Elliot Bramson’s Bar Mitzvah dvar on Toldot


Shabbat Shalom. The Torah portion for this week is  Toldot | תולדות | “[These are the] Generations” Bereshit, 25:19−28:9. This is the story of Jacob and Esau and how conflict changed their lives and relationship. This Torah portion also contains a story about Jacob and Esau’s father, Isaac, and his early life before his sons were born.

The theme that I noticed throughout this portion was conflict over resources. In Isaac’s early life, the conflict is about wells. This is a conflict over water, the most basic of resources. In the Jacob and Esau story, the two brothers fight for their father’s blessing, which promises an abundance of food and land. In a way, we can view the blessing itself as a resource that the brothers are fighting over.

The first conflict, over water, starts with Isaac in a wadi near Gerar. Isaac has just been kicked out of Gerar by Abimelech, the king of Gerar, because Isaac has too many people in his family. So he leaves Gerar, finds a wadi, and decides to settle there, and begins to dig wells. When Isaac’s shepherds dig the first well, the shepherds of Gerar wrangle with Isaac’s shepherds over who the water belongs to. Isaac names the well Wrangle, לְהִסְתַכסֵך (L’heestachsech). The second well they dig is argued over, too, so Isaac names it Animosity, אֵיבָה (Avah). The third well, however, they don’t argue over so Issac names it Rechovot meaning: “Now the Eternal has granted us ample room and will make us fruitful in the land.”

From my perspective, this story is about conflict – how random and unpredictable it is, but also how it can show up in multiple generations. In my Torah portion, Isaac happens to be digging for wells because of conflict with the people of Gerar. One generation earlier, Isaac’s father Abraham also experienced conflict over the resource of water when his wells got stopped up by the Philistines. It’s an endless cycle of digging new wells, then conflict over the wells, then a need to dig new wells. The conflict also seems so random. I think it’s curious how Isaac and the shepherds of Gerar quarrel over two wells, but not over the third one. Why is there conflict over some wells but not others?

So the first story of conflict in my Torah portion is about water. The second story of conflict is over blessings.

A few years after the episode with the wells, Isaac has two children, Jacob and Esau. Jacob and Esau, who are twins, start fighting before they’re even born. Their mother Rebekah feels them fighting in her womb and wonders, why this is happening so she asks God. God answers: “Two nations are in your womb, two separate peoples shall issue from your body; one people shall be mightier than the other, And the older shall serve the younger.”

After the twins are born, they continue to be in conflict. And as they get older it becomes apparent that they have very different personalities. Esau is a hunter and is very hairy, while Jacob stays home and cooks and is much quieter. Isaac favors Esau, and Rebekah, Isaac’s wife, favors Jacob.

These conflicts become much more serious one day when Esau is coming home from a hunt and is very hungry. He sees that Jacob is making a red soup and demands he give him some of it. Jacob agrees, only if Esau will sell him his birthright. Esau sells Jacob his birthright and eats the soup.

Later, when Isaac is very old and has bad eyesight, he decides it is time to give his blessings to his oldest son. Isaac tells Esau to hunt and bring him something to eat before he gives him his blessing. Rebekah overhears this and tells Jacob to go to his flock to get an animal to cook for Isaac. Rebekah cooks tasty dishes for Isaac and tells Jacob to dress up in the skin of the animal to seem that he is as hairy as Esau. Isaac then confuses Jacob for Esau and gives Jacob his blessing. After Jacob steals Esau’s blessing, Esau is enraged and wants to kill Jacob, so Rebekah tells Jacob to flee to her brother Laban in Haran.

This story is challenging from a moral perspective. Rebekah liked Jacob more than his brother and didn’t want Esau to get the blessing of the firstborn, so she planned that Jacob should steal his brother’s blessing. Not only was it wrong to steal the blessing from Esau, but Rebekah and Jacob also tricked Isaac and took advantage of him being almost blind.

Although Rebekah and Jacob clearly behave badly in this story, Jewish thinkers throughout our history have tried to portray Jacob as the good twin in order to encourage people to have sympathy toward Jacob, and maybe decide that it was ok for him to steal Esau’s blessing.

Rashi took this approach. Rashi was a Jewish commentator from Troyes (twah), in the Champagne region of France. He was born in 1040 and was best known for his commentaries on the Torah and the Babylonian Talmud. Rashi portrays Jacob as being meant to lead the Jewish people because Esau was always drawn towards idol worship, even before he was born. Rashi writes that “whenever Rebekah passed by a synagogue, Jacob moved convulsively in his efforts to be born, but whenever she passed by the gate of a pagan temple Esau moved convulsively in his efforts to be born.”

