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Parshat Nasso
By: Rosie, Grade 7

Shabbat Shalom. Today I read Parshat Nasso, the longest parsha in the Torah. One part, in the fourth aliyah, really stood out to me - the mitzvah of the Sotah ritual. You may be wondering, what is the mitzvah of the Sotah ritual, and why have I never heard of it? If you asked a random person on the street what the definitive aspects of
Judaism are, they probably wouldn’t say the Sotah ritual. It’s also one of the more confusing mitzvot. Usually, when we think of mitzvot, we think of veahavta lereicha kamocha, treat people the way you want to be treated, or Shabbat, or keeping kosher.

But a mitzvah is actually a commandment, something the Torah tells us to do in a specific situation. The Sotah is a mitzvah for when a man has a ruach kinah, a spirit of jealousy. When this occurs, the jealous man would bring his wife to the Beit Hamikdash, the Temple, to see a priest. The priest would uncover her hair, which back then was a big deal. Then, they would mix water and some dirt off the floor, write God’s name on a piece of paper and put that in the water too, erasing God’s name, which was also a big deal. Then the woman would drink the water. According to the Torah, if she was guilty, all kinds of horrible things would happen to her, like her stomach falling out. If she was innocent, nothing would happen at all, and she would receive lots of blessings. Which, in my opinion, she deserves after dealing with her jealous husband.

While I was studying the Sotah ritual, I compared it to some other famous trials of women in the past, such as the Salem witchcraft trials. The men thought the women had magical powers, maybe even were jealous of them. They accused them of being witches with terrible tests, such as throwing them in the river. If they survived, they were a witch, and then they would be killed– for being a “witch”. But if they died, they were innocent. Either way – the woman died. In the Sotah, it’s the opposite— if you’re guilty, something terrible does happen to you, but the odds of your stomach falling out are very unlikely, if you ask me. And if you’re innocent, nothing happens. You drink some muddy water, your husband is proved wrong, and you go home and get lots of blessings.

If I was forced to choose between the Sotah and the Salem witch trials, I would definitely choose the Sotah. And nowadays, I would just break up with the person. Another source I looked at was about a woman who went to study with Rabbi Meir. One night, she came home late. Her husband was angry because he thought she was cheating on him with Rabbi Meir. He said, "You can’t come back until you spit in Rabbi Meir’s face." He figured she wouldn’t spit in the face of someone she was having an affair with. But this is such an unfair test! If she was a decent person, she
wouldn’t spit in the face of a rabbi, or anyone, whether or not she was having an affair with them! Her husband was just reacting out of jealousy, but he had all of the power. Word got out to Rabbi Meir about what had happened. He had a clever solution: he announced that he had an eye condition, and the only treatment was for someone to spit in his eye. The woman’s friends told her: "Pretend to be a charmer and spit in his eye." She came to Rabbi Meir. He said to her, "Do you know how to heal a sick eye through making a charm?" She was scared and replied, "No." He said, "Doesn't it help to spit into the eye seven times to heal it?" After she spit in his eye, he told her, "Go and tell your husband that although he only asked you to spit once, you in fact spit seven times." She then was able to go home. Rabbi Meir’s students were confused—why would you stoop so low and let someone spit in your face? He replied, "If God let his name be erased in the Sotah ritual, shouldn’t I do the same?" It’s a nice story, but the woman doesn’t get justice. Come on—what person wants to spit in a rabbi’s face in order for their husband to stop being
jealous and to be able to go home? There is a quote from Taylor Swift’s song, "Bad Blood": “Band-Aids don’t fix
bullet holes.” That really feels like it fits this situation.

Think about the Sotah ritual. It’s a band-aid: you can do it once to put a stop to a husband’s jealousy. But that is probably not a permanent solution. More likely, he will keep being jealous, and eventually you’re going to run
out of Band-Aids. And then someone’s going to get seriously hurt. The Torah’s solution relies on someone from the outside stepping in to help the woman, like Rabbi Meir in the story, or the priest (and God) in the Sotah ritual. But the woman alone doesn’t have any power to stop her husband from being jealous. And jealousy is one thing, but the next time, it could easily lead to violence. This is still an issue today. In the U.S., 55% of all murders of women are committed by an intimate partner. In Biblical and rabbinic times, women had very few rights, so they had to
rely on things like Sotah or Rabbi Meir. The Sotah was a step forward, but it didn’t fully encapsulate what needed to be done. Nowadays, women can file for divorce or break things off. But there is still a lot of work that needs to
be done to protect women and spread awareness about abusive relationships.

The next step is power. Not only having rights and being protected but also having women in power. Nowadays, we have more and more women in positions of power. Take Kamala Harris, female vice president. And even Taylor Swift - she may not have political power, but if you couldn’t tell from the Eras Tour, she makes a pretty big impact everywhere she goes. I thought of it like climbing a mountain. The Torah gives us a starting point and then it’s on us to progress from there. If you’ve ever gone hiking in the mountains, like I like to do at Ramah Rockies, you know what I mean. When you start the hike—it feels really hard. When you get to the middle, you feel like, well, it would be silly to go back down. But as you keep climbing, you get more and more motivated as you approach the top. The
Sotah and Rabbi Meir—they are like the beginning of the mountain. Just keep going. Women’s rights—halfway up the mountain. Third step, having women in power—you feel like you got this. And while we may never reach the top of this proverbial mountain, each step is one step closer to almost perfect. Usually, there are no foolproof ways to “solve” big problems, like jealousy and violence against women, or poverty, or climate change, but we need to
keep taking steps in the right direction. We can do a lot of things that will make a small impact at that moment, like using LED lights instead of incandescent lights. As part of my bat mitzvah preparations, I was a part of the Solu Tzedakah Circle—we gave away over $2000 to various causes we decided were important. It won’t change the whole system, but it will make a little impact, a step in the right direction. But we also need to walk quickly
because the clock is ticking.

Finally, as I become a bat mitzvah, I’ve been thinking about how this relates to my own life. Again with the figurative mountain, my bat mitzvah is my first step in a journey of becoming an adult. I get to participate in all these new Jewish rituals as a full member of a Jewish community, then later I’ll learn to drive, then I’ll become a legal adult. Step by step.

Parshat Bechukotai
By: Isaac, Grade 7

My Torah portion is Parashat Bechukotai at the end of Sefer Vayikra (Leviticus).  It comes after the giving of many commandments. 

In Parashat Bechukotai, Hashem promises B’nai Yisrael that,  if they follow the commandments they will be blessed with great success and Hashem will defend them. However, the Torah then says that, if they break the covenant, Hashem will have their enemies defeat them and they will suffer in many more ways. Towards the end of this parsha, they receive directions about taxes.

In this parsha, we only receive around 10 blessings but we receive over double that number in curses. The blessings are magnificent, hashem will make it so they win wars, and are prosperous, and there will be an almost perfect world. 

Some of the curses that caught my eye were: you will work so hard for nothing, Hashem will have your enemies defeat you and worst of all, you will be forced to eat your children. 

These punishments seem almost too severe because a good punishment should be equal to the reward and violation. For example:  If I clean my room I get paid; if I don’t clean it I don’t get paid. But as represented in this parsha, if we keep kosher, we grow nice crops but if we eat treifot (not kosher) we get defeated in a war and potentially KILLED.

What is the point of having terrible curses like this and amazing blessings? Are fear and incentives  good motivation? Yes. If I am scared to not do mitzvot, I will do them so I don't have to suffer the pain and I will get a reward. Without these positive and negative consequences in place, some people might just not care to do the mitzvot.

Another way of looking at the relationship between the Israelites’ failings and the punishments that are threatened is that the harshness of the curses shows how seriously Hashem regards violating the commandments he has given to them. It almost seems like these are empty threats. Is Hashem actually going to make me eat my children? No, you might think. But either way, real curse or not, Hashem is trying to convey the message of FOLLOW MY COMMANDMENTS.

There are 5 sets of curses in Bechukotai, each set getting worse after each other. After each set, Hashem gives B’nei Yisrael a chance to repent but if they fail, the punishments worsen. 

This reminds me of the ten plagues toward Pharaoh and the Egyptians, that kept getting worse, to give Pharaoh a chance to change his mind. But even though he was given a chance to change, he did not. 

My Sabba asked me, since B’nei Yisrael was aware of what happened to Pharaoh, why did they not just do the right thing and follow the mitzvot and halachot?

I very clearly told him that they probably did not think Hashem would do that to B’nai Yisrael because they were Hashem’s “chosen people” but they learned the hard and painful way that they were wrong. Come on, If they were right, there would be no Anti-Semitism or hatred towards B’nai Yisrael because Hashem would prevent that. But for that to happen there would have to be a perfect world which is impossible to create.

I’d like to look at some examples of brachot and curses. 

In Pasuk 9, it says

 “ורדפו מכם חמשה מאה ומאה מכם רבבה ירדפו ונפלו איביכם לפניכם לחרב” 

“Five of you shall fight a hundred, and a hundred of you shall fight ten thousand; your enemies shall fall before you by the sword.” Rashi notes that this is not just five or a hundred soldiers, it is five or a hundred of the weakest soldiers which makes it an even better bracha because then anyone can defend their home and win. 

In Pasuk (Verse) 29, it says, ”אכלתם בשר בניכם, "And you will eat the flesh of your own sons."  Ibn Ezra (a Spanish commentator of the 11th century) describes why this might occur. He says: “There is no famine worse than this one. You will not have a place to cry out and pray to be saved from the famine, for I will destroy your high places, the place of the sacrifices.” This curse is the opposite of the blessing of being fruitful: having many children who prosper. There are many pairings like this, of blessings and curses being opposites.

R’ David Tzvi Hoffman (a German commentator from the 19th century) noted that disobedience is acting at cross-purposes with the commandments.  This is like teenagers who will do the opposite of what parents or teachers tell them, to show their independence.  As someone who is just becoming a teenager, I know the feeling of doing this to show my parents or teachers that I AM MY OWN PERSON. 

Everyone has free will, but they may get severely punished. For example, when an adult tells me to do something or else I will get my phone taken away, sometimes I want to test them. Everyone knows that feeling. The problem is people don't usually think about the consequences, they just DO. Which can cause loss of jobs, housing, and many other severe consequences.

This parsha sets out a stark contrast between being blessed or cursed, ultimately the choice is left to each of us.  Behind the whole notion of brachot and curses is that there is a choice, and each person must decide for themself whether or not to follow the commandments. Hashem did not create human beings to automatically act in following mitzvot.  We have free will. We can choose not to listen, and suffer the consequences. Or choose to follow the mitzvot and enjoy the benefits.  

As a bar mitzvah, it’s incumbent on me to learn about the mitzvot.  And, as I learn and grow it's important to make informed and wise choices. In the past months I have started laying tefillin and coming to minyan (When my teachers allow it). I have been able to support the mourners at asbi 4 out of 7 days a week and I have gone to shiva to ensure that they have a chance to say kaddish. In the future, I will take my part in following the halachot and mitzvot in the Torah and trying not to be punished. 

I would like to thank my Sabba for helping me write my Drasha, and my Savta for always going above and beyond to help me no matter what the situation is. I also want to thank my Ema and Abba for planning my Bar Mitzvah and always being so supportive, my sister Devorah for always being there for me and being one of my biggest role models, My sister Shifra for being my sister, Rabbi Finkelstein for studying with me, and my tutor Rachel Slutsky for helping me with my leining Torah and leading shacharit.

Parshat Behar
By: Jacob, Grade 7

Shabbat Shalom! We recently celebrated Passover, commemorating our freedom from slavery. We remember the bitterness of slavery and how happy it feels to be free. It makes sense why the Passover seder is the most observed Jewish custom today. We all know how important it is to remember our freedom. But did you know that it is written in the Torah that Jews were allowed to own slaves? But before I get to that, let me tell you about my parasha, Parshat Behar.

In Parashat Behar, God instructs the Israelites that once they get into Israel, they will have to let their land rest every seven years, which is called the Shemita or Sabbatical year. God also said that every 50th year, all land owned by the people has to go back to its original owner. This is called the Yovel or Jubilee year. God also gives rules about how to treat your Jewish and non-Jewish slaves.

It really stood out to me that Jewish people could have slaves, and that there were different rules for Jewish and non-Jewish slaves. That stands out to me because when the Jews were in Egypt, they were slaves, so I would imagine that they would not want to enslave others.

Why would they want to make other people have the same fate as them? Why does God allow the Jewish people to have slaves after he did all of this work to get them out of slavery? And why would God give different rules for Jewish and non-Jewish slaves?

Different rabbis have different opinions on how to treat your Jewish and non-Jewish slaves. We know from Jewish tradition that Jewish people are only enslaved if they are paying off a debt or if they’re a thief repaying stolen goods. Here are some opinions on how to treat your Jewish slaves:

According to Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno, an Italian rabbi who lived in the 16th Century, you shouldn’t treat your Jewish slaves like servants or slaves, but like paid laborers. You should treat them with respect and provide them with good living conditions.

According to the Talmud, you have to treat your Jewish slaves equal to yourself. You can’t be above them in any way. It says that providing for the wellbeing of a Jewish slave takes a lot of work, and is actually more like having a master than having a slave, because you are meant to treat them so well.

I agree with these commentaries because I think that it is better to provide slaves with good living conditions and to only enslave people who are in debt or repaying someone. I also agree that you should treat your slaves as well as you treat yourself. According to these sources, having a Jewish slave is not the same as how we think of slavery in the modern day. Being a slave was more like being a paid laborer, but instead of being paid, they worked to pay off a debt. I think this is a good way to think about it because it is much different than how we think about slavery today and how the Jewish people were enslaved in Egypt. This makes me wonder, did non-Jewish slaves get the same treatment?

According to our understanding of the Torah, non Jewish slaves are basically prisoners of war who had no choice in the matter. The Torah teaches that non Jewish slaves can be kept forever, but Jewish slaves have to be released on the sabbatical and jubilee years. While Jewish slaves are paying off a debt and are going to get released, non
Jewish slaves are just imprisoned and become slaves after a war. I find this very unfair.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the late Chief Rabbi of the UK, is uncomfortable with the laws of slavery, but also accepts that they are a part of the Torah. According to Rabbi Sacks, the reason God allowed slavery was because he wanted the Jews to realize the evil of it on their own. I agree with this in the sense that God has his ways, but I don't think he made he right choice. What about all the slaves that will die before people realize the evil of iit? I especially don’t agree with the fact that you have to release Jewish slaves but can keep non-Jewish slaves forever. I don’t agree with it at all because we were slaves in Egypt, and we should know better.

While I didn’t love what Rabbi Sacks had to say, I did read the commentary of Rambam, which I liked a lot better. According to Rambam, a Jewish physician, philosopher, and rabbi who lived in the 12th Century in Spain and Egypt, you are technically allowed to be worse to your non-Jewish slaves than your Jewish slaves. However, Rambam says
that you should show kindness to your non-Jewish slaves even though you don’t technically have to. He says that the sages of old, the earliest Rabbis, would feed their slaves and animals before they would feed themselves.

I still disagree with the distinction made between Jewish and non-Jewish slaves because I think you should be treated equally no matter your religion. The Jewish people should know that better than anyone because we have faced a lot of antisemitism over the years. But I like to see that Rambam knows that we must treat Jewish slaves and non Jewish slaves equally.

In our day and age, there isn’t slavery in America and Jewish people don’t have slaves. People are more equal now than they were throughout most of history. This makes me proud to be a Jew, because we believe that the world can change, and our culture has developed to make sure that we live up to the standard of treating everyone fairly.
I agree more with Rambam than Rabbi Sacks, because I don’t like the fact that slavery is in the Torah, but I can accept it because we don’t have it now.

Even though we don’t have slaves today, I still think that some people are seen as lesser in the eyes of others and this is wrong. Over the last several months, I’ve noticed that there’s been a lot of hate towards the Jewish community and towards Israel. I think that this isn’t fair. Like the slaves in my parasha, we have been made to feel like we are lesser than other people. But as I said previously, everyone should be treated equally regardless of their race, religion, or culture. All people should treat others the way that they would want to be treated. It makes me upset to see that this is often not the case.

That’s why for my bar mitzvah project, I chose to raise money for Israel, because I find it upsetting that members of our community are being mistreated, and I wanted to help them out. For my bar mitzvah project, Challah for Israel, I sold homemade challah made with my Bubbe’s recipe that she got from her Bubbe that we eat a lot on Shabbat and other holiday, in order to raise money for Israel. I chose this project because I love to bake and it feels special to have a connection with my family. It was so fun to go to my grandparents’ house to bake the special recipe. I donated the money to the JUF Emergency Fund, which they are sending to Israel to support those who most need it. I raised $1657. I hope the money is used to help people in Israel feel happier and safer with everything that’s happening right now. Something that I feel represents the value of equality that I learned from Rambam, is my
choir, (the Evanston Children's Choir), which I am very passionate about. We all have different identities, and it’s a more diverse group than I’m used to at my Jewish school or at home, but we all put our voices together to form a harmony. My choir teaches that when all voices are valued and put together, something better and beautiful is created.

Parshat Behar
By: Ava, Grade 6

In this week's parsha, Behar, God tells us about the rules for Shmeeta and Yovel. Yovel is Every 50 years and Shmeeta is every 7 years. Shmeeta is about rest for the land so every 7 years you aren't allowed to grow crops on your field that year and you can't waste any food from Israel because food grown during the Shmeeta year in Israel is considered holy. 

Yovel is more about resetting the land and society. In the 50th year the land returns to its original owner and the slaves are set free if they want to be. But this only  applies to people who live in Israel. 

One time my dad got a red pepper from Jewel that said "product of Israel," which is weird because why would there be a pepper from Israel when we have our Avocados from Mexico.  Not the point, anyway it was the Shmeeta year so we couldn't waste any part of it, even the seeds. I don't remember what we did, but a way to get rid of it is to have it rot and then you can throw it out. An important part of yovel is you have to release the slaves during that year if they want to be. 

My question is what does עבד mean? You might be wondering what that has to do with my parsha. Well, I was reading through my parsha in the English translation on Safaria, and in Pasuk 39 God says we should not treat our own people as slaves using the word עבד as slave:

וְכִֽי־יָמ֥וּךְ אָחִ֛יךָ עִמָּ֖ךְ וְנִמְכַּר־לָ֑ךְ לֹא־תַעֲבֹ֥ד בּ֖וֹ עֲבֹ֥דַת עָֽבֶד׃

“If your kin under you continue in straits and must be given over to you, do not subject them to the treatment of a slave.” This means if for some reason a person is in a very low place and is working for you, you still should not treat that person as a slave.

But in Pasuk 42 it uses the same word,עבד to say that we are Gods עבדים:

כִּֽי־עֲבָדַ֣י הֵ֔ם אֲשֶׁר־הוֹצֵ֥אתִי אֹתָ֖ם מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם לֹ֥א יִמָּכְר֖וּ מִמְכֶּ֥רֶת עָֽבֶד׃

For they are My servants, whom I freed from the land of Egypt; they may not give themselves over into servitude.—  This means that we are god's servants and he freed us from egypt so we should not make ourselves slaves again.

So does עבד mean slave or servant? The shoresh can mean different things. For example during pesach we sing Avadim Ha’yinu which is talking about slaves and it talks about how we had to do עבודה קשה, hard work. But it could also mean work, like if someone was going to go to work or is going to do work. 

So I looked at some of Rashi's commentaries. He translated עבד in pasuk 42 as slave instead of servant in a Rashi commentary book but on sefaria, he translated it to servant. Why is this? Ibn Ezra translated it as “for they are my servants”. Let's tally up the votes so far. There is one for Ibn Ezra for servant, one for sefaria for servant, and one for Rashi for slave. That adds up to 2-1 servant winning. 

Sforno a 15th century commentator says “Even though this laborer had “sold” himself to you, thus meaning to acquire a new master, it might have been assumed that you might treat him like a servant instead of like a hired laborer, the fact remains that seeing he was and remains “MY” servant; this is not the way you can treat him. No Jew is legally able to sell his body, seeing that he already “belongs” to G’d. So we are God slaves.” 

It seems like he is saying that a  servant and a slave is the same thing and no jew is actually able to be a slave or servant to each other because we already belong to god.

This commentary was very persuasive but I don't know that I agree. Now its 2-1-1, 2 for servant 1 for slave and one for its the same thing.

I decided to get the Internet's opinion on what the literal translation of servant is. The answer based on the Internet is a person who serves others by choice. Let's compare that to the literal translation of slave based on the internet, a person who is forced to work for and obey another and is considered to be their property. So the difference between those two words is slave is someone who is forced to work and a servant is someone who chooses to work. Pasuk 42 then teaches us about how we are god's servants from that we have the choice to believe in god instead of having to believe in god. 

This means that when you choose to believe in god the rules might be complicated and you might have to choose how you are going to believe in god and what the rules mean to you. As I become a Bat Mitzvah I get to make more of my own decisions instead of my parents making a lot of decisions for me. 

I have also learned that you should always figure out the translation in your own words first before you look at the source you are looking at. You can also apply this to other life scenarios, especially if you are writing and you are talking about something that happened in a book or you are talking about something on a website that you are looking at and, you need to put it in your own words. This is relevant to me becoming a bat mitzvah because as I get older I will have to write more in school so I can use this to help me. You can also use it, but it is another step, so you will have to be patient and/or have the time. I plan to be more patient but that might not happen we will see. 

Anyway based on if you just read that and translated it literally you might think that we are God’s slaves. But you just have to think about it the tiniest bit more to realize that you can infer that we are God’s servants. This allows us to pay more attention to what we’re reading and have a deeper understanding of what we’re reading. Thank you all for coming to celebrate my Bat Mitzvah! Shabbat Shalom!

Parshat Emor
By: Maya, Grade 7

Have you ever wondered if you could follow every law, rule, or commandment in the entire Torah? This parsha has so many, you might want to start here! Let’s take a look at some of the mitzvot in Kedoshim. 

Kedoshim presents the morals of life - how you should live it in a good and holy way, and why you should live life in that way. There are many laws about moral life, social justice, politics, economics, ritual purity, and many more. It reminds us about some of the 10 commandments from a few months ago, as well as rules about Kashrut. Today, I am going to focus on the laws about the stranger who lives in your land and how you should treat them. 

In the second aliya, we have the line: וְאָֽהַבְתָּ֥ לְרֵֽעֲךָ֖ כָּמ֑וֹךָ אֲנִ֖י ה - and you shall love your neighbor as yourself, I am the LORD. A few aliyot later, we have two other related laws: 

וְכִֽי־יָג֧וּר אִתְּךָ֛ גֵּ֖ר בְּאַרְצְכֶ֑ם לֹ֥א תוֹנ֖וּ אֹתֽוֹ:

כְּאֶזְרָ֣ח מִכֶּם֩ יִֽהְיֶ֨ה לָכֶ֜ם הַגֵּ֣ר | הַגָּ֣ר אִתְּכֶ֗ם וְאָֽהַבְתָּ֥ לוֹ֙ כָּמ֔וֹךָ כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם אֲנִ֖י ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶֽם:

When strangers reside with you in your land, you shall not wrong them. 

The strangers who reside with you shall be to you like your citizens; you shall love each one as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.

One word that caught my eye in the second pasuk was כְּאֶזְרָח, meaning “like citizens.” This word seems to suggest that strangers are like members of the community. Even though they are not the same as you, they should be treated the same as you would treat someone who is from within your community. Or HaChayim, a 16th century commentator from Morocco, presents a similar idea and said that the “keh” - meaning like - at the beginning of כְּאֶזְרָח teaches you that quote “you have much more in common with converts than you think.” Or HaChayim goes on to comment about the second half of the pasuk, reminding us that we, too, were strangers and quote "that the souls of these strangers were intertwined with those of your own when you were still in Egypt." With this one letter we learn one of the 10 commandments over again, and we’re reminded that even if we’re seemingly different, there is a place for us anywhere we go.

As I was looking over the laws to more fully understand them, I wondered what would happen if we put this law into today's world. If we were to follow them exactly, we would have to allow any immigrant of a country to go anywhere and have any rights that a native citizen of that country has. You can imagine why this might be a problem. Very quickly overpopulation would occur, resources would be stretched thin, jobs would be more competitive, and hate for the stranger would be widespread. On the flip side, following this law might lead to greater understanding of other cultures and practices, a deeper connection between humankind, less war, more empathy and love, and easier communication. As you can see, the implications are both good and bad. 

If people followed this law exactly, it would present a great utopian ideal! When people come to a new place with new ideas, cultures, and practices, they will be welcomed like they have always been there. This would help combat hatred and xenophobia which might even become a thing of the past entirely. Unfortunately, that’s not the case today. This law is not always followed, and in fact, sometimes it feels like it is completely ignored. In December of 2023, the ADL - the Anti Defamation League - reported that between October 7th and December 7th, there was a 337% increase in anti semitic incidents from the same period of time in 2022. This statistic was challenging for me to hear. When I found this out, I wasn’t necessarily surprised based on the time period in which the data was collected, but it highlighted for me how far people are willing to go to share their opinions and feelings about others. After such a horrific and tragic moment in Jewish history, I hoped that people would have stood with Israel and the Jews and showed their support in the aftermath. Instead, a large number of people loudly demonstrated the opposite. 

We can only be responsible for the feelings that we have. As much as I would love to be able to control the thoughts and feelings of everyone around me, I simply can’t do that. This law doesn’t stop people from having their own ideas - positive or negative - but rather it tells us how we need to act on the outside. Hatred is a natural emotion and can be used on many things, but this commandment urges us to find a way to make a connection, welcome in the stranger, and love our neighbors as ourselves. 

Parshat Kedoshim
By: Eli, Grade 7

Have you ever wondered if you could follow every law, rule, or commandment in the entire Torah? This parsha has so many, you might want to start here! Let’s take a look at some of the mitzvot in Kedoshim. 

Kedoshim presents the morals of life - how you should live it in a good and holy way, and why you should live life in that way. There are many laws about moral life, social justice, politics, economics, ritual purity, and many more. It reminds us about some of the 10 commandments from a few months ago, as well as rules about Kashrut. Today, I am going to focus on the laws about the stranger who lives in your land and how you should treat them. 

In the second aliya, we have the line: וְאָֽהַבְתָּ֥ לְרֵֽעֲךָ֖ כָּמ֑וֹךָ אֲנִ֖י ה - and you shall love your neighbor as yourself, I am the LORD. A few aliyot later, we have two other related laws: 

וְכִֽי־יָג֧וּר אִתְּךָ֛ גֵּ֖ר בְּאַרְצְכֶ֑ם לֹ֥א תוֹנ֖וּ אֹתֽוֹ:

כְּאֶזְרָ֣ח מִכֶּם֩ יִֽהְיֶ֨ה לָכֶ֜ם הַגֵּ֣ר | הַגָּ֣ר אִתְּכֶ֗ם וְאָֽהַבְתָּ֥ לוֹ֙ כָּמ֔וֹךָ כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם אֲנִ֖י ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶֽם:

When strangers reside with you in your land, you shall not wrong them. 

The strangers who reside with you shall be to you like your citizens; you shall love each one as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.

One word that caught my eye in the second pasuk was כְּאֶזְרָח, meaning “like citizens.” This word seems to suggest that strangers are like members of the community. Even though they are not the same as you, they should be treated the same as you would treat someone who is from within your community. Or HaChayim, a 16th century commentator from Morocco, presents a similar idea and said that the “keh” - meaning like - at the beginning of כְּאֶזְרָח teaches you that quote “you have much more in common with converts than you think.” Or HaChayim goes on to comment about the second half of the pasuk, reminding us that we, too, were strangers and quote "that the souls of these strangers were intertwined with those of your own when you were still in Egypt." With this one letter we learn one of the 10 commandments over again, and we’re reminded that even if we’re seemingly different, there is a place for us anywhere we go.

As I was looking over the laws to more fully understand them, I wondered what would happen if we put this law into today's world. If we were to follow them exactly, we would have to allow any immigrant of a country to go anywhere and have any rights that a native citizen of that country has. You can imagine why this might be a problem. Very quickly overpopulation would occur, resources would be stretched thin, jobs would be more competitive, and hate for the stranger would be widespread. On the flip side, following this law might lead to greater understanding of other cultures and practices, a deeper connection between humankind, less war, more empathy and love, and easier communication. As you can see, the implications are both good and bad. 

If people followed this law exactly, it would present a great utopian ideal! When people come to a new place with new ideas, cultures, and practices, they will be welcomed like they have always been there. This would help combat hatred and xenophobia which might even become a thing of the past entirely. Unfortunately, that’s not the case today. This law is not always followed, and in fact, sometimes it feels like it is completely ignored. In December of 2023, the ADL - the Anti Defamation League - reported that between October 7th and December 7th, there was a 337% increase in anti semitic incidents from the same period of time in 2022. This statistic was challenging for me to hear. When I found this out, I wasn’t necessarily surprised based on the time period in which the data was collected, but it highlighted for me how far people are willing to go to share their opinions and feelings about others. After such a horrific and tragic moment in Jewish history, I hoped that people would have stood with Israel and the Jews and showed their support in the aftermath. Instead, a large number of people loudly demonstrated the opposite. 


We can only be responsible for the feelings that we have. As much as I would love to be able to control the thoughts and feelings of everyone around me, I simply can’t do that. This law doesn’t stop people from having their own ideas - positive or negative - but rather it tells us how we need to act on the outside. Hatred is a natural emotion and can be used on many things, but this commandment urges us to find a way to make a connection, welcome in the stranger, and love our neighbors as ourselves. 

Parshat Metzora
By: Gavi, Grade 7

!בוקר טוב. Otherwise known as good morning, today’s parsha is Parshat Metzora, or what I like to call the parsha of impurities. In Parshat Metzora we learn that Tzara'as is a disease which was said to be like leprosy back then. People with Tzara’as were prohibited from entering the sanctuary and were isolated outside the community for 7 days. The Kohen, the high Priest would inspect their skin for spots or scabs, declaring them ritually clean if clear or extending the isolation if the condition had spread. Similarly, garments and houses could be affected. 

Garments with Tzora'as were burned, while houses with red and green streaks on the walls were quarantined for 7 days and inspected. Afflicted stones were replaced, and if the condition had spread, the entire house was demolished, and its materials disposed of outside the camp.

Even back then in the Bible the people would isolate themselves knowing they had a disease that could affect the rest of the community like we did in covid. Even though it was tough we knew what had to be done for the greater good like superheroes did.

We also learned that when a woman gives birth to a son she was not permitted to enter the sanctuary for 40 days, because she was considered to be impure. However, if she were to give birth to a daughter she was not permitted to enter the sanctuary for 80 days.

If giving birth is such a holy thing that women are exempt from time restricted commandments such as, praying, wearing Tefillin, reading torah, or wearing kippot, and many others, then how come it makes us so impure? 

As I was learning parshat Metzora, I started to realize how important creating a new human is. You're risking your life to add life to the world, which is a big responsibility. 

I find it interesting, the differences between what render a man vs. a woman impure. What makes a man impure is committing sins like Lashon Hara or murder. A woman however, is impure helping bring life into the world and her body doing what it is intended to do. 

Another very important lesson that Parshat Metzora teaches us is how horrible racism and discrimination are. We should never judge people based on the color of their skin, the group they belong to, what they look like, or who they love. People should be judged on their character and their merit and how they act. Even Miriam who risked her life for Moshe, made such a hurtful choice of gossiping about Moshe's wife Tziporah’s dark skin color, that God punished her with Leprosy. That tells us how hurtful and dangerous discrimination and gossip can be.

This parsha is not just about Leprosy, it also teaches us an important lesson on why gossiping or speaking Lashon Hara is such a horrible thing. How when you say something bad about someone you can’t take it back. Like if you open a bag of feathers outside, no matter how much you try, you will never be able to gather all the feathers back into the bag because they’ll have flown away. 

Saying bad things about others lingers with them for the rest of their lives. Sometimes the things we say can cost a life. So we have to be very careful of the things we say & how we say it.

Here are some questions I want us all to think about. If women are so holy, that we are exempt from time restricted mitzvot, why are we considered impure for just being who we are? If thousands of years ago we were taught to not discriminate and judge people for the color of their skin, how does discrimination and racism still plague society today. Lastly, we were taught in the time of Moshe how we should guard our tongue because words can kill. Why is it that to this day people still use their words as weapons to demean and harm others. 

Parshat Shmini
By: Nava, Grade 7

Hi! Shabbat Shalom! I love reading. I like one series called “Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls”. I love this series because it tells courageous stories of girls standing up and being powerful.  Each section on a girl has a one page summary of her story, an illustrated drawing and a quote. They range from Audrey Hepburn to Queen Elizabeth the 1st to Malala, plus way more. Of all the rebel girls throughout the many books, I have chosen to talk to you about a woman you may not have heard of, Chinwe Esimai (chin-way essy-my). She is an award winning lawyer, financial executive, writer and more, who came to 0the U.S. from Nigeria. With her time and success in the USA Chinwe started to notice things. All around her were other immigrants who weren't being treated equally, being bullied and broken down under pressure. She saw brilliant minds afraid to speak because of their accents. 

Chinwe knew this wasn’t right. She stated,”I think it’s very important to view our background and our culture as a positive because that’s something unique that we can bring to the table.” Chinwe then went on to astound everyone and fight for a place where everyone could live as themselves in harmony. How does this relate to this week's Parsha? Listen well, since it might take a while. 

As you may know, this week's Torah portion or Parsha is Shmini. A lot happens in Parshat Shmini, but the most known part is when G-d gives us the laws of Kashrut. Kashrut is another word for Kosher.  So, basically I just said ‘G-d told us what we can, or cannot eat’. After G-d tells Moshe these laws, Moses brings the laws to the Israelites. An example of a law we were given, is you cannot mix milk and meat. Another example is that if a land animal doesn’t have split hooves, and doesn’t chew its cud, you shall not eat it. Finally, an animal that lives in the water can be eaten only if it has fins and scales. 

This made me wonder, why did G-d set the rules of Kashrut? Why are these rules given to us? And why these specific details?  Does eating animals that digest their foods multiple times help us digest better? And why can we only eat sea animals with fins and scales? Doesn’t taking off all the scales make it harder to eat? Are the animals we are allowed to eat G-d’s favorites, and G-d only wants us to eat the best?  Or, is it the other way around? Luckily great commentators have also pondered over this. 

I was reading through commentaries, when one stuck out to me. Philo was a 1st century Greek philosopher. He believed that these weren’t random ideas or details. He thought of the rules of Kashrut as metaphors or lessons on how to be a better person. One of his interpretations is about the law of land animals. 

When you only eat land animals that chew their cud and have split hooves it teaches us that ‘we will only have true wisdom once we learn to split up and distinguish, while chewing it over’. This stuck out to me not because I agree, but because it is an idea of a lesson that helps us become better human beings. It's about how the law can affect you. I love this idea but, honestly, I don’t believe that it’s the reason for the rules that are set. 

Another commentator who stood out to me was Samuel David Luzzatto, an early modern Italian-Austrian Scholar. When I had been thinking about my question my first response of why was to “remind us of G-d”. Luzzato actually wrote this plus more. Luzzatto believed that the laws of kashrut were made to separate us from non-Jews– That we need to separate into our own community. 

He said, “Every Jew must be set apart in laws and ways of life from other nations so as not to imitate their behavior… the laws we observe make us remember at every moment the G-d who commanded them.” I agree with the idea that it helps remind us of G-d, but don’t like the idea of it setting us apart from non-Jews. We as Jews live in the minority. We are 2.4% of the US population and 0.2% of the whole world. I have grown up in this big Jewish community and at a Jewish private school. I believe that us as Jews, as the minority, need to accept that we are the minority. We can’t separate ourselves because then we don’t know our world. Sure, it’s great to be in our community and we should encourage it, but we shouldn’t shut out the outside world. Don’t make it ‘out of sight out of mind!’ 

I know that in this room, some people keep Kosher, and others don’t. My dvar torah shouldn’t pressure you into changing your diet but, regardless of what you eat, I believe there is a lesson here for all of us. Luzatto explained that we keep Kosher because it reminds us of God and separates us from everyone else. I agree that it is good to be proud of what makes you special. But, as I said, I don’t think we should separate ourselves from others. In other words, the lesson to learn from Kashrut is “be who you are, but don’t let that hold you back from being with others who are different than you.” This is a lot like what Chinwe said about working together while embracing your culture.

An example of this is my swim team. Most people there are not Jewish. In fact, my parents chose for me to do swim team at the Park District specifically because it would allow me to meet and make friends with other kids from different backgrounds.  On my team, some kids are Thai and some are Latino. Some families are Christian and some are Muslim. I am proud to share that I am Jewish. No matter what, we are a team that supports each other and laughs with each other. I don’t think about being Jewish there, but it does come up closer to winter break. Some of my teammates are interested in hearing about how Hanukkah is different from Christmas. We respect each other's differences. 

