Otto Nelson’s Bar Mitzvah Dvar: Chukat

Shabbat Shalom, everyone!
Welcome to my bar mitzvah! I hope you’ve been enjoying it so far.
My torah portion is Chukat.
It’s a bit of an inconsistent portion, because it starts with Adonai (also known as G-d) detailing a purification ritual to be used after contact with the dead, which I am focusing on, but about a third of the way in it jumps to the story of the Israelites wandering through the wilderness.
The aliyah (section of Torah) I just read is Numbers, chapter 19, verses 18 to 22.
My aliyah focuses on the details of the purification ritual.
According to the Torah, this purification ritual is required after contact with a human body, grave, or bone.
It was believed that contact of this sort makes a person spiritually or ritually unclean.
Purification involves sprinkling water containing the ashes of a Red Heifer (mentioned earlier in my Torah portion) on the unclean person, after which they must wash themselves and their clothes and remain isolated from others for a period of 7 days.
If they do not undergo this ritual they are cut off from the congregation, a punishment known as Karet. Rabbis were and are not sure exactly what this punishment entails, but some theories are premature death, death without children, or generally very bad things.
On that happy note:
You may have noticed that these laws about death and contact with the dead seem very strict, and a bit strange, which brings up the question: Why were these laws created?
I think one reason is for the sake of physical purity (I’ll talk about that later), in that it helps avoid the spread of disease. However, I think it was mainly for religious purity. I think the ritual was designed to keep the perceived sanctity of the congregation by acknowledging the dead but not allowing them to negatively impact the community.
However, I think now we should look at what other people think the purpose of this ritual is, through rabbinical commentary. A traditional addition to a D’var torah, rabbinical commentary is essentially looking back at observations on the Torah portion made by past Jewish scholars to see what they think (Like looking at the comments on a YouTube video, except generally more positive and much older).
Rabbi Joseph Bechor Shor, a rabbi who lived in France in the 13th century, speculated that the purification ritual was to assist with physically letting go of the dead, and avoiding the practice of incorporating dead bodies into physical objects and adornments, a tradition among several neighboring tribes at the time and place the Torah was written. He also held that it is a natural tendency to physically cling to loved ones who have died, and that the ritual exists to warn Jews against this tendency. However, Rabbi Samson Hirsch, a 19th century German rabbi, claimed that the meaning was more symbolic, showing the Jewish people that there is a possibility of redemption from sin, such as the sin of touching a dead body.
Additionally, allow me to note that Rabbi Yochanan (A first century rabbi who saved Judaism in a super-dramatic way that should REALLY be made into an action film), Rabbi Isaac (A student of Yochanan), and Rabbi Joshua of Sikinin (A lesser-known Talmudic rabbi), believed that the ritual is not made to be understood or have a reason behind it.
Now, the reasons I just quoted are more spiritual reasons for this ritual,
but I also want to mention possible practical or medical reasons.
A possible medical reason for the ritual was to use water to wash off bacteria from the person and their clothes, which were possibly infected from diseases carried by dead bodies, and then put the person in a quarantine for any remaining germs or effects to die off.
Strange thing is, the biblical purification ritual in my Torah portion seems in line with modern medical practices. However, this is thousands of years before modern medicine. So how could the ritual use ideas similar to those of contemporary medical science?
Personally, I think that the connection is coincidental. After all, when we do something that works, we continue to do it. And in ancient times, the health benefits of certain rituals could be seen as divine signs to continue them.
At the core of this ritual is purity. But what is purity? Physical purity? Religious purity? And what do these things mean in today’s world?
Personally, I think that the idea of purity, both religious and physical, is really mostly a social construct. Although how clean or healthy you are can affect physical purity, I think what you and others think about you is most of what’s taken into account. And the case of religious purity is even more heavily opinion-focused.
In today’s world, purity does not seem to be as common a topic, at least not obviously. However, I think that these ideas of purity still exist, just in a more cloaked form. When people make decisions based on physical health or look, I think that’s really just a different form of the idea of physical purity. And when people make decisions based on what they think of another person’s religion or culture, I think that’s just another branch of the idea of religious or ethical purity.
But now to my mitzvah project.
Because my portion is focused on purity and purifying, for my project my friend Eli (who had his Bar Mitzvah last month) and I swept up the memorial garden behind the JCC, planted new plants, added mulch, and weeded it, in a way restoring natural purity to it. Also, my Mom and I worked with a community organization known as NAP herps that monitors frog and salamander populations, which are indicators of natural vibrancy and purity. Finally, my family and I planted 150-something native butterfly bushes in my grandparent’s land in west Michigan, to restore some natural, native purity.
Anyway…
At this point, I have discussed purity in today’s world, talked about my mitzvah project, asked a rhetorical question and then answered it, given the interpretations of rabbis over the centuries, and given medical and spiritual reasons for this ancient ritual. I know at this point ya’ll are probably getting hungry for the luncheon, and I relate, so I’ll make this quick.
In our congregation, it’s customary for the Bar or Bat Mitzvah to ask a question of the congregation (Don’t worry, this one’s not rhetorical), so here’s mine. Throughout my D’var torah, I’ve explored many questions about purity. But now I have a question about purity for you to discuss, and that’s “What does purity, and for that matter impurity, mean to you?”