Chizkuni, another commentator who wrote about Jacob and Esau’s conflict, lived in France in the thirteenth century. His commentaries contained insights from other commentators, including Rashi. On the topic of Jacob and Esau, Chizkuni challenges Rashi’s interpretation. He says that God predicted that one child would be good and one evil, but that when they struggled in the womb it was not yet clear which one would prevail. It only became clear that Esau wished wickedness to prevail on earth and Jacob wished righteousness to prevail on earth once they were older, when Esau became a hunter and Jacob a philosopher. Clearly Chizkuni thought that being a hunter was a morally inferior occupation to being a philosopher.

Based on what’s written in the Torah, as well as the perspectives of these commentaries, Jacob and Esau were destined to always be at war. Their conflict started from when they were in the womb, and continued throughout their lives, even after they separated.

Although the Jacob and Esau story is old, it has relevance to a conflict we see today. The story of Jacob and Esau shows how a conflict over resources can start an endless war. A current endless war that also seems to be about resources is the Israel-Palestine conflict. The Israel-Palestine conflict is an argument over land and resources between the state of Israel and the non-Jewish Palestinians who lived there before the state of Israel was created. Many Palestinians believe that they were kicked off the land when the nation was created. Many Jews believe that they have a right to the land because they were there first, thousands of years ago.

It seems to me that we can think of the conflict between Jacob and Esau as a one-on-one version of the Israel-Palestine conflict. And if we apply the lens of my Torah portion to the Israel-Palestine conflict, then one message we could take from it is that shouldn’t be fighting our brothers, just as Jacob and Esau shouldn’t be fighting. But that’s a simple message to take away from this. A more complex take-away would be to think about how the Israel-Palestine conflict has been portrayed.

I did some research on the Israel-Palestine conflict and I found that many Jewish Israelis claim that they have a right to the land because it was promised to them by God. They feel that Israel is their homeland and it has always belonged to them, and some are afraid that their historic homeland could be taken away from them because of the Palestinians who claim that it is theirs. However, there are some Jewish Israelis who are sympathetic with the Palestinians and think that how the Israeli government treats Palestinians is wrong.

On the other hand, many Palestinians feel that they are being deprived of basic human rights, that the Israeli government’s laws are discriminatory towards Palestinians, and that the US government should not be funding Israel and its military. Many Palestinians think they were turned into refugees because the Jews claimed that their ancestors lived there thousands of years ago.

As Jews, it would seem that we’d have a natural sympathy towards the Jewish Israeli version of the conflict, in the same way we might feel a natural sympathy towards or connection to Jacob, in the story of Jacob and Esau. And, as I mentioned earlier, with the commentators Rashi and Chizkuni, it is possible to interpret a story of conflict in such a way as to justify any position.

Like in any conflict, the Israel-Palestine conflict is definitely being interpreted by the different sides in such a way that their actions seem justified and justifiable.

The questions that I want you to reflect on are: Do you think that you have a bias when you look at the two sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict? Do you think the Jacob and Esau conflict relates to other current events today? Feel free to raise your hands and give your opinion.

I would like to thank the people that have made this possible. Thank you Rabbi Ora for leading this service, and for helping me write this D’var Torah. I want to thank Deb, my Hebrew tutor for making learning my Torah portion and Haftorah so fun. Also, thanks for all the hot chocolate you gave me! I would like to thank everyone who came today from out of town and my friends and family. Lastly, I want to thank my parents for supporting me in having a bar mitzvah, helping me practice, and arranging my party. I can’t thank you enough! Shabbat Shalom!

Miriam Chava Berman Stidd dvar on Bereshit

Shabbat Shalom!

My parsha is Bereshit, which as most of you know, tells the story of the creation of the world. We read today the first chapter of Genesis, verses 1 through 23, which takes us from Day 1 through Day 5, from the creation of light and darkness all the way through the creation of birds and fish.

I wanted to read this last Aliyah because it reminded me of the Marc Chagall stained glass windows in Nice, France, at the Marc Chagall Biblical Message Museum, which feature birds and fish. These stained-glass windows mean so much to me because they are by one of my favorite artists. His art pieces about creation almost make me think they are not just about the creation of the world, but about Marc Chagall creating himself through his art, because his visual interpretation of the creation story tells you so much about who he was as a person. It wasn’t just that Chagall was expressing himself, he was creating who he was right then and there, in that moment.