One year, when St. Patrick's day and Purim fell on the same day, an Irish-American girl on our team was handing out treats to everyone in honor of the holiday. In return we gave her a mishloach manot, a little gift basket filled with treats for Purim. No matter who you are, or where you come from, the Torah portion this week teaches us that you should proudly be exactly who you are, but at the same time, you should recognize that everyone is human: and we can all learn from each other. 

This relates to my Bat Mitzvah project. I went to a shelter for women and their children called Primo and worked with the Birthday Party Project. We are at the shelter for 2 hours and help set up, run and clean up the party. We get to have fun and hang out with kids while sometimes doing crafts. While doing activities we are encouraged to start conversations with the kids there. The Birthday Party Project also told us that if we don't know how to start a conversation to ask when their birthday is because “everyone has a birthday!”

This relates to the message of “how we should be who we are”, but don’t let that “hold us back from being with others who are different”. Even though the kids and moms at Primo come from a different background from me I still have fun and so do they (at least I think they do). It’s a great community plus the volunteers are friendly. I had fun decorating and hanging out so I plan to do it after my Bat Mitzvah too. 

Now it’s time for the thank you’s! First, I would like to thank my family for supporting me, helping me manage everything, loving me, taking care of me,and making me laugh and being overall awesome. Especially to my mom and dad who planned everything. And Rina for being the cutest and nicest little sister ever.

Thanks to my friends for making sure I’m never lonely and making me laugh. Thank you to my teachers for helping me learn. Because of them I currently have knowledge. Thank you so much to my tutor, Yedida, for teaching me my haftarah, Torah readings, blessings and prayers even through my low attention span and chaos. Thank you to Rabbi D’ror for helping me write this dvar torah and help me not to go overboard on it. Thank you also to the rest of the clergy(including Rabbi D’ror), Rabbi Benjy, Rabbi Siegel, Cantor Liz Berke and Cantor Rachel Brook for being the best and most awesome clergy ever! And most of all, Thank you, yes all of you, for coming to bat mitzvah and sharing this special day with me.

Shabbat Shalom.

By: Sam, Grade 7

Purim sameach!

Those of you who have frequent conversations with me know that I go on tangents a lot. You also know that sometimes said tangents lead to whole new ideas and theories.

So in my true fashion, get ready for the most tangential dvar torah in the existence of dvar torahs.

Once upon a time, when I was starting to learn to read Megillat Esther, my tutor, Morah Lianne, told me that there was Eicha trope that was used throughout Megillat Esther. Having previously encountered Eicha at camp, I knew the deal with the Eicha trope. Eicha is an amalgamation of texts that talk about the destruction of the first Beit Hamikdash, which we read on Tisha b’Av. A sad book for a sad day, and an even sadder sounding trope. If you don’t know what Eicha trope sounds like, here's an example; “Eicha trope is very sad, that’s because it’s Tisha b'Av. It’s also extremely repetitive, so get used to the sound of this''(shout out to my Solelim counselors for coming up with that one)

There are seven total pesukim in Megillat Esther that use Eicha trope, and six of them go along these lines; “oh my gosh! Death and destruction! All the people I love are gonna die!” which fits the tone and content of Eicha. 

However, 6 out of 7 is not all of them.

The first instance of Eicha trope is in Perek Aleph, pasuk zayin. The text describes the epic banquet King Achashverosh throws for the leaders of the kingdoms and it reads “Royal wine was served in abundance, as befits a king, in golden beakers, beakers of varied design.” 

When you get to to the part about the beakers, “Vakelim mikelim shonim”, you switch over to Eicha trope. If you’re anything like me, you’re wondering why this specific phrase is in Eicha trope. It is not about death or destruction. It’s about pitchers!

Luckily, the rabbis have an answer

The Rabbis looked at the text that describes this party and these pitchers and made connections to other parts of Chumash that use the same exact language and imagery. 

Their ideas, boiled down, are basically this: the decor at Achashverosh’s party is meant to make us recall the decor of the Mishkan and the materials used to build the Mishkan and the Beit HaMikdash. 

For example:

In Shemot chapter 28: verse 2 it reads;

וְעָשִׂ֥יתָ בִגְדֵי־קֹ֖דֶשׁ לְאַהֲרֹ֣ן אָחִ֑יךָ לְכָב֖וֹד וּלְתִפְאָֽרֶת

That we should make holy garments for Aaron to bring glory and majesty to the Mishkan

And in the megillah, chapter 1:verse 4 it reads:

בְּהַרְאֹת֗וֹ אֶת־עֹ֙שֶׁר֙ כְּב֣וֹד מַלְכוּת֔וֹ וְאֶ֨ת־יְקָ֔ר תִּפְאֶ֖רֶת גְּדוּלָּת֑ו

Achashverosh showed off the abundance of glory and majesty at his party

Both of these texts use two words in common - כָב֖וֹד וּלְתִפְאָֽרֶת -which is translated as glory and majesty.

And in that same chapter of Shemot it describes the materials of the Mishkan;

וְהֵם֙ יִקְח֣וּ אֶת־הַזָּהָ֔ב וְאֶת־הַתְּכֵ֖לֶת וְאֶת־הָֽאַרְגָּמָ֑ן וְאֶת־תּוֹלַ֥עַת הַשָּׁנִ֖י וְאֶת־הַשֵּֽׁשׁ

they, therefore, shall receive the gold, the blue fabric, the purple fabric, and the marble

And, again, in that first chapter of Megillat Esther it reads

ח֣וּר ׀ כַּרְפַּ֣ס וּתְכֵ֗לֶת אָחוּז֙ בְּחַבְלֵי־ב֣וּץ וְאַרְגָּמָ֔ן עַל־גְּלִ֥ילֵי כֶ֖סֶף וְעַמּ֣וּדֵי שֵׁ֑שׁ מִטּ֣וֹת ׀ זָהָ֣ב 

[There were spreads of] blue fine cotton, linen cords with purple, marble columns and couches of gold

You could justify this comparison by saying that maybe Achashverosh and God have similar tastes in interior design, but the cloth and linen and the fabric and the stone are so specific, most of them have their own words instead of just calling them “blue yarn” or “stones”.  Not only that, the lists are nearly identical! Coincidence, I think not! 

The Rabbis also thought not. It’s clear that the Rabbis wanted to make the connection between Achashverosh’s palace in Shushan and the Beit HaMikdash in Jerusalem. 

The gemara quotes Rabbi Yose ben Hanina who goes even further than this. He said that this shows that Acheshverosh dressed himself in the actual robes of the High Priest.

Why would Achashverosh wear the clothing of the Kohen Gadol? 

We can actually draw a connection between the Kohen Gadol and the Persian king. Judaism and Zoroastrianism (which was the religion of the Persians) are similar in many ways; both are monotheistic, which means they only have one God, which was a rarity in the ancient world. Both focus on doing good deeds and a sense of karma. Both have a “world to come”.  

In Biblical Judaism, it was the Kohen Gadol’s job to bring the people closer to God, and the Persian king had a similar role amongst the Persians. 

But wait! I’m not done yet! In perek chet of the Megillah, it says:

וּמׇרְדֳּכַ֞י יָצָ֣א ׀ מִלִּפְנֵ֣י הַמֶּ֗לֶךְ בִּלְב֤וּשׁ מַלְכוּת֙ תְּכֵ֣לֶת וָח֔וּר וַעֲטֶ֤רֶת זָהָב֙ גְּדוֹלָ֔ה וְתַכְרִ֥יךְ בּ֖וּץ וְאַרְגָּמָ֑ן

Mordecai left the king’s presence in royal robes of blue and white, with a magnificent crown of gold and a mantle of fine linen and purple wool. 

Do you know who else wears a mantle of linen? The Kohen Gadol.

In Sefer Shemot 28:6 it reads:

וְעָשׂ֖וּ אֶת־הָאֵפֹ֑ד זָ֠הָ֠ב תְּכֵ֨לֶת וְאַרְגָּמָ֜ן תּוֹלַ֧עַת שָׁנִ֛י וְשֵׁ֥שׁ מׇשְׁזָ֖ר מַעֲשֵׂ֥ה חֹשֵֽׁב׃

They shall make the ephod of gold, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen, worked into designs.

Why would Mordechai also be wearing the clothing of the Kohen Gadol (which the Rabbis already believed that Achashverosh had)? Those of you who know the story of Purim are probably thinking to yourselves “Mordechai is wearing the clothes because he was honored by Achashverosh as a reward for saving the king’s life.” To those people, you’re wrong, but it’s okay. When I first read this I thought that too. 

That part of the story already happened in chapter six! 

This pasuk describes Mordechai as he takes over Haman’s position and becomes a powerful person in the court of Achashverosh.

So what is happening here?

At this point in Persian and Jewish history, the Persian king Cyrus, also known as Koresh, already allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem. The Jewish exile could have effectively ended.

But, according to the books of Ezra and Nechemia, only a minority of the Jewish people actually returned to Jerusalem. 

The Rabbis look at this as a bad thing. Their comparison of the texts from Chumash and the texts from Megillah describing the fabrics and colors and pitchers are meant to chastise the Jewish people still sitting in exile. The Rabbis wanted us to be aware and ashamed that we missed the opportunity to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Second Temple. Instead we are attending the feasts of a Persian king dressed like the High Priest.

That explains why “Vakelim mikelim shonim” is read in Eicha trope.  

Even though I’m no Rabbi I respectfully disagree with this idea.

I think that Mordechai is wearing the clothing of the Kohen Gadol because one of the lessons of Megillat Esther is that the Jewish people can survive outside of Jerusalem and outside of the Beit HaMikdash.  If the people can’t go to the Temple, then the Temple will come to them. By the end of our story Achashverosh is no longer wearing the clothing of the Kohen Gadol, Mordechai is. The Jewish people can re-establish themselves even in exile!

At the end of the megillah, in the very last pasuk, it says

כִּ֣י ׀ מׇרְדֳּכַ֣י הַיְּהוּדִ֗י מִשְׁנֶה֙ לַמֶּ֣לֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵר֔וֹשׁ וְגָדוֹל֙ לַיְּהוּדִ֔ים וְרָצ֖וּי לְרֹ֣ב אֶחָ֑יו 

דֹּרֵ֥שׁ טוֹב֙ לְעַמּ֔וֹ וְדֹבֵ֥ר שָׁל֖וֹם לְכׇל־זַרְעֽוֹ׃

There is just a tiny little detail in this pasuk that I want to bring up. Doresh tov le’amo. The word doresh can be translated as many different things, but I think it means teaching. The root is the same root as the words drash and midrash, which both describe a teaching from interpreting the tanach. 

So, Mordechai is teaching good things to his people, but what is he teaching? He is teaching the ancient Jews, and maybe even to us, that Judaism can evolve. 

In conclusion, all of my tangents have led me to this idea. We can adapt to changing cultures as long as we still keep pieces of our history, of the Beit HaMikdash, with us. Jewish leadership, like Mordechai and Esther, should remind us of that.

Along that line, I’d like to thank all the Jewish leaders in my life.

Thank you to all my teachers at Chicago Jewish Day School, especially Morah Lianne who taught me how to read the Megillah.

Thank you to all my counselors at Ramah

Thank you to my family and friends who all came here today, and every day, to celebrate me and support me. Some people, like my uncles and aunts and cousins, traveled from Israel and New York to be here. Thank you to our family friends for hosting them.

And, if you bought me a Bar Mitzvah gift, or donated to tzedakah in my name, thank you  for celebrating and supporting me in this way. 

Thank you to  my brothers Micha and Hillel, who I love, but drive me so crazy sometimes that I have to really live by those Jewish values that my teachers and family have taught me in order not to kill them.

Thank you to my grandparents, Nathan and Rachel Bednarsh and Rabbi Eric and Amy Cytryn who have made sure I always have a part of the Beit HaMikdash with me. Thank you for buying me my tefillin and tallit and raising my parents.

Most of all, thank you to my parents who I can’t seem to ever escape… but that’s a good thing.

My mom is with me all school year at CJDS and my dad all summer at Ramah. They remind me on a daily basis what it means to be a proud and engaged Jew and how to carry on the traditions and values of my ancestors in modern day Chicago and Eagle River. You guys are, literally, always there for me.

Also, thank you to me because without me, this bar mitzvah never would have happened.

With that, I wish you a Purim sameach!

P.S. thanks to all you who listened to my five page dvar Torah.  

Parshat Vayikra

By: Eden, Grade 7

This week's parsha is Vayikra. When first reading through my parsha, I learned it was all about sacrifices. I wondered, why were there so many different kinds? Isn’t a sacrifice just a sacrifice? But, when I took some more time to understand the parsha better, I learned that sacrifices actually represent extremely valuable themes that can be found in our own day to day lives. There are five different kinds of sacrifice listed in this parsha, and today I’m going to focus on two of them in particular.

The first type of sacrifice I’m going to talk about today was the Chatat offering. The chatat offering is often translated as a sin offering, but chatat has another meaning: purification. The chatat offering was brought to the temple if someone unknowingly committed a sin that would otherwise require them to be completely exiled from the Israelite community. Some instances where one might need to bring a chatat offering include: if you overhear someone swearing an oath with God’s name and you either don’t do anything to correct this, or you follow suit and make an oath yourself.  Another example would be if one interacts with something ritually impure, like a dead body. The chatat offering is a private offering (one between just God and yourself) because it represents a sin committed between just the person and God. Ramban, a 12th century commentator from Spain, explains that you are supposed to bring the chatat offering not to fix the sin you have committed, but to repair the relationship with God that was affected by your sin. “The reason for the offerings for the erring soul is that all sins [even if committed unwittingly] produce a 'stain’ on the soul and constitute a blemish in it, and the soul is only worthy to be received by its Creator when it is pure of all sin.” You have to use the chatat sacrifice to repair your relationship with yourself first because you can only repair your relationship with God when you address your own wrongdoing.

The other type of offering was the Asham sacrifice. This was the guilt offering. The Asham was brought when someone was uncertain about what choices to make once they had done something dishonorable (or they believed they did something dishonorable) and were not sure if they had already fixed their mistake or not. One major difference between the chatat and the asham is that the asham sacrifice is all about repairing your relationship with other people who have been affected by the sins you have committed, whilst the Chatat offering works on repairing your relationship with God alone. For example, Leviticus 5:23-24 states: “When one has thus sinned and, realizing his guilt, would restore that which he got through robbery or fraud, or the deposit that was entrusted to him, or the lost thing that he found, or anything else about which he swore falsely, he shall repay the principal amount and add a fifth part to it. He shall pay it to its owner when he realizes his guilt.” Before you are able to bring the offering to the Temple and the priests, you have to make it right with the other person whom you affecte by your wrongdoing.

The Rabbis put all mitzvot and sins into two categories: ben adam l’makom (between man and God) and ben adam l’chavero (between man and his fellow). This distinction is so significant, that Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya, one of the main Rabbis in the high court of the Sanhedrin, taught in Mishna Yoma 8:9: For transgressions between a person and God, Yom Kippur atones; however, for transgressions between a person and another, Yom Kippur does not atone until he appeases the other person. This directly connects to the chatat and the asham offerings. In the chatat you are repairing a relationship between man and God, however, in an asham offering, you are repairing the relationship between man and his fellow. Understanding the differences between these two sacrifices is helpful in a post-Temple world because it helps us know how to react to a situation we have caused depending on the context. Have we hurt our own spiritual connection, or have we hurt another perosn who needs our atonement. Even though making sacrifices is not part of our lives today, our interactions with each other and how we treat each other is very much a part of the modern world. 

The idea of ben adam l’makom and ben adam l’chavero doesn’t just apply to the Torah. It’s also a concept that we see in our day to day lives and the more that I thought about it, the more relevant it felt. If I’m walking and I accidentally trip someone, even if they were in the way, it’s still my responsibility to make sure they are okay, because I still had an interaction with them whether it was purposeful or not. Another example is when I get into a fight with a friend or family member, I sometimes want to hide away and not deal with it. Learning about this parsha helped me realize that it is more beneficial for me to talk to this person and sort things out with them. Doing so will make me feel better and strengthen my relationship with that person. 

This parsha taught me the importance of knowing the difference between when my actions impact me and my own relationship to God and when they impact my relationship with others. One thing that stood out to me was that you have to do the legwork with your friends before you can ask forgiveness from God. As I become a Bat Mitzvah, I will remember to always reflect on how I can best make up for any careless actions that I make in order to maintain strong friendships and relationships with my peers and with God. 

Parashat Pekudey

By: Ethan, Grade 7

Boker tov. My Torah portion is Pekudey, the last portion in the book of Exodus. The Israelites have escaped slavery in Egypt, crossed the Red Sea to leave Egypt, and they are now a free people in the desert. G-D promises to take them to a land “flowing with milk and honey,” but they don’t know when that will be and they don’t have anything to do right now. 

In Pekudey, the Israelites receive a lot of very specific directions from G-D. The Torah portion begins with instructions for the amount of the gold, copper, and silver needed for the tabernacle. Next it gives clear directions on how to make the priestly clothes for Aaron and his sons or the Cohanim. After that, there are directions on how to set up the tabernacle’s interior and the altar of burnt offerings. Then, Moses is instructed to use special anointed oil to cover the tabernacle, its contents, and the Cohanim. At the end of my portion, God’s cloud descends over the tabernacle. God uses the cloud to give directions to the Israelites on when to stay where they are and when to move closer to the land of Israel. 

One major theme in this parsha is guidance. At this time, the Israelites needed direction. They were restless, wondering why they left Egypt, and feeling uncertain of whether they would actually get to Israel. Some were mad at Moses for taking them out of Egypt only to “die in the desert.” Life in Egypt wasn’t good, but they didn’t have the uncertainty they were up against now.

When thinking about guidance in the portion and my own life, I realized that both in my life, and the Israelites’ journey, there are multiple types of guidance that help people in different situations. 

We all need guidance sometimes because we can’t see the big picture, but there are moments when others can help us see the larger context. In the parsha, the Israelites couldn’t see the big picture because they don’t know where exactly they’re going. Even if they did, they don’t know what it’s like there other than it being good. God however, knows where they are going and can help them get there. God uses the cloud to guide them towards Israel. But why do they follow God? Are they gullible? I think that they follow the cloud because God hasn’t let them down before.

In my own life, my baseball coaches give me similar guidance about when to stay at the base and when to go. My first and third base coaches look at much more of the baseball field than me. The coach looks at the whole field, but I only focus on the base I am going to, and some of the area behind it. I follow them, like the Israelites, because they have more experience than me, and I don’t usually get out because of them.

We also need guidance when we are in a large group, and most of us have little to no experience. Historians disagree about the exact population of the group of Israelites but we’re talking 1.5-2 million people which is a lot either way. They needed something to unite them so they could live freely, comfortably, and peacefully. This could be a strong leader, or a project that is special or exciting for them. In this case, they got both. God is a strong leader and saw that the people needed uniting, so God told Moses to make a special portable tent for God to live in and connect with the people.

In my own life, my community service project of working at and baking for the Beth Emet Soup Kitchen is an instance where guidance played a similar role. It is a group of about 15 people all wanting to help feed people in need. But most of them don’t really know how to do that, so there is a small group of leaders directing the people and telling them how they can help. Recipes also helped us because with them, we can make special food for the guests. In the Torah they used gold and silver and copper to make the tabernacle feel as special as possible. At the soup kitchen, we made food that we knew the guests would enjoy, sometimes a musician would come, and people brought in special desserts. When I baked for the soup kitchen, I didn’t just make chocolate chip cookies, I also made lemon sugar cookies, and a brownie recipe I had never made.

Another type of guidance is learning to be independent through guided practice. In this portion, God tells the Israelites when to stay where they are, and when to go. This makes sense because as former slaves, the Israelites have no experience navigating the world outside of Egypt. But when God tells them exactly what to do, they may learn to eventually be able to fend for themselves.

This comes up in hockey, too. My coach can’t yell from the bench telling the team exactly what to do, but they can tell us what to do in certain situations during practice in hopes that we will implement it during the game. This also applies for little kids. When someone is very small, their parents make all of their decisions for them. But as they grow older, they start to learn what to do until they become independent. 

Another time that we need guidance is when we are doing something for the first time. The tabernacle is the first house of worship the Israelites have ever made so they need very specific directions on how to make it. But now, there are synagogues all over the world, many with creative designs. 

When I am learning a new recipe or new way to hit, pitch, or skate, I have to follow the directions as closely as possible. But when I do it more times, I can change it to be more comfortable or better for me.

I am grateful for the many types of guidance I receive in my life. Thank you to all my coaches and teachers for helping me learn new things, and to my extended family and friends, who have introduced me to many new concepts and places, and supported me. Thank you to all of the CJDS community for welcoming me in sixth grade. Thank you to my Mom and Dad for guiding me through these months and helping me plan (among other things). And finally thank you to my sister Sarah for always making me laugh and my dog Moose for always putting a smile on my face. Thank you.

Parashat Ki Tisa

By: Eliana, Grade 7

Shabbat Shalom! In Parshat Ki Tisa, the Torah talks all about when Moses receives the 10 commandments from G-d on Mount Sinai. When Moses comes down the mountain with the two tablets in his hands, he sees the people celebrating and worshiping an idol, the Golden Calf. This makes Moses upset that they are rebelling against G-d because Moses is very close to G-d, prays to Him, and follows every rule. No one is as close to G-d as Moses is. G-d is upset because He led the people out of the land of Egypt and they just turned their backs on Him, after everything G-d did for them.

I think there is a big message in the Torah that we learn from Moses and G-d’s  relationship. Moses tells G-d that he wants to be very close to G-d and understand G-d’s ways. But G-d does not say yes. In Chapter 33, Verse 20, the Torah says that G-d tells Moses, “You cannot see my face., for man may not see me and live.” G-d then shows Moses His back. I think that when he says this, he doesn’t actually mean that G-d has a back or a face. Maybe “the back of G-d” is the quantity of knowledge that Moses can understand and “His face” is the knowledge that only G-d can know and understand. The message is that even though Moses was the person closest to G-d, Moses could ONLY see the back of G-d. Not even Moses could see G-d’s face! When G-d says this, it makes me think as though G-d was trying to protect Moses from feeling overwhelmed because G-d respected Moses.

When the Torah shows the relationship between G-d and Moses, I think there is a lesson here that we learn from G-d but also can apply to our relationships with others. For example, just because you are close with someone, doesn’t necessarily mean that they want to tell you everything about themselves. It doesn't mean they don’t like you or appreciate your friendship. It might just mean that they are uncomfortable sharing. For example, if I am friends with someone and I only see their back and hear their voice, I can still know things about them like they’re wearing a pink shirt or have a low pitched voice, but since I have never seen their face, it’s almost like I know nothing about them and how they look. I feel it really shows this when the Torah states G-d telling Moses, “I will also do this thing that you have asked; for you have truly gained my favor and I have singled you out by name... the grace that I grant and the compassion that I show. But... you cannot see my face, for man may not see me and live.” This just proves how much G-d loved Moses but still didn’t share everything with Him.

In my own life, I think I should take the responsibility to make new friends and stay close to the ones I have but not judge them for not telling me certain things they don’t want to share. I also feel that, like G-d and Moses showed respect for one another, that I should show respect and love towards the animals in need that G-d has created. Because of this, for my bat mitzvah project I chose to donate money, treats, toys, beds, and more for all the dogs and cats at Orphans of the Storm animal shelter. We should all love the people in our lives, look after them, and try to understand as much about them as we can, even though they might not share certain things with us. We learn this from G-d and Moses then and even today. Shabbat Shalom

Parashat Mishpatim

By Benji, Grade 7

Shabbat Shalom. My parasha is Parashat Mishpatim. Mishpatim breaks the four wall. What do I mean by that?

Up until this point, every parsha in the Torah has been a story. A very exciting story: the creation of the world, the lives of our forefathers and foremothers, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob, Leah, and Rachel, slavery in Egypt, the dramatic escape from Egypt, and last week, something amazing with the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai.

But this week, in my parsha, it deviates from the pattern of stories and instead gives a whole long list of rules directed at US, the listener. The timeline stops, and it speaks to us, right now.

Why? Why now?

The Torah does this for a particular reason. Probably the most important thing in the entire Torah just happened.

The Ten Commandments. These are the big rules, the big principles that we follow. They're like the foundation of a building, essential but not the complete structure.

You’re probably familiar with them - don’t steal, don’t kill, honor your parents, only one God, etc. They're like the headlines of our Jewish laws, the ones that even if you're not so familiar with all the details of Judaism, you've likely heard of these.

However, there is a problem. These big rules are very vague.

If we only had the Ten Commandments, it would be very hard to be a Jewish community.

If we only had the vague Ten Commandments, they could be interpreted very differently. Without specifics, how do we know we're all on the same page? For example:

Shabbat. What’s Shabbat? The 10 commandments tell us to keep it, but they don’t really tell us what it is! What does rest mean? Do I have to sleep all day? How do I not break Shabbat? What if my version of rest is different than someone else's? What if my Shabbat happens on Wednesday and yours is on Sunday? When do we start? When do

we finish? The Torah commands us to observe Shabbat, but without Mishpatim, we wouldn’t know that lighting candles to welcome it and refraining from work to honor it are part of how we do so.

Jealousy. The 10 commandments say don’t be jealous. But how? Jealousy is a feeling. Are we allowed to feel jealous, or are we only forbidden to act on the feeling?

Or Stealing. What if I’m poor? What if someone forces me to steal? What if someone accuses me of stealing but I don’t think I did? What if someone borrows money but doesn’t pay it back? Is that stealing? How do I pay someone back if I did steal? Without Mishpatim, we wouldn’t understand the complexities of owning, borrowing and more, and we might actually come to steal much more easily.

The Ramban on the Torah famously explains that my parsha, Mishpatim, are the beginning of the details of the Ten Commandments. They make it so we can actually live by them.

For example: all of the laws of damages and borrowing in my parsha can be connected to the laws around theft. We want to make sure that everyone’s stuff is protected. It's not just about not stealing; it's about creating a just society where property and rights are respected.

All of the laws around injury can be connected back to the commandment not to kill. It’s not only the act of taking a life that’s forbidden but also causing harm to others, showing the value Judaism places on human life and well-being.

All of the holidays at the end of my parsha can be connected back to Shabbat. Just as Shabbat is a time for rest and spiritual renewal, the festivals extend this concept to celebrate our history and relationship with God throughout the year.

The Ramban says that every single mitzvah in my parsha is connected back to the Ten Commandments and helps explain it and flesh it out. It's like the Ten Commandments are the seed, and Mishpatim and the rest of the Torah's laws are the tree that grows from it, with branches spreading in many directions but all connected back to the same root.

Then this process continues. It continues with the Mishnah, the Gemara, and all the Oral Torah, opening the floodgates for ideas and interpretations that all can be traced back to Har Sinai. It's like each generation adds its own leaves to the tree, making it fuller and richer.

Mishpatim is the beginning of this process.

This process allows us, as a Jewish people, to join together, pray together, live together in ways that are both similar and different but all connected. As I become an adult member of this Jewish people, I’m thinking about my personal key commandments and the mishpatim to help fulfill them.

For example:

Respecting parents is a big value that is really important to me.

My parents gave me life, house me, feed me, care for me and help me through all of it.

And... I’m almost a teenager. I live in the us. I’m a little spoiled. It’s a natural urge to disobey your parents.

Life would be better if i were completely respectful of my parents.

So what are my mishpatim as I become a bar mitzvah? When they tell me to do my homework or study for my bar mitzvah - do it! Not eating food that they tell me not to eat. Help them a bit around the house. And tell them, at least once a week, how much I respect how much they do for me and for my family.

I was also thinking about what kind of person I want to be in the future. What are my key values?

I want to be someone who is fun to be around, self-reliant and speaks Hebrew.

What are the mishpatim for these key values?
For Fun to be around: the mishpatim might be: don’t be mean, try and make people happy, be nice, be kind, do generous things, learn some good jokes.

For Self-reliance: I could work on not depending on other people to remind me to do stuff, making more of my own food, getting ready for the day, getting dressed, homework, dinner - without other people supervising me.

To speak Hebrew: I could practice a lot, put in the time. go to Israel, and watch Israeli movies.

As I become a bar mitzvah, I will strive to follow the mishpatim of the Torah and also my own mishpatim. I will open my own floodgates of ideas and interpretations, and also

I will have lots of people around me, with their own ideas and interpretations to help me think, grow, and thrive as a Jewish person.

I’d like to thank everybody here celebrating here with me, including those who had to travel from Israel, New York, and even Lakeview.

I’d like to remember all those who couldn’t be here today, and their memories are my most favorite blessings.

I’d like to thank my teacher, Rabbi Aron Wolgel for working with me this past year, and making me believe that I can actually do it.

I’d like to thank Rav Ari for learning with me and helping me prepare my dvar torah. I’d like to thank my brother and sister for being the best set of twins I could hope for. I’d like to thank my mom and dad for believing in me and loving me no matter what. And finally, I’d like to honor the hostages and wish them the safest and quickest return.

Parashat Lech Lecha

By Noah, Grade 8

Lech Lecha is most famous for Avram leaving his homeland and listening to G-d, going to the land that G-d will show him, Avram and Sarai becoming Avraham and Sarah, and the story of Hagar and Yishmael.

But there’s a section that is often skipped: The war of the 4 kings against the five kings. And it shows a different side of Avram - Avram the Warrior.

Here’s the story:

There were four kings who were ruling over five kings. The five kings revolted against the four kings. During the war, the four kings kidnapped a bunch of people from the four kings, including Lot, Avraham’s nephew who was living in Sedom at the time.

It’s important to know that before this, Lot and Avraham had a bit of a falling out. Lot’s shepherds were fighting with Avram’s shepherds, and Avram tried to make peace. He suggested that they separate, and Avram let Lot choose whatever land he wanted.  Lot chose the most fertile land for himself. Not only that, but the Midrash, in Bereishit Rabba, teaches that Lot’s shepherds were taunting Avraham’s shepherds, saying that they could do whatever they wanted since Avram was old and had no kids and everything would go to Lot. Rashi teaches that Lot went towards Sedom, he not only abandoned Avram but he also abandoned G-d. 

Fast forward, Avraham heard about his wayward nephew being kidnapped. He could have just chilled and not done anything since Lot abandoned him.

Instead, he went and saved his nephew.

The Torah even refers to Lot in the story as his “ach” - his brother. When Lot was in trouble, Avram didn’t see him as his rebellious no-good nephew. He saw him as his brother.

And then Avraham becomes an action hero. He assembles his 318 men, chases the kidnappers for miles until they are all defeated, and rescues his nephew. One of the kings comes up to him and expects Avram to want a cut of all the stuff he rescued. He says: please, take all the money and all the land, just leave me the people Avram says: no thanks. I don’t want anything. Not even a shoelace, just let my nephew go. Lot goes free. And Avraham never sees him again. 

When most of us think of Avraham, we think of a bedouin guy who stayed in his tents, doing chessed and wanting a child. In my parsha, we see another side of Avraham. A hero. A warrior. A rescuer.

My parsha is very relevant because of Hamas’ recent attacks on Israel.

Hamas picked on the weakest members of Israeli society, like the sick ones and the elderly and both killed and kidnapped them. Hamas kidnapped over 200 Israelis, including kids, elderly, even babies, including three people from Evanston. Thank God a few of them are home but we need to keep advocating, praying and fighting for them all to come home.

Avram had to go to Lot and risk a lot to save him. He called up 318 men to go arise in the middle of the night to go fight for his family. Israel called up over 300,000 men to go fight for their families and to try and rescue everyone who was kidnapped.

We can’t all go run into Gaza and try and rescue the kidnapped ourselves. But we can help. We can support, pray, hope and do good deeds. As I become a Bar Mitzvah, I want to become a man in the community. I want to be loyal, brave, helpful and resourceful like Avraham.

Rosh Chodesh

By Noah, Grade 8

Picture this: it’s the last week before Winter break. You get piled up with work and try to finish it so you don’t have to do it over break. Then, break arrives. You can rest and wake up knowing that there is a whole bunch of fun ahead and no school. 

Today, it is Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan, the month following Tishrei and all of the high holidays. We have just spent the past 2 months doing intense personal reflection in preparation for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Some people call Cheshvan “marcheshvan,” or literally, “bitter cheshvan.” This is because there are no Jewish holidays in this month. At first glance, this might seem sad because there’s nothing to do or to celebrate. We just spent 3 weeks celebrating a holiday what felt like every other day. But now, nothing.

But Cheshvan actually gives us a special opportunity. During this month, we get more freedom and have time to recharge. We can take a moment to appreciate the holiday that just happened and get excited for what is coming up. It also serves as motivation for us to continue working hard to be the people we said we would throughout Elul and Tishrei. Just like how it’s hard to keep New Years resolutions after the initial excitement, it’s also hard to stay spiritually engaged after the high holidays. Cheshvan gives us the time to follow through and practice our self improvement. 

Oftentimes when we’re in a holiday season, we’re just doing what we’re supposed to be doing and we don’t take time to think about the holiday and what it means to us Jewish fellows. But during a break when we don’t have anything to do, we have time to think about what happened and appreciate it and get excited for the holidays to come. Cheshvan gives us a well needed breather from Jewish studies and practice. 

While I might not appreciate school more on the first day back from Winter break the same way I appreciate the first holiday after the break in Cheshvan, the time away from these intense periods makes me respect it and rejuvenates me. My hope is that we take breaks as an advantage so we can reflect on how much the holidays mean to us and how important they are to the Jewish calendar. 

Parashat Noach

By Nadav, Grade 7

Thank you all for celebrating my school Bar Mitzvah today - a simcha in a week when we could all use some more cheer. 

Earlier, I read the Parsha of Noach. The story begins with God seeing that the world had become full of violence, stealing, and treating one another poorly. He tells Noach that a flood is coming, and that Noach is the ONE good person on Earth who will be allowed to survive on the Ark. Noach was directed to bring two pairs of each animal and was given specific instructions for arranging the Ark: the bottom layer for food, the next for animals, and the top layer for his family. 

The flood lasted 40 days and 40 nights, but Noach remained in the Ark for several more months. Eventually, he sent out a raven, followed by a dove. The dove returned with an olive branch, which told Noach that land had reappeared. Noach and his family got off the boat, and then Noach offered some sacrifices to God, and God promised to never flood the world again. 

This is a very famous story most of us know. When I was studying for my Bar Mitzvah, I was really curious to know if this story actually happened.

The answer seems to be both yes and no; it’s complicated. Some proof that it might have happened comes from the fact that many cultures have stories of giant floods around the same period of time most famously in the Epic of Gilgamesh. If a lot of cultures around the world tell the story, it makes it seem more likely to be true.

There was a famous archaeologist named Leonard Woolley who was excavating in Mesopotamia at the beginning of the 20th century. While he was excavating Abraham's native city of Ur (in modern day Iraq), he observed a thick layer of sediment covering the entire valley. Woolley announced that he had found proof of Noah’s Flood. However, it’s not really proof of a worldwide flood, it’s proof of a local flood. If there was a global flood, we would see sediment covering the entire world, not just one area. Also it would take billions of gallons of water to cover the world: where would it all have gone? There would be massive changes to the earth if that much water had fallen not so long ago. 

So there probably was a huge flood, but it might not have happened exactly the way the Torah described it. If it didn’t happen exactly that way, is that such a bad thing? Why do we read it if it might not be 100% historically accurate?

Because even if the story isn’t 100% accurate, it doesn't make it any less valuable. The Torah is not actually a history book. It’s called the Torah, which means “teaching.” The lessons it teaches are real. The messages it conveys are real. The rules and guidance on how to live is real. The community it builds is real.

The message I take from this parsha is it’s the story of a journey both physically and mentally. God gives Noach a directive, which is to have faith and to do as he’s told by building the Ark with very specific blueprints. It needed to be 300 cubits, which in modern terms is 510 feet long. While my own blueprints for my goals in life aren’t this precise, I can take the blueprints I’m given and the faith that I possess to accomplish my goals.

Noach is also a story of ethics and kavod, to do good in this world, unlike the society Noach lived in. We’re reminded that God values human morality.

In combination, choosing the right path almost always demands a good amount of both faith and kavod. Noach spent half a year traveling on a boat he spent 3 years building, not to mention with a bunch of animals and his family. He did it without really knowing the end result. It takes so much strength of character to proceed in faith in yourself like Noach did. 