Thank you for sharing your thoughts. And to conclude, I would like to thank everyone who has helped me reach where I am today.
Thank you to:
-My Dad, David Erik Nelson, and my Mom, Cara Jeanne Spindler for helping and supporting me throughout my Bar Mitzvah and my life.
-My little sister Aziza, for, uhh…
Hmm…
Teaching me, and pushing me to my limit of, patience and understanding…
-Linda, Mojo, Riley, Danny, Justin, Ava, Henry, Vince, Sarah, Hannah, and anyone else who lives outside of the state and were willing to take the time and effort to come here
-My tutor, Deb, for helping me through my torah and haftarah portions.
-Rabbi Ora, for helping with my D’var torah.
-Anyone who has supported me in my life, be it a friend, family member, pet…
-And finally, everyone who came here to my bar mitzvah today! Thank you all so much!

A Note From Rabbi Ora Before Her Vacation

On July 19th, I’ll be packing my tent and hiking boots into my Subaru and driving west. First to Chicago, where I’ll be officiating the baby naming of Rabbi Shelley Goldman and Kieran Kiley’s newest family addition. Then on to Montana, to meet up with my friend Steve and spend two weeks exploring the mountains of Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks.

Thinking about my upcoming trip from a Jewish perspective, I started to notice just how many references to mountains appear in our liturgy. 

On Friday nights for Kabbalat Shabbat, we sometimes sing from Psalm 98, which speaks of how “the rivers clap their hands and the mountains sing in joy.” On Shabbat morning, we often sing Esah einai el he’harim from Psalm 121: “I turn my eyes to the mountain; from where will my help come?” During the Hallel portion of the Passover seder, we sing Psalm 114, that depicts a world in which nature becomes topsy-turvy as “mountains skip like rams and hills like sheep.” And many Psalms begin with the opening Shir ha’maalot, indicating that the forthcoming psalm is a “song of ascents,” literally a “song of going-up.”

In the Psalms, mountains are a place to aspire to; mountains are a place to get lost in and to look for help from; and mountains are part of the magnificent natural landscape that dwarfs in comparison to God’s power, even as we feel tiny relative to the colossal peaks. But in our tradition, mountains also indicate the human capacity for transformation.

According to the Torah, we became the nation of Israel at the base of a mountain, and committed to an ongoing relationship with God there. To reconstruct that tradition, then, every mountain might be a site of potential revelation! At the very least, mountains are a reminder of the importance of stretching beyond ourselves

For me, the beauty of mountains is their steadiness and how they’re blanketed in beauty; mountains are a reminder of what John O’Donohue calls the importance of “slow time.”

What about for you? What do you see as the Jewish connection to mountains? Have you had a profound/spiritual experience on a mountain? Please feel free to share below.

