Vijay Fisch

נִצביﬦ

Shabbat shalom

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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,

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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.

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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 .

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

Shabbat shalom. Man. Nine months studying. I was NOT excited to begin. But now I realize that it’s not about what you do or sing for your preparation. My tutor who is also  my cousin, Rabbi Victor Reinstein, told me that it’s all about the experience and that you learn “man, that wasn’t that hard.” And he was right. I learned that if you just learn the strategy and the way to do things, it’s going to be easy.

Our portion was the story of Noah (If you couldn’t understand all the Hebrew I was singing, I’m going to give you a summary). If you don’t know the story of Noah, it’s about this guy named Noah who receives this message from God. God says because the world is so corrupt, he will destroy the earth by a flood. And Noah’s just standing there like, “Huh?” he doesn’t know what God’s talking about! So Noah, who’s completely baffled, has to create an ark to hold 2 of each animal in the world so there can be a world filled with animals after the flood.

Posted on October 29, 2014 .