We all have a journey but that journey isn’t usually laid out so clearly from the start. The blueprints we get from the most important areas in our life is what guides us. For me, these areas are my family, my friends, CJDS, and Camp Ramah and at the end of the day it’s up to me to accomplish the goals on my journey. A goal I have is to one day be an amazing camp counselor for kids like my camp counselors have been for me. I plan to take what I’ve learned from my summers at camp to form my own relationships with younger kids and give them a super fun summer. In my opinion, it’s the best gift a kid can get and I’m excited for my journey to take me there. Thank you.

Parashat Shoftim

By Liana, Grade 7

I love Taylor Swift. I am a huge fan. I listen to her music every day at least 10 times. Taylor Swift has 10 albums. Each one is different and unique. You can always find one for how you feel: if you feel sad you could play one, and if you’re happy you could play another one.  At the beginning of her career, Taylor Swift didn’t talk about political stuff. She was afraid that she would lose fans. She was afraid that she would lose power and money.  Even when white nationalists called her their “queen”, for years, she didn’t speak up. But, beginning in 2018, she started talking about her values: she took a stand. She took a stand against racism. She took a stand for LGBTQ equality. She took a stand for being pro-choice. Taylor Swift, over the last five years, has become a better leader. She is less afraid. She has learned to prioritize people over possessions.  It turns out my Torah portion is all about exactly that idea. Let me explain. 

In my Torah portion, Parshat Shoftim, God said, when you get to Israel you can decide to get a king, but if you decide to get a king, there are rules for the king.  An example of a rule is that the king should not act like he is more important than other people and should follow the Torah. Another example of a rule is that the king should not have too many horses.

This made me wonder, why can’t the king have too many horses? I love horses! I like riding them and bumping up and down on them. They remind me of my dog because she is so big.  Also, in ancient days people used horses to get around. So of all people,  shouldn’t  the king be able to have horses to get from place to place?!

I looked for an answer to this question in the text of the parsha itself. The parsha says that the king should not have many horses or send people back to Egypt to get more horses because the lord warned,  quote:  “ You must not go back that way again,” end quote. But this did not make much sense to me! What do horses even have to do with going back to Egypt?!  So  I decided to look at other sources for a fuller explanation.

One source I looked at was Ibon Ezra. Ibon Ezra was a jewish commentator from Spain in the middle ages. He explains that horses were brought from Egypt. If the king wants many horses, then people would have to go back to Egypt to get more horses. God did not want people to go back to Egypt. Therefore, the  king would make the people sin if he sent his people back to Egypt. I agree with Ibn Ezra.  If  people went back to Egypt,  it would be like going back to a place of slavery which is  not good. This is because then you may get pulled back into slavery, which God rescued us from. 

Another source I looked at was Ramban. Ramban was commonly known as Nachmanidies and he was also from the middle ages. He disagrees with Ibn Ezra and says that you can go back to Egypt for business. A king could go back to Egypt to get more horses, but a king should not have too many horses because then he will be too reliant on them and not God. I think he has a good point because God is more important. You rely upon God constantly but  only need one horse if any at all.

A third opinion I looked at was Rabbeinu Bahya. Rabbeinu Bahya was a Rabbi and scholar from Spain. He said that a Jewish monarch should not keep many horses because that is not a good way to measure success.  Instead, a Jewish king should measure success by how well they prioritize Torah. I think he makes a good point because Torah is very important in Judaism.

Of all these opinions the one that spoke to me the most was Ramban’s. Ramban suggests that a leader should not rely too much on his horses but more on God. While I agree with Ramaban’s idea that a leader should focus on God over possessions, I think modern  leaders should focus on the people they are leading and not on their possessions or power.  This is just like Taylor Swift: she became a good leader, when she turned away from power, and focused on people. But it’s not just celebrities or royalty for whom this lesson applies: it applies to all of us. 

For example, I like to babysit. If a babysitter was too obsessed with their power they might be more interested in being in charge than paying attention to the kids. They might force the kids to do something that they don’t want to do instead of finding something that everyone wants to do. 

Another example is leading a project at school. This can go two ways. One way is that the leader ends up doing all the work and does not give others an opportunity to work and help out. The other way it can go is that the leader will say I am in charge and I say you guys do all the work but still give me credit. Both of these would most likely make the people upset.

Today we are not very worried about our leaders having too many horses, but the parhsa’s lessons are still valuable. The lesson I apply is  that a good leader needs to put faith in people. It is people, not power, that truly matters.

Parashat Nitzavim-Vayelech

By Asher, Grade 8

Shabbat Shalom! This week’s parsha is a double parsha - Nitzavim and Vayelech. Nitzavim begins with God establishing a covenant - a two-way promise between God and the Israelites. This covenant includes everyone,  From the heads of the tribes, the children, the strangers, the water carriers and the woodchoppers. All ages, all genders. Everyone’s included. The covenant includes all who stood together on that day and all who were not even there yet

כִּי֩ אֶת־אֲשֶׁ֨ר יֶשְׁנ֜וֹ פֹּ֗ה עִמָּ֙נוּ֙ עֹמֵ֣ד הַיּ֔וֹם לִפְנֵ֖י ה’ אֱלֹהֵ֑ינוּ וְאֵ֨ת אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֵינֶ֛נּוּ פֹּ֖ה עִמָּ֥נוּ הַיּֽוֹם׃

Ki et asher yeshno po imanu omed hayom lifnei hashem elokeinu v’et asher eneinu po imanu hayom

Including me who is going into this new phase of jewish life and becoming a Bar Mitzvah. I want to focus today on a particular idea that is found in this covenant. The Torah says:

כִּי הַמִּצְוָה הַזֹּאת אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם לֹא־נִפְלֵאת הִוא מִמְּךָ וְלֹא רְחֹקָה הִוא׃

Surely, this instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach.

לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם הִוא לֵאמֹר מִי יַעֲלֶה־לָּנוּ הַשָּׁמַיְמָה וְיִקָּחֶהָ לָּנוּ וְיַשְׁמִעֵנוּ אֹתָהּ וְנַעֲשֶׂנָּה׃

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?”

וְלֹא־מֵעֵבֶר לַיָּם הִוא לֵאמֹר מִי יַעֲבר־לָנוּ אֶל־עֵבֶר הַיָּם וְיִקָּחֶהָ לָּנוּ וְיַשְׁמִעֵנוּ אֹתָהּ וְנַעֲשֶׂנָּה׃

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?”

כִּי־קָרוֹב אֵלֶיךָ הַדָּבָר מְאֹד בְּפִיךָ וּבִלְבָבְךָ לַעֲשֹׂתוֹ׃

No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.

The pshat, or the literal meaning of these psukim is that God wants the Israelites to understand all these mitzvot that they have been given. God wants the Israelites to understand that the mitzvot aren’t something far away or something that you need a lot of knowledge to do, and you don’t need to go up to heaven or travel across the sea to understand it.

The Israelites might overthink the covenant, get off topic, or get really focused on some random part of it, and then they won’t understand the whole picture. Or they might get overwhelmed, and panic or give up.

Instead, the brit is something that’s really close to you that you can do with your own mouth, heart and actions.God wants the Israelites to not overthink, to keep it simple, and follow these rules

There’s another way to read the Torah called the drasha. The drasha is how most rabbis understand Torah, it’s the interpretive approach to understanding Torah.

There is a famous story I learned in the gemara in masechet bava metzia, 59ab. In the story, the rabbis quote the pesukim I said earlier in a way that’s not the pshat but is very different.

The story is called tanur shel achnai. It begins with the rabbis discussing whether an oven shaped like a snake is pure or impure. All the rabbis believe that it is impure, except Rabbi Eliezer. He disagrees with everyone, saying that it is pure. To prove he is correct he performs miracles, like having a tree jump out of the ground, making a river go backwards, and making the walls of the study hall start to fall. But the rabbis don’t accept his miracles. So he asks God if it is pure, and a voice from heaven says to all the rabbis that the snake oven is pure, making Rabbi Eliezer’s side of the debate correct.

But Rabbi Yehoshua responds to this heavenly voice and says - lo bashamayim hi - it’s not in heaven! 

Meaning that the answer for if the oven is pure or impure, or the answer to any question, is found on earth because the Torah was taken down from heaven and put on earth with us. The Torah is not in heaven or across the sea. It’s here, on earth, with the people. 

He then quotes a verse from the Torah that says “you shall follow the majority” to prove that the big group of rabbis who disagree are correct.

The rabbis seem to take lo bashamayim into a very literal meaning, out of context, to mean that the answer isn’t in the heavens. Sometimes it’s from the people who have a voice and opinion about what it means to be Jewish and what we should do. You discuss, you look to the majority and  you don’t necessarily look to the heavens.

Part of the answer being on earth is that everyone has their own opinion and interpretation. There isn’t just one answer that everyone agrees with. 

Sometimes it makes things complicated and frustrating, but by everyone bringing their opinion, then people can find compromise and can put together something that works for everyone. 

This is how my parsha begins - by listing all the different kinds of people who are in the covenant, from lowest status to highest status, past, present and future, for each of them the Torah is not in heaven, for each of us the Torah is here for us to learn and interpret.

As I become a bar mitzvah I see that the answer isn’t always in heaven, and that it isn’t beyond my reach. It’s 

בְּפִיךָ וּבִלְבָבְךָ לַעֲשֹׂתוֹ׃ -

in my heart, my speech and my actions to do it. I’m going to have to start learning and doing for myself, and bringing my interpretations into the community, and also listening to what the community says. It’s like in government how there is a balance of powers, here there needs to be a balance between individuals and community. That’s what Rabbi Eliezer didn’t understand - even though he was right, he couldn’t balance his own opinion with the opinions of others.

To do this, you also need to find a community that is a kehila kedosha, a community that you believe in, that works together, helps each other out, and has good values.

Parashat Nitzavim

By Simon, Grade 8

The first time I remember hearing astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson speak he was talking about how if you shrink the earth to the size of a classroom globe, on that scale the moon would be 30 feet away.  If you put the earth on the page, the moon would actually be multiple pages down. But most textbooks get that wrong, because they have to get the moon and the earth on the same page. So the scale of distance between earth and moon is much greater than most of us would ordinarily think.  I think Tyson is very interesting and intriguing. I like to listen to all these crazy facts that Tyson shares.  I look at quotes from Tyson’s lectures or clips of him talking. Listening to Tyson inspires me to want to do research myself. 

Many people describe Tyson as an atheist, someone who doesn’t believe in God, but actually he isn’t. Tyson describes a kind of spirituality which he doesn’t call “God” but which does guide him with a sense of wonder and permanence.  He says it like this, “For me, when I say spiritual, I'm referring to a feeling you would have that connects you to the universe in a way that it may defy simple vocabulary. We think about the universe as an intellectual playground, which it surely is, but the moment you learn something that touches an emotion rather than just something intellectual, I would call that a spiritual encounter with the universe.” Tyson’s mission in life has been to learn from the Universe and to teach others what he has learned.  Leaning into his spirituality, makes him want to learn more and supports his mission.  My parsha also has something to say about spirituality, about what is means to receive a message from the Universe and to use that message in order to stand for a purpose or a mission.

My parsha, Nitzavim, is just a few chapters before the end of the final book of the Torah, Devarim, the book of Deuteronomy. In the Parsha, Moshe is giving a speech to the people about the mitzvot of God saying that they are supposed to follow them and accept the covenant. When I began studying the parsha, it didn’t strike me as interesting or exciting, but when I looked closer I realized that although there is no lightning and thunder there are essential ideas that made me have to think. 

The Parsha is called Nitzavim, but what does it mean? We know that the word means standing. But why not just use Omdim, a more common Hebrew word for standing? Let's figure out what makes the word NItzavim special and why this is the particular word of choice.

I started by looking at the definition and the “Shoresh'' or root of the word, and I found that there are several related words: Matzevah מצבה which means a monument, Matzav מצב (mah-tzav) which is a general situation or atmosphere, and Natziv נציב which means a prefect or a governor. In fact, Nitzavim actually means more than simply standing; it more accurately translates to “taking a stand.” After I figured out what it meant I wanted to see where else it appears in the Torah.

First I found this word In B’reisheet, Chapter 18, verse 2, when the angels visit Avraham and Sarah. That chapter opens with 

“God appeared to him in the plains of Mamre when Avraham was sitting at the entrance to his tent. 

וַיַּרְא וְהִנֵּה שְׁלֹשָׁה אֲנָשִׁים נִצָּבִים

He lifted his eyes and saw three men (angels) standing before him.” 

When we look at the Hebrew the word Nitzavim appears. These three visitors (or angels) are STANDING before Avraham and they state that although Avraham and Sarah are old and unable to have a child, they will nevertheless have one.  The first thing I noticed about the word Nitzavim is that it is used here for angels who are delivering a message for Avraham. This is no ordinary “standing.”  Nitzavim seems to mean that something special is happening as if you need to nitzav to receive or do something important. As my Abba said, “It’s mission-driven or purposeful.”

Next, I talked to my cousin Priya about the word. She knew of another place where the verb appears in B’reisheet, chapter 19, verses 26-27. This is when God’s destruction of Sodom and Amora takes place. The Torah tells us: God rained brimstone and fire upon Sodom and Amora from the heavens. Lot and his family are told that they should flee and not look upon the destruction, but Lot’s wife looks back after being told not to and faces the consequences. 
וַתַּבֵּט אִשְׁתּוֹ מֵאַחֲרָיו וַתְּהִי נְצִיב מֶלַח   

His wife looked back, and she became a “pillar” or a monument of salt. This time, when the Torah uses the word “Netziv”, it’s not standing, it is a pillar. Lot’s wife turns into a pillar as God’s destruction was revealed to her. Nitzavim show a sense of permanence.

Another example of the word Nitzavim is in Yaakov’s dream of the ladder to heaven in Breisheet, Chapter 28. 

וַיַּחֲלֹם וְהִנֵּה סֻלָּם מֻצָּב אַרְצָה וְרֹאשׁוֹ מַגִּיעַ הַשָּׁמָיְמָה … וְהִנֵּה יְהוָה נִצָּב עָלָיו

He dreamed and behold a ladder was standing on the earth and its top reaching to the heavens… and God was taking a stand on it. 

Both the ladder and God are taking a stand before Yaakov. Nitzavim can even be used for God. It occurs to me that each time we have heard the word Nitzavim it is connected to something holy. It is connected to God or Angels. Clearly, not only can nitzavim be about being mission-driven or permanence, it can also carry a connotation of holiness. It’s a kind of standing that is connected to God.

Nitzavim is also used in Parshat Yitro in the Book of Shemot, Exodus, when Moshe is talking to the people below Mount Sinai. The Torah states:
וַיּוֹצֵא מֹשֶׁה אֶת־הָעָם לִקְרַאת הָאֱלֹהִים מִן־הַמַּחֲנֶה וַיִּתְיַצְּבוּ בְּתַחְתִּית הָהָר

“Moses took the people out from the camp toward God. And they took a STAND at the foot of the mountain!” 

Here, the root is a verb, an action. Here bnei yisrael are not just standing passively—they are standing in a specific place for a very specific, special purpose: God has commanded Moshe alone to ascend Mt. Sinai and for them to remain at the base where they are about to receiving the ten commandments directly from God.

This suggests that to stand (here in the reflexive hitpael binyan) means to place oneself in a very specific place for a very specific and special purpose.

To answer my question: why does the parashah use the word Nitzavim, rather than Omdim? The answer is because in Nitzavim like in the other examples above, Moshe is sharing with bnei yisrael a revelation of God’s words. To be a participant in revelation—both in delivering the message, like Moshe, as well as receiving, like bnei yisrael—one must nitzav, meaning they are standing with holiness, purpose, and permanence for the most important kind of transmission.

For Moshe, this moment is mission-driven because Moshe is giving his final speech before Bnei Yisrael enter the land of Israel.  This gives a sense of permanence because Moshe won’t be entering into the land with them, and these are his final words by which people will remember the last moments of his life. He wants more than anything for bnei yisrael to keep the brit, the covenant. 

Likewise, the people must be fully prepared; they must take a stand internally and be ready for this moment. The giving of the Torah, reconstructing the covenant, and entering the land of Israel teach us about holding our mission, about standing unwavering, about clinging to holiness, and about taking God’s words and using them to improve ourselves!

As a bar mitzvah, I am also standing, nitzav, in a moment of transition. I am now able to participate fully in Jewish life and practice. I am ready to take on more responsibility and do so with purpose and intention. Doing so will allow me to take my place as a full-fledged “adult” member of bnei yisrael and our community. It will require new responsibilities done with intention, but I am excited to face these commitments and challenges.   

One of the ways I can do that is through work like my mitzvah project. Because I have Celiac, I have to be intentional and deliberate about everything I eat. I am lucky that my family can afford to buy gluten-free food to keep me healthy. But many people don’t have that ability. For my mitzvah project, we asked people to donate shelf-stable gluten-free food for Nourishing Hope, a local food pantry. We hope this will help provide a much-needed form of sustenance that is harder to come by than your average food stuffs. 

This day wouldn’t be as special and wouldn’t have happened without the help and support of many people. First I want to thank all my family and friends from near and far, from Denver, Toronto, Philadelphia, Providence, Boston, New York, Maryland, Minnesota, Urbana, Kenosha, Miami, Israel, and all over the Chicago area, who have come here to celebrate with me. Thank you to all the Anshe Emet clergy for helping me prepare for this day including Rabbi D’ror of course who I want to thank for his help editing and refining this dvar Torah. Double thank you to my Savta for learning with me over the last several months to write this dvar Torah and with all my other grandparents my Bubbie, Grandpa, Saba, and Grandma for all loving and supporting me from the moment I was born. 

Charlie, thanks for being the best younger brother. I love teaching you new things and playing with you…even if you always try to sneak into my room and attack me. IMA and ABBA. I don't know what to say. You have helped me so much from planning everything to just supporting me even though I say it so it seems like a small thing it means the world to me to have you as my parents.  

And finally I want to thank everyone who came to my Bar-Mitzvah. 

There’s a big universe out there and a lot to learn. I draw inspiration from Neil deGrasse Tyson as well as my parsha and intend to make it my mission to explore everything the universe has to offer. 

Parashat Vayelech

By Lylah, Grade 7

The Torah portion for today is entitled Vayeilech. It is from the book of Deuteronomy. I will be reading beginning with chapter 31 verse 1. This portion is about when Moses dies and has to pass on the leadership to Joshua. Also, right before Moses died he tells the elders about how important the Torah is. Moses is told by God that he is going to die soon and to be wary of doing the wrong thing when Moses isn’t there to help. God makes sure that the last thing that Moses must do is teach the people through a poem he called “That will be my witness.” The very last thing that I thought was a big part of the story is how Moses found out from God what to do and how to do it.

In verse 14 God says to Moses, “the time is coming near for YOU to die.” This takes Joshua by surprise because he was not ready for Moses to die. God told Moses and Joshua to come forward and meet to discuss the plans for the community. When I heard this I immediately thought of summer camp. At camp OSRUI I stayed in tents for 4 weeks. When we got in trouble for talking during the time that we were supposed to be resting our counselors did not like that. So when God had called the tent meeting for Moses and Joshua it was like my counselors calling a tent meeting for us.

The lessons that I learn from this moment in Torah are about leadership. If you want to be a leader you must be willing to listen to people’s opinions. You both need to take space and make space. To take space it means that you speak and say what you want or need to say. To make space means that you give others the space to speak and share their ideas. Moses had to both take space and make space. He told the community all that he knows and warned them against doing bad in the sight of God. Moses also makes space by slowly taking a step back and letting Joshua take more leadership. It is important for me to learn on my own by my parents, leaving me the space to do so. It wouldn’t be a good learning experience if they told me everything. 

Parashat Ki Tavo

By Maydon, Grade 7

Good morning, my bat mitzvah parsha is Ki tavo. If there’s an activity you don’t like at camp, the counselors are going to encourage you to at least try and have fun. In this parsha, God encourages Bnei Yisrael to have fun with the mitzvot. Or else... In Ki Tavo, we are told what to say when we bring our first fruits to the Temple and given a list of blessings and curses, that will happen if we do, or don’t, follow the mitzvot. These curses are very detailed and there are a lot of them.

In the sixth aliya, the Jewish people were standing on top of two mountains, Har Grizzim and Har Ayval. There, they were told blessings if they followed God’s commandments and curses if they didn’t follow. The Kohanim and Leviim stood in the middle with the Aron Kodesh. The curses are so bad that we traditionally read them in a hushed voice. They describe the illnesses people would get and how the people would be cursed when they come and when they leave. God tells how their enemies will turn against them and overtake them, just as a sample. All in all, pretty bad

As we know, there are many mitzvot in the Torah, and so it seems to me, like God also wanted to show that there were a lot of different ways you could be cursed. Even though it’s not always easy, God gives us a clear path to avoiding the curses. Bnei Yisrael is just about to enter the Land of Israel after being guided through the desert by God. Before going off on their own, God gives them advice, which is to remain happy. This doesn’t necessarily mean they have to be happy about every single little mitzvah. It just means that they should always remember to try and be happy and have a positive outlook on the mitzvot, God, and the Jewish community.

We can learn a really important lesson from this. If you think “Ugh, this is not fun, I don’t want to do this,” that is
just having a bad spirit. But if you try to have fun, then maybe along the way, it will actually be fun. Sometimes, when I’m hanging out with my friends, my sister wants to join in. I don’t always want her to play with us, but I include her anyway and after a while, we start to have fun together.

CJDS has taught me to have fun and have a good spirit in activities you want or don’t want to do. I’m am so
grateful I get to attend CJDS and have an amazing education.

Parashat Sh'lach L'cha

By Gavi, Grade 7

In my Parsha, Sh'lach L’cha, God tells Moses to send 12 spies, one for each tribe, into the land of Israel. Moses asks the following questions: 1. Are the people who dwell there strong or weak? Few or many? 2. Is the country in which they dwell good or bad? 3. Are the towns they live in open or fortified? 4. Is the soil rich or poor? 5. Is it wooded or not? Moses is trying to figure out how the people will conquer and live in the land.  

He also asks the spies to bring back some fruit of the land. 

When the spies come back, 10 of them give a report that starts out positive; they say that the land flows with milk and honey, but then they say that the inhabitants are powerful, their cities are fortified and large. They mention all the groups of people who live there. This report scares the people.
Caleb had to shush them before he and Joshua could speak.

But the first 10 spies added to their report saying that the anakites who inhabited the land were actually Nephilim or giants. 

Then the people are sad and scared, and say something that offends God – they say, “If only we had died in Egypt.”

Then Joshua and Caleb give their report which is very positive.  Then God gets angry and says that no one except for Joshua and Caleb and the next generation can go into the land of Israel. 

I would argue that Moses and God cannot understand the perspective of the people. It’s human nature to be scared of what you don’t understand and what you don’t know. The people might have overreacted in their fear but better safe than sorry.

They were slaves so they were more inclined to want to be safe.

Moses, on the other hand, lived an extremely sheltered life. The people were slaves, now they live in the desert, and they were supposed to go fight giants?! They felt weak and even their leaders did too. Their tribal leaders are the ones who said they looked like grasshoppers in the eyes of the inhabitants of Canaan.

But there is no proof that the inhabitants are giants. 

However, there is proof that the land has bountiful food. The spies brought back a big cluster of grapes. But because it has bountiful food, that probably means there are a lot of inhabitants because people lived where there was food. So maybe there really was reason to be afraid but they should still try because God was on their side.

Punishment – it was harsh; the people want to be safe and aren’t prepared to conquer the land. But one might also say that it was a thoughtful consequence. Perhaps the generation of Israelites that had been slaves was not the right generation to go into the land. They are more fearful than their children will be because their children will be born in freedom.

On the other hand, 40 years is a long time, and the slaves would have rejoiced in entering the land. I think the punishment was harsh but fair because that generation was not the right ones to go into Israel so maybe it was more of a realization on God’s part than a punishment.  But none of this would have happened if not for the other ten spies.

The rabbis asked What was the sin of the spies?

According to Sforno (Italy 1475-1550)  the sin was exaggerating about the anakites and saying that the spies felt like grasshoppers in their eyes. Their exaggeration made the people think that the inhabitants of the region were so big, and the region was so harsh that only the strongest would survive.

While Ramban said – the spy's sin was misunderstanding the purpose of their mission. They were sent to bring back details on how best to conquer the land in order to guarantee victory. But they came back and made it sound like it would be impossible to do so.    They started with something positive – the fruit of the land But then they used the word “efes” or BUT and turned to something negative – the people of the land are powerful. The negative connotation of this word “efes” makes everyone scared.

Joshua and Caleb, on the other hand, were optimistic. Their faith in God played an important role in their report. They believed that God would help them conquer the land.

Even though the Israelites saw the 10 plagues and the splitting of the sea, even though God gave them manna in the desert and protected them on their journey, conquering Israel was a whole other level and they didn’t have faith either in God or in themselves that that could happen.

The story of the spies has many messages for us:

1.       Sometimes we just aren’t the right person to do something even if it’s very important like entering the Land of Israel

2.       Sometimes we aren’t ready to do something that scares us, but we might be able to do it if we are encouraged and supported by people who believe in us

3.       Sometimes when there is a scary job we have to do we can ask God to give us courage and be with us even if we are afraid. We can also try to do that job with others; like the next generation of our ancestors who did enter the land. All the tribes worked together.

When I worked with connections for the homeless I made around 175 lunch packs. I wanted to do this because there are a lot of people in our world that are going hungry and I wanted to help combat that.

Becoming a Bar Mitzvah is a little like going into the Land of Israel. I’m a little scared, but I know it’s worth it. Becoming a Bar Mitzvah is important to me because others will see me as an adult and I will gain more respect in the jewish community and I will be able to do more things in the jewish community. Becoming a Bar Mitzvah is carrying on my ancestors legacy. It is also a way to celebrate all the learning I have done and commit to living a jewish life. Thank you to all of my teachers who helped me reach this day.

Parashat Naso

By Neri, Grade 6

Today I read Parshat Naso. In this parsha, there is a census taken of the Israelites, and we get the laws of the Nazir and each of the tribes get instructions about the offering they are supposed to bring to the Temple. One challenging part of this parsha is the description of the sota ritual. This is where a husband can bring his wife before the priest when he suspects her of cheating on him. One interpretation is that this ritual is supposed to help find peace between the two and restore their family, but I think that it just makes everything worse. The husband does not have to show proof before calling the sota ceremony, and so I think that the ceremony shows a lack of trust between the man and woman. Although it's a terrible thing to cheat and no one should ever do so, I don’t think that the man shouldn’t start assuming that much before they even talk or before he finds evidence. Let’s take a look at what the Torah says about the Sotah ritual. 

In Bamidbar chapter 5, the Torah tells us that if a husband thinks that his wife is cheating on him, he brings her to the Temple and does the sotah ceremony. In this ceremony, the priest removes her head covering and makes the “bitter waters.” To make the bitter waters, the priest writes out the curses the woman may face if she is found guilty and erases the words, dissolving them into the water along with dirt from the Temple floor.

It should be noted that the Rabbis don’t think that this ritual ever actually happened. Especially once they started discussing the details of it, they made so many restrictions on it that it likely was just hypothetical. 

That being said, let’s continue the thought experiment. The Sotah ritual caught my attention because now we would never do something like this. It’s weird because even if the man has a little suspicion, then he can do this ceremony. If she’s innocent, she’s supposed to go back to her husband and they might have some trust issues. 

I think that none of this would actually make any peace. It would be awkward because he blamed her for such a big thing that she didn’t do. Rabbi Harold Kushner, a 20th century Rabbi, lecturer, and author has a similar question. He says the following: “We can understand the promise that if the woman is found innocent, she will be able to become pregnant, showing that she will be restored to a life of love with her husband. But even if the ordeal and a subsequent pregnancy turn the husband's heart back to his wife, what will it take to restore her trust in him and affection for him?”

Now I’m not married and I don’t know much about marriage, but I do have siblings and the issue of trust comes up from time to time. Whenever I go out with my friends (which is a lot), I tell my sister not to go in my room. And when she goes somewhere she tells me not to go in her room. Sometimes when she gets back she thinks that I went in her room but I actually didn’t. And sometimes when I get back, I think she went into my room but she actually didn’t. Even though this is a different relationship, I think there are lessons that can connect to the Sotah ritual. A lot of the time the man thinks that the woman is cheating on him but she's actually not. 

One main lesson that I have learned from my parsha is the importance of communication and trust in relationships. If you think something is wrong, talk about it without just accusing someone without any evidence. If trust has been broken, work together to solve the problem instead of just letting someone else do it for you. 

Parashat Bamidbar

By Tamar, Grade 7

Shabbat Shalom everyone!

Thank you all for being here today to celebrate my bat mitzvah. I am truly grateful to have you all by my side as I take this important step in my life. Today, I want to share with you some thoughts on my parsha, Bamidbar, and the lessons it has taught me about the importance of fairness and equality in our lives.

Bamidbar tells the story of the Israelites wandering in the desert and how the 12 tribes were arranged. It was important to set up the camp to have more organization for such a big group. If they hadn’t had an order it would have been a free for all. in a free for all, it’s every man for himself. There’s fighting, unfair, everyone wants the best spots. By listing the organization, the Torah is teaching us that it’s important to have things organized and fair.

The Torah teaches us that having a fair and organized structure is important to prevent chaos and conflict.

In my parsha, the camp was organized by a system called "diglo." According to a midrash, Hashem instructed Moses to tell each tribe to create a flag with a unique color and symbol that represented their story. The tribes would then gather around their flags, forming their designated positions.

However, Moses worried that these flags could lead to competition and conflict between the tribes. This concern reminded me of my experiences with Color War at Camp Ramah, where things can become quite intense and competitive, sometimes even straining friendships.

Despite Moses' concerns, Hashem assured him that the people would not fight over the flags. Still, Moses' point about the potential for conflict highlights the risk of inequality and division that can come from categorizing ourselves into separate groups.

Equality is a value that is very important to me. To me, equality means fairness, but not necessarily that everything is the same for everyone. Fairness means that people receive what they deserve or work for.

As I studied further into the Book of Bamidbar, I came across the story of Korach, a man who challenged Moses' leadership by arguing that all Jews were equally holy. At first, his argument made sense with me.  they all came from the same place, they are all going to the same place, so why should Moshe be leading them, or getting the Torah, or having special relationship with God?

However, as I studied the story more closely, I realized that Moses' leadership was not about him wanting power. In fact, he was initially reluctant to lead. Leadership for Moses was a difficult task, with endless complaints and responsibilities. On the other hand, Korach's intentions were not as noble as they seemed. The rabbis teach that while he spoke about equality, he just wanted to take the power from Moshe and give it to himself.

Upon reflection, I came to understand that while Moses' relationship with Hashem may not have been equal, it was fair. Hashem wanted Moses to trust that the people would find a way to share and coexist even if everything wasn't exactly equal.

In our world today, we face many inequalities. There are rich and poor, powerful and powerless. While the world may never be fully equal, we can work towards making it fairer. For my bat mitzvah project, I am making bags with food for the homeless. This small act won't solve the issue of homelessness, but I hope it can make the world a little fairer.

If more people took similar actions, we could get closer to a world that is more just and fair. As I become a bat mitzvah, my goal is to contribute to making the world a better, fairer place.

So, let us all think globally but act locally, using our influence to make a positive change. Together, we can work towards a world that is more just and fair for everyone. 

Parashat Emor

By Teddy, Grade 7

In Parshat Emor, we get many, specific laws for the sacrifices and holidays, and THEN we get the story of the Blasphemer.

The story of the Blasphemer and his violent demise felt abrupt and surprising to me. Two questions that poked at me while I was reading (and rereading). First, why is the story of the Blasphemer here? And second, why does it end with such a violent and communal punishment? 

So, back to the first question. Why is the story of the Blasphemer here? This is, after all Vayikra, a book of laws. 

It actually makes sense why it’s here. As I found in my study, this Parsha is all about holiness: holiness for the Kohanim AND the Israelites AND what happens when you are unholy. 

Rav Michael Hattin of Pardes explains that this story does actually fit in perfectly to the pattern of the text. The pattern goes like this: First the parsha gives a description of laws of holiness for the Kohanim about sacrifices, then holiness that applies to all the Israelites with a description of the holidays. Then there are more laws of holiness for the Kohanim with the rules for the showbread and menorah. But then, instead of following that with more text about holiness for the Israelites again, it is a story about desecration, the opposite of holiness, and what you should not do. That’s the Blasphemer. 

I learned that this story of the Blasphemer is one of only two stories in the entire book of Vayikra, which is a list of all the laws for the Israelites.

The other story is, surprise surprise, one about Kohanim being unholy and dying. Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, do not perform sacrifices correctly, and as a result, they are consumed by God’s fire. These two stories go back into the same pattern: Nadav and Avihu, Kohanim, die a few parshas ago, and then the Blasphemer, an Israelite, dies for unholiness in this parsha. 

Just before the story of the Blasphemer, God talks about the showbread and how it should belong to Aaron and his sons. The Torah doesn’t call them the Kohanim, the Torah says, the “sons of Aaron.” I think this is a not-so-subtle reminder of the story of what happened to two of Aaron’s other sons, who also did not adhere to God’s rules for holiness. 

Also of note, this Blasphemer does not have a name, but is described as “the son of an Israelite woman,” and that’s written twice in a row. I don’t think it’s an accident. This is a warning to all of us, Kohanim and Israelites, not to desecrate God’s name. 

The second question I wanted to consider is why does the Blasphemer get the punishment of being stoned by the entire community? 

It’s not only death but death at the hands of the whole community. Why does he get this punishment and why does everyone have to participate? 

Ibn Ezra, a 12th-century scholar, found significance in the word “Vayikov”, which is how the Blasphemer’s actions are described. He didn’t “Vayomer” or say, he “Vayikov” ed, or enunciated the name of God that must not be uttered. This suggests that the Blasphemer knew and wanted to make clear every syllable and sound in what he said. This means it’s much worse, therefore the punishment is much worse.

Rashi and the early rabbis spend a lot of time trying to find significance in the identity of the Blasphemer to explain why he is especially bad and is therefore perhaps deserving of an especially bad end. He is not only the son of an Israelite woman but an Egyptian man, and not just any Egyptian man. 

In Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yoseph writes that this Egyptian man was the taskmaster of Pharaoh who raped the Blasphemer’s mother, and the Blasphemer was the result. Rabbi Yoseph wrote, “In every case, the offspring follows the (nature of) the seed: if it is sweet, it will be due to the sweet (seed); if it is bitter, it will be due to the bitter (seed).” 

Anne Gordon from The Times of Israel takes a different perspective on the Blasphemer. She writes, “The implication is that he was taunted as one who was not fully a member of the Children of Israel. If he were ostracized his whole life, this struggle may have been the final straw.”  

The Blasphemer gets this terrible punishment because there’s no way to come back from cursing God. But why does the whole community have to participate in this? Clearly, it was a warning to everyone not to be blasphemous. But I think there’s more. 

The Blasphemer may have taken the final, unforgivable step. But the community drove him to that feeling of utter despair. He wasn’t allowed to pitch his tent within the tribe. He was the son of an Israelite woman but that wasn’t enough. The community didn’t commit the unforgivable act of blasphemy, but they had a key role in pushing him to the edge. As a result, I think that’s why every person who heard his enunciation of blasphemy had to participate in his death to take responsibility. 

God’s commandment to be holy isn’t just about how your actions impact your own life but how they impact others. 

As my great grandfather and namesake, Rabbi Morris Gutstein, wrote, “So when we are bid to make our life holy, it can mean only one thing. To maintain the highest standards of ethical dealing, moral living, and social justice.”

The community can change someone’s life for the worse, or the better. I have been so fortunate to be part of multiple supportive communities. I know many others in my city and country have not been as lucky. As part of my year of learning, I’ve tried to deepen my understanding about issues of homelessness. 

This year I had the chance to participate in direct service, meeting, interacting, and trying to help people without homes. Each one of these opportunities helped me understand more about homelessness and made me think a lot about my role as a person of privilege. 

Homelessness is not only someone living on the street. It’s people without a consistent, safe place to live, someone who is couch hopping, living in a shelter or sleeping in a car, and waiting in line to shower or clean clothes. 

You can’t know someone’s story and what challenges they are facing just by looking. My first reaction when I saw people coming through the line for free winter clothing wearing expensive-looking belts, bags, or AirPods was to think, maybe this person doesn’t need a free coat. As I talked to people, I learned more about them and imagined myself coming for free clothing and all of the feelings I might have in that situation, and what I might wear. 

I also learned that we can’t fully understand the causes of homelessness unless we are going to talk about systemic racism. Not all, but most of the people coming in to be served were people of color. Not all, but nearly all of the volunteers I worked with were white.

