Peter Cohn’s Bar Mitzvah Dvar: B’midbar, Who is included?

Shabbat Shalom! Welcome to the final bar mitzvah in this generation of Cohns! Interestingly enough, we will be talking about Kohanim, our tribe, as it were, in a moment.

But first, I’d like to give you a summary of my portion. A little explanation on that: each week is associated with a portion of the Torah, and it takes one year to read the whole thing. And our tradition at AARC is for me to ask you a question, and I’ll do that later on–so pay attention.

My portion is in the first part of B’midbar, or the book of Numbers. In the portion, God orders Moses to take a census of all the Israelites. Well, not all the Israelites. But I’ll get to that later.

Moses is taking the census, and it’s kind of funny to think about him with a clipboard and pen in hand, walking from tent to tent. (Of course, that’s not quite what it was like.) Anyway, the Torah spends some time talking about the numbers of people in the different tribes and where they are camped, and then the focus moves to Aaron and his sons.

Aaron had four sons, Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar. Eleazar and Ithamar were still alive, but Nadab and Abihu were not. They had perished when they were not taking their ritual responsibilities seriously enough while they were at something called the “tent of meeting.” This tent of meeting, the ohel moed, is another focus of my portion. I find this appropriate, since my last name is Cohn, and the portion repeatedly brings up the Kohanim, the priests–Kohein, in Hebrew, means priest.

But let’s focus on the census Moses is taking. Here’s what I found interesting about it: the census that Moses is taking doesn’t include a lot of people. For example, the census excludes the Levites. The census excludes women. The census excludes men under 20. Put it all together, and you’ve left out more than half of the Israelites.

You are taking a census of all the Israelites, except you’re not; you’re picking and choosing who gets to count in the census. It’s kind of ironic that, after being treated so horribly for so long when they were in Egypt, because of their identity, some of the Israelites were now marginalizing some people within their own midst.

But hold on to that thought–and now zoom ahead a few thousand years. See, excluding people is a pretty common theme in history, and that includes the history of this country. Think about Philadelphia, in 1776, during the writing of the Declaration of Independence. Famously, it says that “all men are created equal.” It doesn’t say anything about women. And just a few years later, those same Founding Fathers wrote the U.S. constitution, which–just as famously–included the three fifths compromise, in which a slave counted as three fifths of a person. This is literally deciding who counts and who doesn’t.

My own family history touches on the way groups have been excluded in more recent times. For example, my grandmother Mimi is Irish; genealogically, I am one fourth Irish. I learned that when Irish immigrants first arrived in the U.S. in the mid 1850’s, they were the first huge wave of immigrants to ever come en masse. The U.S. wasn’t ready for it. They reacted badly and considered the Irish as the new “lowest rung” in society. In fact, at a time when being “white” meant being accepted, the Irish were considered non-white–which is pretty funny if you just look at my complexion — do you know how much sunscreen my relatives and I go through?

The same thing happened to my Jewish ancestors; when they first arrived, they faced discrimination and exclusion. And of course they came here in so many cases because they were fleeing persecution from abroad as well. Sometimes, being from a marginalized group makes you more aware of others facing similar problems. Many Jews were involved in efforts to fight discrimination and I’ve heard the story many times about how my great grandmother, Nana, was pushed in a baby carriage during suffrage marches. And my grandmother helped to integrate the New Orleans schools. But one of the things that struck me as interesting was that German Jews who immigrated to the United States around the same time as the Irish considered the later arriving Russian Jews as not Jewish — much less white. They settled in different places, had different trades and formed different branches of Judaism.

And actually after the Irish settled here, sometimes they acted in ways that marginalized other people–if not other Irish, than other groups of new Americans.

So when we talk about who counts and who doesn’t, sometimes the people who don’t count will turn around and exclude other groups–or even people within their own midst. It’s a little like that census Moses took thousands of years ago that excluded half of the Israelites. It makes you wonder, why anybody ever gets excluded in the first place. Or to be more direct, what really makes one person count less than another.

Think about another example from American history–relatively recent American history. When segregation was legal in the United States, there was a so-called “one drop rule.” It said that if any of your ancestors were African American, so were you. In other words, if one of your grandparents were African American, but the other three weren’t, you still were considered African American. That makes no sense!