Introducing The New Robert Belman Award for AARC Teens and Young Adults

Written By: Erica Ackerman

The Ann Arbor Reconstructionist Congregation is pleased to announce the Robert Belman Award, which is granted in support of social justice activism. The award was established by AARC members Dale Belman and Amy Tracey Wells in memory of Dale’s brother Bob, who died tragically in 2018. Bob was a supporter of charitable organizations and liberal causes who gave freely of his time and money. He was a business owner with a love of rebuilding and racing European sports cars, who pursued track racing, auto-crossing, and road rallying. 

The Robert Belman Award is a grant of up to $1000 available to Ann Arbor Reconstructionist Congregation b’nai mitzvah graduates who are or wish to engage in social justice action. Each year, $1000 will be available to be split between up to five awardees. Examples of qualifying activities include internships, leadership training, volunteering, or participation in a course through an organization such as the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. Financial need will be one consideration in choosing recipients.

To qualify for the award, applicants must:

1. Be an AARC b’nai mitzvah grad up to 26 years old
2. Have a current association with the AARC (for example, parents are members or the applicant attends services)
3. Be able to articulate a focused need and time-frame for their activity

Example descriptions of the activity might be “Volunteer Coordinator at Cabrini Green Legal Aid from Sept 2019-May 2020,”  “Housing Justice Organizer with Jane Addams Senior Caucus from Sept 2019-May 2020,” or “Volunteer with the Sunrise Movement, Summer 2019.”*

The award is a lump sum given as an outright grant. It would be awarded based on both need and the nature of the social justice work or study. The money would be disbursed upon receipt of a copy of a letter from the organization stating that the applicant will be doing an internship, workshop, volunteering, etc.

Upon completion of the activity, awardees are asked to write a short essay about their work and its impact. The essay will be shared with members of the AARC.
A link to the application form will be sent out soon in an email to AARC members.

Congratulations to our Graduates!

Avi Lessure senior portrait.

Avi Engelbert Lessure, son of Carol Lessure and Jon Engelbert, graduated from Skyline High School, where he was involved in robotics and math mentoring. He enjoys working with children, serving as a madrich in the AARC Beit Sefer, and seeks to tutor students in math over the summer. He is also a competitive Hearthstone player, having qualified to play against the world’s best during the Masters Tour in both Las Vegas (June) and Seoul, Korea (August). Avi will attend the University of Michigan Honors College in the fall.   

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Zevi Kinberg-Cowan graduated from Huron High School in June 2019. She’s looking forward to visiting relatives this summer, finding a job, and living her best life. 

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Juliana Fried is graduating from Pioneer High school and will attend Western Michigan University in the fall to study elementary education, with a concentration in math. She was awarded the AAPS Dorothy Russell Scholarship for a graduating senior who plans to enter the field of education. 

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Ella Edelstein is headed to the University of Michigan
Jesse Edelstein is headed to Brown University

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Ari Basch graduated from Huron High School in June 2019 with Honors. He played clarinet in Huron’s Symphony Band and led the Computer Aided Design (CAD) on the Ratpack FIRST Robotics team. Outside of school, he enjoys music, soccer, mountain biking and ultimate Frisbee. He built his mountain bike prior to heading to the UP for a riding camp, and he plays on multiple Ultimate teams. This summer, Ari is a counselor-in-training at Camp Loookout. He will be attending University of Michigan in the fall to study engineering.

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Other High School Graduates:

  • Daniel Hirshbein
  • Elijah Shore
  • Ahava Kopald

College Graduates:

  • Isaac Shore
  • Myisha Kinberg

Congratulations to all our high school and college graduates!

Eli Revzen’s Bar Mitzvah Dvar: Bamidbar

Eli and his friend Otto, shown working on their mitzvah project in the Shelly Volk Memorial Garden

Shabbat shalom. Today I just read from chapter one of the book of Bamidbar, and my parasha is also called Bamidbar. A parasha is like a few chapters smushed together by topic in the torah.