It is also important to listen to experts on the ground or hear it from people who have experienced homelessness themselves. Helping others shouldn’t primarily be for you and your good feeling but for others and their well-being. One of the jobs I did was to take out the well-intentioned notes from a high school group telling people receiving hygiene kits, “You got this.” 

All of these experiences have made me realize how much more I have to learn, but also how powerful it could be if we all saw ourselves as responsible for the community. In contrast to what the community did to push the Blasphemer to the edge, and to the punishment they all had to inflict, imagine what the world would be like if we all used our words, knowledge, and our hands to help. 

Parashat Tzav

By Ruthie, Grade 6

Today, I read from Parshat Tzav, which will be read in its entirety next Shabbat. This parasha talks about how the Kohanim, the high priests, offer sacrifices to God. It describes the rules and rituals related to different types of sacrifice, like the peace, sin, and guilt offerings. I was interested in talking about the “Shlamim” sacrifice, because it is a ritual that shows one’s gratitude for well being. I want to talk about how this parasha teaches us why it is important to be grateful and to appreciate all that you have. 

The shlamim sacrifice is different from the other sacrifices because part of it was given to God and the rest was eaten by the priests and the broader community. This sacrifice of gratitude for wellbeing was meant to be shared and eaten in its entirety and there could be no leftovers.    

I think it is significant that the sacrifice for wellbeing is shared with everyone. Rabbi Shai Held, the Rosh Yeshiva of the Hadar Institute says: “Gratitude is a bridge between recognizing what has been given and the commitment to be a giver myself.” We are meant not only to receive God's gifts, but to absorb that experience and share it with others. Part of being grateful is to appreciate our gifts and then to “pay it forward” through acts of kindness to others. When the kohanim share their sacrifice of gratitude for well-being with the community, they are modeling that being grateful can also move you to be generous to others. 

Another thing that stood out to me about the shlamim sacrifice and how it relates to gratitude can be found in chapter 7 verse 11, which says “This is the ritual of the sacrifice of well being that one WILL offer to God.” This is different from the other descriptions of sacrifices, because in the Hebrew, the word “Yakreev,” “will offer,” is in the future tense. This means it will happen soon but has not happened yet. My question is why is this written in the future tense? What future are they talking about? What makes this sacrifice, of being thankful, different from the other sacrifices?    

There is a midrash, which is commentary by Rabbis about biblical stories, which helps to answer this question. This midrash comes from Vayikra Rabbah 9:7: and it states:  “In the future, all sacrifices will be canceled, but the todah sacrifice will not be canceled. All prayers will be canceled, but prayers of gratitude will not be canceled.” This emphasizes the importance of being grateful at all times even in a future when there is no pain and suffering. Why is it important to say thank you even if everything is going well and there is no risk of misfortune?   

Maybe the Rabbi’s wanted to teach us that when you are grateful for God's gifts, a good life, blessed with family and friends and food, shelter and safety, and respect for one another, that it fills your heart and makes you want to share and give to others. By keeping this sacrifice, the Jewish people can give their respect to God and strengthen their community.

Gratitude builds community because it moves people to give back and take care of one another and reach out to those in need. Keeping the shlamim sacrifice, which is to be eaten communally, would give a reason for people to come together, share food, and be grateful for everything they have.

Gratitude continues the cycle of wellbeing. It helps you appreciate and recognize what you have been given and also helps you be thoughtful about how you can be a giver yourself. I have always tried to appreciate and be grateful for what my parents have done to provide for me and my brothers. A few years ago, we had the opportunity to spend time with a refugee family, playing with them, going to the park, and helping them get adjusted to life in Chicago. We spent seven or eight months with this family, and during that time, I saw that they didn’t have the same educational opportunities or were as fortunate as I have been. This experience helped me to appreciate my family and friends and all of the comforts that I have. As I become a Bat Mitzvah, I will try to be appreciative of all of the gifts that I have including family, friends, food, safety and shelter and try to continue the cycle of gratitude by giving what I can to help others. 

Parashat Ki Tisa

By Perla, Grade 7

Boker tov! I have loved this Torah portion for 5 years! When I was in 2nd Grade I read from Parshat Ki Tisa wearing this rainbow colored wig and a white unicorn onesie complete with a tail on Purim. The following year, in 3rd grade, I wrote my first dvar Torah which was about Ki Tisa. Since then, I have always wanted to have Ki Tisa as my Bat Mitzvah portion. As you can see today, it worked out, although today I chose not to wear the horn and wig. 

Parshat Ki Tisa is a pretty big parsha with a lot of big events. Ki Tisa may be mostly known for the golden calf, but there is so much more to unpack in this parsha. 

The parasha includes the commandment to take a census of all the people, specific instructions about the altar and tabernacle, and even includes a reminder to the Israelites that keeping shabbat is very important.

While Moses was on Har Sinai, the Israelites began to get very impatient with Moses and they started to believe that maybe there was no God. The Israelites turned to Moses' older brother, Aaron for guidance. They decided to build a new god that they could see and know was real. This was the golden calf. The people started worshiping and sacrificing to their new idol.

Back on the mountain, God finishes instructing Moses and tells him what the Israelites are doing. God was furious and said that He would like to get rid of all of the Israelites. Moses convinces God to keep them alive by reminding him of the promise that He had made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. 

Moses comes down from the mountain and sees everything that is happening and he is so angry and shocked that he throws the tablets and they shatter. Moses and God punish the people, and then, Moses goes to God and asks for forgiveness. God also tells Moses to bring two tablets so that he can reinscribe the commandments. 

Once Moses goes back on Har Sinai, God gives him the 13 attributes. Moses is in such awe from God so he bowed down and pleaded. This convinces God to come back to the Israelites and provide them miracles once again. Under one condition: They must stay true to God and only God. 

While reading this, I could not stop thinking about how Moses could have possibly been convincing enough to get God not to kill the Israelites and to forgive them. In my school, camp, and synagogue, I have been taught that God is very powerful. Yet somehow Moses was able to convince God not to kill off an entire nation. This is just so crazy to me so I decided to dig deeper into it. 

Moses convinces God by saying the following, “Let not Your anger, Adonai, blaze forth against Your people, whom You delivered from the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand…. Remember Your servants, Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, how You swore to them by Yourself and said to them: I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven.” This convinces God pretty quickly. But how? 

First, I looked at what some commentators thought about it. Rashi, an 11th century French commentator, looked at what Moses said,”Let not you anger, Adonai, blaze forth” and responded by saying, "Does anyone become jealous of another, except a wise man of a wise man or a hero of a hero?” Rashi is saying that God must have been jealous of the golden calf, but God shouldn’t be because an idol is nothing compared to God who created the universe. This was interesting to me because I hadn’t thought of it in a way that God was jealous of the golden calf, instead I assumed that God was just angry with the people for creating it. 

A completely different opinion comes from Or HaChayim, a 16th century Moroccan commentator, who points out that the Torah says that God regretted even thinking of killing the Jewish people. Or HaChayim says, “There were two reasons why God reconsidered. 1) The decree was evil objectively speaking. 2) It would have resulted in evil for God’s people.” In other words, it would have just been a bad idea to kill all the Jewish people. Even though God thought of reacting that way,  it wasn’t that Moses convinced God to do otherwise, it was just that God reconsidered. 

After thinking it over for a while, I concluded that I agree with Or HaChayim. God must have gotten really upset when He saw what was happening and thought of the worst punishment He could think of: death. God lost faith in the people because the people lost faith in God. Then, as God heard what Moses had to say, He thought to himself and realized that it was too harsh and that it wasn't the right answer. 

In life, it is difficult to not overreact at times, and it is very important to think before you act. I think that just like God, many of us might say or do things without thinking enough about what they mean or how they can impact others.

This relates to me because sometimes I will say or do things without thinking very much and go back and realize that maybe it wasn’t the best decision. I can learn from my parshah that we all sometimes react quickly and angrily. Sometimes, you can apologize afterwards and correct what you said, to make things right. But this is not always possible. So you should think before you act, and think about how you use your voice. None of us have as much power as God, but what you do and say still can make a difference. 

Thank you and boker tov!

Parashat Ki Tisa

By Bayla, Grade 6

Shabbat Shalom, Everyone.  

It is an honor for me to stand before you as I celebrate becoming a Bat Mitzvah. 

If we are honest with ourselves, most of us struggle with belief in God from time to time. Sometimes we need this struggle in order to become stronger and more clear in what we believe in.  When we aren’t secure in our beliefs, our actions can be a helpful bridge.  Our actions can help keep us on the right path, even when we feel lost or confused. 

This week’s Parsha is Ki Tisa, the story of the Golden calf and the importance of our relationship with God. Many of you know this famous story.  When Moshe was on Har Sinai receiving the ten commandments from God, the Israelites waited for 40 days and 40 nights, and they got upset and scared when Moshe didn’t return when he had agreed to.  They had temporarily lost their faith in God.  

I mean, wouldn't you be too? It's like on Passover when your Savta says the matzo ball soup will be ready in 15 minutes and it's been 45. (Nana that is about you!).  There was a lot of anticipation waiting for Moshe to come back with The Ten Commandments that the Israelites would have to follow- rules they weren’t used to. They had just come out of Egypt where there was a whole different set of rules and now they were waiting to get new ones. I imagine they had some doubts about these Ten Commandments and what God was thinking.

The commentators explain that Aaron, Moshe’s brother, had faith that Moshe would come back and he had an idea to try and stall the people and buy Moshe more time. Brothers always have the best ideas, don't they, Levi?

Aaron sends The Israelites to get their jewelry and even though he thought it would take a long time, the Israelites were very quick. In less than a day, they cast The Golden Calf with their golden jewels. When Moshe saw the Golden Calf they created, he got extremely angry and smashed the first set of tablets, Jewish Hulk style.  He then had to make the next set of tablets without god.

One thing that stood out to me when I read this section was how quickly the Israelites changed their minds. They had just been taken out of Egypt by God and they personally witnessed all the miracles god can do. They saw the 10 plagues, the parting of the sea, and maan.

And then suddenly, in this one incident, their minds just shifted! In chapter 32, verses 2-3, shortened it says, “Aaron said to them, “You men, take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters and bring them to me. ”  We can all relate! When we don’t see God or when we don’t feel like God is on our side, we can easily lose trust in Him. Just like the Israelites gave up their promise to believe in God and to trust that Moshe would return, we can lose our faith when times get tough. 

The Israelites could have used the power of action to help them keep their faith. We all use actions when we have doubts in our faith - we do mitzvot, pray, give charity tzedakah, and do Tikkun Olam to ground us in our Jewish values. The Israelites could have taken actions to help them stay connected to God even when it was uncertain or scary to wait for Moshe. But, their choices lead them in the wrong direction. Ramban, a 13th-century commentator, and philosopher said that the Israelites were simply wanting a leader who would go out before them, as the Parsha says in chapter 32, verse 1: “Asher yelchu lefaneinu” “who will go out before us.” This shows bravery and faith. Bechor Shor, a 12th-century commentator, had a similar idea. He said that the Israelites were looking for a judge or a magistrate. 

It’s natural that when we feel lost or insecure, we look for a leader to guide us. But sometimes, we get confused. If we don’t rely on our belief in God and take positive actions that help us stay connected to our faith, we may think that we are making a leader out of simple gold and riches. We need to look for strong community leaders - AND BE THE LEADERS- who lead with bravery and faith.

Belief and actions go hand in hand. When I question my faith or when I go through struggles in my life, I will always remember the story of the Golden Calf. I will search for my belief in God even when he is hard to believe in or difficult to see. I will look within myself to my Jewish values, do mitzvot, and be a leader in my community.  I will try to be a mench- being kind to others- helping people in need and standing with Israel and my Jewish community. All of these are flashlights that I can use to help me find my way back home.

For my Bat Mitzvah project, I chose to take positive actions at Cradles to Crayons. Cradles to Crayons is an organization that helps families in need. My family and I spent a lot of time volunteering at their Giving Workshop. Some of the things we did were checking and making clothing bundles, packing backpacks, checking the quality of things before they get distributed, and so much more. I felt this was meaningful because a lot of families don’t have the same good fortune and I thought that giving my time and love were the most valuable things I could give. I appreciate the many blessings that God gives me and the opportunities to give back to my community. With each task I worked on, I know that the person who received it will have a smile on their face and know that they are loved. 

As I become a Jewish woman, I reaffirm my belief in God and take action while holding the Torah and Judaism in my mind and my heart.

I would like to thank Rabbi Wolkenfeld, ASBI and CJDS for everything they have done to create a space where I can lead a service, read from the Torah, and start this new chapter in my life. I would also like to thank everyone who participated in helping me prepare for today in ways big and small ways- especially Sara. I am lucky enough to have a lot of family members and friends who have come in from out of town to celebrate with me. Thank you for making the time and effort to join us! Thank you to Imma, Abba, Levi, and Eden for always being there for me and supporting me through this process. All the people that I love have shown me through belief and actions how to lead a beautiful Jewish life, and I am so grateful to each and every one of you. Shabbat Shalom!

Parashat Mishpatim

By Lilah, Grade 7

Have you ever broken the law?  No, I don’t mean: did you ever rob a bank?  But for those of you who drive, have you ever sped on on the highway?  For Kids my age, have you ever “Jaywalked”, or crossed in a place where you should not have? Let me ask a second question: Why do we need these laws at all?  Why can’t you cross the street wherever you want to, or go as fast you want on the highway?

Well, that brings me to the portion of Mishpatim.

For my Bat Mitzvah, I read from the parsha called “Mishpatim.” The English translation of the Hebrew word Mishpatim is “laws.” And that is what my torah portion is about, the laws and rules we are expected to live by. In fact, this Torah portion is the earliest law code of the Israelite people.  

Some of the laws in my parsha talked about things that are clearly looked down upon in society – things like kidnapping, lying, and lack of ethics. But while the laws make sense, it is never really known “why” these laws are in place in the Torah.  There are a few places in the parsha where a slight explanation is given for specific laws, but a “reason” is never stated about why we have Jewish law in general. So while preparing for my Bat Mitzvah, the question I asked myself was “What is the reason we have Jewish laws, and also why do we need laws at all?”

One of the obvious reasons for laws in any society is to protect people from one another. Because without laws that encourage these principles, things in the world could get crazy!  People wouldn’t know to look out for each other. For example, what would happen if someone speeds past a red light in traffic or a Stop sign?  With laws in place, someone who runs a red light has to face consequences.  But with NO laws, there are no consequences.  And with no consequences, the road may turn into a complete mess because people may not care enough to protect each other when it seems inconvenient to stop at the light. Just imagine what would happen on Lake Shore Drive if there were no speed limit!

But Jewish law goes beyond protecting us from one another, the laws of Mishpatim try to help us create an ethical society. 

The famous Jewish philosopher, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said that Jewish laws should be defined as “Mitzvot” and that they are in place to protect us, provide discipline, and to inspire us. Heschel emphasizes the idea of mitzvot which assumes that there is also a commander or in this case, God. By focusing our attention on the work commandment or mitzvah Heschel wants us to understand God is concerned about the laws given in society and most of all how we treat one another. In other words, when a person breaks the laws of the portion of mishpatim he is not only harming the other person but acting against god.  Jewish law is an attempt to go beyond teaching people the difference between right and wrong, and remind each other that all lives are valuable, and every life is sacred. 

This explains why there are ritual or religious laws mixed in with the general laws of society. Rabbi Nahum Sarna believes that by combining ethical and ritual laws in the same parsha, the Torah is adding meaning and holiness to our lives. And I agree with that.  Jewish law gives us a system to know “right from wrong.”  It provides us a structure for how to act in an ethical way that goes beyond what people may have thought of on their own.  That answers my question for the most part, but I found that there is even more to it.

I studied the teachings of the late Chicago Rabbi Herman Schaalman, who was the Rabbi at my Papa Steve’s Bar Mitzvah many years ago. Rabbi Schaalman believes in what he calls “historical inheritance.”  This means that the laws in the Torah instruct us to do mitzvot because we are the descendants of those who God initially gave the laws to.

I’m not completely sure I agree with Rabbi Schaalman in the sense that just being a descendant does not make me do the same things as my ancestors did – or think about laws in the same way they did.  But where I think his opinion makes lots of sense is that Jewish law is a part of Jewish culture and tradition – and all of that wouldn't be a part of me if it weren't for my family and the generations before me.  For my Parents and grandparents whom I know – and my ancestors who I never met –  Jewish law and culture was and “IS” a big part of their lives.

So I have concluded that we have Jewish law because it gives us a sense of how to live, how to tell right from wrong, and tie us to our ancestors in an especially Jewish way.  But what I have also learned is that the laws of Mishpatim want us to work toward creating a better world.  

That said, I want to thank everyone here in my “school” world here at CJDS.  For the past 8 years, everyone in the CJDS community has helped to make me the person I am today.  I am grateful to the teachers and faculty for preparing me for this moment and for the rest of my life as a Jewish adult.

Additionally, I want to thank my amazing Bat Mitzvah tutor Yedida Soloff who is here this morning. Thank you for your incredible knowledge and for working with me. You made learning so fun and meaningful.

I started my Dvar Torah with a question:  Why do we need laws?  From my Torah portion, Mishpatim, I learned that from a Jewish perspective, we are called upon to not simply follow the laws out of fear of punishment, but to make the world more peaceful…tolerant…and equal.  This is done through acts of charity and taking action.  I hope to continue following in the ways of my Torah portion and make a difference in the world in the future as well. 

Parashat Mishpatim

By Goldie, Grade 6

Imagine you get to the first day of school. The first thing your teacher does is make rules. She does this to keep the classroom in control, so that you can learn.  In this week’s parasha, the Israelites are newly freed from Egypt and they get a bunch of rules, like on the first day of school. The parasha that I read this morning, and will read on Saturday afternoon, is called “mishpatim,” which means laws. In other words, right after they leave Egypt, as they are celebrating an escape from slavery, the Israelites get flooded with rules… so they’re not really completely free anymore. While rules obviously keep a person from being free, rules also have the power to create freedom. In my classroom, a rule that keeps others from interrupting a speaker gives the speaker the freedom to communicate their opinion.

From my reading, one of the laws that stuck out to me was “If a man sells his daughter as a maid servant she shall not be free the same way that male slaves are released. If her owner doesn’t find her pleasing, he must allow her to be redeemed.  He cannot sell her to someone else because he cheated her.” Let’s talk about what that means. Unlike the male slave, who gets released after six years of slavery, the Torah is talking about a Jewish female, who is sold by her father for the purpose of marriage.  If the owner later decides not to marry her, then he has to let her go. He has to let her go because by not marrying her, he broke the promise he made at the time of purchase. 

As you guys hear this, you are probably thinking, “this is crazy. Why would a father sell his daughter?!” Rashi, the most famous Torah commentator, from 11th century France, must have had the same reaction. He explains that this sale can only be done with a female child and that it is only permitted when the father has absolutely no money, with no possible means of support. This means he cannot feed and clothe his daughter. When he sells his daughter, he receives money and his daughter gets food and clothing and probably, later, marriage. In biblical society, if she marries someone with more wealth, it is an upgrade from being a poor, single woman. 

So in this biblical time and place, this arrangement seems to be with the intent of helping everyone involved. But there is another problem here: the man gets to choose whether or not he likes the girl to marry, but the Torah doesn’t tell us that the woman gets to choose. As much as this caught me off guard, it also bothered Rambam, a rabbi and doctor in the 1100’s in Spain. In his Mishnah Torah, he laid out some requirements for the sale of a man’s daughter. She has to consent, the father has to own nothing, and the father has to buy her back if and when he can. 

The problem of the woman’s consent also bothered Rabbi Ovadiah Sforna, a 16th century Italian Rabbi and doctor.  It struck me that these rabbinic commentators questioned rules from the Torah, just like my classmates and I question some of our classroom rules. Sforno, about this rule, commented that “it is not appropriate for an upstanding member of society to buy a Jewish girl as a servant against her will.”

Earlier, I talked about our classroom rule about interrupting, which both limits freedoms to speak whenever we want, but also creates freedom for the one active speaker to communicate. These rules about selling one’s daughter similarly limit the new freedom of the Israelites, while creating and protecting other freedoms. At first, the deal seems to mostly limit the daughter, who becomes a slave. The Torah doesn’t tell us what kind of work she is expected to do. The seller is limited in that can only sell his daughter if he cannot afford to provide for her. The buyer, if he wants to keep her past childhood, has to give her the status of a wife and provide for her. On the other hand, the woman is protected against a lifetime of slavery and is guaranteed either the status of wife or independence. 

As I try to understand and appreciate these particular rules, I notice how different our rules are in America in 2023. Of course, slavery is completely illegal, and consent to marriage by a woman is a requirement of both modern Jewish and American law… and we don’t make marriage agreements for children. At the same time, some things haven’t completely changed. Our society still has extreme poverty that might make parents unable to properly care for their children. Maybe a good prayer for today is that hopefully one day soon, our system of rules will evolve to create freedom from suffering like that.

I am so happy that all of you could join and celebrate with me, as I become a bat mitzvah. I am so excited to finally be a Jewish woman. I’d like to give a shoutout to my bat mitzvah tutor, Sarah Singer, who helped me get ready for this day, and a shoutout to my family for always being there for me.

Parashat Beshalach

By Nathan, Grade 7

This week’s parsha is parashat Beshalach. There are many exciting things in this parsha, but today I’m going to focus on the splitting of the sea. First, let’s start when they are going in:

Pharaoh let the Jews out of Egypt. But then he changed his mind and started chasing after them! While they were fleeing Egypt, the Jewish people heard the sounds of the mighty chariots (make chariot noises with mouth) behind them. But right in front of them was an entire sea. The Jewish people were trapped in between the red sea and the most powerful army in the world coming after them from behind.

According to the midrash Yalkut Shemoni, they split into four groups. One said: Let’s drown ourselves Another said: Let’s fight against them (a war they would never win against the most powerful army in the world). One said - let’s cry and one said - let’s go back. Basically - They all wanted to give up. God says to Moshe though:

מַה־תִּצְעַ֖ק אֵלָ֑י דַּבֵּ֥ר אֶל־בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל וְיִסָּֽעוּ

Then said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward.” Now, they know what they are supposed to do - walk through the sea! Imagine if you were in a group and you had a leader, and the leader said - go ahead, march into the sea - it’s going to open up. If someone told me that this sea was going to open and disobey the law of physics, I would say - did something hit your head?! The gemara in masechet sotah says that they weren’t exactly excited to do what Moshe told them to.

Each tribe said to the other tribe - you go first. While they were arguing about who had to be the guinea pig, a man named Nashhon ben Aminadav jumped in! And guess what happens… (drumroll) He starts to drown! The gemara says that while he was drowning, Nashhon prays to god telling him to spare his life. While this was happening Moshe was praying. God criticized Moshe and said - stop prolonging your prayer - my people are drowning! Moshe responded - I don't know what to do! God says 

וְאַתָּ֞ה הָרֵ֣ם אֶֽת־מַטְּךָ֗ וּנְטֵ֧ה אֶת־יָדְךָ֛ עַל־הַיָּ֖ם וּבְקָעֵ֑הוּ וְיָבֹ֧אוּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל בְּת֥וֹךְ הַיָּ֖ם בַּיַּבָּשָֽׁה׃

And you lift up your rod and hold out your arm over the sea and split it, so that the Israelites may march into the sea on dry ground. And then, finally, the sea split. For me, this is a story about hitting a dead end, and then moving forward with faith. Nachson took a leap into the water. Even though he started to drown, he still had faith. He still talked to God.

The lesson from this is to have faith, even in the darkest times. And to act! I have a theory that God actually split the sea because of Nachshon. Moshe was a great leader, but in this situation Nachson was the one who took action and I think God listened to Nachson. He had faith, he moved forward, he had a beautiful prayer that was short and sweet.  Moshe was too rushed in the situation which made him give a long prayer. God listened to Nachshon and split the sea because of him. After Nachson had faith and the sea split, the Jewish people started to walk through. When they walked in, there were so many miracles. The midrash teaches that the water was divided into multiple paths so everyone could spread out, the bottom was dry and there were no dangerous or obstacles in their way, the water was piled up, there were miraculous fruit trees in the water and you could think about a food item you wanted and you could reach in and it would come to you.

In the red sea - you instantly eat anything you want. Later in my parsha, the Jewish people get the - manna. Manna was a little different - they had to work for it a little more, but it still tasted like whatever you want.

Finally, when the Jewish people entered the land of Israel, there was good food available - milk and honey, but they really had to work for it.  Becoming a bar mitzvah is like going from the red sea, to the manna to supplying myself.  In life we can’t stay in the same spot, we can’t go backwards. We have to move forward. Face your challenges by moving forward. If you stand still they will catch up to you.

Our basketball coach, Coach Bryce, says: if you miss a shot, you can’t think about how you missed it, don’t let it linger, think about how you can make the next one. Becoming a bar mitzvah symbolizes growing up. If I could describe my parsha in one word, it would be "evolving." I'm evolving from childhood to adulthood. I’m putting on tefillin, started going to shacharit on Sunday mornings. I’m becoming a full adult member of the community.

I would like to thank CJDS teachers for teaching me through kindergarten to now. Thank you  for also connecting with me and showing me the meaning of the line from Pirkei Avot:

מצא לך רב וקנה לך חבר= Matza Lecha Rav ooh Kneh Lecha Chaver

Which means: Find for yourself a teacher and acquire for yourself a friend. Thanks everyone for celebrating this milestone with me.

Parashat Vayetzei

By Ben, Grade 7

Hello everyone and thank you all for coming. My Torah portion is called Vayetzei from the Book of Genesis. My parsha describes how Jacob goes to the well and meets Rachel. He instantly falls in love with her. So, Jacob goes to the house of her dad (Laban) and asks if he can marry Rachel. Laban says yes… if Jacob works for him for seven years. Seven years go by, and the wedding happens. Now, Jacob couldn’t see who he was marrying because there was a veil on the bride. But once the veil came off he saw that it was Rachel’s older sister Leah.  

So, Jacob needed to work for seven more years to finally marry Rachel. 

When I read this portion, something that really stood out was the way that Laban kept trying to trick Jacob -- even after Jacob was done with his 14 years of work. Strangely, Jacob still wanted to work for Laban after he tricked him with his daughters. Laban tried to trick Jacob again by trying to cheat him out of getting paid. When Jacob offered to get paid by taking a small portion of certain types of livestock, at first Laban agreed. But then he gave Jacob’s portion to his own sons. That’s when God intervened. Through God’s help, Jacob kept getting more of the livestock that benefitted him. The Torah commentator, Sforno, pointed out how God had to intervene in the situation to show Laban that his actions were wrong. Sforno explained that “God revealed what Jacob deserved for his faithful service by altering the coloration of the lambs to benefit Jacob.” This stood out to me because I thought it was interesting how even though Laban kept changing the pay for Jacob, God kept helping Jacob get everything he needed.In the end Jacob gets most of what Laban values.   

This part of the Torah spoke to me because it has to do with fairness. Fairness is important to me because everyone is affected by it whether it helps you or hurts you. It could be something minor or something major. In my experience it normally is minor. I can remember when I was younger if me and my brother Eli got a coke and two cups or another drink. We always tried to split it up as evenly as it could get but still someone would always just get a little bit more. I would be so mad if he got a little bit more than me and just a little happy if I got more. That’s an example of something that is minor.  

A more major example is how some people in our country and in our city don’t have equal access to good education, healthcare, or even food based on their economic status, the neighborhood they live in, and often their race. There are some organizations that work with people most affected by this unfairness to make change. I think it’s important to work to make this world more fair. While it’s hard to feel like any one action can make a real change, if we all choose to do something to make our society more fair, I believe we can make a difference.   

Parashat Noah

By Simon, Grade 8

Shabbat shalom. Here is a hypothetical case that I want you to consider. A person goes to Best Buy to purchase the latest Nintendo and a new game for it.  When the person gets in the car to go home he realizes that the cashier only charged for the game and not the Nintendo. 

What should he do? Take the game back and pay the hundreds of dollars that he would be charged? Or go home feeling as though it is tough luck for best buy? I won’t ask for a show of hands, but I suspect that a number of people would be in favor of a free Nintendo.

According to the Rabbis those who voted to keep the Nintendo would be understood as being part of the Dor Hamabul of the generation of the flood. Permit me to remind you of the saga of Noah and his generation.

The story of Noah starts with the world having too many problems. People are fighting and stealing. God speaks to Noah and says there will be massive consequences for the people. build an ark and bring two of each animal on board as well as your family. It took Noah about 120 years to build the ark. After the ark was finished the flash flood started. And after about 370 days on the ark. a dove returned to the Ark with a freshly plucked olive branch in its beak. The olive branch meant that there was land again. And In the distance there was a rainbow. It was representing peace. The olive branch and the rainbow both meant that the flood was ending.

A question that the Rabbis raise is what did the people of Noah’s generation do that was so terrible that God would destroy the world as a punishment? According to my Torah reading: 

“God became angry with the sins of mankind”  The earth became corrupt before God:  the earth was filled with Hamas, or lawlessness.  From the word Hamas/lawlessness the Rabbis framed their answer and it might surprise you. 

According to the Rabbis the people were experts in the law, especially those parts that dealt with punishment.  For instance, if you stole less than a Peruta, the equivalent of a penny in their day, then no court would prosecute you for a crime.  So people would feel free to steal from others but just enough so that they could not be punished. They were not concerned with the fact that stealing was wrong, or how their act would affect the person they were taking things from.  The only thing they cared about was whether they could get away with it.  While their example has more to do with grains then the Nintendo that I began with it is really the same idea. A society that cares only about how to get away with a crime is according to the Torah a society worthy of being destroyed.  I began by saying that the Rabbis would compare aspects of our society to Dor Hamabul, the generation of the flood.  Here is an example: 

Stealing has become rampant in large cities across the United States.  People know that if you steal merchandise that is worth less than 100 dollars the police will not pursue it. If they are not going to be punished they will do the crime.  Again, the question is not whether you can get away with it, the question is whether it is right or wrong.

So returning to the story of nintendo: At the end of the day, keeping the Nintendo would be stealing, it would be wrong and really not worth it even if you could get away with it. The thing that was missing in Noah’s generation was a lack of awareness of how one person’s action can impact the larger society.  When someone sees someone else get away with something, they might be tempted to do the same thing. So too, if we see others doing the right and just thing, we will be encouraged to follow their good example.  One path leads to the generation of the flood, and the other to a just society. In the end, we have an obligation to do the right thing which brings me to my Mitzvah project. 

Nowadays People don't have access to clean drinking water all over the world so I have decided to team up with an organization called surge for water. 

Surge for water is an organization based right here in Chicago. Surge for Water invests in communities with safe water, sanitation, hygiene, and menstrual health solutions to help end the cycle of poverty. I am specifically working with the safe water initiative.

Over the world in total there are about 2 billion people who do not have access to safe drinking water. 

This means that kids have to walk miles every day to get water for their families survival, which is not clean and they miss out on education.

I am partnering up with surge for water. By creating a fundraiser on their page for the safe water cause. I am going to raise money for a new well in a village in Uganda. Or provide water filters for families who do not have access to it.

I am doing this not because I am going to receive a reward but because it is the right thing to do.  Sharing the resources of the planet is everyone’s responsibility. I would like to think that on the Shabbat that we read of how people’s actions could create a flood, that my actions could make a positive difference for others.  It is my attempt at creating a rainbow in someone else’s life. 

Shabbat Shalom!

Parashat Hoshanah Rabbah
Ronit, Grade 7
I am the first born daughter of my mother, who is the first born daughter of her mother, who is the first born daughter of her mother, on and on for six generations. For those six generations, women in my family have given birth to daughters before any other children. This kind of puts a bunch of pressure on me to have my first born child be a girl.
But I think this family history has something else to teach that is relevant for today. Today is Hoshanah Rabbah. Now when I first heard about Hoshanah Rabbah, I thought, “what is that?” I knew it was the last day of Sukkot, but why does it get a special name and why are the prayers and rituals of Hoshanah Rabbah so elaborate?
The earliest hint to our Hoshanah Rabbah rituals come from the Book of Yehoshua, or Joshua where we can read about how the city of Yericho, Jericho,  was conquered by Bnei Israel, or the Israelite army. God commanded Yehoshua to have his army march around Yericho one time for six days. On the seventh day they were commanded to circle it seven times, and the walls came tumbling down. In a similar way we circle the bimah once each day for the first six days of Sukkot and we circle seven times on the seventh day, Hoshanah Rabbah.
The Mishnah in masechet, or tractate Sukkah describes a ritual that looks a lot like what we do in shul today. Massive willow branches from Motza, (a two hour and fifteen minute walk from Jerusalem) were placed around the mizbeach, altar in Beit Hamikdash, or Temple on Sukkot. The mizbeach was circled once per day for the first six days of Sukkot and was then circled seven times on the seventh day. This may sound familiar. They blew shofar and said the earliest version of Hoshanot, special prayers calling on God to save us.
Sefer Chasidim, a work from the early twelve-hundreds from Germany offers a strange interpretation of the power of Hoshanah Rabah: "There is a night when the souls come out of their graves, like on the eve of Hoshana Rabba, when they come out and pray….It happened that one man didn't see his head's shadow on Hoshana Rabbah's night, so he and his loving ones fasted numerous fasts and gave a lot to tzedakah and lived many years after that as is said "Tzedakah saves from death."
According to this tradition, Hoshanah Rabbah is not just a day when we pray, but a day when our dead relatives pray on our behalf and when we can learn about our own fate. According to other traditions, the fate that is written on Rosh Hashanah and sealed on Yom Kippur is delivered to us on Hoshanah Rabbah. And so the day is a final very last chance to pray that the decree be torn up. But, the story in Sefer Hasidim shows that even after Hoshanah Rabbah it’s not too late.
The Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law, and its commentaries, written in the 16th century, describes the rituals that we do today on Hoshanah Rabbah: The practice is to bring a Torah scroll to (the bimah) and to circle it once each day and seven times on the seventh day, in memory of Beit Hamikdash REMA says: And we take seven Torah scrolls onto the bimah on the seventh day . There are places that take out every Torah scroll in the Aron. [This is] because they would circle the misbeach. The circles go clockwise. And on Shabbat we do not circle nor do we take Torah scrolls on to the bimah.
In the early 20th century, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, in his commentary to the Shulchan Aruch, known as Mishnah Berurah, wrote that we circle the bimah because,  “the bimah is what remains for us corresponding to the mizbeach.”
We’ve seen several different ways of understanding the Hoshanah Rabbah rituals: maybe they remind us of Yehoshua’s battle, maybe they remind us of rituals in Beit Hamikdash. Maybe the day is a special time to pray for our lives and our families, or maybe the day is special because of a combination of all these things.
I think that Hoshanah Rabbah is really about connecting to those before us and doing the traditions that have been passed down from generation to generation and to keep Judaism alive and thriving. Whether it comes from Yehoshua or Beit Hamikdash, Jews have been marching in circles, literally and figuratively, for a very long time.
Just like I am the sixth generation of first-born daughters, the Jewish people have been reciting Hoshanot for generations and generations, whether reciting the prayers or marching around a city. Even as I have a proud family history, I am the first of those six generations of women to lead a congregation on Hoshanah Rabbah. But I hope I will not be the last.

Parashat Eikav

Noah, Grade 8

In my Bar Mitzvah parsha, Parshat Eikav, which I read, quite well I think, just a few moments ago we read about the idea of giving thanks.

The Torah tells us that God will bring us into a good land, a land with streams and springs; a land of wheat and barley, of grape vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and date honey; a land where we may eat food without danger, and where we will lack nothing; The section ends with what appears to be what we owe God in return for living in this land.

In Devarim 8:10 it reads:

וְאָכַלְתָּ וְשָׂבָעְתָּ וּבֵרַכְתָּ אֶת־ה׳ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ עַל־הָאָרֶץ הַטֹּבָה אֲשֶׁר נָתַן־לָךְ׃

״And you shall eat and become full and bless the Lord your God for the good land that he gave to you.״

Our Rabbis understood that this pasuk is proof that there is a mitzva to recite Birkat HaMazon, grace after meals, when we are done eating.

­­­I understood that we need to say thanks from this pasuk, but I wondered what exactly we thank God for? Are we thanking God for the food AND for the land on which it grows as one connected blessing?  Or, are we supposed to thank God for the food? And the blessing for the land is something distinct? Do we need to say Birkat HaMazon if we are not in the land that God gave us? And, what if we don’t feel full? Do we still thank God?

Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, or Ramban, writing, in the Middle Ages, and Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein in the early 20th century helped me answer some of my questions. 

The Ramban writes “According to logic, the essential intention of the blessing is for the body feeling full. Therefore, automatically there is no practical difference wherever one eats. And the continuation of the verse to say “for the good land” is generic words of blessing.”