The funny thing is, scientifically speaking, humanity originated from one place: Africa. In that sense, all of us have at least a little African blood in us. The whole idea of race, as we know it, is something that humanity constructed as a way to sort and categorize people. Of course, many people take great pride in their ethnic or racial backgrounds, and there’s nothing wrong with acknowledging diversity. But all too frequently, we have defined groups in order to treat some worse than others. And all too frequently, even those of us in historically marginalized groups have not paid enough attention to others facing the same kind of treatment.

What groups would you like to recognize that haven’t been mentioned today or historically?

As it happens, I had a lot of chance to think about that with my mitzvah project. For those of you who aren’t familiar, part of the bar mitzvah process is picking a mitzvah, or act of goodness, to perform–and it has be from a list of 613 mitzvot to choose from, which are found in the Old Testament.

The mitzvah I chose was “To love the stranger.” When I chose this before November, I had no idea how important it would become,which is to say, I had no idea how the political environment would change. I didn’t know that we would be in a country where so many people had reason to be nervous they didn’t count anymore.

Today, I feel, it is more important than ever to “love the stranger.” On January 21, I participated in a women’s’ march in Ann Arbor, and I attended a protest of the immigration ban at the Detroit airport. This is the poster I carried, by the way. It says…

My family and I donated to the rebuilding effort for the Ypsilanti Mosque when it burned down in March. And in December, I went with my mom to her church’s feast day of service to make baskets of cleaning supplies and other necessities for Syrian refugee families. For the main part of my mitzvah project, I sort of replicated that with a twist; it was boxes geared towards kids, containing books, art supplies and welcome notes. My brother Tommy drove me to Jewish Family Services (the same organization my mom’s church coordinated with) to drop them off.

This is the idea of “loving the stranger,” caring about what happens to people you don’t know as fellow people and citizens of the world.

You’ll also find this theme in my haftarah–although you’ll have to read between the lines a little bit. It’s the famous story about King Solomon and the two women who claim to be the mother of the same baby. Solomon has asked God for wisdom and this is the first instance of how he uses that wisdom.

(This is not the traditional portion assigned to my Torah portion, but the one that is assigned, which is about the prophet Hosea’s wife, has more mature content than I was comfortable with. So I followed the lead of a fellow congregation member, Jacob Schneyer. He chose this portion five years ago at his bar mitzvah to go with the parsha because he was talking about how the Levites were excluded from the count, and raised the general question about what does God want, which, as you will hear, is the question that Solomon wants to know: give me the wisdom to know what you want. And wisdom in general.)

At this time in our history, as we are still as a nation grappling with issues of inclusion and exclusion, we really need to think wisely about how and why we make those distinctions. We need to bring our wisdom to the table and realize or insist that no one should be excluded because everyone has been excluded at some point. And that’s always looked ridiculous afterwards or retrospectively.

We all want to be on the right side of history. And we need wisdom for that.

 

Dan Gutenberg’s Bar Mitzvah dvar on Ve’era

Good morning and Shabbat shalom!

My parsha is Va’era, Exodus 6.2-9:35. It tells the story of the first seven plagues; blood in the nile, frogs, lice, flies, diseased livestock, boils, and hail. I’m reading the part that most interested me, which was the first time in my portion when God said God would harden Pharaoh’s heart. Another part that caught my attention was Pharaoh’s stubbornness or arrogant attitude towards the Israelites throughout the portion. And as we will find out, even before my portion.

So in some ways Pharaoh already had a hard heart and in other ways, God hardened it some more. In a sense those are related, but I was more interested in the differences.

When do we first see that Pharaoh might have an arrogant or stubborn or some other kind of bad attitude towards the Israelites? It’s back at Exodus 1:8: “A new Pharaoh arose who did not know Joseph.” He enslaved them out of fear that they would become too numerous and join Egypt’s enemies. This is not the Pharaoh that loved Joseph so much in Genesis. It’s a new guy. The old Pharaoh loved Joseph for his ability to interpret dreams which resulted in averting a potential catastrophe from the famine. Joseph becomes his right-hand man, the second in command, overseeing wheat being both distributed to the people and saved for the lean years, the famine. Egypt would not have survived without Joseph. [Read more…]

D’var on Eikev by bar mitzvah Aaron Belman-Wells

aaron-belman-wellsShabbat  shalom.