My parasha describes the events that took place a little over a year after the Israelites left Egypt. While the Israelites were wandering in the desert, God told Moses to count the Israelites. Every Israelite man capable of bearing arms was counted.

There ended up being 603,550 men total counted in the census. However, God told Moses not to include the Levites in the census, nor have them dwelling among and counted with the rest of Israelites.

The Levites’ duty was serving the Tabernacle, and when the Israelites travelled, the Levites were to dismantle the Tabernacle and reassemble it in the new encampment. If any outsider came near the Tabernacle, they were to be put to death.

Finally, the Israelite tribes were commanded to camp each under their own standard. The children of Israel were good this time and actually listened to Moses’s decree in the name of God, so they were counted and there was no divine wrath.

What was the point of a census being taken at this time? Because the census counted only the men who could bear arms, it seems like what was happening was the Israelites were building an army.

Why was God thinking about building an army at this point in time? Well, it makes sense after what happened at Rephidim, which I’ll tell you about later. God probably wanted to have the chosen people safe so god told Moses to count them to create an army.


The question for me, the big question in this parasha is if Moses was counted in the census. The question seems small, but the implications are big. If Moses was counted, it would mean that he was one of the people, thus equal in value to the average Israelite man. If Moses was not counted it might hint that he was above the people, because he was closer to God.
Did Moses count himself in the census?


If he was counted then he was going to be an active participant in a militia, and in this case he’d be sharing the risks with the Israelites when going to war. If he wasn’t counted then he would have had others risking themselves for him.

Since the point of the census was to build an army, I think that Moses probably wouldn’t have been a part of the census. Since Moses was the leader, if he were to die in battle the proverbial snake would be headless. Also, we can assume he was fairly old at the time, thus probably not fit to bear arms.

Another Speculation
We can speculate about the answer to this question based on an earlier story in the Torah, the story of Rephidim, and yes I’ll tell you about it very soon, but right now I’m procrastinating. In the Book of Exodus, Moses and the Israelites fight the Amalekites at Rephidim; during the battle Moses gives power to the warriors fighting in the battle.

Rephidim
Since I said I’ll tell you about what happened at Rephidim: The Israelites were attacked by the people of Amalek two months after they left Egypt. So Moses had a rag-tag team go and do battle with the Amalekites. During the battle, when Moses raised his hands, the Israelites prevailed, and when he lowered his hands the Amalekites prevailed. The Israelites were winning for a time, but Moses’ hands grew heavy. Why, is it because that standing for hours on end with your hands up isn’t everyone’s favorite pastime? So Moses then sat on a rock while Aaron and Hur held his hands up for him. And like this his hands were up till sunset. Then it says Joshua (who was probably in charge of the rag-tag team) overwhelmed the Amalekites by the sword.

The story of the battle at Rephidim is an example of what Moses once did to aid the soldiers of Israel. In the battle of Rephidim the soldiers were obviously in jeopardy. But the question is, was Moses? Did he put himself in jeopardy by raising his hands? If not, was it ethical for him to put others’ lives in danger without sharing the risk with them?

Contemporary example
A good contemporary example of different risk levels between a person in charge and the common man is modern industry. A manager of a steel plant is almost never at risk of getting burned, yet the workers are. In this case the manager is like Moses and probably not at risk, but the workers are. The question is is it ethical for a manager to not endanger themself in same way as the common worker. Sometimes this is the only way, if the job involves skills that the manager doesn’t have for example, using heavy machinery and the like.

This topic is very complex and each situation has its own answer so it’s impossible to give a yes this is okay or no don’t do that answer. As consumers of products made by such an industry we are part of this chain. While inside a system it’s very hard to pass a judgment on the ethics of that system. One of the reasons this is very hard is because when you are passing that judgment you’re also judging yourself which makes it difficult not to be biased.

To end my dvar torah I will ask you the Cahal a question, and I’ll love to hear your answers.

Is it okay to have someone do something for you that involves risk without you sharing the risk with them?