Even if the place where one eats is not important, it is important that one has eaten. As long as we have eaten, we say Birkat HaMazon all over the world and not just in Israel.

The Rabbis wondered how much food you had to eat for someone to be halachically full, because people can become full at different points. They ultimately ruled that if you eat a k’zayit/an olive size amount of bread, then you are considered full and therefore you need to say Birkat HaMazon.

And then I wondered what if you can’t say Birkat HaMazon, can someone else say it for you? When it comes to most mitzvot in the Torah, even someone who has already done the mitzvah can do it again for someone else. This is true for the mitzvah of kiddush, reading megillah, and blowing shofar and other mitzvot.  Some people in this community spend Purim and Rosh Hashanah doing those mitzvot again and again.

But, Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein quotes the ancient rabbis who say this explicitly:

תניא, כל מצות שאדם פטור מוציא את הרבים ידי חובתן, חוץ מברכת המזון, דכתיב בה ואכלת ושבעת וברכת – מי שאכל הוא יברך .

All mitzvot that a person is exempt from (because he already did that mitzvah) he can nonetheless fulfill someone else’s obligation. Except for Birkat HaMazon. As it says, “and you shall eat and be full and bless” The one who ate is the one who should bless. Birkat HaMazon is the consequence of having eaten. And since you cannot eat for someone else you cannot say Birkat HaMazon for someone else.

Although you can’t eat or say Birkat HaMazon for someone else, at least you can still invite people to say Birkat HaMazon with you! When I read the pasuk of וְאָכַלְתָּ וְשָׂבָעְתָּ it reminded me of the mishnayot I learned with my mother from Tractate Berachot. My mother and I have been learning Mishnah for several years and a particular Mishnah stuck in my mind.

The Mishnah teaches that when a group of three eats together, one of them performs the mitzvah of “zimun” which is to invite the others to recite Birkat HaMazon. When a minyan eats together, they add God’s name into this zimun. The Mishnah then goes on to debate if the zimun becomes more elaborate if there are 100, 1,000, or 10,000 people eating together?

The Mishnah ultimately concludes that we don’t add distinctions to the zimun beyond 10.

אָמַר רַבִּי עֲקִיבָא, מַה מָּצִינוּ בְּבֵית הַכְּנֶסֶת, אֶחָד מְרֻבִּין וְאֶחָד מֻעָטִין 

Rabbi Akiva said: What do we find in the synagogue - it is the same whether there are many or few (once there is a minyan). 

The words we use to praise God when there are more than 10 people in the room are:

נברך אלהינו שאכלנו משלו

“Let us praise our God, of whose food we have partaken”

So, even if I can’t eat or say Birkat HaMazon for anyone else I can invite them to say Birkat HaMazon with a reminder that  the food we ate came from God. 

Rabbi Wolkenfeld and I researched the largest meal in modern history and it turns out there were 1,700 people at a Pesach seder hosted by Chabad of Kathmandu. That sounds like a lot, but the longest table ever built can seat 3,600 people at one time!

As a bar mitzvah I will begin to lead Birkat HaMazon in small gatherings, when I eat with friends and family, but maybe one day  I can lead for thousands of people. Shabbat Shalom!

Parashat Shelach Lecha

Baxter, Grade 8

Shabbat Shalom. My parsha is Parshat Shelach Lecha which both my dad and my aunt Karen also chanted when they became B'nai Mitzvah. I’m focusing on the part where God goes over many rules that if you do not follow there will be consequences. God tells Moses that everyone will have one rule for everyone when they make a mistake. And some consequences can be extremely severe. There was an incident where an Israelite went into the wilderness to gather wood for work on Shabbat.  According to God’s law, the consequence of a person doing any kind of work on Shabbat was immediate death.  So, you can tell where this is going…  The community pelted this guy with stones, resulting in his death, outside the camp. The severity of this makes you think twice about conceiving of God’s mercy for someone.  But keep in mind, this was a biblical depiction of God and our understanding of God evolves with time.  
Back to the story.  You might think this would be followed by other crime stories, but instead, God gives commandments about fringes on garments– or tzitzit. Why?  God is saying put these fringes on and they will remind you of God’s commandments.  It’s a reminder to keep you from doing something bad.  When you get an urge to do something bad, look down at your fringes.  As the Torah says: “Look at it and recall all the commandments of the Eternal and observe them.” It seems like these fringes were an attempt to (DE-TUR) people from committing a sin.  If people wore tzitzit, they would be reminded to stay on the right side of the law.  This commandment is very common and is recited twice a day throughout many Jewish communities as they recite the shema and v’ahavta.  
While harsh, I find certain parts of this parashah that I can somewhat relate to– especially with respect to crime and punishment.  This is an interesting example of how court works.  They arrested someone, they didn't know what to do, so they brought him to the greatest judges of the Jewish people at the time: Moses, Aaron and the community leadership.  Then the supreme judge, God, spoke to Moses and announced the sentence: death by stoning.  The leadership of the community took him outside the camp and pelted him with stones until he died. 
In fact, it sparked an idea in my head of the three degrees of murder. I love watching true crime with my mom, so this made me think about how people are punished based on the severity of their crime. Interestingly, I thought of the way that they punished the man who violated Shabbat was almost like  murder whether 1st, 2nd, or 3rd degree – which is not really a thing, but I like to think it is. Other people call 3rd-degree manslaughter.  
Yet, this commandment about the tallit shows that they cared about the death of someone from their community.  Even though that person who violated Shabbat sinned blatantly, and was killed because of that sin, the community still had to come to terms with that person’s death.  By gathering the fringes which represented the whole Jewish community,  the rest of the people healed from the trauma of the killing. And we continue to remember the power of our community by continuing to wear a tallitot, Just like I am today.
Throughout this journey of becoming a Bar Mitzvah I’ve learned that Judaism isn't just learning Torah and reading Hebrew, it's about community and growing as a jewish person. Growing as a Jewish person throughout this Bar Mitzvah process has been super fun. Meeting with fun and kind people like Rabbi Shoshana Conover who helped me with this D’var Torah and Brian Leichtman who helped me learn my Torah and the service as a whole. Going on zoom and practicing torah to going to offices and writing my dvar Torah, or even packing food for the homeless, it's been a very welcoming experience and I’ve grown to be more knowledgeable, and kind. 
For my Mitzvah project I chose Monday Meal, a program where you help assemble and prepare meals for the homeless. Because it's my temple's program, doing this and participating feels really heartwarming.  Knowing someone is gonna be happy after you do it is such a great feeling.  I first started putting carrots in baggies and zipping them, then slowly but surely they saw how devoted and passionate I was and I started to pack full bagged meals for the homeless. Going forward in the fall this is something I would like to continue to do and contribute to and I hope at some point I will be able to serve the homeless, restaurant style, in our synagogue in  a welcoming manner. In the end it was a sweet experience and I'm glad I influenced others and made a difference in the world. 

Parashat Ki Tavo

Ariel, Grade 7

Shabbat Shalom. This week's parsha is parshat Ki Tavo. The parsha begins with Moshe giving instructions to Bnei Yisrael for when they enter the land. They were given a lot of laws including tithes on their harvests as well as instructions to bring bikkurim, their first fruits, to Jerusalem as an offering to God. The tribes are then to be divided between two hills to listen to blessings that they will receive if they followed God’s commandments and the curses if they did not. They respond with “Amen” after each statement.  

Imagine you get paid to do something for the first time in your life. You are excited, proud, and have grand plans for how you are going to spend your money. You are going to buy a Rolls Royce. You will be able to go wherever you want whenever you want and you are going to look so cool doing it with your sunglasses on. The day finally arrives when you buy your Rolls Royse, but you have to give it away before you have a chance to drive it and you’re told that you’re going to need to buy more fancy cars and give them away to people in need too. 

In this parsha, Moshe is giving instructions to the Israelites for when they are finally self-sufficient after they were slaves in Egypt and after G-d provided the mann to them in the desert. The Israelites have just been told that they need to offer their first fruits, their bikkurim, their Rolls Royce to G-d. It is at that point that they are told that they must give away and share their harvest. In the first aliyah, I read the following,

 “וְשָׂמַחְתָּ בְכׇל־הַטּוֹב אֲשֶׁר נָתַן־לְךָ ה׳ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ וּלְבֵיתֶךָ אַתָּה וְהַלֵּוִי וְהַגֵּר אֲשֶׁר בְּקִרְבֶּךָ׃”

Which translates to “And you shall enjoy, together with the Levite and the stranger in your midst, all the bounty that your God has bestowed upon you and your household.” Basically, the Israelites are told that they need to take the next car that they buy using their hard earned money and give it to someone in need. (dramatic pause) And they need to be happy about it. Excuse me?! 

This was hard for me to wrap my head around. How could G-d command Bnei Yisrael to be happy about this? 

Perhaps G-d knows that after Bnei Yisrael shares their fruits for the first time, they’ll realize that it’s not such a big deal and that it’s actually the right thing to do, which would bring B’nei Yisrael joy.

Or, it could go the other way. If Bnei Israel is forced to feel a certain way, or pretend to feel a certain way when sharing their fruits, they might have a negative association with sharing, especially with those that are less fortunate., Actually, Bnei Israel might end up even hating th ose less fortunate which could prevent Bnei Israel from sharing with others again, regardless of consequences. 

I imagine that Bnei Yisrael struggled with this commandment to be happy because they had to give away part of their harvest, which was a showcase of their freedom. 

Ibn Ezra, a medieval Spanish commentator, helped me understand this mitzvah in a different way. He explained that the Israelite farmers were not commanded to be happy while giving away their crops, rather they were commanded to bring joy to those in need who were receiving them. I imagine that sharing crops did not bring joy to some Israelites. In fact, they  might have felt ashamed and begun to ask themselves “What is wrong with me? Why don’t I feel happy when following this commandment?” If a person performs a mitzvah with only themselves in mind, it’s not a mitzvah.  A Mitzvah according to Ibn Ezra is when a person performs a mitzvah with the other person in mind - to make the other person happy, which, in my opinion, is what chesed and mitzvot are about. 

What I have learned from experience is that when performing a mitzvah to make another person happy, the person performing the mitzvah feels happy and joyful as well.  I think this is exactly what was intended when G-d gave this commandment in this Parsha. Shabbat Shalom.

Parashat Ki Tavo

Sarah, Grade 8

In my parsha, Ki Tavo, the Israelites, having almost crossed the border into the Promised Land, are relayed the good news and bad news of God's message (the good news being the blessings stated in the parsha and the bad news being the curses). Moshe goes on to tell his people the long list of curses that will befall them if they abandon God's commandments while in Israel; and the blessings for the opposite.

Stepping away from the world of a few thousand years ago, imagine if your friend today came up to you and said, "If you don't do what I say, I will do all these bad things to you," as opposed to, "If you do what I say, we can get ice cream." That kind of threat-filled relationship between friends is not healthy. But say it was God that came up to you and said that. Would that change anything? Would you excuse it because he is a more powerful being than you? 

The Torah part of my parsha contains all these horrible curses that God will use if you disregard him and his wishes. However, my Haftorah portion is all about how God is going to give the Israelites all these great things: iron, silver, gold, frankincense. So is the relationship between the Israelites and God based on a healthy and stable foundation? What if this was a parent-child relationship? And why does the balance shift from curses in the Torah to blessings in the Haftorah? 

Maybe for toddlers the threat-filled relationship would be okay. Like saying, "I'll take your toys away if you don't eat your broccoli." But as they get older you don't need to threaten them into eating their broccoli. So as a child gets older they respond better to rewards than threats. This connects to the Israelites maturing just like a child when crossing into the Promised Land. They start getting rewards – as said in the Haftorah – (gold and silver and stuff like that) instead of threats as said in the Torah.

This parsha means a lot to me because the journey of the Israelites towards maturity can connect to just becoming a bat mitzvah. Maturing as a Jewish adult is just like the Israelites crossing over into the Promised Land. If you know me, you know that compared to other people here, I am not always the most connected to Judaism. But becoming a bat mitzvah is really important to me because it shows my maturity and connects me to a beautiful religion. 

Thank you to all my friends, family and members of the Rodfei Zedek community for being here! 

Thank you to Cantor Rosenberg for tutoring me and to Rabbi Minkus for helping with my d'var.

And thank you to my parents – Dad, Mom, Sandeep – for helping me with keeping up on practicing and making this event possible.

II really appreciate my camp friends for coming all this way for my Mitzvah. 

And finally I want to thank Norah for being with me through all of this and always supporting me, whether it's practicing or just in general.

Shabbat shalom.

Parashat Ki-Tavo

Norah, Grade 8

In this week’s parsha, Ki-Tavo, God explains to Moses all the laws that the Israelites must follow, their curses for not obeying them, and their blessings for following them. Moses then has to relay this information to the Israelites before he dies. Once Moses dies, the Israelites can enter the Promised Land. The reason Moses dies before entering is that in the beginning of the 40 years in the desert, Moses doubted God and had gotten angry at him. God responded by not letting Moses into the Promised Land.

Now back to Ki-Tavo. One of the most interesting things in Ki-Tavo is that it has the only prayer in the entire Torah. You might be thinking, "all these other prayers that we say everyday are in the Torah", but they were never originally prayers. 

Old rabbis took pieces of the Torah and said “Yup, this is it, the Shema. Sounds like a prayer to me. Done.” Wow! God only put one prayer in the entire Torah? 

You may be asking yourself --  as I did -- I wonder what the prayer is? This prayer was said by people who weren’t really sure what to say before a sacrifice. 

The prayer recounts the history of the Israelites from Abraham to the 40 years in the desert, showing every step in the journey of their ancestors. 

Telling  Jewish history  maintains  identity. 

Like on Passover the Haggadah tells us to feel that we ourselves were oppressed in Egypt and have come forth through the desert. 

When the Torah puts our history into its only prayer, it is to show us that when you know your past, and when you know your identity, that's when you can really get deeper in your relationship with yourself, and with god.

Our relationship with God, and his with us, is very important and, like any relationship, built over time and often through hardship. But when God threatens us with the curses, doesn't that threaten our relationship with him? So then why does he threaten us? Is he trying to scare us into listening to him or will he actually put these curses on us if we disobey him? 

Personally, I think God is being truthful. 

For instance, going back to what I said earlier, Moses had doubted God and had gotten angry. God then threatened Moses, basically saying “You have doubted me, now you cannot go into the Promised Land.” 

And, just to be clear, Moses is God's best friend at this point, like they are tight, and God still carries out his threat.  If God would do that to his head man, he would most likely do it to us. 

A connection I can make to this is how at my sleepaway camp, Agawak, sometimes if you don't finish cleaning your cabin, you can't go to a certain activity.  If you don’t study for a test, the consequence will be that you don’t get a good grade.  If you don’t work hard, you will not be rewarded in your career with advancement and success.  Most choices that we make every day, have a good outcome for doing the right thing and a bad outcome for doing the wrong thing.

If you know me, then you know that camp is really important to me because it is a place where I can be myself.  It is also important to me to be myself as a Jew and I can do that in my Jewish community -- at CJDS and now at Rodfei Zedek.

One of the ways I can do that is by raising challenging questions about the Torah and even about God. So here's a question for you to think about: 

Do you think that God was using empty threats?  And if he wasn’t, if he was really going to carry out those curses, was that right?  If you were God, would you do the same?

Parashat Rosh Chodesh Elul

Eden, Grade 7

Good morning! Today I read the Rosh Chodesh Torah portion. Elul falls after the month of Av on the Hebrew calendar. It's significant because Elul leads up to the high holidays starting with Rosh Hashanah. Elul is special for many reasons, one of them being we blow the shofar every day of the month. Another being that Elul is the month of repentance.

Let’s detour to another story from the book of Shemot, the Golden Calf story, the Torah said that when Moshe went up the mountain to receive the Torah from HaShem, he was up there for 40 days and 40 nights. After that long wait the Israelites stopped believing that Moshe would ever come down. So they took matters into their own hands and decided to make a God of their own. Moshe’s brother Aaron collected the Israelites gold jewelry, they then melted the gold down to make their own God, a golden calf. Doing this was obviously a huge misdeed. The Israelites made and prayed to a different God which goes against the ten commandments that Moshe was bringing them. Now back to Elul. Elul is the month that Moshe went back to HaShem for forgiveness for what the Israelites had done. A more modern tradition we have, is to ask for forgiveness in the month of Elul. While we still have the ten days of repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the month of Elul is when we should start saying our apologies. Just like Moshe went back up to Har Sinai to repent for the Israelites and fix their relationship with God, Elul is a time to ask forgiveness of people we know so we can be open to communication with God.

This month is a time to think about who we have been in the past, and who we want to become in the future. I hope that you take this month before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to renew connections between each other and HaShem

Parashat Shoftim

Micah, Grade 8

My parashat, Shoftim, talks about many important concepts such as justice and responsibility. It also discusses rules for a Jewish king, a prophet, and for going to war. Today, I will be talking about times justice is portrayed and some rules that Parashat Shoftim set in place.

“Shoftim V’Shotrim, titayn l’cha b’chol-she’arekha. You shall appoint magistrates and officials. V’shavtu et ha’am mishpat tzedek. And they shall govern the people with due justice” (Dt. 16:18). This tells us that the job of a ruler and a court is to be just to the people, even with all the power they have. Another example of this is in the following verse, “Lo tateh mishpat, v’lo takir panim” “You shall not judge unfairly.” In that same verse, it gives an example: “V’lo tikach shochad ki hashochad y’aver aynay chacha’mim vi’salef div’ray tzadikim.” “You shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just.” This is clearly unfair. 

Here’s an example: I used to exchange snacks with my friends at school to get something better than what I traded, and for them to have possibly gotten something they thought was better as well. I was sitting next to a friend one day, and they told me that they could never get a reasonable trade, as no one was willing to accept theirs. They then opened up and told me they never brought snacks people liked, because they were not allowed to. So while some people had the freedom to trade because they had good snack choices, others couldn’t because they didn’t have the same options. It’s not a level playing field. The same thing applies with bribes. If a judge accepts a bribe, the person who bribes gets an unfair advantage that someone who doesn’t cannot. Bribes create an unlevel playing field.

The Torah’s overall concern with justice is timeless and critical. There are important instances in modern times when justice in court bettered our nation. For example: When Ruby Bridges was a child in the 1950’s, schools were segregated. Black children couldn’t have the same education as white children. Ruby Bridges’ family did not have a lot of money. Due to the 1954 Supreme Court ruling of Brown v. The Board of Education, it was ordered that all schools desegregate. To get into that school, Ruby then had to pass a test that only 5 other students had passed before her. Ruby Bridges was accepted into a school that was originally created for white people only. Though she was originally met with mobs that booed her and called her names as she entered school, she was ultimately able to get a better education. Our Supreme Court played a key role in leveling that playing field and creating justice for millions of Americans.

This topic relates a lot to my Bar Mitzvah project that is about giving school materials to those who are not able to afford them, through an organization called “Cradles to Crayons Chicago.” 

In conclusion, Parashat Shoftim talks about justice and how it is important in the ancient world and in the world today. Justice was important for the same reason then as it is now. Judges need to be just with their rulings and should not be swayed by money or what’s wrong and dishonorable.

Shabbat Shalom.

Parsha Shoftim

Evan, Grade 8

In my parashat, Shoftim, which goes from Deuteronomy 16:18 to Deuteronomy 26:1, Moses sets up many laws to keep the Jewish people in order. This includes appointing judges and certain officials to “govern the people with due justice” and creating certain rules that everyone has to follow. Not only do the people have rules that they need to follow, but the judges and officials also have rules that they must follow. This includes not judging unfairly, not taking bribes, and not taking sides. 

This may seem like a pretty boring parashat (in my opinion) because it contains a lot of rules without much explanation and because reading a series of laws isn’t as interesting as reading a story. Some of these laws might not even apply nowadays and don’t feel applicable in our modern day. But, they are still helpful to read, because we can make connections to how our society operates now, compared to the time of the Torah. 

One example of this is that there were many rules relating to the number of witnesses that are required to apply the death sentence to certain crimes. The Torah explains, “A person shall be put to death only on the testimony of two or more witnesses; no one shall be put to death on the testimony of a single witness.” This seems pretty fair and looks like the Torah's way of ruling out the people who are trying to frame someone, however, this doesn’t rule out the bribery of multiple people. But immediately afterward, the Torah says, “Let the hands of the witnesses be the first to put the condemned to death, followed by the hands of the rest of the people. Thus you will sweep out evil from your midst.” At first, this sentence was very confusing. What do they mean by “sweeping out evil from your midst”? Then, I realized that this is the very solution that the Torah came up with for the fact that there could be more than one witness who is being bribed. The Torah is likely predicting that whoever is being bribed to be a fake witness will not want to kill someone, as killing someone is both immoral and against Jewish law. Although this is somewhat flawed because there are people willing to kill someone for money (because of their immoral mindset or their financial situation), this was still a system that worked at the time. The Talmud, however, doesn’t really like these laws. The Talmud says that a court that gives the death penalty more than once in 70 years is bloodthirsty, which is really infrequently. This is an example of the Talmud knowing that they cannot change the Torah, but they can influence society to think the way they do, so later societies will be less likely to use the death penalty. 

Even our modern laws and system of government are not perfect for many reasons such as corruption and that everyone has a separate opinion. Basically, no form of government and its laws are going to be perfect. For me, it’s cool to see how the laws back then show up in our laws now and see how laws change. We can see what the Torah came up with, and what the Talmud says, and it might seem funny or unrealistic now, but it might have been a working system at the time. This inspires us to look at the law and if we disagree, to speak up. This goes back to the idea of being a bystander or standing up for justice. If there’s something you think is wrong, you should speak up. The Talmud saw the Torah’s death penalty laws as unfair and tried to find a way to make it hard to use the law. The Talmud was not a bystander but said something to encourage people to do the same. 

Even the Torah wants us to speak up. At the beginning of my parsha, the Torah says, “Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof”, justice, justice you will pursue. This is like the Torah giving us permission to speak up and look out for things that are unjust. It is telling us to build upon them and make them better. We can even do this to the Torah itself, and to this parsha

An example of this includes the Torah’s take on a “peace treaty”, which is as follows. According to the Torah, you have to discuss terms of peace with the town you are attacking when you approach it. If they accept it and let you in, you enslave them. If they reject it, you lay siege to them, killing all men and taking the women and children as your prize. How is it fair or peaceful to enslave someone who has agreed to peace with you? That’s not peace! This seems like a very bad way of handling the situation. Pretty much anything would be better than enslavement or death. If the other party accepts your peace treaty, you should form an alliance with them and work together. You should not be enemies, you should be teammates. If they don’t accept your peace treaty, then you can continue the attack as planned. But the way the Torah tells it, we would have permission to kill all the men and take the women and children hostage, which is not just. Justice would be real peace. 

Through reading and learning about this parashat I realized how much our society differs from back then, and yet how they were trying to solve problems like we are today. The big takeaway is that we should speak up on things we think are unlawful or unjust, and to instead build upon the laws to make a society where the people are the ones that prosper. The entirety of the nation should flourish with the laws that govern it, and it’s our job to make sure that’s true. 

Thank you,

Shabbat Shalom

Dvar Torah by Abe, Grade 8

My Torah portion describes the three pilgrimage festivals and the obligation to rejoice on them in a way that includes others at our table.

The seventh aliyah contains a list of Jewish holidays and describes how they should be celebrated. But this is not the first time that the holidays are listed in the Torah. In Parashat Emor, in the book of Leviticus, the Jewish calendar is described and it is again in Parashat Pinchas in the Book of Numbers. This list is the third time that the Torah details the holidays. But, this list is not comprehensive, Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh, and Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are not mentioned. The only holidays mentioned are the three pilgrimage festivals, Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot.

Why does the Torah repeat these three holidays here?

The first holiday  described is Pesach and the Torah teaches that Pesach must be observed each year in the spring and we must eat matzah and observe the other rituals to remember that we were slaves in Egypt. But when Shavuot is mentioned, the Torah introduces the mitzvah to rejoice on the holiday:

וְשָׂמַחְתָּ֞ לִפְנֵ֣י ׀ ה' אֱ-לֹהֶ֗יךָ אַתָּ֨ה וּבִנְךָ֣ וּבִתֶּ֘ךָ֮ וְעַבְדְּךָ֣ וַאֲמָתֶ֒ךָ֒ וְהַלֵּוִי֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר בִּשְׁעָרֶ֔יךָ וְהַגֵּ֛ר וְהַיָּת֥וֹם וְהָאַלְמָנָ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר בְּקִרְבֶּ֑ךָ….

You shall rejoice before the LORD your God with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite in your communities, and the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your midst, at the place where the LORD your God will choose to establish His name.

This rejoicing includes the stranger, orphan and widow, and it is followed by a command to remember our slavery in Egypt:

וְזָ֣כַרְתָּ֔ כִּי־עֶ֥בֶד הָיִ֖יתָ בְּמִצְרָ֑יִם וְשָׁמַרְתָּ֣ וְעָשִׂ֔יתָ אֶת־הַֽחֻקִּ֖ים הָאֵֽלֶּה׃ {פ}

And you shall remember that you were slaves in Egypt when you observe these laws.

When Sukkot is then described in the later verses, we are again told to rejoice with those who might otherwise be outsiders:

וְשָׂמַחְתָּ֖ בְּחַגֶּ֑ךָ אַתָּ֨ה וּבִנְךָ֤ וּבִתֶּ֙ךָ֙ וְעַבְדְּךָ֣ וַאֲמָתֶ֔ךָ וְהַלֵּוִ֗י וְהַגֵּ֛ר וְהַיָּת֥וֹם וְהָאַלְמָנָ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר בִּשְׁעָרֶֽיךָ׃

You shall rejoice in your festival, with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your communities.

Why  does the command to rejoice not appear in relation to Pesach but only  in relation to Shavuot and Sukkot and why is the obligation to rejoice on the holidays connected so strongly to including the stranger orphan and widow? 

Rambam, or Maimonides, in his Mishneh Torah, writes about the need to include others in our holiday  celebrations:

“While eating and drinking, one must feed the stranger, the orphan, the widow, and other poor unfortunates. Anyone, however, who locks the doors of his courtyard and eats and drinks along with his wife and children, without giving anything to eat and drink to the poor and the desperate, does not observe a religious celebration but indulges in the celebration of his stomach.”

אין זו שמחת מצוה אלא שמחת כריסו.

Ein zo simchat mitzvah elah simchat kreiso.

Rambam makes clear that the mitzvah that we learned about in this Torah portion is a mitzvah to include others in our holiday  celebrations. That is core to what it means to celebrate a Jewish holiday. 

Because we are meant to remember how we were strangers in Egypt and enslaved there and so we are sensitive to anyone who could be vulnerable in our community. 

This is why we don’t mention rejoicing on Passover. Passover is all about remembering our slavery in Egypt and so it isn’t necessary to say that we rejoice on Passover by including others in our holiday meals. How could anyone think that the holiday could be celebrated without guests.

As a child of an immigrant, I want it to be the case where no one has to be in the position of being stuck between borders. Now that I am becoming a bar mitzvah I will start to learn and educate myself on how to welcome the stranger into our house and into our country.

By: Ami, Grade 7

Parsha Emor

Most Bar and Bat Mitzvah speeches are about the Mitzvah kid’s torah portion. I thought this was going to be the case, until a few months ago, when I cracked open a chumash and actually read my parsha, Emor. Aside from some holiday information, it was all pretty disturbing and violent. So instead, I will talk about a topic that is very important to me: the morality (and kashrut) of vegetarianism. As you may know, I am a vegetarian, which means that I will not eat any food that is derived from the flesh of an animal. It used to be very difficult, or even impossible to eat strictly vegetarian. And if you also wanted to keep kashrut, it would be even harder. But now, in the modern age, vegetarians have lots of options for how we get our protein, and we can still keep kosher! There’s soy-based fake meat, there’s tofu, seitan, or we can just eat loads of beans (but we all know that has some unpleasant downsides). But there is a new option developing now, which goes by many names, and I will call it "synthetic meat."

Synthetic meat is real animal tissue - real meat - that is created without the slaught-slau-animal s-slaughter-of any animals. Sorry, I really butchered that sentence. It is created through a complex process in which a small cell sample is taken from an animal and is grown and nurtured into full, real, hamburger sized meat. In the words of Mosa Meat, one of many synthetic meat companies, “we are swapping delicious beef with delicious beef!” It isn’t plant-based, it isn’t beans, it’s actual meat, but not taken from a carcass. Sounds great, but which laws of Judaism should we take into account before we eat this?

Well first, what is the Jewish perspective on vegetarianism as a whole? Lots of Rabbis throughout the ages have implied or outright stated that vegetarianism is a moral ideal, and that animals and humans should be considered morally equal. Two very important Rabbis (Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz and Abraham Isaac Kook), even believed that the convoluted nature of the laws of kashrut is purposeful, in order to dissuade people from eating meat. And Jewish vegetarianism goes beyond theory. Many notable Rabbis were and are vegetarians, including the late Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Jonathan Sacks. They all managed to keep the laws of kashrut, and refrained from eating meat. But what does this new technology mean for kashrut? 

There are a lot of rules in the Tanakh and Talmud about kashrut, but if we assume that the animal we take a stem cell from is kosher, like a cow, then only a few rules apply that could possibly forbid synthetic meat.

Sadly, there is one rule that might eliminate the possibility of kosher bacon; in Mishnah Bechorot, it is stated that whatever emerges from a non-kosher animal (a stem cell in this case), is also non-kosher.

But just like every other rule in the talmud, there is another ruling that seems to directly contradict it. In Menachot, it is ruled that if there is a piece of non-kosher meat that is small enough to not be considered impure (like a stem cell), and then that piece of meat swells or grows, it is stripped of its impure status as long as it doesn’t become impure through any other means. And because these two verses contradict each other, we can either ignore them both or leave it up for interpretation.

There is one last ruling that will prevent the consumption of synthetic meat at all (for observant Jews). In Devarim, there is a passage that states, “You shall not consume the life with the flesh.” This is interpreted by the Mishnah to mean that it is forbidden to eat any part of a live animal. Since the animal that the cells would originate from would still be alive when the synthetic meat was created, this would seem to ultimately rule out the kashrut of lab grown meat. 

Aside from specific texts and rules to help us decide whether or not synthetic meat would be kosher, there is also the clause of “ma’arat ayin." Maarat ayin is the idea that public perception matters. If you are doing something that seems to be violating Jewish law, even if it isn’t, it is still to be avoided.

For example, in the late 1900s, (also known as “the rad 80’s”), there was a controversy in the Jewish community around the advent of non-dairy ice cream brands like Tofutti. It wasn’t because the ice cream wasn’t kosher, but that the possibility of seeing someone eat ice cream with meat was too unfamiliar to the rabbinate, so Tofutti and other similar brands were initially declared traif. But in the years since then, non-dairy dairy, and gluten-free gluten have become normal, so now, if you see a Jew eating a cheeseburger, you might think “Oh, they're probably eating an Impossible Burger.” So naturally, non-dairy ice cream just became a non issue.

The point that I’m trying to make is that Jewish law and culture change around larger changes and needs of society. So although Jewish law in the present seems unclear about the consumption of synthetic meat, I believe that given time, the fact that one cow could eventually feed one hundred people instead of ten at fraction of the cost and with great benefit to the environment will influence the rulings of the future Rabbinic leadership in favor of allowing synthetic meat.

By: Cole, Grade 7

Parsha Tazria

In this d’var Torah, I would like to teach you about this week’s Torah portion, Tazria. In Tazria, we see that spreading gossip is really not a good idea. According to some commentators, you might get a skin disease called Tzaraat, which today is known as Vitiligo, or loss of skin color in patches. If this happens, you would have to go to the high priest to have it checked out. The priest could either say “isolate for seven days and then come back for a second visit the following week,” or the priest could say that “if you have Tzaraat really badly you may need to be isolated outside the Israelites’ camp for an extended period of time.” Does that theme of isolating for seven days sound familiar to you?

When an Israelite got Tzaraat and had to leave the camp for a while, he or she would most likely have felt isolated from family and friends. I experienced this a little bit this past year when I had a mild case of Covid. I was separated from my friends at school, and I couldn’t attend classes. I was also really bored and I didn’t feel my best. Luckily I had very slight symptoms and I was able to get back to my normal life quickly. Similar to ancient times, when I got Covid I went to my governing authority, which in this case was the CDC and my school’s medical task force, to learn what I could or couldn’t do while I was sick. The Israelites did the same thing when they went to see the priest who would tell them if their illness was not that bad, bad, or even really bad. 

Some rabbinic scholars think the reason why the Israelites got Tzaarat was because of gossip. God would punish the Israelites with Tzaarat, and the worse the gossip, the harsher the punishment, meaning more time needed to isolate away from family and friends. The takeaway here is that God takes gossip very seriously, because nobody knows how much it can hurt someone. Gossip can be devastating! So by giving people Tzaraat, God makes sure that people learn their lesson that spreading gossip has consequences. 

I started to think about what is so bad about gossip. The phrase in Hebrew is לשון הרע, which means “defamation.” Clearly, gossip is a big deal in any religion, and based on what it means in Hebrew, it has serious implications for the Israelites. I realized that if somebody learns that somebody else is talking about them behind their back, they might be really sad and hurt. In addition, this person could also be made fun of by other people. You can’t take your words back, and as we all know, gossip spreads, causing further harm. If the gossip has really hurt someone, even an apology might not do anything to help the person who was affected by it. Jewish tradition teaches us that how we say something matters. We do need to be honest, and we should address people directly, rather than gossip about them to others. If, however, what you’re going to say is likely to hurt someone’s feelings, then paraphrase the message, and say the truth in a more sensitive way.  

For my gemilut chasadim project, I went several times to the Self Help Home, which is a residence in Chicago for elderly Jewish people. I helped residents with tech questions, played cards with them, and just talked and brightened up their days. This project was important to me because I can see how valuable this interaction is to the people that live at the Self Help Home. This makes me feel like I did something good, and that I made a real difference in someone’s day. 

By Benjamin, Grade 7
Parshat Tzav
Sometimes, in baseball, there's a player in scoring position. If there are no outs, or only one out, sometimes, the best thing for a batter to do is to hit a sacrifice fly. By doing that, they get themselves out. But they help to move a runner into scoring position, or to score a run.
A sacrifice fly is not great for someone’s statistics. It hurts your overall batting average. But sometimes you have to do it to score a run. I think this is a very good life lesson. And it relates to my bar mitzvah parsha, Tzav.
In this week's parsha, God tells Moses to line up Aron and his sons in front of the people. They then put on the priestly clothes and special priestly garments. This was to prepare for when they were officially anointed with oil, making them the priests.
Moses then takes out the anointing oil and anoints the tabernacle. Aron and his sons were then required to stay at the entrance of the tent of meeting for seven days. When I read about Aron and his sons being required to stay at the tent of meeting for seven days, I had a lot of questions. 
Why were they required to do this? Why exactly seven days? What did they do during the seven days? I started to tackle these questions by looking at some traditional commentaries. 
First, why do they have to stay at the tent of meeting in the first place? The JPS commentary writes that they were doing this to avoid becoming impure. 
The priests would do this before major Temple rituals. Also, this seven day period was their intense preparation time. None of them had ever offered sacrifices before. They wanted to make sure that they did everything right.
But why did they isolate for 7 days? The number 7 is a holy number, and often a number of completion. Dr. Everett Fox writes that “Seven days is a common period of holiness in biblical Israel, found in reference to childbirth and holiday periods. 
Seven was a number that pointed to perfection in the ancient world.” After they have completed the seven days of preparation, they were ready for next week’s parsha, Shemini, meaning the eighth day. Only after a full 7 days were they ready to offer the sacrifice.
Another key theme in the parsha is that sometimes you have to sacrifice things for the good of the community. For instance, the kohanim probably did not want to be away from their families, and be by themselves for 7 days. But they did it for the community.
We also see this a bit earlier in the parsha when there is a shalshelet note. A shelselet is a complex note that goes up and down multiple times.
There are only four Shalshelet notes in the Torah. It is a very special note that is used to show when a person is hesitant about what they are about to do. In this parsha, the shalshelet is when Moses is slaughtering a ram which he used its blood to make Aaron the high priest. 
Why on earth did the rabbis place the shalshelet here? What was Moses hesitating about during this ritual? This shalshelet shows us that Moses was second guessing whether to start the process of making Aaron the high priest. Until now, Moses had all of the power as the only leader. I think he was not sure if he wanted to let go of some of his power by making Aaron also become a leader. Even Moses, who the Torah says is the humblest person in the whole Torah, feels conflicted.
I think this is a valuable life lesson that you can’t always just do things for yourself. We sometimes need to do things for the community even if it doesn’t help you. 
For example, towards the beginning of the pandemic someone in my class got Covid-19 so I had to go into quarantine. Even though it wasn’t a fun experience I needed to do it so that in case I had covid I wouldn’t infect someone else. Just like hitting a sacrifice fly.The shalshelet note in my Bar Mitzvah parsha highlights the importance of how we communicate. 
For my mitzvah project I helped children in need be able to communicate and access opportunities by volunteering for Love Letters For Literacy. I made alphabet packets for children in need to teach them how to read. This experience taught me how important it is for kids to know how to read and how many opportunities it opens up.
Thank you to all of my amazing teachers at CJDS for preparing me for this day. 