While I was working on my maftir [concluding section of the weekly Torah portion], Deuteronomy 11:22-25, there were several points where I noticed some differences in translations of the text. These differences could be as seemingly minor as “Red” or “Reed” Sea, or as major as “Sea of the Philistines” or “Western Sea,” or even which Wilderness. Differences in translations and/or text arise because of language, misunderstanding, human error, knowledge etc. My aliyah [segment of the Torah portion], however, concerns the Promised Land. So, as you can see, knowing which sea or wilderness the text is referring to marks a boundary and is significant. Despite how minor many of these changes may seem, they still can make incredible differences in what we are to take away from that section. Looking around [i][ii] to see if this was simply an anomaly, I noticed that there were other points in the Torah where this kind of change occurred. After thinking about why this might happen, I decided that there could only be one major possibility for a change as this: there is no definite word or phrase of text that must be placed there, so people simply wrote in what they assumed to be what was meant to be there. While this often works, the example with the Red and Reed Sea shows that often times there is little to no communication or standardization  between people attempting to translate the Torah.

Differences in translation may also be due to differences in agendas and purposes. Few of us read or speak the Hebrew of the Torah, so we depend on translators. Some translators wish their translations to reflect, to the degree possible, exactly what was written. Others, recognizing that a world of 5,000 or 6,000 years ago is very foreign to modern readers, try to make the text accessible to the reader, making changes to make the events and discussion straightforward. We can see similar, if less important, differences in translations of the Bard’s Hamlet, in which there are at least 3 different versions, despite the fact that only 1 is used[iii]. Equally important, there may be differences in the translator’s view of the Torah and Judaism that influence the translation. Is a given event a recitation of a real event, or is it to be interpreted and put in some context?  All of these result in differences of words and of meaning. [Read more…]

Aden Angus D’var Torah, June 27, 2015 Parsha Chukkat

Aden Angus Bar Mitzvah picToday I read from chapter 20 in the book of Numbers. In the book of Numbers are stories about the 40 years in the desert and what happens there. The name of the parsha is Chukkat. The Hebrew word Chukkat means a ritual law. In the beginning of this parsha God gives the law of the red heifer. A perfect red heifer is sacrificed and its ashes are then mixed with water to purify anyone who has touched or been in the same room with a dead person. One commentary I read suggested that the word chukka is used for a law that does not make rational sense. In this case, I would agree with that!

The parsha ends with the story of the Israelites attempting to cross through the lands of Arad, Edom, and Bashan. The kings of these lands did not allow the Israelites to pass and there were wars, all of which were won by the Israelites. How was this possible for a group of slaves that fled Egypt with what they could carry and hardly had food to eat?

The portion of Chukkat that I read was when Moses strikes the rock and is punished by God for not following God’s instruction. Many don’t see why Moses was punished; it didn’t make sense. The story of Moses striking the rock is a pivotal and surprising story of the Torah. It is surprising because Moses is punished so severely after not obeying God’s instructions. To truly understand the emotions of the story we must understand the thought process of Moses in the situation. As we know, Moses was one of the great leaders of all time and led the Israelites back from Egypt. He had been a flawless messenger of God up to this point. [Read more…]

Caleb’s drash

Mazel tov to Caleb on his becoming Bar Mitzvah! Here is his d’var torah, on Parashat Yitro

Caleb, on the day of his Bar Mitzvah

Caleb, on the day of his Bar Mitzvah

 Welcome, Shabbat shalom.

This week’s Torah portion is called Yitro, Exodus 18 through 20. The Israelites have just left Egypt, and crossed the Red Sea, and they are in the wilderness. In the first part of the portion, Moses meets up with his father-in-law Jethro (His Hebrew name is Yitro, thus the name of the portion). Jethro notices that Moses is carrying too much responsibility by solving everyone’s little arguments and disputes. Jethro suggests that Moses should have other people solve the Israelites’ minor disputes and bring only the big problems to Moses. Moses follows Jethro’s advice.

Meanwhile, God tells Moses to tell the Israelites to prepare for God to come down to Mount Sinai to talk to the people. The people follow God’s wishes and wait for God to come down. When God comes down in a theatrical show of thunder, lighting and the trembling of the mountain, God makes a set of rules that are now known as the ten commandments.

I will read the ten commandments in my Torah portion today. [Read more…]