Y’all have raised many good points but now it is coming closer to candy throwing time so I must wrap-up.
Conclusion:
This dvar torah raises many more questions than answers, but that is how life is there are almost always more questions that come up the deeper you look.


Thank yous:
This enriching experience of having a bar mitzvah wouldn’t have been possible without the amazing support of many even more amazing people. First I have to thank my parents who made this all possible. Without their love and support this would never have happened. I’d also want to thank my relatives who traveled great distances to be here to support me. Next I have to thank Rabbi Ora, my tutor Lisa, and Deb Kraus who all taught me the skills necessary to be part of this truly enjoyable event. Last but not least I have to thank you all for being such a cooperative Cahal and as a thanks to all of you, my family and I have made a feast for all of you to enjoy. Shabbat shalom and have a great shabbat with your friends and family.

An Informative and Engaging Shavuot!

by Emily Eisbruch and Gillian Jackson

Our delicious Shavuot Desert Potluck provided by AARC! Photo Credits: Emily Eisbruch

In honor of the giving of Torah at Mount Sinai, AARC celebrated Shavuot this year by engaging in learning and discussion. We were joined by Kehillat Israel from Lansing. The evening was structured around discussion groups on interesting and relevant topics.

The first two discussion groups were led by congregation members Clare Kinberg from AARC and Ken Harrow from KI.

Clare Kinberg leading a discussion on ‘Jewish Time’ on Shavuot.

Clare Kinberg led a discussion about the Jewish concept of time and how it relates to the story of Ezra. A lively discussion followed regarding the different ways that Jews interpret history and time as it is written in our sacred texts.

Ken Harrow leading a discussion on ‘The Events at Sinai’ on Shavuot.

Ken Harrow led a discussion about the events at Sinai. In his session he focused on how to contextualize the exodus from Egypt and the giving of the commandments. Ken emphasized relationships to works of art, demonstrating our connections with facial expressions.  Ken shared slides with examples from famous artworks, including self-portraits from Rembrandt and Van Gogh.

After enjoying a potluck of delicious deserts provided by members of AARC, we embarked on even more engaging opportunities for learning with Rabbi Ora and Rabbi Zimmerman.

Rabbi Ora leads a discussion on ‘Jewish Perspectives on Abortion’

Rabbi Ora led a discussion on Jewish Perspectives on Abortion. The discussion was a fascinating exploration of various texts that reference abortion. Looking at the issue from the perspective of various Jewish Sects, Rabbi Ora showed how the Jewish people have struggled to codify when and how a woman should be allowed to terminate her pregnancy.

Rabbi Zimmerman leads a discussion on the Green New Deal.

Rabbi Michael Zimmerman’s session on “The Torah of the Green New Deal” looked at  Judaism’s approach to caring for the planet.  He shared a handout with biblical and other references urging stewardship of the land, including text from House Resolution 109 on the Green New Deal.  The group discussed the relationship between Jewish teachings on charity and preservation of the earth.

All and all much knowledge was passed and given. It was truly an enriching evening during which the two congregations were able to get to know each other and enjoy lively discussion!

A look back at Beit Sefer 5779

by Beit Sefer director Clare Kinberg

Building the Sukkah at Carole Caplan’s Farm on Jennings, a Beit Sefer tradition

I sent out a survey for parents last week seeking feedback on the past year of religious school, and in the process, I took a mental stroll through the year. It was a good one, with several innovations.

Collecting the s’kach, roof coverings.

For several years now, we have built a sukkah at Carole Caplan’s Farm on Jennings as a way to start off the year. This year we added an optional sleep over! For the sukkah building, a few new families joined us. Cooking out, putting up tents, having Beit Sefer outside, all of it was a lot of fun.

Rabbi Ora and congregants unroll our Torah scroll, believed to be over 200 years old.
Searching the scroll

For Simchat Torah this year we unfurled our Torah scroll at the JCC, with Rabbi Ora leading some Torah investigation. Parents and students got a close in look at our very old and unusual Torah.