By Noah, Grade 7

Parshat Vayikra

Good morning! To be completely honest, when I first was assigned my Bar Mitzvah Portion, Parshat Vayikra, I was quite disappointed. The portion focused almost entirely on sacrifice. As I studied it, I wondered, Why in the world should you have to sacrifice something this exact way and not that way? Or why should you burn the left vs the right leg of your unblemished male goat? Even with the vast varieties of sacrifice, the whole portion seemed very shallow and repetitive. This is because, today, we wouldn’t even think about sacrificing an animal for God. But, for the ancient Israelites, sacrifice was their primary way of connecting to God.

When I first hear the word sacrifice, my mind immediately thinks of something one must give up. It could be something that a superhero gave to save the world or the majority of a parent’s income that they used to allow their child to go to school. But, that is not the only definition of sacrifice. In the Torah, sacrifice is written as Korban, which means “to come close.” This is much different than our more modern definition which is “to give up.” Even though the meanings are different, the ideas are similar. When you give up something for a cause, you are coming closer to your beliefs. This is just like how when the ancient Jews In the Torah slaughtered animals as a religious offering, they became closer to God.

 I thought about the sacrifices my family has made, and then I realized how connected Vayikra is to the things we've had to give up during the pandemic, and how it has made us get closer to the people and things around us in our lives.

Even though we’ve been very fortunate during the pandemic, like all of us, my family and I have had to sacrifice many things. To stay safe, we had to limit our social interactions to a minimum and had to be outside when we did see our friends or family. Also, we were unable to explore new places. It was frustrating that we had to change many aspects of our lives because it limited our ability to act like everything was normal, which it wasn’t. This was especially hard when we had little to do at the beginning of the pandemic.

Sometimes we don’t realize sacrifices until we have time to think about what they actually mean. For example, when my school first shut down, right before spring break in 2020, I was thrilled. A week or two later I realized that it was much different than I expected. I wasn’t able to go over to friends’ houses or eat in restaurants. Remote learning was not as fun as getting to be in person with my friends. 

Even though we gave up a lot of things, I got to spend tons of time with my immediate family (almost too much). Although we had our fair share of disagreements, over time we got much closer than we had been at the beginning, which was actually the goal of sacrifice in the Torah, to get close to one’s beliefs. We took daily walks together and watched movies frequently.

Parshat Vayikra talks about multiple types of biblical sacrifice. From my perspective, the most interesting one is the meal-offering or the offering for the poor person. It starts by saying, “וְנֶ֗פֶשׁ כִּֽי־תַקְרִ֞יב קׇרְבַּ֤ן מִנְחָה֙ לַֽיהֹוָ֔ה” “When a person presents an offering of meal to the LORD.” Rashi, an 11th century Torah Scholar, points out that Nefesh means soul, and the meal-offering is typically made by poor people. He interprets this to mean that if a poor person brings the meal-offering, God will regard the person as if they had brought their own soul. I agree with Rashi because what he is saying is that the emotional sacrifice is more important than the physical one. For example, if both a rich person and a poor person sacrificed the same physical amount, a cow, for example, most people would appreciate the sacrifices the same. But, what if the cow was the poor person’s only source of food and income? Would you still think the sacrifices are equal? Even though the cows have the same physical value, the impact is much greater on the poor person.

During the pandemic, my family also had to sacrifice many emotional things. Our social interactions were limited and our lives were very repetitive. For example, every day was pretty similar. Wake up, eat breakfast, go for a walk, zoom school for 3 hours (which we were very lucky to have), lunch, and then more zoom school. This took a great emotional toll because without variety there was little that separated one day from the next. Even though this was frustrating, we did it because we understood that this would help prevent the spread of the virus and keep people safe. This was also an extension of our Jewish values; doing something hard for the greater benefit of the community.  

This is not only true for my family but for many others. During COVID, the emotional impact is related to wealth. For example, people with more money can afford the technology to communicate and socialize with others, while many poorer people are unable to do so. This affects them because it limits their ability to have interactions with people during the pandemic. 

Sacrifice is not only important in Judaism but to everyone. It shows how far we’ll go to prove our beliefs. There are tons of people in the world who have given up their careers and lives to let people know what they believe in. An example is the Women’s Tennis Association or the WTA. They were founded on the basis for equality between men and women. Last November, Peng Shuai, a huge tennis star in China, announced through social media that a former Chinese government official had sexually assaulted her. Thirty minutes later, the Chinese government had erased any mention of her or her tweet from the internet, and Peng Shuai disappeared. After almost two weeks, no one could connect with her. The WTA demanded to meet with her and the Chinese government released a broadcast that included an email that supposedly was written by Peng Shuai. It is hard to believe because it said, “the sexual assault allegation was untrue and everything was fine.” Still, no one knew where she was. The WTA stopped ALL events in China and announced that it would stay this way until Peng Shuai was released. This was a huge sacrifice because the WTA makes millions of dollars annually in China alone. It shows that the Women’s Tennis Association is willing to give up revenue to stand up for what they believe is right.  

Through the process of becoming a Bar Mitzvah, I fundraised for an organization that I believe in and love called World Central Kitchen. In times of disaster, WCK does an extraordinary job of distributing food immediately to the people who need it most.

In 2019, I ate at one of Jose Andres's restaurants in Washington, DC. He is an amazing Spanish chef and, is the founder of World Central Kitchen. Not only was the food fantastic, but Jose's story and activism inspired me to help people in times of crisis through food. Early in the pandemic, I baked cookies to support COVID-19 research. For my Bar Mitzvah, I’d love to be able to support Jose Andres’s organization, World Central Kitchen, and help their relief efforts. 

World Central Kitchen is already helping out in Ukraine. Almost immediately after the Russian invasion, WCK began to distribute meals to refugees in Poland. And, that is only the first phase of their work.  Not only have they provided thousands of meals, they are also providing ingredients to local restaurants and bakeries in Ukraine.  

Dvar Torah

By Sam, Grade 8

Even though my Bar Mitzvah was last summer, I am so glad to be able to celebrate with all of you. Today is Rosh Chodesh Shvat and this month we will be celebrating the Jewish New Year of Trees, on the 15th of Shvat– Tu B’Shvat. But did you know that the Talmud contains a discussion on whether we really should be celebrating on that day? In tractate Rosh Hashanah, we get another argument between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai. Beit Hillel said that we should celebrate it on the 15th of Shvat like we do nowadays. But Beit Shammai says that we should celebrate it on the 1st of Shvat. If the Halakha followed Shammai, then we would be celebrating two things today. The Jewish New Year of Trees and Beit Shammai winning the debate which he does not do often.

According to a close look at the Talmud, there are 316 recorded disputes between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai with the Halakha only following Shammai’s opinion a total of three times. Even though they disagreed, Beit Shammai always followed Beit Hillel's opinion when they were wrong.

This teaches us many lessons. One is that when we lose, we should lose graciously. 

Two, we also should not be rigid in our thinking and that we should be open to new lessons and experiences. This is something that people like me, who are on the autism spectrum, have a hard time doing. I do not like giving up in an argument, something that I am sure some of you have seen. A third lesson is that it also shows that Judaism is not solely about following the word of G-D but that we can have spirited discussions that evolve Judaism. 

This is further illustrated in an interesting story that we learned in Judaic Studies this year about not being flexible and accepting other people's point of view. In the story, Rabbi Eliezer disagrees with not one, not two, but all of the great Rabbis of his time on a certain Halakha. Rabbi Eliezer is so certain that he is right, that he even calls upon the voice of G-D to agree with him, which it does. But Rabbi Yehoshua proclaims that the Torah is not in the heavens because G-D gave the Torah to the Jewish people on Har Sinai and therefore the Halakha follows the Rabbis. Rabbi Eliezer refuses to agree, and the other Rabbis excommunicate him. Rabbi Eliezer spent the rest of his life outside of the community that he loved because he refused to concede on one point. 

As the month of Shvat begins, let us not be like Rabbi Eliezer but work together and acknowledge when we are wrong. That will let us build the best and most stable community that we can. 

By Emma, Grade 6

Parshat Vayechi

This week’s parsha is parshat Vayechi. It is the last parsha in sefer Beresheit. Jacob is on his deathbed and he tells his son Joseph that he wants to be buried in the land of Canaan, next to his family. Joseph agrees and does as he is told.

Jacob also shares with all his other sons his understanding of what will happen to them in the future and either blesses or curses them. 

At the end of the parsha Joseph is also on his deathbed and makes his brothers swear that when the time comes for the descendants of Jacob to leave Egypt, they will take his bones with them and bury them in Canaan.

I thought it was interesting that the last parsha of Beresheit begins and ends with the same request, and I wondered why did Jacob and Joseph both ask to be outside of Egypt for their final resting place? Is there something to learn from this request? I had some thoughts on this question:

Number 1- These requests are a reflection of both of their hybrid identities. Both Joseph and Jacob have adapted to the cultural expectations of Egypt. When you live in a new culture, you do what people around you do. So, they agreed to have an Egyptian burial, which is different from a Jewish burial. In Egyptian custom, people are embalmed and put in a fancy coffin and left above ground. But at Jewish burials, people are buried in plain coffins and go into the ground the same day they die, when possible. So Jacob and Joseph followed the custom of the land, but they also followed their Jewish customs by having their final resting place be Israel.

Number 2- Even though Joseph and Jacob did very well living in Egypt, it was ultimately still a foreign land for them. So they did what the Egyptians would expect of them and then they did what they wanted to do. They had a connection to the land of Israel because their fathers, mothers and grandparents were buried there and it was the land that was promised to them by God. They were yearning to be back in Israel and back to their place of origin.

I can relate to this because of my own family experience. My family has been living in America for over 18 years, but we still go back to Israel every year to visit my family. Most of my family lives there, and I am very lucky that my grandmother is able to be with us in person today. My family speaks Hebrew at home and we still only want to eat good Israeli hummus because there is a serious shortage of it in America.

And finally, I think based on Jacob and Joseph's requests, there is a powerful message to learn as we close the book of Beresheit and move into Shmot. Jacob asks: וְשָֽׁכַבְתִּי֙ עִם־אֲבֹתַ֔י וּנְשָׂאתַ֨נִי֙ מִמִּצְרַ֔יִם וּקְבַרְתַּ֖נִי בִּקְבֻֽרָתָ֑ם

Jacob wants to be rooted in his ancestral homeland. He wants to be brought down into the ground in Israel.

Joseph asks וְהַֽעֲלִתֶ֥ם אֶת־עַצְמֹתַ֖י מִזֶּֽה - bring me out of this land and return me my ancestral homeland. 

We should see Israel as the place we are rooted and even when we aren’t there, there is always hope to return. And indeed, 200 years after his death, Moshe brings Joseph's bones back to Israel.

So even though we are about to descend into stories of slavery, we should remember that there is always hope to return to our homeland.

By Yoni, Grade 7

Parshat Vayigash

Good morning. In this week’s Parsha, Vayigash, we finally get to the big reveal we’ve been waiting for over the past few weeks: Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers. Up until this point he has been using his power as second in command of Egypt to manipulate his brothers into giving him information about his father. Now finally in Vayigash, he can’t hold up the facade and he breaks down and confesses to his brothers.

What happened that caused Joseph to reveal himself at this moment instead of the first time they came to Egypt during the famine? The answer can be found in just the first word of the Parsha Vayigash. Vayigash, which means “to come close”. This has been interpreted in a few different way - a physical, emotional, and spiritual way. In physical terms, Judah who is essentially nobody steps forward and comes close to the second most powerful person in the world. By doing this he is risking his life because Joseph, being the powerful person he was, would for sure have security who wouldn’t be so happy with some random person getting up in Joseph’s face. In emotional terms, Judah shares all the struggles in his life with Joseph and then offered his life so that Benjamin could be free. Finally, in spiritual terms, the Sefat Emet, a famous Chasidic rabbi in the nineteenth century, writes that when Judah approaches, the Torah says “ויגש אליו יהודה” which doesn’t specify who he approaches. The Sefat Emet suggests that in addition to approaching Joseph he was also approaching God and even himself in this moment Judah decided to speak up and make a change. 

By stepping up in these three ways, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, Judah affects Joseph so much that he can’t hold it in anymore and he is “forced” to reveal himself as their brother, free Benjamin, and save the family.

By doing this, Judah does a Tikkun and “fixes” the brother relationships in the Torah. Up until this point, the stories of brothers have been about murder, violence, lies, and kidnapping. Now, by stepping up and taking responsibility in these ways, Judah changes the story. Being a brother is now about being honest, vulnerable, self-sacrifice, and loving.

I identify with Judah. Judah was under a lot of pressure to keep his brothers safe. He could have not taken the responsibility and just walked away. Instead, he chose to do it even though it put him at risk. Now that I’m older, I am not treated the same as I was when I was younger. It’s annoying, but at the same time, I don’t want to be treated like a younger child. My parents sometimes ask me to take responsibility for my younger siblings. I don’t always like the responsibility of being the oldest because it can be hard, I have to make sure my siblings are safe, and a lot of the time my siblings don’t want me to stay with them and keep them safe, but I try and take the responsibility my parents want me to have. Sometimes it can also feel good. I have the responsibility, and I can help protect them.

I also know that having responsibility isn’t a given: you have to earn it. Being older doesn’t necessarily mean having the responsibility. Sometimes, like Reuven, you lose your leadership role because you couldn’t step up. The Torah teaches us that what counts is stepping up and taking the leadership role as Judah did. 

I’d like to conclude by sharing 3 ways we can learn from Judah’s actions and use “vayigash” in our own lives.

1 - Physical Vayigash

Just like Judah stepped up to protect someone, You can too. If you see someone getting bullied, you can step up and help them. To be an Upstander is literally Vayigash: To step up and come close.

2 - Emotional Vayigash

Everybody at one point in life has the opportunity to share their story and make an impact like Judah did. 

We can all speak truth to power by sharing our stories. It can be hard to share our stories with those in power but it might change their hearts and minds.

3  - Spiritual Vayigash 

As the Sefat Emet said, Judah also came close to himself. Coming close to yourself - Being honest with yourself, not hiding the things that are hard/painful from ourselves and God, can also change the world. 

We should all strive to be like Judah a take responsibility. Thank you and I hope you have a great rest of your day.

By: Hannah, Grade 7

Parshat Chayei Sarah

Good morning. This week’s Torah portion is Chayei Sarah. In this Parsha, Abraham sent his servant, Eliezer, on a mission to find a wife for his son, Issac. But how could Eliezer be sure that whoever he found would be the right one?

He wanted to find someone who would be compatible with Issac and who was as kind as Abraham. Abraham, and his family, would always look for the opportunity to be welcoming and kind.

Eliezer created a plan to find the right girl and have a sign from above that he accomplished his mission. He would ask a girl if he could have a sip of water and if she gave him water and then also gave water to his camels, he would know that he had found an incredibly kind person.  

What made Abraham’s kindness so unique was that he didn’t just welcome guests in the most generous way, he went out to look for opportunities to do good things. This was the character trait that Eliezer was looking for. 

When Eliezer met Rebecca at the well, he found what he was looking for. She gave him some water and drew even more water for the camels. She didn’t hesitate to help a complete stranger. Her only motivation was to be kind. The desire to help others made her right for Abraham’s family. 

Rebecca teaches us that we should challenge ourselves with being truly kind. She shows us to look for opportunities to be useful and not just wait for someone to ask. These are qualities that I would like to emulate throughout my life. From comforting someone when they are sad, to giving food to someone who is homeless, donating money to organizations, or even just holding the door for someone. Big or small kindness goes a long way and can help you succeed in life. 

For example, an act of kindness I have done was when I was 7, and I went to Africa. While I was there,  my family organized with our guide to visit an orphanage. My parents had planned and bought school supplies like pencils and erasers to give to the kids there. They were all very happy to receive it. Even though at the time I didn’t understand how this was important, I now realize and I’m glad I had the opportunity to do that. 

While it is important to do a big mitzvah, some of the most impactful ones  are the small ones. Just a small act of kindness such as smiling at someone or asking them how they are doing and really listening to what they say can really brighten someone's day. In turn they will do this for someone else they encounter during the day. This one small act of kindness can affect a lot of people.

By: Talia, Grade 7

Parshat Shlach Lecha

Mazal tov to Talia who celebrated her Bat Mitzvah last weekend. Her dvar Torah below is on parshat Shlach Lecha.

My Bat Mitzvah parsha is Shlach. In my parsha the story opens up with God promising the Israelites a land flowing of milk and honey, but the Israelites were scared. They had just been rescued from being slaves and had gained a slave mentality on life. They still held fear in their hearts and doubt what God held for the future. 

So they assigned 12 spies, one man from each of their tribes, to make sure the land and its inhabitants were safe.

However when the spies returned ten of the spies came back as cowards and gave terrible reports on how there were giants living there and there was no way the small and weak Israelites would be able to fight for this land. Two of the men, Caleb and Joshua, came back with positive reviews and confidence that the Israelites could conquer with success.

It didn’t matter because the review from the ten spies rattled the Israelites enough and made them yell out with fear and mistrust for God's plans and they refused to move into the promised land. God was angry and disappointed with the ten spies and the Israelites with their betrayal and sentenced them to 40 years in the desert. 

My question is why did God decide on the number 40 for their punishment? What is the significance of 40? We tend to use the number 40 a lot in Judaism. Why is 40 such an important number? Did God just decide all these things having to do with forty for a purpose? 

What we learn from the great Rabbis is that the number 40 represents transition and change. The number represents the concept of renewals and new beginnings. It has the power to lift a spiritual state

Here are some examples of change with the number 40 in the torah:

● In the story of Noah It rained for forty days and nights

● Noah waited 40 days after the tops of mountains were seen after the flood before releasing a raven

● The 12 Spies in parshat Shlach explore the land of Canaan’ for 40 days

● Several early leaders and kings ruled for forty years

● When a person becomes ritually impure, they must immerse in the mikveh, the mikveh has to be filled with 40 se’ahs (a measure of water). The mikveh is a spiritual renewal for that person.

● Moshe was on Sinai for 40 days 

● In pregnancy, it takes 40 days for the embryo to be formed in womb

● There are 40 days between the first day of Elul to blow shofar to prepare for Rosh Hashana until Yom Kippur. These 40 days are very auspicious time for personal growth and renewal 

*At age 40 a person transitions from one level of wisdom to the next

In conclusion, after the Israelites traveled in the desert for 40 years, then there would be a renewal, a transition to another stage of being. The Israelites could reach a new level of understanding and be worthy to accept this gift of the land of milk and honey, the land of Cannan from God.

By: Shira, Grade 6

Parshat Shelach Lecha

Boker tov! Good morning. When I first started competitive dance, I had to learn how to do a baby freeze. It is a very challenging move. And I didn't know how to do it at all. Then by learning and trying and trying, even more, I finally got it. This teaches us that we have to work hard and try to succeed. It doesn't just come naturally. I know it may sound bizarre - but this all relates to this week's Parsha, Parshat Shelach Lecha, and I am going to tell you how. 

At the beginning of this week's portion, the Torah tells us that God commands Moses to send spies into the Land of Israel. God wants there to be 12 spies, one from each tribe. The spies were meant to find out: what kind of country is the Land of Israel? Are the people there strong or weak? Are there a lot of people, or not so many? Are the towns open or fortified? Is the soil rich or poor? And bring home some of the fruit. All reasonable questions for spies to explore.

This story ends up becoming one of the main downfalls of the Israelites in the desert. What went wrong? And what can we learn from that today?

The Torah tells us that the spies checked out the land for forty days. They came back to Moses, Aaron, and the entire people. When they returned, they said that the land was flowing with milk and honey. They brought huge, massive, delicious fruit from the land. Then they warned the Israelites that the cities are fortified and that the people there are powerful. So far, everything is going smoothly.

However, until now, they did everything Moses had asked. They answered his questions about what the Land of Israel was like, and what the people living there were like.

The problem came a few verses later. Caleb said, "Let's go, people! We can do this!" But the rest of the spies said, No, we cannot attack. These people are stronger than us. We looked like grasshoppers.

Unfortunately, this is where the spies did not do what they were told. The spies' job was not to say whether or not they were strong enough to attack. Their job was to describe what they saw and then figure out how to enter the land.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches us on this that people with a growth mindset do not fear failure. They relish challenges. They know that if they fail, the people will try again until they succeed. It cannot be a coincidence that the two people among the spies who had the growth mindset were also the two who were unafraid of the risks and trials of conquering the land. Nor can it be accidental that the ten others, all of whom carried the burden of people's expectations, were reluctant to do so.

If this analysis is correct, the story of the spies holds an important message for us. G-d does not ask us never to fail. He asks us to give our best. He lifts us when we fall and forgives us when we fail. It is this that provides us with the courage to take risks. That is what Joshua and Caleb knew. "Fear of failure causes us to fail. It is the willingness to fail that allows us to succeed."

That is what it meant for me to work hard to get my baby freeze. I had to believe in succeeding in order to succeed. Joshua and Caleb were the only people who tried to succeed and achieved that goal. They did the work they had to do to succeed, unlike the other ten spies who did not try to succeed. They did the opposite of what they were supposed to do. 

By Eliana, Grade 7

Parshat B'har/B'chukotai

This week's double portion is called Parshat B’har/B’chukotai. There are three main topics in Parshat B’har - the Shmita/Sabbatical and Yovel/Jubilee years, treatment of the poor, and rules regarding slavery.

The Shmita/Sabbatical year is the sevnth year of the seven-year agricultural cycle where you rest instead of working the land because the land needs rest. In the days of the week, the 7th day is Shabbat, a day of rest. In the Shmita/Sabbatical year, the 7th year is the year of rest. Since the land is not ours, we are told not to overwork it. 

Then, the Torah says the Yovel/Jubilee year is the 50th year at the end of seven cycles of Shmita/Sabbatical years. This means that there are 7 cycles of 7 years which adds up to 49 years. The Jubilee year is the 50th and last year of the cycle. Then not only is the land rested again but, in the Jubilee year, whatever land you have received in those 49 years will return to the ancestral tribe originally assigned to it. This means that a person can only have the land outside his ancestral clan for up to 50 years. Imagine if a family fell on hard times and had to sell its land, because of these laws preserving land ownership such a family would not remain destitute because every 50 years, the Yovel/Jubilee year they could reclaim their ancestral land. 

Another key theme in Parshat, B’har is slavery. We usually think of slavery in the American Civil War period when slavery was based on race and people could be born into slavery and die as slaves. But in the Torah, most Israelites are born free. Only when someone falls into debt and has no other option can they sell themselves into slavery. 

We see examples of how we treat different slaves differently. For example, when an Israelite owns another Israelite as a slave, they will treat them as a fellow Israelite, not rule over them ruthlessly or treat them as a slave. The Israelite must also let them go on the Jubilee year as they do with the land.  The Israelites have chosen to serve God which means the slave belongs to God. But if an Israelite has a non-Israelite slave, the slave becomes the property of the Israelite and can be inherited by future children. They might also be treated more harshly. Lastly, when an Israelite is in slavery and owned by a non-Israelite, a relative of the Israelite slave has to pay for them and then must release them by the Jubilee year. 

Although the slave treatment rules are good for the Israelites, it doesn't seem to me that it would be fair for everyone. For example,you were born with a certain skin color, so why should you be treated differently because of something you can't control. Just so, non-Israelites cannot change their ethnicity. That does not justify harsh treatment. The Torah says that the Israelites belong to God but never said that anyone else doesn't. 

This story stands out because historically the Jews have been treated differently or unfairly. Since we know how this feels I think the rule should change and we should treat everyone as the Israelites were treated in the Parsha. 

After reading both the ideas of the Yovel/Jubilee year and Shmita/Sabbatical years we see that the main connection between them is the role of God. In the Yovel/Jubilee year, we are returning the land that belongs to God. In the rules regarding slavery, we are returning slaves to those whom belong to God. They tell us that the land and the people belong to God therefore we should treat the land with respect and all people with respect as agents of God. This shows us that we should try our best to be respectful to not only God, but also to all the things God has provided us with.

By: Max, Grade 6

Parshat Acharei Mot/Kedoshim

This week’s parsha is a double parsha of Acharei Mot and Kedoshim. I am going to focus on parshat Kedoshim. The parsha is a listing of many, many laws. Some of the laws are:

-not insulting the deaf
-not putting a stumbling block in front of the blind
-not practicing witchcraft
-giving new fruits to God
-leaving the corners of your fields as charity


I thought about if these laws were all connected, and at first I thought they were all about keeping people safe, like treating a stranger well and leaving the corners of your fields for the poor. But many of the laws are things you have to do for God and not about keeping people safe.

The one thing I noticed that they all seem to have in common is that after every set of commandments it says “I am the Lord, thy God”. I counted at least 13 in this parsha. It seems here that God is establishing God’s authority and taking ownership of morality and the highest law. 

Another theme I found was that laws seem to be made to keep humans equal, and in doing so putting  God above all. For example, giving the corners of the field to homeless people is God telling us that we are equal and if not, we should equalize ourselves. The same goes for the rule: don’t insult the deaf. 

But what about the rule: “You shall not turn into ghosts”? Perhaps this is a rule to say I am the only thing “above you”. Same with the rule: “you shall not sacrifice your children to other gods.” Meaning I am the only God, the one ruler above all equals.

In short, this parsha is one made to govern a nation with a clear ruler. Authority has been established and a set of morals helps keep people in their equal places.

We were able to celebrate Micah Stone's Bar Mitzvah this week (originally scheduled for June 2020). Please enjoy his dvar Torah from Parshat Beha'alotcha...

By: Micah, Grade 8

Parshat Beha'alotcha

In Beha'alotcha we witness many events such as God instructing Moses to purify the Levites and even the betrayal by Miriam and Aaron when they protest against Moses. However, today I am going to be discussing the lack of respect that takes place when the Israelites start to complain about their hunger.

Let’s take a step back so we can view the habits of the Israelites. One could say the complaints started just after the Israelites were liberated from slavery in Egypt. Despite the fact that God and Moses have just saved them from the harsh grasp of slavery, the Israelites immediately begin complaining about the uncomfortable environment of the wilderness. Regardless, God responded with kindness and he gifted them with water and food. God even gave them manna each day and a double portion on Shabbat. This seems to have solved the problem for now.

Unfortunately, two years later, just after the Israelites have received the ten commandments, the Israelites voice their complaints again. They raise nostalgic memories of the meat, fish, vegetables, and all the other foods they were able to eat in Egypt. But they neglect the fact that they were slaves at the time!

You may be wondering why they would do this? After all, they just received the Torah and they have a promise of their own land. Some commentators believe that they were tired and cranky from their long journey. Others say that they complained out of boredom. I, however, think that they just needed to practice a bit of gratitude. Ilene Rosenstein, a psychologist at USC, said, “Taking a few moments to reflect on gratitude can broaden your perspective, helping you find meaning in small but enjoyable moments.” This means that the Israelites should have been grateful for the food they did have, as well as the torah, and every favor that God and Moses did for them. If they were grateful, they could have found that delicious bite of manna or joy in being with their fellow Israelites. We can apply this lesson of gratitude to the pandemic.

During the pandemic, a time of great loss and uncertainty, it is so easy to get stuck on what we had before. This might cause us to overlook the good that has emerged during the pandemic. For example, maybe you met new friends, maybe you developed a new hobby, maybe you got to spend more time with your family, and maybe you were able to use zoom to spend holidays with family in far places. No matter what it is, we should be grateful. Practicing gratitude helps us shift our perspective from the glass being half empty to half full.

By Sivan, Grade 6

Parshat Shmeini

Today I will be talking about Parshat Shmeini. The laws of kashrut are in this week’s parsha, but today I want to talk about a different part of the parsha.

There is a story about Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, that they brought a fire to the mishkan that God did not want. God uses their fire to kill them. Moshe and Aaron were in the mishkan as this was happening and they knew exactly what happened.

Moshe turned to Aaron to say two things:

- God will be sanctified by those people who are nearest to God and this will honor God before the entire nation


- Don't show your mourning publicly in front of the nation or God will be angry. The nation will mourn anyway.

I wondered - why did Moshe say these two things? Why did Moshe tell Aaron to hide his emotions? Wasn’t he sad that his two nephews died? And, why would God get angry if Aaron mourned publicly?

I think that Moshe said the first thing to Aaron almost to make him feel better about losing his sons. He wanted Aaron to know his sons' deaths were not in vain. Their deaths brought more sanctity to the mishkan and honor to God. Personally, it wouldn’t make me feel better, but maybe for Aaron, who served God and worked in the mishkan, that was a comforting thing to hear.

And I think the reason Moshe said the second thing to Aaron - about not mourning publicly - is because Moshe was scared that the people would get angry at God for killing Aaron’s sons. They might rebel against God and in Moshe’s experience so far, when people get angry with God they disrespect God and then bad things happen. When they built the Golden Calf, Moshe ended up leading a civil war between the people who believed in God and the people who rejected God. And God also sent a plague to punish the people for their sins. When the people rebel against God, God rebels against the people. So, Aaron should not publicize his mourning so the people don’t start fighting and God does not have to punish anyone who rebels.

It’s not what I would have said to my brother, but I think Moshe said these two things because he was thinking of Aaron and trying to make him feel better and he was thinking of the nation and trying to keep everyone safe.

By Shira, Grade 6

Parshat Vayikra

Have you ever done something wrong and tried to avoid telling the truth? I’m sure that my sisters will remember the times when we were fighting and all of a sudden I WHACK them. When my dad, who was sitting right there when it happened, would ask me why, I made up excuses. But I am not here to tell you about sister rivalries, you’ll have to wait until Breishit to hear about that. I am here to talk about leadership in the olden days. In this week's parsha, G-d calls Moses to the Tent of Meeting and teaches him the laws of Korbanot, sacrifices. The Kohanim who are ritual leaders, help do all of these. There are many rules and instructions on how and when these should have been done. Hidden in all of these ritual laws, we learn interesting things about the nasi’im, the other leaders of B’nei Yisrael.

Rabbi Shai Held, the President, Dean, and Chair of Jewish Thought at Mechon Hadar, noticed something in this text. In chapter 4, the text tells us about the things that different groups of people had to do when they sinned. We hear about 4 different groups, The Cohen, All Israelites, a Single Person, and A Chieftain (also known as a leader or nasi). The first three groups are talked about similarly. For all these, the text uses the word אם, which means if. This shows that we aren’t assuming that this will happen, but just in case, this is what to do. But in the case of a Leader, nasi, the text says something different. In chapter 4 verse 22, we have:

 אֲשֶׁ֥ר נָשִׂ֖יא יֶֽחֱטָ֑א

Which means “When it is a chieftain who incurs guilt” For the case of a nasi, we have the word , אֲשֶׁ֥ר When. This shows that they assumed it would happen. Why is the nasi written about differently? A nasi is different from the nation but what about the Kohanim, who are also leaders? I think it’s because A nasi is more of a political Leader, while the Kohen is more of a spiritual Leader. 

But this brings me to my next question: Why do we assume that this is going to happen to a nasi? Rabbis say that leaders are pressured because of their status in the community. Because they’re so high up, they’re doing good and bad things that other people wouldn’t necessarily do. But why doesn’t this apply to kohanim, who are equally as in power as the nasi’im? I think it’s because the Kohen is a ritual leader, he is expected to know G-d’s laws and follow them. Whereas, A nasi, is a political leader and is more focused on rules that will keep everybody and everything in line and not focused on ritual rules about the temple. Vayikra is showing more concern for the leader who has power over how B’nei Yisrael lives their day to day lives.

By expecting that the nasi’im will make mistakes and have to bring sacrifices, we can learn that it is better to have a leader who is willing to acknowledge their mistakes and be a good role model. 

Even though this parsha is mostly laws about sacrifices, we can learn some very important lessons about leadership. Leaders can’t take advantage of their position of power and they need to participate in the laws and community. When B’nei Yisrael sees the nasi’im going to make a sacrifice after they’ve made a mistake, the community will see that they are an honest person who will acknowledge their mistakes.

By: Emma, Grade 7

Parshat Vayakel-Pekudei

My Torah portion is in Pekudei. Pekudei is all about the building of the mishkan and preparing the priests for priesthood. It lists details about how the mishkan was built, how the priests became priests, and how all of that relates to God. My particular portion is about the cloud that fills the tabernacle once its built (the cloud being God). The portion talks about how when the cloud fills the tabernacle the Israelites rest, while when it lifts they pack up and move. It is also mentioned how the cloud turns to fire at night while returning to cloud form by morning.

There is more than one theme in this parsha, and many details to go with each one, but I feel there are two main ideas that are more important than others. What this parsha is about is the building of the Tabernacle (mishkan) so I think it's pretty clear that's a main idea. Now the second main idea is God's cloud. But not only that it was there, the cloud seems to represent something. It obviously represents God, but I think it also represents a job well done. God is rewarding the Jews with his presence, because he is pleased and maybe proud of them.

The parsha I’m reading from is kind of hard to relate to because we no longer have a tabernacle, nor priests (well, no priests like Levi ) and we definitely don't have a magic God cloud. But it's certainly possible to make connections. My portion is talking about the cloud of God and that's what I’m going to try to respond to. In my mind there are two ways to view the cloud, one good, one complicated. Let's start with the good.

During the time of the tabernacle the Jews weren’t exactly in the best situation. They were still in the desert, and at this point had been there awhile. I feel like the building of the temple was kind of like a distraction from just walking through the desert every day, but that's not my main point. My main point is that they were in crisis after being saved from Egypt, and God was protecting them, but that couldn’t have been clear to them in the desert because Moses was the only one who could actually speak to God, so I think the cloud was like a beacon of hope. It showed the Jews God was there and protecting them. Now this relates to us in modern times because we are also in crisis, with COVID. A mere few months ago a new leader took the seat of presidency, and for many people this was a beacon of hope, this was our cloud, and it worked. Things are by no means better, and in some places are even getting worse, but the “cloud” (aka our new president ) gave us hope and a little more belief in our ability to get through this pandemic.

My second way to relate the cloud is simpler, yet also more complicated. This way of looking at the cloud isn’t really me looking at how it represents God, just the cloud itself, and it's not very positive. The parsha says when the cloud descends upon the people they cannot leave where they are at and cannot do much. They may only leave once the cloud lifts. This again, reminds me of COVID. But not hope in COVID, it just reminds me of COVID itself. When viewing the cloud this way it looks kind of like COVID because it descends upon the people and keeps them where they are, not letting them move on, or keeping their normal patterns of the day. That doesn’t sound very pleasant to me, and it also sounds kind of like what we’re going through during this pandemic.

Now I know this is a lot of talking but I just have one thing (with a couple parts) left to talk about. My haftorah. My haftorah portion is in Ezekiel and it’s all about sacrifices and preparations for passover. It explains how many sacrifices are to be made during the 7 days of unleavened bread, what those sacrifices will be, who will be sacrificing them, and how they will be sacrificed. My particular portion describes the eating of the unleavened bread and the details of the sacrifices the prince must make during each day of the holiday  (to be specific 7 bulls and 7 rams a day for the burnt offering and a goat a day for a sin one).

I think the main ideas in my haftorah are rather apparent, but just in case they have not been I shall point them out. My portion is about the prince, his sacrifices, and the unleavened bread we must eat. Those are the main ideas plain and simple.

This portion is quite audibly about passover. Now the actual holiday is mentioned surprisingly little for a chapter that's supposed to be all about it. But we do hear a scant bit about the week of unleavened bread, making it quite evident this is a passover portion. Now obviously the connection to this holiday is through the timing of the occasion, but I believe there is also a connection to events that have happened recently. Passover is all about the escape from Egypt and the Israelite’s bread which had insufficient time to rise. This holiday is all about hope, triumph, and freedom, all things that have been threatened recently in modern life. Now I hate to keep bringing COVID up but it’s a rather large and noticeable happening in our lives right now, so a fairly important subject. COVID has been controlling our lives for about a year now, in fact it started commanding mine exactly a year ago, to the day. This virus has stopped me from being with my friends, from going to school normally, from just going out to places in general and it hasn’t been very fun. But I have gone through nothing like what millions of other people have gone through. COVID has hurt many people, and not just the people who caught it. With an exceedingly contagious virus on the loose millions of jobs have been lost, and millions of families have struggled. This clearly isn’t slavery, which is what passovers about. But this is a huge issue that has affected everyone, and believe me when I say not in a good way. This pandemic may not have physically enslaved us and the whole world, but it did enslave us in the way of lack of jobs, opportunities, education, and all the essentials we need in this system we’ve built ourselves. Now that we have experienced a worldwide pandemic, a massive issue in our lives, we like the Jews must stay strong and pull ourselves through these rough times.