So, who was Chagall? Born into a very religious Jewish household on July 6, 1887, there weren’t any pictures of anything, because according to his family and tradition, any representations were idolatry. Despite his parents not wanting him to, he still left his home in Belarus and went to art school in France and eventually became a great artist. (This clearly shows the importance of listening to your parents). He is well known for his paintings and stained-glass windows that depict biblical stories and other things. This was a way he displayed his spirituality.

Out of respect for his parents, he didn’t want to display them in his art, so the fish represented his father (he sold fish at a local market). His mother’s name in Yiddish sounded like the Yiddish word for chicken or rooster, and if you look closely, there is a rooster in almost every one of his paintings. Chagall is creating himself through including these elements by letting you see a piece of his parents’ and his childhood, which are still a part of him at the time he creates the art. [Read more…]

Isabel Ahbel-Rappe’s bat mitzvah d’var on D’varim

Shabbat shalom.

In my portion, D’varim, the Israelites have arrived on the other side of the Jordan River, near the Promised Land, after spending 40 years wandering around in the desert. Moses is talking to the people, telling them the story of their whole journey, from Horeb to their current location on the other side of the Jordan. First Moses told how God had said to them: Go to the Promised Land and claim it, take it away from the Amorites. God promised this land to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their heirs.

Moses then reminded the people of how the time came when he couldn’t handle all of their complaining. As their leader, he had been in charge of judging all their disagreements. Moses suggested each of the 12 tribes pick a representative or chief to be the judge for their tribe. The people said that was a good plan and the representatives were appointed.

Moses gave each chief important instructions—to be kind and fair to each other and to strangers, and to treat everyone equally. Moses told them if they had any problems in the tribe and the chiefs couldn’t handle it, they should bring that problem to him. Next Moses reminded the people of how they left from Horeb and traveled through the terrible but great wilderness to the hill country of the Amorites. They went there because Moses was following God’s command to go to this land that had been promised.

When they neared the Promised Land, the people wanted to send scouts ahead to check things out. Again they picked a representative from each tribe, and sent them to the hill country to spy on the Amorites. When the spies returned, some of them said it was a really wonderful country that God was giving them. But the people refused to go into the Promised Land because other scouts said that the people there were stronger and taller, with large cities with sky high walls.

Moses said, You guys aren’t listening to the Eternal our God. God will go first to help you with everything you do. God’s the one who got you out of Egypt. Moses compared God watching over them to how a parent watches over their child. But the people didn’t have faith in God or what Moses was telling them.

God was listening to the people complaining and refusing to go into the land, and God got angry and vowed that none of that generation would see the Promised Land. Not even Moses. The only exceptions were Caleb, because he remained loyal, and Joshua, who took over for Moses as leader.

The people were sorry and some now wanted to fight. But it was too late. God didn’t protect them because they hadn’t trusted God. The Amorites crushed them like bees.

The people wept for God to help them, but God did not help them because they weren’t loyal. Instead, God ordered them back into the wilderness, where they were to stay for 40 years. Moses himself complained that, although he hadn’t done anything wrong while they were deciding whether to go in the Promised Land, God was still furious with him. Moses would be banished to the wilderness along with all the other adults.

One thing that got my attention in my portion is the idea of God speaking and acting. The whole time I was reading it, I imagined God as a little cloud over Moses’ ear. How can you show that God would protect the people against the Amorites if they were loyal, since there is literally nothing to represent God? Or what does it mean to say that God was speaking to Moses?  How God was telling Moses where to go and what to do?

I think God is sort of like your mind, because you can choose where to go and what to do. God being like your mind is not when you decide to do something you shouldn’t do, and it is not like your parents telling you what to do. God doesn’t tell you what to do, but God helps you through problems, especially when you are making a major change or getting ready for a new life. God always believes in doing the right thing.

I also thought about what the “Promised Land” means. I think it’s a place in your mind where everyone can be safe no matter what. In God’s Promised Land in my portion, only good people made it to the Promised Land. In my Promised Land it doesn’t matter if you’re good or bad, you can still live there.