Human Menorah

For Hanukkah we had some in class parties and latke making. Sufganiyot making at Clare’s house.

If fact, food figured into several lessons! We have a few challah bakers, donut makers, and latke fryers among our parents and teachers.

This year we joined the Jewish Cultural Society’s Purim Carnival in the gym for fun, games and shaloach manot/Purim gifts making.

Planting trees at County Farm Park

Finally, we had our first picnic/tree planting at County Farm Park. Back during the winter, when we celebrated Tu B’Shvat, the Jewish New Year of the Trees, the most we could do was think about planting trees. That’s when I hatched the idea to plan a tree planting expedition. With some great networking by Stacy, we got in touch with the County Farm Park Naturalist Shawn Severance. Shawn set us up to plant more than a dozen persimmon, paw paw, and plum trees.

Innovations in the classroom included, Aaron Jackson and madricha Rose Basch leading the G’dolim in making pin ball machines that tell the stories of the Golem of Prague and the Passover journey. Shlomit Cohen added a six week unit on Israel, and Rabbi Ora taught a unit on the Bedtime Shema.

Visualizing the Bedtime Shema

All in all, the greatest successes of the year included community building, camaraderie among the students, parents and teachers, and growing commitments to Jewish learning. Special shout out to our madrachim, Rose Basch, Avi Lessure and Zander McClain. After several years of being helpers in the classroom, Rose and Avi are moving on. We will miss them!

What is Tikkun Leil Shavuot?

By Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner

The evening of Shavuot finds Jews around the world gathering in synagogues and learning through the night, often fueled by coffee and cheesecake.

This practice of all-night Torah study is known as ‘tikkun leil Shavuot.’ The tradition dates back to 16th century Tzfat; it’s said that the famous kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria (more commonly known as the Ari) instituted the practice as a ‘tikkun’ – correction or repair – for an ancient error.

‘Tikkun’ is a familiar first half of the modern phrase ‘tikkun olam’ – that is, healing or repairing the world through acts of social, political, and climate justice. But what breach are we repairing on the night (‘leil’) of Shavuot?

Shavuot commemorates the giving of the Torah to the Israelites following 49 days of rigorous spiritual preparation (the Omer). According to one midrash, the night before the giving of the Torah, the Israelites did what anyone tries to do before an important event – they turned in early for a good night’s sleep. This seemingly innocent decision, however, led to embarrassing consequences. The next morning, when it came time for the Torah to be given, the base of Mount Sinai was empty. The entire Jewish people had slept in. The midrash even recounts that Moses had to wake the Israelites with a shofar, causing G-d to lament, “Why have I come and no one is here to receive me?” (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 1:12b)

In order to rectify this ancient mistake, the Ari instituted a custom of all-night learning: we remain awake to show that, unlike our heavy-lidded ancestors at Sinai, we are ready to receive Torah and God.

This midrash may not sit comfortably with all of us. Maybe we don’t like the idea of being burdened by our ancestor’s errors, or maybe we simply want to be motivated to learn by something other than correction.

It’s customary to learn from the Oral Torah (Mishnah and Talmud) on Shavuot, rather than from the Torah itself. I think there’s a lesson here: in coming together to learn on Shavuot, we’re doing more than simply correcting an ancient mistake; we are adding our voices to a millenia-old tradition of oral learning, interpretation, and argumentation. On Shavuot, we add to our tradition by offering each other new pathways to accessing wisdom. In this sense, every Shavuot we who learn are contributing to ‘tikkun olam’ – to repairing the frayed threads of our world.

What is AARC up to for Shavuot?

Tikkun Leil Shavuot Special: Kehillat Israel Comes to Ann Arbor!

Saturday, June 8

This year we will enjoy a special celebration for Shavuot in collaboration with members of Kehillat Israel, the Reconstructionist congregation in Lansing.

Kehillat Israel members will spend the afternoon exploring Ann Arbor, and have invited us to join them! If you’d like to participate in an ecological study walk in the Arb led by Rabbi Michael Zimmerman (4-5 pm) and an early dinner at Zingermans (5:15-6:15 pm), sign up here.