I think this part of the Torah is a very important section to remember. It's important because it shows that even in the worst of times, we can succeed, we can overcome whatevers holding us back (physically, spiritually, and emotionally) and we can prevail. This is an important message even in the best of times, but while we are going through a pandemic and all the issues that come with it, it is especially essential that we remember this message of hope, so we, like the Israelites, can overcome this and triumph.

By: Sophia, Grade 8

Parshat Ki Tisa

Ki Tisa is a story of patience: specifically the patience in Moses, Aaron, the Israelites, and even God. The main story begins with the Israelites noticing how long it has taken Moses to come down after receiving the Torah from God on Mount Sinai, so they go to Aaron and ask him for advice. Aaron immediately tells the Israelites to melt their jewelry and build the calf. The Israelites follow his instructions with no questions, When Moses comes down from the mountain, he sees this and is obviously enraged, and he destroys the Ten Commandments. Everybody knows the idea of this story, but it’s hard to find the reason behind everybody’s actions. That is what I would like to explain today. 

Let’s start with Aaron. Now to do that, we have to start at the beginning. His little brother, who his mother sent out in a basket on the river, comes back to save Aaron, his people, and all future generations from a lifetime of slavery.

That is not something that you would immediately trust especially considering Moses was never a slave. But Aaron follows Moses. Even after all of that, Moses tells Aaron that he and his children have to devote their lives to serving God. After all of this, If it were me when one thing goes wrong I would be quick to doubt both Moses and God. So you can see where the spontaneous decision to make a golden calf comes from, it seemed like more of a distraction from their situation than a God.    

The Israelites are in a similar boat to Aaron,  and they don’t have any obvious personal connection to Moses. But that probably only heightens the worry that they feel when Moses doesn’t come down from Mount Sinai when they expect him to. So when you’re in this panicked state and the only figure of authority you have tells you to do something, it isn’t that hard to comply. 

Moses, however, is probably the one with the most polarizing action in this story. Having people blatantly disobey you is always extremely frustrating. I feel as though smashing the Ten Commandments was in a way symbolic of that. However, as a leader, you have to account for your followers messing up sometimes and handle it in a civil way. 

I want to end by thinking about God’s perspective, God also loses patience with the Israelites when God sees what they have done while Moses was away -- and tells Moses that they have disobeyed and MUST be punished. In this way, God has no immediate understanding of their loss of faith in him and in Moses --  God doesn't take into account how abandoned they must have felt. Or how Aaron’s direction to make a golden calf was -- in many ways -- a way to divert the Israelites’ attention away from Moses’ absence.  As a result of this, God doesn’t handle the situation in the best way, which makes God seem very human and tangible. I think these actions are a very good reflection of the Parsha Ki Tisa itself. In a section of the Torah largely filled with seemingly endless instructions on things that people today might have trouble connecting with, the behavior exhibited in this Parsha make Ki Tisa a relatable human story.

By: Daphna, Grade 6

This past Thursday was Taanit Esther, the Fast of Esther. We fast nowadays because of the fast in Megillat Esther. In the Megillah, Esther asks Mordechai to gather all the Jews to fast for three days before going into the inner chamber of the king to ask to save the Jews. She does this because the punishment for going into the inner chamber without permission is death. She is very nervous, but, as we all know, God helps her and she wins the favor of King Achashverosh and saves the Jews.

This made me wonder, “Why do Jewish people fast whenever we are scared or feel threatened?” “Why did Esther ask the people to fast?” Maybe one reason is that fasting is related to God. When I fasted for Yom Kippur, it made me think about God because I could be more focused on God without drinking and eating... So maybe Esther and her people fasted so she would be more connected to God before she went somewhere where she would really need God’s help. Maybe if the people can show they believe in God and turn to God, God will be more likely to help. God does not help every single time we need help, but will help us. You just need to be alert and take the help.

Another idea of why we fast is that our ancestors didn’t do the right thing and fasting is a way of redemption and an opportunity to revise our own behavior. When we fast, we are more vulnerable. This is a good time to revise our own behavior.

When we fast, we acknowledge that God gives us food and water, and that it isn’t just us. But we must also let God help us. You have to have your skin in the game and also acknowledge that God does help. But maybe God offers help when he sees people helping themselves. This is what Esther did. She realized that God had made her queen so she could save her people, and she used that opportunity to save the Jews.

By: Benjamin, Grade 6

Parshat Mishpatim

This week’s parsha is Mishpatim. In this parsha the Israelites receive many laws. Many of these laws are about slavery. These laws were given just after coming out of Egypt where the Israelites had been slaves themselves! This raises the question if they had such a hard time being slaves, then why do they still want people to suffer the same fate? Shouldn't God tell the Israelites not to have slaves? 

Many other people have asked this same question. When researching the topic I stumbled upon Rabbi Alex Israel’s opinion on the matter. His opinion is that it was not ideal for the Israelites to have slaves. But back in those ancient times every other society owned slaves. Because of this God didn't think it would be possible for the Israelites not to have slaves.

Instead, the Torah puts into place so many rules that people might not even want to own slaves. The text tells us: A slave owner would have to set his/her slaves free in the seventh year and give them a home and means to support themselves. In addition the slave rests with the household on Shabbat, and if the slave is hurt by their master they will be set free. Finally, if a master kills his slave, the master is put to death.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who was the chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, read these rules and wrote about them by saying

“These laws…they turn slavery from an existential fate to a temporary condition. Slavery is not what you are or how you were born, but some thing that has happened to you for a while and from which you will one day be liberated." 

When the rules on slavery from the Torah are compared to other rules from the same time period, we see that in the Torah slaves are treated more like human beings as opposed to property. An example of this is in the Hammurabi legal code where a runaway slave is put to death and a person who shelters a runaway slave is also put to death. By contrast, the Torah says:

"You shall not turn over to his master a slave who takes refuge with you from his must not ill-treat him."

To sum it up, the Torah is not telling us to own slaves, it is acknowledging the fact that in those ancient times the Israelites would likely own slaves themselves. So the Torah tells us that you can only own slaves if you will treat them more like human beings than property. Additionally, the slave is not your slave forever, they are just working for you temporarily.

By: Daisy, Grade 6

Parshat Yitro

Hello everyone.

This week I am reflecting on the parsha, Parshat Yitro. In this week’s parsha the Israelites get the 10 commandments from God. They are in the desert at Mount Sinai. Moses commands the people to prepare for this moment by being clean and pure.

I imagined this moment of God giving the Torah might have been a discussion between God and the people, and that the people would give thanks to God for taking them out of Egypt, and God would welcome them and make them all feel a part of it.

But instead I read about an experience that does not sound like that.  The people gathered around the mountain and they were terrified. There is thunder and lightning and loud shofar blasts. The mountain looked smoky because God came down to it in the form of fire. The whole mountain was vigorously trembling, and the text says the people themselves are trembling from fear. In addition to that, God says if the people come any closer to the mountain they will die.

Instead of people feeling close to God, they are feeling terrified and not welcomed. They then ask that Moses be the only one who goes up the mountain and talks to God. Moses will bring down the 10 commandments and tell them what God says.

Seeing how scared the people were at this moment. I see them building the golden calf from a different perspective. I think They built the calf (which will happen soon) not because they didn’t believe in God, but more because they were scared of God.  I think they didn’t want to pray to God as their leader anymore because they thought that God neglected them or didn’t actually care about them or might even kill them.

When things are too scary it is not comforting. People won’t want to be part of something that is terrifying, so they look for comfort somewhere else . They built something that was not terrifying at all.  They made the calf themselves and it can’t do anything bad to them or hurt them. This way they could worship something, but not be scared of it.

This is just my idea on this part of the parsha. It makes me think that when you want to create a relationship you might want to be kinder and gentler or you might scare people off.

By: Sam, Grade 7

Parshat Beshalach

This week's parsha is Beshalach. The previous parsha, Bo, ended with Hashem unleashing the tenth plague, the death of the firstborn on Egypt. Now back to my parsha. Pharaoh was overcome by so much grief that he commanded the Israelites to leave Egypt. The Israelites quickly left Egypt and Hashem told Moses that the Israelites should camp by the sea but that He will harden Pharaoh and the Egyptians' hearts so that they will pursue the Israelites.

This seems like a really odd thing for Hashem to do when the Israelites had just escaped from Pharoah. Now Hashem wants Pharaoh to chase them? Ramban, a medieval Torah commentator, answers this by saying that Hashem will harden the Egyptians' hearts because He wants the Egyptians to see the Israelites pass through the split sea and then they will be too terrified to continue chasing the Israelites through their journey onward.

When the Israelites see Pharoah and his army coming towards them they panic. Moses reassures them that Hashem will deal with the Egyptians, but Hashem tells Moses that Moses is capable of saving the Israelites. Hashem explains to Moses that he has to take his rod and hold it over the sea and the sea will spilt. Moses then splits the sea and the Israelites cross and make it to dry land. The sea then collapses onto the Egyptians allowing the Israelites to escape the Egyptians for good.

By: Amitai, Grade 7

Parshat Va'eira

Parshat Va'eira is about the first seven plagues in Egypt. On a deeper level though, my parsha is about the process of the Jewish people becoming a free nation. For my dvar Torah I will be talking about this freedom.

In my parsha, Hashem tells Moshe that he is going to free the Israelites who are enslaved in Egypt. But instead of just saying, I, God, will free them, Hashem says it four times, with four different words that mean similar but slightly different things. Hashem says - Vehotzaiti, I will remove you; Vehitzalti, I will rescue you, Vegaalti, I will redeem you, and Velakachiti, I will take you to be my people. Why does Hashem need to say basically the same thing four different ways?

I believe this has to do with the process of actually becoming a free people. In the Torah, before Moshe came along, all the Jewish people knew for hundreds of years was discrimination, beatings, and slavery. They had no reason to think anything new or different would happen to them. In fact, in my parsha, when Moshe first tried to save them, they didn’t want him to because they thought it would just make things worse. They had no hope.

The four different words that Hashem uses actually represent the four stages of becoming a free nation - each one is important.

The Arbabanel, a 15th century Portugese rabbi and philosopher explains that each word corresponded with a stage of slavery that the Jewish people endured: He writes:

What do the four languages of Geulah, meaning redemption, mean? In order to understand them, you must go back to the beginning of the enslavement in Shemot. In 1:11 it says that they placed upon them Sorei Misim - taskmasters - to afflict them with their burdens, and they built the storage cities of Pitom and Ramses. The first enslavement stage was these taskmasters - people who taxed the Jews unfairly, placing heavy financial burdens on them. The first step of redemption was financial relief, where the taxes stopped. The second enslavement in 1:13 was Farech, back-breaking labor. The second redemption was to relieve them of the severe slavery, the cruel physical tasks they were forced to perform. The third enslavement was the killing of our children - this parallel is v’Ga'alti - Hashem stops the killing - these were the tenth plague and the splitting of the sea - the plague stopped the killing of the babies, and perpetrators of the murders then drowned in the sea. So we see an escalation of taxes to physical labor to murder, and the first three redemptions paralleled these. The fourth redemption was being chosen as God's people, giving them the Torah, allowing them to reach the highest level of a total spiritual redemption.

I agree with Arbabanel and also see the four languages as reflecting the process of becoming a free people.

The first is: I will Remove you - Vehotzaiti - getting away physically, which might only be temporary

The second is: I will Rescue you - Vehitzalti - this is a permanent freedom - where the master is gone

The third is: I will Redeem you - Vegaalti - this is a change of identity - they’re not just former slaves, but they have a new identity as a free people

The fourth is: Take you for me - Velakachti - the Israelites get to be with and serve God

After these four stages, the people are free. Hooray! But what happens next? What is the point of that freedom?

There is a debate when people talk about freedom. Is freedom about everyone doing what makes them happy, or is freedom about the opportunity to become a higher version of yourself? Some people describe this as “freedom from” and “freedom to.”

Freedom from is: everyone is equal and everyone can do whatever they want that makes them happy. No one can tell you what to do.

Freedom to:

Everyone can become their best selves, rise above, and become something they weren’t able to before.

The Torah’s vision of freedom is not freedom from. Once the Israelites got to the desert, it wasn’t just a big party. They immediately started serving Hashem. Freedom meant the freedom to serve God and be a part of something very important and meaningful.

This Shabbat, in addition to parshat Vaeira, is also the weekend where we remember Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Like Moshe, he took a group of people that had been oppressed and beaten down and led them through the different stages of freedom. Like the four different languages of freedom in my parsha, Reverend Dr. King had to protect the physical safety of his people (vehotzaiti), he had to permanently end the oppressive system of Jim Crow (vehitzalti), he had to make people see themselves as equals (vegaalti) and he had to inspire them toward a higher purpose and meaning (velakachti). As Reverend Dr. King wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “freedom is never given voluntarily by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”

Reverend Dr. King was a freedom fighter, for his own people and also for all of us. 

He fought for Freedom from: segregation, lynchings, beating, murder, unfairness in the justice system

He also fought for freedom to: rise above hatred and fear and for our society to become its best self.

Today, this struggle continues. Despite all of the work Reverend Dr. King and other civil rights leaders accomplished, there’s still so much more to do, and a long way to go before everyone in this country is truly free. 

Becoming a bar mitzvah is a real lesson in the idea of “freedom to”. For example, my parents will start to say - now that you’re 13, you can...take out the garbage! Yaaaay.

But to me, it’s also the freedom to become a bigger part of my community. I can help make a minyan for davening, I can lead presence matters in a way it didn’t before. I’m not sure what else it means, but I’m excited to learn how I can help my community as I get older.

By: Shira, Grade 6

Parshat Vayeshev

This week’s parsha is Vayeshev. In this parsha, we have the beginning of the story of Joseph (his coat, his dreams, being thrown in a pit, etc..) but there is a less known story about two people named Yehuda and Tamar. 

Yehuda was one of Joseph’s brothers that came up with the idea to sell Joseph instead of killing him. Yehuda’s first son, named Er, was married to Tamar. God caused Er to die because Er was evil.  So Yehuda gave Tamar his second son Onan to marry. Onan then also died because God also thought that he was evil. So Yehuda promises Tamar his third son. His third son was too young to get married so Yehuda said that the third son would marry Tamar when he was old enough.

Yehuda did this to fulfill the commandment of Yibbum. The commandment of Yibbum is to help your brother’s name live on after he has died and he didn’t leave any children behind. You marry your former sister-in-law to have a child in your dead brother’s name. If you are already married, you do not have to do this. This was also to protect the women. People back then, did not want to marry widowed women, they wanted to marry women who had never been married before.

But Yehuda does not keep his promise. I think that Yehuda did this because he realized that both of his sons died after they met Tamar. So he might have been worried that his third son would die, too. Many days passed, possibly years, and Yehudah’s wife died. Yehudah has still not given his third son to Tamar.

Tamar did something strange. She dresses up like a prostitute and waits for Yehudah to pass by. Yehudah wants to sleep with Tamar and promises that he will send a baby goat back as payment. She insists he leave something as collateral- he leaves his signet ring, his cloak, and his staff. When the time comes to exchange payment for his belongings, Tamar is gone. Tamar had gone back to her parent’s house and had put on her widow's clothing again.

I wondered why Tamar went through with this plan? What was her rationale?  Did she want to teach Yehuda a lesson? Did she want to fulfill Yibbum?  Did she want to have children? Did she want a new husband?

Three months later neighbors tell Yehudah that Tamar is pregnant. This tells me that the neighbors believed Yehudah had the right to know because she is still his daughter-in-law, she is still promised to his third son Shelah and he has the right to know she is pregnant. When Yehudah finds out he insists that Tamar be put to death because she slept with another man that is not his son. 

When Tamar is brought out to be put to death, she reveals the signet ring, the cloak and the staff that Yehuda gave to her as payment.  When Yehuda was confronted publicly, he was very honest. He said that she was right, and he was wrong. He takes responsibility for his actions and future children. He was even there when she gave birth and he named their twins.

Given the end of the story, I think that there are a couple of reasons why Tamar did this. The first is revenge. Tamar might have wanted to publicly embarrass him. He embarrassed her so she wanted to get him back. Tamar might have also done this because she was desperate. No one back then wanted to marry a widow. So maybe she thought that by doing this, she would get a new husband and have a child. Finally, did she do this to fulfill the mitzvah of Yibbum? Even though this is not required for women, maybe she wanted to do it anyway. 

In this Parsha we learn about who Tamar and Yehuda were as people. Yehuda seems like a very honest person. He did not deny what he did with Tamar. We also learn that Tamar won’t give up. She lost both of her husbands, did not get Yehuda’s third son in marriage, but still tried to get a new one. 

By: Micah, Grade 6

Parshat Vayishlach

The parsha this week is Vayishlach (“and he sent”). This parsha is about the reunion of two brothers after many years - Esav and Yaakov. The last time we saw these brothers we learned that they didn’t get along well. Yaakov took the blessings of the first born child from Esav and Esav was really not happy about it. Their mother, Rivka, told Yaakov to run away because she was worried Esav was going to kill him. Yaakov ran away, listening to his mother, with fear. 

Now, 20 years later, Yaakov hears that Esav is coming to see him. Esav was going to Yaakov with 400 men. Yaakov is scared. He believes that Esav is coming to kill him and all the people that are with him. So, Yaakov sends gifts to Esav to say sorry and Yaakov also splits up the people that are with him in the hope that if one group falls, one group will still be alive.

While getting ready to meet Esav, Yaakov encountered an anonymous person and fought with them for eight hours. In the eight hours that they fought, Yaakov gets his hip dislocated and has a permanent limp. Besides Yaakov’s hip dislocation, he kept fighting and won. The anonymous person renamed him “Israel." Israel means a man who has fought with God and with men and won. We do not know who this person is because it doesn’t describe it anywhere in the Torah. Based on what the anonymous person named him, it makes the anonymous person more likely to be an angel.

Although I understood most of the parsha, I still have some questions about it. My questions are: Why did Yaakov accept his new name when he doesn't know who he is wrestling with? How does Yaakov know he is an angel of God and someone who has the right to rename him?

We know from the pasuk following the fight that, even though we’re not sure who this person was, Yaakov thinks he came from God, because he names the place he fought Peniel - meaning I saw the face of God. The pasuk reads:

“And Jacob named the place Peniel, for [he said,] "I saw an angel face to face, and my soul was saved."

I read about Rashi answering why Yaakov would accept this new name. Rashi writes that this is a new beginning for Yaakov. When his name was Yaakov, his name meant “trickery and deceit” and he got this name because he held onto Esav’s ankle coming out of his mother’s (Rivka’s) womb. He only got his blessings and everything he owned because he was holding onto Esav’s ankle and tricking people. Now, his name is Israel which means he’s fought with God and that’s how he earned his new identity. Now, having the name Israel, having everything he owned is because he earned it by winning a fight with God. 

It’s so interesting how Yaakov won a fight over God. Maybe this meant that he was the right brother to take the lead. Maybe he just needed a new start to do that.

Parshat Toldot

By: Emma, Grade 8

In this week's parsha, Rivka and Yitzchak pray to God because so far they have not been able to have a child. Rivka soon feels violent movement in her womb, so she consults G-d about why. G-d says to her "Two nations are in your womb, and two kingdoms will separate from your innards, and one kingdom will become mightier than the other kingdom, and the elder will serve the younger." When she gives birth the first child to come out is named Easu and he is described as red-cheeked and hairy. The second child is named Yaakov and is described as smooth. So from the beginning of the story we know that the younger child, Yaakov, will be the one who is mightier

As they grow up, Easu likes hunting and being outdoors and is favored by Yitzchak while Yaakov prefers to stay inside and is favored by Rivka. One time when Yaakov was cooking stew, Esau came in tired and hungry. Yaakov said that he would give him stew if he sold his birthright to him. Esau said “I am at the point of death, so of what use is my birthright to me?” and so he swore his birthright to Yaakov. So now, not only does the prophecy say Yaakov will be mightier, but Yaakov has also just purchased the birthright from his older brother. At this point it should be clear who will get the blessings of the oldest child.

EXCEPT, later in the parsha, YItzvchak is preparing to die and he calls Esau to prepare him a meal so he can give him the blessings! I wondered why did Yitzchak still want to bless Esau? When Rivka overheard this plan, she and Yaakov make a plan for Yaakov to get the blessings. She prepares the food and dresses Yaakov up like Esau and indeed Yitzchak ends up giving the blessing he meant to give Esav to Yaakov. Nations shall serve you and kingdoms shall bow down to you; you shall be a master over your brothers, and your mother's sons shall bow down to you. Those who curse you shall be cursed, and those who bless you shall be blessed." Interesting, this blessing sounds like the prophecy Rivka got about her twins!

What is going on here?  How could Yitzchak still want to give the blessings to Esau?  t’s clear from the prophecy that God wanted the younger brother to be mightier, so why does Yaakov have to go through all this just to get what should be coming to him?

My first thought is that maybe Yitzchak doesn’t know about either of these stories. Rivka never told him about the prophecy and neither of his children told him about the selling of the birthright. So Yitzcahk is doing what he should be doing - giving the blessings to his oldest child. My second thought is that YItzchak does know, BUT the text tells us that he loves Esau more than he loves Yaakov, so he naturally wants Esau to thrive and prosper more. He goes against the prophecy to give Esau the very same blessing that the prophecy offered to Yaakov. This is why Yaakov has to be so sneaky to get what is his.

Yitzchak still has one blessing to give Esau after being tricked by Yaakov. The blessing Yitzchak gives Esau says that when Yaakov’s children will begin to stray from this covenant and once that happens, this promise is done. Yaakov will not have power over Esau once they no longer do what they are supposed to do for God. 

After this Esau begins to hate Yaakov and it is only years later, as seen in next week’s parsha, that the brothers can make peace with each other. For me these brothers got caught up in this tension which was created by their parents, but it is an important lesson that we can’t let what other people do wrong stop us from finding peace with each other.

Parshat Chayei Sarah

By: Zohar, Grade 7

Have you ever heard the story of how my parents met? My parents both lived in the same dorm in their freshman year of college. During the first week of classes, my mom decided she wanted to get to know my dad better. She went downstairs and knocked and when he opened the door my mom introduced herself and asked if he wanted to hang out. My dad responded by holding up a thick book, The Iliad, and rudely said “I have to finish this by the end of the weekend. So I can’t.” Then abruptly closed the door on her face. They didn’t speak for another three years. And lucky for me and my siblings my dad didn’t blow it with that first embarrassing encounter. 

In this week’s Torah portion, in the section that I will read, Rivka meets her future husband under circumstances that seem embarrassing.

וַתִּשָּׂ֤א רִבְקָה֙ אֶת־עֵינֶ֔יהָ וַתֵּ֖רֶא אֶת־יִצְחָ֑ק וַתִּפֹּ֖ל מֵעַ֥ל הַגָּמָֽל׃

Raising her eyes, Rebekah saw Isaac. She fell off the camel. What a strange way to meet someone?!

Why is this detail important to their story? Wouldn’t it have been nicer for the Torah to have skipped this embarrassing detail about Rivka?

Rashi, the great medieval Torah scholar, explains that even though the phrase וַתִּפֹּ֖ל מֵעַ֥ל הַגָּמָֽל׃ literally means “she fell off the camel” the phrase more accurately means that she slowly descended and bowed to Yitzhak in a respectful way. 

According to Rashi she didn’t actually fall, but we still must wonder why she acted in such a humble way towards her own husband. If we look at the other couples in the Torah they don’t act this way.

According to Ramban, another great medieval Torah scholar, the verses in the Torah that tell this story are written out of order. First she asks Avraham’s servant who the man approaching is, and she only bows towards Yitzhak after learning that the man approaching is her future husband. Ramban agrees with Rashi that she did not literally fall, but adds the detail that her bowing was motivated by learning who the man was rather than just seeing him. 

For Ramban, Rivka’s bowing was a conscious decision that she made only after learning that the man was her future husband Yitzhak. But this heightens the question. Why did she feel obligated to bow especially after knowing who he was.

Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, a Torah Scholar from the 1800’s, who was known by his acronym Netziv, takes the observations of Rashi and Ramban and goes further. He notices that the awe and fear that Rivka experienced when she met Yitzhak for the first time comes to characterize their marriage. Unlike Sara and Avraham and unlike Rachel and Yaakov, Rivka never confronts Yitzhak to his face. When she knows he is wrong, she has to go behind his back. Netziv explains why the Torah includes this embarrassing detail. It tells us something about their non confrontational marriage. 

I find Netziv to be the most helpful because his explanation of this episode connects it with things that happen later in the Torah. His understanding explains more than one thing. We know why Rivka fell off the camel, and we understand why she never confronted her husband even years later when she knew he was making a mistake by planning to give his blessing to Esav and not Yaakov.

As I become a bat mitzvah, this example is important. This teaches me the lesson that when you believe in something or feel something you need to tell people. Your opinion matters and if you choose not to speak up, it will get overlooked. There are great people like Yitzhak, but they are sometimes wrong. Rivka felt like her opinion didn’t matter compared to his. I want to avoid that mistake. 

Parshat Vayera

By: Danny, Grade 7

At first I was going to have my Bar Mitzvah in Israel in December with my cousin Gabe, who lives in Atlanta. I was learning the Torah portions about Joseph with my Grandma until our family decided that a Bar Mitzvah in Israel was not possible this year.

I learned that an important word in Joseph’s life is the word “Hineni.” Joseph is a young boy and his father Jacob asks him to go find his brothers. Joseph says, “Hineni,” “here I am.” Even though Joseph knows his brothers are jealous of him and maybe even hate him, he says, “Hineni.” He is ready for whatever comes next. 

We talked about the fact that when you see the word “Hineni” in the Torah, it means something important is going to happen.   

When the plan changed, I started learning about Avraham for my Bar Mitzvah aliyah today. Avraham also has a “Hineni moment.” God tells him to go to the land of Moriah and offer his son Yitzhak as a sacrifice. Avraham answers, “Hineni.” He is ready for what comes next. 

My Grandma asked me if I have had any “Hineni moments” in my life. The first answer I gave was “I was born!”  But also I thought about this:

  • I try to be a person who is ready to help my family and my friends. I wear an internal smile and try to help people be in a good mood.  

  • In 5th grade our class visited the Self-Help home, where we met some very knowledgeable elders who told us about their lives and what the world was like before I was born. I got to know them better and feel respect for them.  

  • In 6th grade I attended a Black Lives Matter rally with my family and it was very inspiring. I got to see different cultures and races all trying to work together to make this a more fair country.    

  • Every year at Hanukkah my family donates tzedakah. One year I donated to help homeless people in Chicago, another time I gave to Team Trees to make the planet a healthier place for people and animals, and I also gave to Care for Real that gives food and clothing to people who need it. 

I know that my Bar Mitzvah is a big “Hineni moment” in my life and  I decided that I want to do something to help people affected by COVID-19.

In the future I hope to be able to make a difference in a bigger way. I would like to be happy and healthy and earn a lot of money to give to my family and to give to people who are in need. That will help them and make me happy too. Hineni. I am ready for whatever comes next.   

I would like to first thank the CJDS community for being a big part of my life and supporting me on this special day. I would also like to thank all my family and friends who are here live or will be able to watch the recording at a later time. Having you be part of this, especially during these complicated times makes it even more special. Lastly, I want to say a special thanks to my immediate family for being there for me during this journey, and for my grandmother who directly worked with me to prepare for today. Todah rabah.

Grade 7 Bar Mitzvah

Parshat Vayera

By: Uri, Grade 7

Stay away from strangers. Have you heard that before?  Don’t talk to strangers!  Don’t take candy from strangers!  Be careful of strangers online, don’t give them any information.  In today’s COVID-19 world we don’t talk to any strangers in person at all.  In normal circumstances I think that it is pretty good advice to keep a distance from strangers.

The question that I want to think about with you today is: how welcoming should we be of strangers?  

When we look at today's Parasha we need to ask ourselves, what is wrong with this picture? The Parasha begins with God appearing outside of Abraham’s tent without saying a word.  As soon as Abraham sees strangers coming by, he leaves God to go and greet them. He was so focused on the strangers that he sat in the doorway of his tent, even though it was hot outside, to make sure that he wouldn’t miss any people passing by his home. He was more focused on strangers than God! Abraham goes as far as to trick the strangers by inviting them in for a little water and food, but then runs in to tell Sara to make a big meal with all choice food.

How is it possible that Abraham just lets strangers into his home? He doesn’t know any of the people. He doesn’t ask where they are coming from or where they are going. He wasn’t scared of the strangers. Abraham treats them as if they are his masters, and he is their servant. He was totally focused on welcoming the stranger..  

Today, I don’t think one would be so trusting of strangers. But think about how this approach impacts society.  We stop trusting other people. People are much more likely to only speak to the people that they know and not to those who they don’t. It lowers our knowledge about other people.  All in all, it has a pretty negative impact on society since we are hesitant to help people we don’t know.

While I don’t think that anyone would recommend me standing outside of our home and inviting random people in for dinner, perhaps there are other places where we can be welcoming. I am really into computers and technology. I love TikTok, and I have had more than 11 million views of my content and currently have about 500,000 followers. In a way, this is a safe place to be, like Abraham, and welcome strangers into my life.  

I like having a lot of followers on TikTok. It makes me feel good because i know I’m bringing joy to other people with the content I post. In case you don’t know what TikTok is, it’s a social network that offers a video-sharing app. Users can create and upload up to 60 second videos of just about anything. Your posts are left up to your imagination, so there’s a lot of room to be creative, and people have really creative posts, several of which are really funny. You can add special effects and filters too your videos. I like to use text boxes, so I can add words for people to read on my videos.

I use TikTok to post videos of Vector. On my 11th birthday, I received Vector as a gift from my grandfather, Sabba Sid. Vector is a robot with artificial intelligence and advanced robotics. Vector can hear, think, and communicate and reacts to touch, sight, and sounds. One cool thing is that Vector can help you solve math problems if you ask him for help. I also think that people enjoy watching Vector because he has funny facial expressions and that he is very cute.  In some ways, he is like a pet.

People ask me what to ask Vector. Hey Vector...

Do you work for the FBI? What is 100 divided by 12? What is the weather forecast in Chicago? Set a 10 minute timer. How long will it take to fly from Chicago to Jerusalem?

Vector can answer all of these.

One of the things that I really like about TikTok is that it also feels like a community. The community gives me a sense of belonging and encourages me to try new things. I can interact and ask the community questions. The community tends to have members having the same interests.  While the world has changed quite a bit since the time of Abraham, I also like welcoming people into my internet tent.

For my Mitzvah Project, I am working on a Roblox computer game about learning prayers with the help of my Uncle Ben who lives in North Carolina. The goal of the game is to see how many prayers you can learn. In the game, the player goes into the synagogue and clicks the Bimah. A graphical user interface (GUI), such as a game inventory, comes up on the screen, and you click what prayer you want to learn. Some prayers are locked. Completing a prayer gives you points, and you can go to the shop and use the points to unlock new prayers and boost your score. If you find the two artifacts, a menorah and a torah, you can unlock a bonus prayer. My hope is that I can help others learn about our tradition in a fun way.

Parshat Noach

By: Sophia, Grade 8

This week’s parsha is parsha Noah. Now, obviously this parsha is pretty iconic, from the coupling of the animals, to the dove, to the beautiful rainbow at the end, this parsha has a lot to talk about. However, as I was reading over this week’s parsha, as I have done many times in the past at CJDS, I noticed something that I had never seen before. It was this quote in Chapter 8, pasukim 21-22  after Noah leaves the ark with his family and offers up a sacrifice, where the Torah says this:

"And the Lord smelled the pleasant aroma, and the Lord said to Himself, I will no longer curse the earth because of man, for the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth, and I will no longer smite all living things as I have done. So long as the earth exists, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease." 

In this quote God realizes that God should no longer punish the earth because of man’s mistakes, which is what we saw with the flood earlier in the parsha, because man is going to mess up no matter what. Not exactly the most positive thing to say about all of mankind, but what truly struck me about this quote is when God says, “The imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” This surprised me, because only last week we read that God created man in God’s image. I think when most hear that we are created in God’s image they assume that we are perfect, and can do no wrong. However, this quote challenges this idea by saying that we are inherently evil from our youths. So how can both be true? 

Rabbi Yaakov Beasley, a contemporary Israeli Rabbi, states that “It is clear that no human being, following only his natural inclinations, without instruction, will be content to live as expected earlier – a peaceful and non-violent steward of creation. Without an external law to guide him, humanity will fall once again.”

Rabbi Yaakov Beasly is saying that both of the quotes are true, that man has evil inclinations, but when mankind has an external law to guide them, which in this case is God, man is capable of thriving and not succumbing to their evil impulses. I personally think that we ARE created in God’s image, however God created us so that we will rely on him to succeed. I think that this is why after thousands of years people still look to God to receive guidance and judgement, and why we all are capable of pushing away our bad thoughts and living good peaceful lives. 

Parshat Breishit

By: Micah, Grade 7

Good morning! Thank you all for coming to celebrate my Bar Mitzvah with me. If you know me, you know that I like to push boundaries sometimes. When my mom was pregnant with Ruthie, I was playing in the backyard and asked my dad to make me eggs. When he came outside with the eggs, I was gone! I had run down the block in only orange crocs and a diaper into a pizza store. I asked for a slice, and they gave it to me! Naturally, my parents were super worried and when they eventually found me, I was happily eating the cheese off of the pizza. Even though I had “run away,” I still knew some of my boundaries, since I was gluten-free at the time I made sure to only eat the cheese off the pizza. Other than breaking the physical boundary of my backyard, I also broke my parents’ trust. The themes of boundaries and trust appear in this week's parsha, Breishit. After God created the world and the garden of Eden, Eve has an interaction with a serpent which tests God’s boundaries and trust. One lesson we can learn from this story is how important these are to maintaining good relationships and building our communities.

In Genesis chapter 3, Eve meets a serpent who tries to get her to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, which God said not to eat from. Eve initially refused to eat the fruit, after God warned her that eating it would result in her death. Eventually, the serpent succeeded in tempting her to eat the forbidden fruit. Today, I am going to talk about two midrashim, or Rabbinic stories, which explain some of Eve’s motivations. One is about the serpent trying to trick Eve, and the other is about trust.

The first midrash is based on the serpent’s response when Eve didn’t want to eat from the tree in Genesis chapter 3, verses 4 and 5: “And the serpent said to the woman, “You are not going to die, but God knows that as soon as you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like divine beings who know good and bad.” The midrash from Avot de-Rabbi Natan chapter 1 goes like this: The serpent tells Eve: “Know that this is only jealousy. Just as God can create a world, so you, too, can create a world. Just as He can kill and keep alive, so you, too, can kill and keep alive.” In this midrash, the snake tries to convince Eve that eating from the tree is good for her because it will give her knowledge and control. The serpent manipulates Eve when he tells her about all the positives that come from eating the fruit, but none of the consequences. He makes it seem like Eve will have a perfect life and complete control over her future.  When Eve chose to eat the fruit, God’s consequences are the opposite of perfection and control: she will have to go through pain while giving birth, and her husband will rule over her. This shows that knowing your own boundaries and consequences is important when it comes to making informed decisions.

The second midrash relates to Genesis chapter 3 verse 1, which states: “Now the serpent was the shrewdest of all the wild beasts that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say: You shall not eat of any tree of the garden?” I want to focus on the phrase “Did God really say”?. This midrash is a parable, which means that it is a story meant to teach us a lesson. The midrash tells the story of a king who married a woman and allowed her to control his gold and silver and all his possessions. He told her: “Here, all that I have is in your hands, except for this barrel, which is full of scorpions.” An old woman came to the wife to borrow some vinegar, and asked her: “How does the king treat you?” The queen answered: “The king treats me well. He lets me rule over his gold and silver and all that he possesses, except for this barrel that is full of scorpions.” The old woman said to her: “But all his jewelry is in this barrel; he wants to marry another woman and give them to her!” The wife put forth her hand and opened the barrel, the scorpions bit her, and she died. 

