are commanded to ’SEE”, because, without that clear vision, it may not be possible to discern Blessing from Curse;
The vantage point of Deuteronomy allows us to see where we have been, and, as a result, ‘the doors of possibility open before us, but… ’only if we see clearly, and, can discern reality from experiences that can be.. ‘clouded, or misinformed.’
Re’eh tells us that G-d has bestowed gifts upon all of us, and, that at every moment, with our eyes wide open, we can make wise choices, choosing Blessing over Curse.
I am reflecting on the Blessing/Curse I feel I was given by G-d. I am a Psychoanalyst. I help people heal emotional wounds.
When I began training to become an analyst, I had to learn who ‘I’ was..so that I could separate my ‘self’, from ‘the other’. And, I had to learn to listen very attentively. Who is this other person? How might I best serve them..what is in their best interest? And, how might I use my ‘self’ to provide a ‘Blessing’. Offering something that they might not yet be ready to hear, or, which might be true for me, but not for them, might be a ‘Curse’.
My mission is to help people to “see” and, heal the wounds which might be ‘casting shadows over their lives’, and keeping them from the joy that is their birthright.
This analytic process is a deliberate one, and, is both an Art and a Science…it is informed by my judgment of the emotional readiness of the other, and.. the timing and dosage of how things are revealed.
Thinking about my Parsha, ‘Re’eh’ has provided me a greater opportunity to ‘See’ who I am, deepen my clinical practice, and, refine what constitutes a good choice… Blessing over Curse.