The idea of treating everyone fairly reminded me of my work at High Point School. I attend Honey Creek Community School. Our school shares a building with High Point, a school for children and young adults with disabilities. Almost every Thursday during the school year, I work in a High Point classroom. High Point students communicate in different ways, like with movements and facial expressions. If one student pulls on her jacket, that means she wants her jacket off. If she’s smiling, that means she’s happy. We learn a hand-over-hand method. For example, for baking, you put your hand on top of their hand to use a spoon.

I really like working in the High Point classroom. Some of my friends can only say hi to High Point students in the halls between classes, but I get to spend a good amount of time with them and make friends with them. In our school, High Point students are treated the same as other students–they just learn differently. I learn differently, too. I am a visual learner.

For my service project, I did extra work at High Point, and I am going to make a donation to them from my Bat Mitzvah gifts.

I would like to thank: Deb, for helping me learn Torah. Reb Aura, for helping me prepare for the service and for leading the service. Members of our Havurah, my family, and my friends for being here to support me. My parents, for always being there for me and supporting me on my Bat Mitzvah journey.

Shabbat shalom.


D’var on Ki Tavo by bat mitzvah Jasmine Lowenstein

jasmine-lowensteinShabbat Shalom!

My parsha is Ki Tavo in the book of Deuteronomy. In Deuteronomy, Moses is telling the people that once they cross the Jordan River and enter the Promised Land, there will be rules and laws that they will have to follow. If they follow them, God will reward the people with blessings, but if they disobey, curses will fall upon them.

In my portion I found that there were far more curses than blessings. The blessings are only in verse 28, but the curses take up most of my portion including a 55 line aliyah and then, finally, it ends with another blessing. Maybe when the Israelites were about to enter the Promised Land they needed structure because the previous generation had come out of slavery in Egypt where they could not make their own decisions (because they weren’t free). Now they are free, but do they know how to make their own decisions?

On the journey from Egypt, they had G-d guiding them and they still made mistakes, as all human beings do. One of the times they were foolish was the incident with the Golden Calf. As you may know, Moses traveled up Mt. Sinai to receive the ten commandments. It took Moses a long time to come down from the mountain and the Israelites became scared. They thought he had died and they had lost their connection to G-d so they made a new deity, a golden calf. When Moses reached the bottom and saw the calf he was furious, so furious that he smashed the tablets on the ground!

In this example, the Israelites weren’t necessarily being foolish, they were just doing what they assumed was right based on what they saw, heard, and thought. Or didn’t think: The Israelites had always had someone leading them whether it was Moses or Pharaoh. So they had not learned how to critically think on their own.

As you can see in my parsha there are a lot of blessings and curses, but why should there be blessings and curses? I think there should be some rules, but I don’t think anyone should be cursed or die if they do something wrong. I think that everyone should get a second chance. Everyone makes mistakes; it’s just part of life. There is a difference between making a mistake and intentionally doing the wrong thing. Sometimes there are consequences for people’s actions and that is also a part of life. Even though there are consequences I don’t think that there should ever be consequences without thought to the surrounding circumstances. It’s not right or fair to that person, if someone does something by mistake and then gets punished just because there are set consequences. The world we currently live in is not fair. Punishments affect some people in worse ways than others. Different people, making the same mistake, can face different consequences because of the color of their skin, their economic class or sexual orientation, among other things. I think this is wrong.

People tend to like people just like them. In order to be fair to others, people have to be in environments where they can interact with each other and even make mistakes. The more people have an opportunity to interact with people different than them, the less they will discriminate against each other.

The LGBTQ community is an example of a community that has been discriminated against and still is. At the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, some people who didn’t know better and hadn’t been in contact with gay men thought that AIDS was a curse, inflicted on gay men, because people thought it was “bad,” “wrong,” or “disobeying to G-d” to be gay. Then when Ryan White, a boy with hemophilia, got HIV from a contaminated blood transfusion it really showed everyone that HIV wasn’t a curse or a punishment for something that people thought was “bad;” it was a disease that anyone could get. Babies were even born with it. People were wrong when they thought AIDS was a curse. Sometimes bad things happen to very good people. Long ago, the Israelites needed (or G-d thought that they needed) these blessings and curses that are in my Torah portion. Maybe in the 1980’s some people needed to think that HIV/AIDS was a curse; it might have been a coping mechanism to explain something scary.

Once people knew there was a scientific explanation, in other words, that you could get HIV/AIDS through blood transfusions, everyone realized it could happen to anyone: it doesn’t matter who you love, and it isn’t a curse. That is why for my mitzvah project I chose to raise money for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids, an organization that raises money through the theater community to help support people who have HIV and AIDS. I’ll be having a Broadway sing-a-long as a fundraiser–I’ll let you all know the details when they’re set. It will be a lot of fun!!