Tikkun Leil Shavuot (6:30-9:30 pm at the JCC) will have multiple learning opportunities for adults and teens-and-tweens (Grade 5 and up).

The schedule for adults is:     

 6:15 pm – Gather at the JCC

6:30-7:30 pm – Choose 1 of 2 study sessions    

7:30-8:00 pm – Cheesecake and schmoozing    

8:00-9:00 pm – Choose 1 of 2 study sessions    

9:00-9:30 pm – Jewish summer camp-style Havdalah (led by our teens)

Tentative list of adult ed sessions:    

Ken Harrow – The Events at Sinai    

Rabbi Michael Zimmerman – The Torah of the Green New Deal    

Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner – Abortion and Judaism   

Clare Kinberg – Jewish Time

The schedule for teens:

Games, food, fun and a play! Concurrent to the adult study session on Shavuot, we will have two sessions for young people, ages ~ 9- 16. Our Beit Sefer G’dolim class created two pin ball games that are ready to roll! There is a puzzle board game special for Shavuot, a skit and planning for an end of the evening Havdalah. Beit Sefer G’dolim teacher Aaron Jackson will be leading the youth along with teachers from KI in Lansing. Bring the kids for a fun evening, with some learning, too!

If you plan on attending the Shavuot program, please sign up here. If your tween/teen plans on attending, please sign them up here.

Jacob Resnick’s Bar Mitzvah Dvar: K’doshim

Shabbat Shalom and good morning. Today, I’ll be teaching you about my Torah portion K’doshim, which is in the book of Leviticus.

K’doshim means holy in hebrew. In my Torah portion, God gives Moses many commandments to give to the Israelites, the first one being, “You shall be holy.” Some of the commandments are basic rules that most of us still try to follow today like “You shall not steal” or “your shall not defraud your fellow”.


Others are more dated like “You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruits of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger.” This commandment is dated because most of us don’t have vineyards now, but as Jewish people we like to take principles from the Torah and see how we can apply them to today’s world. With the law about leaving fallen fruit for strangers, I think this ancient law can teach us to not be greedy and save some of our wealth to give to people who don’t have much.

Another similarly dated commandment in my Torah portion is, “ If anyone insults either their mother or father he shall be put to death.” Instead of killing disrespectful children, today we have other less extreme punishments like getting grounded, but the principle of respecting your parents is still applied today.

The commandment or law from my Torah portion that I want to focus on today is a prohibition against worshipping Molech, where God tells Moses,

”Say further to the Israelite people: Anyone among the Israelites, or among the strangers residing in Israel, who gives any of his offspring to Molech, shall be put to death; the people of the land shall pelt him with stones. And I will set My face against that man and will cut him off from among his people, because he gave of his offspring to Molech and so defiled My sanctuary and profaned My holy name.”

If you didn’t know, Moloch is the name of a biblical Canaanite god. Moloch is usually depicted as a statue of a person with a bull’s head, and a furnace in its belly. Biblical historians believe the Canaanites worshipped Molech by offering it their children to be burned as sacrifices.

The Canaanites were an ancient people who lived in the land of Canaan, an area which most likely included parts of modern-day Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. The Canaanites were neighbors to the ancient Israelites once the Israelites entered the Land of Israel. So clearly, it was a concern that the Israelites might start to take on Canaanite traditions, including child sacrifice.

In my Torah portion alone the prohibition against Molech is mentioned four times.

Rabbi Ora taught me that it is not common in the Torah for words or ideas to be repeated without a reason. So the question I had is – Why is this law against worshipping Molech and child sacrifice repeated by God so many times?

I feel like God mentions this law so many times because it’s such a sensitive moral issue. We know that the Ten Commandments outlaw killing in general. The killing of anyone is wrong, but it is especially difficult to read of parents killing their children, because the child doesn’t have a choice and the child has no possible hope of a future.

I think God repeated the prohibition against Molech so many times because God needed to let the Israelites know that sacrificing your child is an unforgivable crime.

As someone who is adopted, and thinking more about this commandment, I see some connections between ancient children not having a choice on whether they got sacrificed, and me not having a choice on whether I was adopted. Obviously being adopted is not the same thing as being sacrificed, but there are some similarities.

One big similarity is that being adopted means being picked up and moved, not having a say on what’s going on. Being adopted means leaving this whole other life behind that you don’t even get a chance to try. Looking more into this law it was like looking into my life, and questions came up: Questions like not knowing why I was being given up, which was probably similar to the biblical kids not knowing why they were being sacrificed.

So, some of the challenges of being adopted are not having a choice, not knowing why you were being given up, and leaving a whole other life behind. Those are all the hard aspects of adoption, but there are more good ones. If I wasn’t adopted then I wouldn’t have met all the people in this room today, my friends, family, and this congregation. I probably wouldn’t have the great education and privileges I have today. I also wouldn’t be able to embrace being Jewish which I’m proud to be.

To me there’s nothing wrong with being adopted because I’m probably having a better life than if I wasn’t adopted.

Despite this, when I introduce myself as being adopted to other people, I notice people often seem to feel some discomfort in talking about it. Sometimes I get the response of, “Oh I’m so sorry for you.” I sometimes think that in that moment people are imagining themselves in my position and thinking about what would be different for them if they had been adopted. This could make them feel sad so then they say they are sorry for me. Or maybe they just feel uncomfortable with something that’s unfamiliar and don’t know what to say.

I’m speaking about my adoption today — the things that are hard about being adopted and the things that are good — and how I feel about it because I would like people to not get uncomfortable when talking to me about it. I want to let everyone know that I am comfortable having conversations about being adopted. I’m not necessarily saying that I want to talk about my adoption all the time but I am saying that when the topic does come up naturally I want both sides to feel comfortable when talking about it.

In our congregation, we have a custom of asking the community a question to generate discussion towards the end of a dvar Torah. I have 2 questions for you today.

The first question I have is, are there other contemporary issues where children don’t have control over what happens to them and they are penalized because of it?

The second one is, are there any topics that you feel are hard to talk about that shouldn’t be that hard to talk about?

Thank you all for your answers and a good discussion.

To conclude, I would like to thank Caroline, my mom, and Paul, my dad, for being there for me, and the rest of my family for coming today. Our great Rabbi Ora for helping me prepare my dvar Torah and having good conversations with me about my Torah portion. Deb who has helped me learn my Torah portion, my Haftorah, and the blessings that go with them. All my friends for supporting me and making me laugh. Martha our exchange student who puts up with me when I’m crazy. Lyndon who helps me practice my bass and Derek who is the best bass teacher in the world. My congregation who has been welcoming since the time I joined it. And finally thank you all for coming, Shabbat Shalom!

Safety and Security at the AARC

by Dave Nelson, AARC Safety Coordinator

Given the recent attacks on American synagogues–and a general rise in
anti-Semitic crime in the U.S. and abroad over the last two years–it’s
natural to worry.

Please be reassured that the entire Jewish community of Ann Arbor–in
coordination with the greater Jewish community of Southeastern Michigan,
national Jewish organizations, and law enforcement–are working to assure
your safety without compromising our commitment to openness and
lovingkindness. Many of these broad, community-wide safety and security
initiatives aren’t new–but they’re now being pursued with greater
coordination, diligence, and a tad more urgency.

That said, our participation as a congregation is new–hence my role, as
“AARC Safety Coordinator.” As a smaller congregation that uses several
locations throughout the year, we have different safety and security
concerns than other congregations. Working with the local Jewish Community Security Committee gives the AARC access to tools that increase our security, and resources that allow us to formulate our own safety best
practices–ones that address our specific safety concerns while reflecting
and promoting our congregational values.

Members of the AARC who’d like to participate in–or simply learn
more about–our ongoing safety and security initiatives should keep an eye
on their inboxes; details will follow via email.