In my parsha something else really struck me. G-d says that G-d the Eternal has not given us eyes that can see, ears that can hear, or mind to understand. The first time I read this, I thought: if the Eternal hasn’t given us eyes, ears, or a mind than how come we go to school and take tests and quizzes and manage to get some–if not all–of the questions right? If we do not have eyes that can see, then how do we read the Torah? If we did not have ears to hear, G-d would not have been able to communicate with Moses, Isaiah, Abraham, Leah, Rachel and all of the prophets. If Moses couldn’t hear G-d Moses probably wouldn’t have lead the Israelites to the land of milk and honey. Instead they probably would have ended up in the land of milk and cookies!

But later when I thought about it, I realized that wasn’t what G-d was trying to tell us. What G-d is saying is that G-d gave us sight, but didn’t give us insight; hearing but not the power to comprehend everything to its fullest potential; G-d gave us a mind but no one knows everything inside and out. I think the true message in this is that no one is perfect and people make mistakes. I am a perfectionist and learning that everyone makes mistakes and that no one is perfect has been a big part of my growth as a human being. Making mistakes, reflecting on the consequences, and being more patient with the mistakes of myself and others has helped me to become a better person and less hard on myself. In this I am learning to be a critical thinker, just like the Israelites.

In my haftarah, God is saying there is always hope and your nation Israel is going to be the center of everything. It’s kind of the opposite of my torah portion in that it’s looking at the bright side of life. My torah portion looks at the reality of life and focuses on the bad things that might happen. My feeling is that it creates a mindset that could really affect your outlook on life. We can choose to be an optimist, like Isaiah is saying, or a pessimist, like Moses is saying. Interestingly, both are channeling G-d.

My haftorah is one of the 7 leading up to the high holidays. These haftarot are known as the haftarot of consolation, and are based on balance. I think that maybe G-d was trying to balance the optimistic views to the pessimistic. I have so many people in my life who have helped me to find this balance. I would like to thank everyone who’s here for making the effort to show up and being supportive here today.

I would like to thank all of my friends, whether from school, Young Peoples Theater, or dance–you give me a place to belong. I would also like to thank all of my teachers for teaching me amazing things and making learning fun in the process. I would like to especially thank my teacher since first grade, Ms. Tucker. You are the perfect teacher for me. Thank you for helping me to become less of a perfectionist! I would like to thank Sari Mills for preparing me to start preparing for my Bat Mitzvah by teaching me Hebrew–and for being so nice in the process. Rabbi Alana–Thank you so much for doing my Bat Mitzvah even though you have another congregation and are so busy. You’re so nice and always have a smile on your face and it makes me feel confident, which is important when you are preparing for your Bat Mitzvah! Deb, thank you for always keeping your cool and being so encouraging no matter what was happening. (I think it is good that my Bat Mitzvah tutor also happens to be a therapist.) I would like to thank all of the out-of-towners who travelled from near and far to be here.

I would like to thank my human cousins and my canine one for making all of the family vacations and get-togethers all the more fun. Even though none of you are my age you still make me feel included. Thank you Alex, Eli, Lily and Joey for coming from college to my Bat Mitzvah. Thank you to all of my aunts and uncles for always being so much fun and being like my parents except with no rules!! I would like to thank my grandparents for being some of the most–if not the most-caring people I know. You guys are my role models. Pops and Grandpa–you gave me my love of math and science. And Bubbe and Nana–you gave me my love of music and art. I love you guys.

I would like to thank my Dad for always being soooo great and staying calm even when my sister, mom and I are having breakdowns. And most importantly, feeding us!! You work so hard and are the best Dad in the world. I would also like to thank my mom for helping me relax and feel so much better about myself whenever I’m stressed. And through this process of preparing for my Bat Mitzvah, especially, you have helped me remember that I’m doing great and have nothing to worry about. You’re the best mom in the world. Last but not least, I would like to thank my wonderful, amazing sister Ruby for always being wonderful and amazing and all of the other adjectives that mean that–and for being patient with me even when I can be difficult or sensitive–and still finding time to hang out with me. It’s a great thing for my best friend to be my sister. You’re the best sister in the world. I have the best family in the world. I love you guys. Thanks!!!