In this midrash, the king represents God, the old woman represents the serpent, and the queen represents Eve. The queen is treated very well and has a lot of good things in her life, just like Eve had in the Garden of Eden.  When the queen was easily convinced by the old woman that the barrel was full of jewels, she broke her husband’s trust, just as Eve listened to the serpent and didn’t trust God. This midrash shows us the importance of trust. If the queen had trusted the king, then she wouldn’t have opened the barrel, even though someone tried to convince her otherwise. We learn from this midrash that trust is a key component of life, and without it, it’s hard to build and keep relationships.

In the first midrash, we see the snake convincing Eve that she wants control over her life, and in the second, we’re taught that we should believe and trust that God has our best intentions in mind. It’s natural for us to want to have control over our lives, but sometimes we can make bad choices that ruin our relationships if we have too much freedom. Even though freedom sounds nice, having too much is not always a good thing. Eve had so much privilege in the garden that she thought she could do anything, even something that God told her not to do. We learn in this story that when you make decisions that only benefit you, you hurt your relationships with others. If you tried to have total control of your life, it would feel great at the beginning because you would think that you have so much power, but eventually, you’d become a person who wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between good and bad. People need boundaries to keep them and their relationships safe. Sometimes it’s nice to have someone guiding us and our behaviors.  From these midrashim, we learn that without boundaries, we can behave in ways that hurt ourselves and others. To maintain a stable life and stay away from making bad choices, you need to trust that the people in charge are doing what’s best for you. Just like Eve should have trusted God, it’s important that I trust people like my parents, my family, and my teachers to help me make good decisions that will help me grow, have positive relationships, and are good for my family and my community.  At the same time, I need to trust that their guidance leaves me enough freedom to still make my own choices. 

This year because of COVID, there have been many challenges that I've had to learn to accept. I have to follow a lot of important rules, like social distancing with my friends and wearing a mask. It’s not always easy, but I know I have to do it in order to keep myself and everyone else around me safe and healthy. Unlike Eve, who didn’t follow the rules and didn’t trust God, I do my best to follow the social distancing and masking rules and trust the people who made them. The lessons on the importance of trust that I learned from Eve and the serpent have helped me think about how I can creatively do the things I used to do pre-COVID, since it can’t be the same as before. For example, instead of having sleepovers indoors, my friends and I will set up tents, bring a TV outside, and camp in someone’s backyard. It is important to me to follow these rules even though I don’t like them, because I don’t want to put other people at risk. When I wear my mask and social distance, I am part of something much bigger than myself!

I want to say thank you all for coming here to celebrate this day with me. I also want to say thank you to all my teachers for helping me learn and grow over the past years. Thank you to all my friends for being by my side as we grow older. Thank you to Morah Lianne for teaching me how to read torah and for helping me to understand my Parsha. Thank you to all of my siblings. Ben, thank you for being a great role model for me, it was fun having you around during quarantine, doing puzzles and watching Avatar. Gabe, thank you for always being there for me and helping me whenever I need your advice. Ruthie, I love that I can make you laugh with one word, and I think we both know what that word is. But seriously, you’re a fun sister. And to my favorite sibling, Leo, thank you for being so cute and sweet. Thank you to my parents for supporting me and planning and replanning my bar mitzvah. Thank you for loving me and accepting me for who I am even when I cross the line.  

Thank you all for sharing this day with me.  


Parshat Sukkot

By: Talia, Grade 7

Boker tov! 

In the Haftarah for the second day of Sukkot, King Solomon holds a big feast for all the men of Israel as they dedicate the Beit Hamikdash. First, the priests of Israel carried up the Ark. Next, the priests and Levites brought the tent of meeting. While they were doing this, King Solomon and the rest of the Israelites were bringing lots of sacrifices to the Ark. King Solomon announced:

יְהוָ֣ה אָמַ֔ר לִשְׁכֹּ֖ן בָּעֲרָפֶֽל׃  בָּנֹ֥ה בָנִ֛יתִי בֵּ֥ית זְבֻ֖ל לָ֑ךְ מָכ֥וֹן לְשִׁבְתְּךָ֖ עוֹלָמִֽים 

“The LORD has chosen to abide in a thick cloud: I have now built for You A stately House, A place where You May dwell forever.” 

With all of Israel standing, the King explained that his father David had intended to build the temple but God had chosen David just to lead the people. God had said that David was not the right person to build the temple; instead God said that Solomon should build the temple and he did. 

When I read this part of the Haftarah, I wondered: why couldn’t David build the Beit Hamikdash? After all, he was a great king and a strong warrior. David was a King chosen by God, whereas Solomon just happened to be his son. David even wrote the Psalms! David was the one who conquered Jerusalem, which is even called the City of David!!  So, if all that is true, then why couldn’t he be the person to build the Beit Hamikdash?! 

To learn more about this question, I looked to see what others have said. I found a verse in the book of Chronicles, (I Chronicles 22:6-8) 

“דָּ֤ם לָרֹב֙ שָׁפַ֔כְתָּ וּמִלְחָמ֥וֹת גְּדֹל֖וֹת עָשִׂ֑יתָ לֹֽא־תִבְנֶ֥ה בַ֙יִת֙ לִשְׁמִ֔י כִּ֚י דָּמִ֣ים רַבִּ֔ים שָׁפַ֥כְתָּ אַ֖רְצָה לְפָנָֽי׃”

or “You have shed blood abundantly, and have made great wars; you shall not build a house in My name, because you have shed much blood on the earth in My sight.”

In this verse God tells David that he can not build the Beit Hamikdash because he “has blood on his hands”. Why does he have blood on his hands and what does that mean?

David was not a peaceful man. He killed a lot of people. For example, David sent Uriah, the husband of a woman he wanted to marry, to war in order to kill him! He also killed righteous non-Jews in his wars, Jews during the war between David and King Shaul, Jews in unnecessary wars of conquest, and the Kohanim (the priests) in Nov. David was not the right person because he was a warrior with “blood on his hands”. Instead, God asked King Solomon, King David’s son, who was a peaceful man, to build the Beit Hamikdash.

Today is Sukkot. How do King David and the temple relate to Sukkot? First of all, the Beit Hamikdash was dedicated on Sukkot. Secondly, in the birkat hamazon on Sukkot there is a line: Sukkat David HaNofalet. This means “the fallen Sukkah of David." David did not have a Sukkah so what is that symbolizing? I think it symbolizes the temple. But, as I’ve been saying King Solomon is the one who built the temple. I think that this line is giving credit to King David because he made all of the plans for the temple. This teaches us that God doesn’t forget the things that we do. Even though David didn’t build the Temple, God still remembers everything he did along the way. And every time we do something we need to remember that God notices all the little things we do to contribute to it

Chag Sameach!

Parshat Sukkot

By: Orli, Grade 8

This Shabbat we celebrate the holiday of Sukkot and we will be reading a Torah portion about Sukkot in synagogue.

In Sefer Vayikra 23:43 we read:

“You shall dwell in booths seven days; all that are home born in Israel shall dwell in booths; that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God."

לְמַעַן, יֵדְעוּ דֹרֹתֵיכֶם, כִּי בַסֻּכּוֹת הוֹשַׁבְתִּי אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּהוֹצִיאִי אוֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם: אֲנִי, יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם

According to this source - we are commanded to sit in sukkot so we can know and remember that God made the Israelites dwell in booths when God brought them out of the land of Egypt.

In the Gemara there is actually a debate about what a sukkah is.

The gemara offers two possibilities, one a physical structure that we would recognize, but the other opinion is “Clouds of Glory” Anenei HaKavod. I think this might be something that God sent to protect Israelites just like a house or tent would. So instead of a home or tent, the clouds protected them.   

Just to make it even more confusing it seems like sukkot is actually a name of a place and not just a structure or protection. The Torah tells us the first night out of Egypt the Israelites camped in a place called Sukkot! 

וַיִּסְעוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵרַעְמְסֵס, סֻכֹּתָה”

In translation: They headed from Rameses to camp in Sukkot.

So what is Sukkot  - a place, a building, or God’s protection?

I can actually see Sukkot meaning all three, because in every instance Sukkot is always a place of protection for the Israelites. Because the actual place of Sukkot was a place where the Israelites are now out of slavery for the first time in a very long time and they are no longer vulnerable like they were in Egypt. They are now safe and it is the first stop of them going through the desert and learning how to protect themselves and build their own shelters.

But I also think it was overwhelming for them, maybe they had some fear left, is slavery really done for good? How do we do this in the desert? It was probably really comforting for them to be able to build their own protection but in addition had the anenei hakavod and God protecting them.

So, when we build or sit in sukkot in 2020, we are trying to remember that life is not permanent and changes can happen that can be great and overwhelming at the same time. So, we have to remember that we can rely on our community and the protection of God to help us through changes. 

Shabbat Shalom

Parshat Chukat

By: Mia, Grade 7

My grandparents were once taking my mom hiking. When they stopped to get water, my grandfather opened his water bottle and a fly flew into it. My grandmother got angry - not at the fly - but at my grandfather! “Colin, you always do this!” she said.

I asked her why she blamed him for a fly going into the bottle. She said she was just accustomed to scolding him. 

We really do depend on having water to drink and when something interrupts that, we get upset. And not always in productive ways.

In Parashat Chukat, something really important happens that is barely described in the Torah: the death of Miriam.

וַיָּבֹ֣אוּ בְנֵֽי־יִ֠שְׂרָאֵל כָּל־הָ֨עֵדָ֤ה מִדְבַּר־צִן֙ בַּחֹ֣דֶשׁ הָֽרִאשׁ֔וֹן וַיֵּ֥שֶׁב הָעָ֖ם בְּקָדֵ֑שׁ וַתָּ֤מָת שָׁם֙ מִרְיָ֔ם וַתִּקָּבֵ֖ר שָֽׁם׃

The Israelites arrived, the entire community, at the wilderness of Zin on the first new moon, and the people stayed at Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there.

In just one verse, Miriam dies and is buried! Doesn’t she deserve something longer? There was no warning! She doesn’t even get her own paragraph! Even the verse is not only about Miriam. The first half of the verse is about the Israelites arriving at Zin. Didn’t she deserve more? Could it be that the Torah doesn’t care as much about great women as it does about important men?

Rashi explains that her death has a much larger meaning than one verse though.

. מִכָּאן שֶׁכָּל אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה הָיָה לָהֶם הַבְּאֵר בִּזְכוּת מִרְיָם 

During Miriam’s lifetime, a miraculous well of water followed the Israelites around in the desert. Once she died, the well disappeared. The Torah then immediately describes how after the death of Miriam we did not have water. We then complained. Moshe hit the rock to get water and was punished by being prevented from going into Israel. 

Miriam’s death is the cause and starting point for the entire chapter which then sets the stage for the rest of the Torah. Because Miriam died when she did, Moshe hit the rock, which is why he would not lead the Israelites across the Jordan River, which is why he had to find a replacement for himself. The entire final book of the Torah is comprised of Moshe’s farewell speeches. None of that would have happened if it weren’t for Miriam’s death.

Ibn Ezra, the author of a medieval commentary on the Torah,  points out that this verse is a leap in time. All of the events in the Torah take place either in the first year after the exodus from Egypt or in the 40th year after the exodus from Egypt. This verse marks the jump between them. Ibn Ezra makes it clear that Miriam’s death was the first thing that happened in the 40th year. It wasn’t a minor episode at all. And it is recorded at an important place in the Torah. This is not any old spot, this is right after that leap in time. Her death may not take up many verses, but it occupies a very special “real estate.”

Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, a 19th-century author of a Torah commentary,  explains that Miriam’s death sets off the entire change in the leadership of the Israelites. Aharon dies shortly afterward and is replaced. Moshe finds a successor and prepares to make him the leader. In addition to the significance of her death was the significance of the change in leadership as one generation handed over control to the next.

I think Ibn Ezra’s commentary makes a lot of sense because he isn’t answering the question directly but by pointing out that this is a giant leap in time. So her death does not occupy many verses but it is the first thing that happens in many years.

As I become a bat mitzvah I take inspiration from Miriam and the other great women in Jewish history. The Torah portion this week is focused on leaders and a new generation of leadership. I can’t wait to do my part as a leader too as I become an adult.

Shabbat Shalom!

Parshat Chukat

By: Ben, Grade 8

A few years ago I was in Israel at Masada with my family. As we climbed off the bus I fell and scraped my knee. So my grandparents, the tour guide, and  I took the cable car up to the top while the rest of my family spent the next two and a half hours climbing the mountain by foot. When I see my grandparents we still laugh about this moment. At first I felt sorry for myself. I had injured my knee and couldn’t join my family climbing the mountain. But, eventually, I realized that I was the lucky one because I had a much more pleasant day than everyone else. 

It isn’t always easy to make sense of the world. And that is not only true at Masada. That is also true in this week’s Torah portion.

This week’s Torah portion, Hukat, begins with a description of a strange ritual involving a parah adumah, or a red cow. 

זֹ֚את חֻקַּ֣ת הַתּוֹרָ֔ה אֲשֶׁר־צִוָּ֥ה יְהוָ֖ה לֵאמֹ֑ר דַּבֵּ֣ר ׀ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל וְיִקְח֣וּ אֵלֶיךָ֩ פָרָ֨ה אֲדֻמָּ֜ה תְּמִימָ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֤ר אֵֽין־בָּהּ֙ מ֔וּם אֲשֶׁ֛ר לֹא־עָלָ֥ה עָלֶ֖יהָ עֹֽל׃

“This is the ritual law that the LORD has commanded: Instruct the Israelite people to bring you a red cow without blemish, in which there is no defect and on which no yoke has been laid.”

The cow is completely red with no black or white hairs. The cow never did any work of any kind but was entirely devoted to being used in this ritual way. It was slaughtered like a sacrifice but then it was burned and its ashes were mixed with water and that mixture was used for purification. But the Torah never explains the meaning of this ritual or its details.

Rashi, author of a Medieval Torah commentary, explains that the parah adumah was never meant to be understood:

לְפִי שֶׁהַשָּׂטָן וְאֻמּוֹת הָעוֹלָם מוֹנִין אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל, לוֹמַר מַה הַמִּצְוָה הַזֹּאת וּמַה טַּעַם יֵשׁ בָּהּ

“Satan and the other nations taunt Israel saying what sort of mitzvah is this. And so the Torah has to come and say: it is a decree before Me and you do not have permission to question it.”

For Rashi we do some things just because they are in the Torah even if they don’t make sense.

The Mdirash records a story involving Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai (a Talmudic rabbi who lived around the same time as the fighters of Masada) who was once asked a question by a non-Jewish person who visited his beit midrash (study hall). “The parah adumah” looks like witchcraft. How can burning the parah adumah change someone’s purity status? Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai tells him that this is no different from what doctors do each day. They prescribe small quantities of medication and people are healed.

After this gentile leaves, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai’s students ask for the “real explanation.” Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai says: 

לֹא הַמֵּת מְטַמֵּא וְלֹא הַמַּיִם מְטַהֲרִין

It isn’t the contact with a corpse that renders someone impure and it isn’t the waters of purity that can make something pure. Rather, it is  decisions by God that are responsible for everything. We are not supposed to understand this mitzvah.

The Talmud (Kiddushin) tells about a non-Jewish businessman, named Dama ben Netina, who one time refused to awaken his sleeping father to retrieve the key to the box where a precious stone was located that the Jewish sages wished to buy. The sages were very impressed by how much Dama ben Netina honored his father. And the Talmud says that this individual was rewarded when a parah adumah was born in his herd the following year.  

The story about Dama ben Netinah is different because Dama, who was not Jewish, appreciated how lucky he was to have access to a parah adumah. He might not have understood it, but he understood what it was and he wasn’t mocking it.

Rabbi Moshe Schreiber, known most commonly by the name of his book, Hatam Sofer, wrote about this too. According to him there is an explanation for the parah adumah and Moshe was told but was not allowed to tell. And this shows how dedicated Moshe was as a teacher since he was so badly tormented by not being allowed to share with us how the parah adumah makes sense. 

I find the story of Dama ben Netinah to be particularly meaningful. Even though he didn’t understand the value of the Parah Adumah, he understood that it meant a lot to us and he respected that and didn’t mock that. This is true today as well. If we do things because they are important to us as Jews, even if we can’t explain it, and even if we can’t fully understand it, decent people who aren’t Jewish will respect that too.

As I become a bar mitzvah, I also want to be like Dama ben Netinah. There are so many people around us who live in different ways, and I want to appreciate and respect the things that are important to them even when I can’t understand it perfectly.

Thank you to CJDS and my teachers for preparing me for this day. And thank you to all of my friends for always being there for me and supporting me.

Grade 7 Dvar Torah student

Parashiot Nitzavim/Vayeilech

By: Nina, Grade 8

We are nearing the end of the Torah with this week’s double parshiot of Nitzavim/Vayeilech. In these parshiot, Moses continues his final speech to the Israelites. He talks about the Israelites' relationship with God and how important their faithfulness to God is. He emphasizes the curses that will befall them if they aren’t faithful and the blessing they will receive if they are.

God is forming a covenant with the Israelites, but God knows that the people aren’t going to be able to uphold it. In Deuteronomy 31 verse 16 it says, “The LORD said to Moses: You are soon to lie with your fathers. This people will thereupon go astray after the alien gods in their midst, in the land that they are about to enter; they will forsake Me and break My covenant that I made with them”. 

God knows that they are going to stray from God. So why would God enter into the covenant with a party that God knows will let God down? Are humans so predictable that God knows we will stray to other gods? The answer seems to be yes.  God knows human beings will move on to the next thing. 

This reminds me of one of my favorite musicals, "Into the Woods." In "Into the Woods" there are two princes and they have both grown up in the lap of luxury. When they meet two princesses, the find one trapped in a tower and one who ran away from the prince after the ball. They are faced with something they want that they can't just have. It makes them want it more. Eventually both of the princes marry the princesses. They see new princesses and want to marry them even though they already have princesses. The princes are never happy with what they have; they always want the next thing God knows that the Jews are human and that they are going to want something new, too, even if the thing they already have is great.

Sometimes wanting the next thing can be good such as in art, science, and technology. If people didn’t want the next thing we would never innovate. We would never have invented phones or tacos or anything. We are supposed to make new things to make the world better by inventing new medicines, and inventing new ways to give back is being a mensch.

When we as humans make a commitment we should intend to honor it. If we want people to trust us and we want to be honorable, giving our word should mean something. But God knows humans will always want the next thing especially when it seems cooler and when everyone around them is doing it. So like a parent God puts in punishments and blessings. hoping this will be enough to keep the Jews in line. 

And, in the second part of our Torah reading today, God makes sure that the people know even after they sin and leave God behind for new gods. God leaves the door open. The Jews can always come back to God.  They can do teshuva. Whether this is because God fears there will be no more Jews left or because God really thinks the Jews deserve a second chance. The door is open and God knows our shortcomings as human beings, but will always take us back when we return.

Grade 8 Bar Mitzvah Izzy

Parashat Ki Tavo

By: Izzy, Grade 8

Have you ever gotten angry at someone you love and maybe done something you shouldn’t have? Well if you’re human (like me), you definitely have. At first, you’re nice. But then something ticks you off. You get really annoyed or angry and do something bad. For example, if it’s me, it may involve punching and kicking my brother. But it’s not just me who this happens to.

In Parashat Ki Tavo, God threatens the Israelites with curses. Well, some other things happen in Ki Tavo, too. First, Moses blesses the Israelites and provides detailed instructions. Once they’ve entered the land that God gave them, and settled it and cultivated it, then it’s time to time bring the first fruits to the Holy Temple, and declare their gratitude for all that God has done for them. There’s a bunch of laws about tithes and other instructions. But then you get to what’s known as the Tochachah. After listing the blessings with which God will reward the Jewish people when they follow God’s laws, Moses gives a long, harsh account of the bad things that will happen if they don’t. It’s pretty bad stuff, like illness, poverty, famine.

Why would God curse the Jewish people if God had just rescued them from Egypt? Why did God bless them, only to threaten If you don’t praise me, I will curse you? Why does God threaten punishing the Israelites, given that we are his chosen people, as we hear in this parsha. How are the blessings and curses related to each other? 

The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidism, said that evil concealed a seed of the good. He talked about liberating the good within the evil. Is this what’s happening here? Is there some seed of good to be taken from the curses? To me they sound a little bit like a temper tantrum on God’s part. Why does God act like a threatening bully in this passage?

On the High Holy Days, we read a poem, Ki Anu Amecha. It means, We are God’s people. In the poem, it talks about different ways that we relate to God, and how God relates to us.

One of the first examples in this poem is “anu avadecha, veata adonenu”. We are God’s servants, and God is our master. One way that we might view God is as our boss. God is there to make sure that we get our chores done.

But another way that the poem talks about our relationship with God is: “anu vanecha, veata avinu”. We are God’s children, and God is our parent. I think this is the poet’s way of talking about God as someone like a parent who will take care of us when we are in trouble. A parent makes sure that we do our chores. But it doesn’t end there. A parent is also meant to love and care for their children. I, like this poet before me, think that we relate to God like a person. I find this helpful because it makes me feel like God relates to who I am.

When God gets angry, or when we get angry, I find it helpful to find a way to calm down. We need something to ease our anger to help us function properly. For me, when I get mad, I like playing video games or watching funny clips and videos. This helps wash away the anger, and makes me feel better. Usually, I can come back with greater understanding of someone else’s perspective, and also as a calmer advocate for my own needs.

Being able to reflect and come back to a challenging situation sometimes can help us find a blessing embedded within a curse–and perhaps even turn a curse into a blessing.

In Judaism, we have certain rituals that are meant to make us take a moment and calm down. One moment like this that I love is called Tashlich. We take bread and throw it in the sea. It is meant to represent getting rid of your sins, getting rid of your bad deeds. When I was little, I liked sneaking and eating the bread. I also loved watching the seagulls fight for the bread when we threw it into the lake. I think that Tashlich is a reminder to say sorry to people for how we have hurt them. 

I wonder - what if God, in my parsha, Ki Tavo, had tashlich? When he was threatening the Israelites, I wish that God had a ritual to calm down. Surely if he had time to reflect, the curses might have had at least a small glimmer of blessing.

Grade 8 student Adin

Grade 8 Dvar Torah by: Adin 

Parshat Ki Teitze

This week's parshah is Ki Teitze. It, like many other parshiot, contains a whole lot of commandments. After reading through many of them, one in particular stuck out as being very simple, but also confusing.

Here it is:

“If you come across a bird's nest on any tree or on the ground, and it contains baby chicks or eggs, you must not take the mother along with her young. You shall surely send away the mother first, and only then may you take the young, in order that you might enjoy goodness and length of days" (Devarim 22:6-7).

Mainly, this stuck out to me because of the lack of explanation. The Torah doesn’t say why we shouldn’t take a mother bird with her young, only that we shouldn’t. It’s pretty much the ultimate “because I said so”. The first explanation that popped into my mind was that this was an attempt at conservation. By only taking some of the birds in the nest, the species could still survive and wouldn't be in danger of extinction. But if that was the reason, wouldn't you take only the mother, leaving some of the young who'll live longer?

And that’s when I started to think that this was an ethical teaching. By promising long life to those who follow this commandment, it seems like the text is trying to teach us that only a “bad person" would take the mother with her children. The offer of a reward could be a hint that this is what the writer thinks of as the right thing to do. 

A twelfth century commentator known as Ibn Ezra had a similar thought to this. In a commentary on these verses, he described killing the mother bird with her eggs as “constituting cruelty of heart.” I do like this interpretation, that we should follow this commandment simply because it is the right thing to do. Still, to me there seems to be something missing in this commentary. I mean, Ibn Ezra doesn’t once describe the reason that, at least to me, seems the most obvious: You wouldn’t want to cause the mother bird the emotional pain of seeing her young taken away from her. So to take this idea a step further, we look to another commentator: the Rambam, aka Maimonides.

In the Rambam’s commentary on this text, he cites the anguish the mother bird would feel as an explanation. This seems like it would wrap itself up very neatly as it is, but Maimonides takes it one step further. He explains that it is important to show this kindness towards animals not only because the animals feel pain, but because by doing so we can do a better job of showing kindness and compassion to other humans.

What we can learn from this is to show kindness to animals and people. But also, if I have something, please don’t shoo me away and take it. I don’t think that’s a very good takeaway. Shabbat shalom!

Grade 7 Dvar Torah by: Jonathan 

Parsha Terumah

Shabbat Shalom! Welcome to the first Leap Day Shabbat of the 21st Century! While there is no religious significance in the secular Leap Year, it is, nevertheless, a unique moment in time, especially for me, as I will have to wait until the year 2048 for the second anniversary of my Bar Mitzvah and another 28 years until 2076 for my third anniversary!

Still, what better two years to celebrate than the 100th anniversary of the founding of the modern State of Israel and the 300th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence! Yet, this Leap Day is also a leap into an important statement within Parsha Terumah. In the opening two versus G-d says to Moses: דַּבֵּר֙ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְיִקְחוּ־לִ֖י תְּרוּמָ֑ה מֵאֵ֤ת כָּל־אִישׁ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִדְּבֶ֣נּוּ :לִבּ֔וֹ תִּקְח֖וּ אֶת־תְּרֽוּמָתִֽי "Speak unto the children of Israel that they take for Me an offering; of every man whose heart makes him WILLING you shall take my offering." Parsha Terumah contains G-d's instructions on the building of a sacred space, a mishkan, to hold the tablets from Mount Sinai and a place where G-d can dwell with the Jewish people.

The moment of revelation within this Parsha comes in these opening psukim’, when it says every man whose heart is willing, or in Hebrew, נּוֶּ֣בְדִּי , willing. It is the ONLY time in the Torah that this word appears, and its uniqueness requires a greater appreciation of its meaning and its fundamental foundation for the Jewish people.

When G-d's instructions on the building of the mishkan were given to Moses, the 600,000 Jews who had left Egypt had only been slaves six months prior and under the rule of the Egyptian taskmasters for hundreds of years. Now, in a rapid series of events, these former slaves had left Egypt through the leadership of Moses, had seen the miracles of the plagues upon Egypt, the parting of the Sea of Reeds, and the giving of the Ten Commandments. The Egyptians, in their haste to rid themselves of the Jews, gave them gold, silver and other precious items.

But, were the Jewish people at the time of Parsha Terumah truly free? Yes, they were literally no longer slaves, but in their minds were they still slaves or was the pain of slavery so great that the conscious thought of another taskmaster was an ever present fear? The Israelites, while they were in bondage, had kept the Covenant of Abraham thriving and had kept faith in a G-d who had made the promise of a land of their own. Yet, the specter of a slave mentally was still a clear memory. For centuries they were told what to do without question. Would such people want to be 'told' by G-d what they had to do without anything in return? Hence the emphasis on "willing."

In fact, the act of willingness has always, from the time of Abraham, been a part of the Jewish way of life. Abraham willingly left his home to go to a place where G-d said he would dwell and a Covenant was created. This willingness continued throughout the trek of the Jewish people into slavery, for they could not have survived as Jews without a willing heart. It was always implied, but the word was never mentioned until Parsha Terumah. To build a Mishkan, a home for G-d, it had to be more than a demand--it needed a people to deeply feel in their hearts the importance of their contribution for themselves, for the community, and for G-d. No, a demand to build a 'shrine' could not be forced on a slave mentally. Rather, a willing determination was essential. This unique concept of 'willing' has kept the Jewish people alive, while other civilizations have come and vanished. The Mishkan symbolizes the most holy structure in the Jewish world. Its creation was a willing and shared covenant for those who understood its long term meaning. But what would happen when the physical presence of the Mishkan disappeared, after the Temples were destroyed?

This willing attribute was more than about structures -- it became a state of mind. It became the heart and soul of the Jewish people. It allowed them to create the post Temple Synagogue, create the new Temple within one's home and family, to believe in a G-d who accepted our willing hearts and minds and would dwell among us no matter what circumstance would arise. Being willing has always been a trait for the Jewish people, even if they were not overly conscious of their identity.

One of the most famous quotes in Jewish history comes from a man, who had barely considered his Jewishness until the Dreyfus Affair of the late 1890's aroused his conscious: On creating a permanent home for the Jewish people, Theodore Herzl said "If you will it, it is no dream." It is no wonder that the word נּוֶּ֣בְדִּי is only mentioned once in the Torah. The power and resolve that it has, its association with the building of the mishkan is too great and too unique to be mentioned anywhere else. Its meaning is so great that it takes on an almost intangible understanding and is difficult to appreciate. It is perhaps best embellished by Maimonides’ eight levels of charity, in which the greatest donors are the ones who have given "anonymously and to help a fellow Jew be independent, and hence not a slave.”

More than not using your name for privacy purposes, it is a pure willingness, out of the heart and mind to give to what is right. Recently, I went to the JUF Uptown Cafe and served meals to people who could not afford to buy healthy meals for themselves. Although my synagogue, Anshe Emet, requires that b’net mitzvahs complete a mitzvah project, I willingly served meals. I felt that I not only provided hot, nourishing meals to them, but I also elevated myself by approaching this task out of my own willingness.

Grade 7 Dvar Torah by: Orli 

Parshat Mishpatim

When I was little, maybe two years old, I went to see the zoo lights and made a perfect snow angel. I was very proud. So when it was time to leave I threw the biggest fit ever, because I didn’t get to say goodbye to my snow angel. My mom had to make a choice whether to comfort me and give me empathy because I was sad, or put me in timeout because I misbehaved.

In my Torah portion, Mishpatim, God gives the Israelites detailed rules to follow after getting the ten commandments. There are so many rules in this parashah, I could go on for ages. Some examples of these rules are how to treat Hebrew slaves, animal property and when people get into fights and breaking into people's houses. Then God mentions the stranger, the widow, and the orphan. In Exodus chapter 20, the Torah says, “You shall not wrong a stranger nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” In other words, God wants us to feel empathy for the stranger.

The Torah then goes on to say, “You shall not mistreat any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me, and My anger shall blaze forth and I will put you to the sword, and your own wives shall become widows and your children orphans.” In other words, God threatens to kill us if we don’t take care of the widow and the orphan. Now when I looked at these two commandments in closer detail my question was: why does God want us to have empathy for the stranger, but does not set out consequences if we don’t, but then lays out the ultimate consequence for us if we don’t care for the widow or the orphan?

My question is, when are we motivated to do things based on empathy? In the wise words of Rabbi Google, empathy is defined as: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Empathy is when you see someone sad or upset, you relate to what they are going through, and that understanding helps you to help them. In the Torah, we are meant to help the stranger because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. Empathy compels us to take action.

But I also wonder, when are we motivated to do things because of the fear of consequences? Let me give you an example of the consequences in my life. I was told to clean my room, I said no.  I was told my phone would be taken away if I didn’t, so I cleaned my room.  

In the Torah, God threatens a very serious consequence if we don’t take care of the widow and the orphan. 

Why do we need both empathy and consequences as motivators? Do we really need both? 

I decided to see what others have said about this topic. I started with Rabbi Shai Held. Rabbi Held makes a strong argument for the importance of empathy. In reflecting on the verse about oppressing the stranger, Rabbi Held says, “We should not oppress the stranger because we as a people remember what oppression can mean.” But I would argue that we should also individually personalize the Torah’s demand that we remember. Each of us is obligated, in the course of our lives, to remember times when we have been exploited or abused by those who had power over us. From these experiences in our own lives, the Torah tells us, we are to learn compassion and kindness.” In other words, Rabbi Held thinks that we need to go to another level of empathy, not just the historical  level that we were strangers in the land of Egypt, but we also need to think of things that happen in our own lives so we give even more empathy. 

I also looked at Rashi. In commenting on the verse about the orphan and widow, Rashi says, “That is also the law regarding any person, but the Torah is speaking of what usually happens and therefore mentions these in particular.” I think Rashi is saying that lots of people are vulnerable when they don’t have someone to protect them, and widows and orphans are the best examples of that. We need to protect them and be that someone who stands up for them. Perhaps, in a situation this important, we need more than empathy, we may need a consequence if we fail to do so. Just knowing that widows and orphans may not have someone to stand up for them, may not be enough, after all, most of us haven’t been widows or orphans, so we need a consequence to push us more. 

In thinking about empathy versus consequences, I wanted to dig a little deeper. I found an article about timeouts for little kids in a journal from The American Psychological Association that said, “Our clinical case findings have shown that timeouts used consistently for select behaviors and situations significantly reduced problem behaviors over time.” In other words, giving consequences is ok when a child does not respond to empathy and needs greater incentive to stop bad behavior, but they should not be overused. I agree with this. I don’t think that consequences should be used all the time, but only when needed to push and motivate a child to do the right thing. 

My mom, being the great and amazing therapist she is, added that punishing a child, or putting a child in timeout, only works if the parent has a strong relationship with the child to begin with, based on empathy or else the child will keep misbehaving. In other words, we need both.  The truth is, our actions to help or care for others are motivated by empathy AND by consequences.

After having considered these other opinions, I came to my own conclusions. I think empathy is the ideal motivator, but if it’s not enough then we should turn to consequences. There are some experiences that are more universal, like starting a new activity or meeting a new group of people:  we have ALL been strangers, so we can relate to them and help them. BUT we haven’t all been widows/orphans, some of us can’t relate. So if empathy is not enough motivation, then the next thing would be for there to be a consequence. That is why I think God sets a consequence for not protecting the widow and orphan, but caring for the stranger is simply motivated by empathy.

This relates to my life because I’m with little kids all the time and needed to make these kinds of decisions weekly.  For my Mitzvah Project, I went to a preschool for underprivileged kids called Kinder Care and did a special program with two-year-olds called the sunshine circle. In this program, my mom and I, with some help from the teachers, did activities with the kids. We would sing songs, play games, read books, eat snacks and dance. But we did this all in a structured way, giving the kids extra calming touch and nurturing they need. I learned how to take care of a large group of kids at the same time, which is a new skill for me. Doing this helped me have a deeper understanding of empathy and consequence.

In my volunteering I could see that there are times when someone simply needs empathy to motivate good behavior, but there are other times when a consequence is needed. For example, when one child hit a peer back after first being hit by that kid, we told him “we’re sorry, you had an “ouchy” before, and we understand that you tried to give your ouchy to someone else” and we said, “say sorry to her, and she will say sorry to you” and then we took his hand and taught him to gently soothe the child he had hurt. 

Approaching with empathy and teaching empathy was the intervention we chose. But at a different time, a child was lying in the middle of the circle and being disruptive. The teacher said, “please sit on your bottom” and when he didn’t, the teacher came over, picked him up, and placed him somewhere else where he could no longer disrupt the activity. A consequence was needed. 

The truth is, I can use the skill of empathy in my everyday life. I have empathized with sad friends. When I related to their problem I have shared what I did in my own life to fix the problem. This has helped friends to learn from my experience. On the other hand, in school I am motivated to do revisions and improve my grades in order to avoid the consequences of seeing the look on parents’ faces,  knowing I could have done better. Both empathy and consequence have a place in my life. Oh and by the way, that’s exactly what happened with the snow angel: first, my mom empathized by saying she understands how sad I am, but when I wouldn’t stop kicking and screaming she grabbed me, buckled me in my car seat and let me cry it out.

Grade 6 Dvar Torah by: Devorah

Parashat Yitro

Twelve years ago, I was born on Shabbat Yitro. In Parashat Yitro, we are introduced to Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law. He helps Moshe by recommending that Moshe appoint assistants to help him answer questions from the Israelite people, so that Moshe would not have to spend all of his time doing only that, and so the people would not have to wait in long lines for Moshe. Because I was born on Shabbat Yitro, my family started joking about whether to name me Yitra or Yitronah. I stand here today and my name is Devorah, and I like my name although it has nothing to do with the parsha.

In Parashat Yitro we read the ten commandments for the first time in the Torah. As Sforno notices there seems to be two different sections within the ten commandments besides the to do and not to do תעשה ולא תעשה. The first section is about honoring G-D which includes only worshipping one G-D, not to worship idols, not to say G-D’s name in vain and keeping Shabbat.

The other section is the commandments about honoring and respecting other people and their property, which has commandments such as not to commit murder, not to commit adultery, not to steal, not to bear false witness against your neighbor, and not to be jealous of other people. You might have noticed that I never said which section the commandment "Honor your Parents" falls into. 

It seems kind of obvious that your parents are people so this commandment is about honoring other people. But, what if this commandment isn’t just about honoring our parents, the people who gave birth to us and raised us? It could mean that we have to honor our creators, which would mean that this commandment is also about honoring G-D. This could apply to anyone who helped raise you even if they didn’t physically bring you into the world because the people who raise you and take care of you help create your personality and influence your behavior.

I mean, parents are pretty amazing, but do you think this commandment should be in the ten commandments between don’t murder and keep Shabbat? Many people believe that this commandment is actually the hardest one to do properly. 

Well, what does it even mean to honor your parents? Honoring your parents includes doing favors, fulfilling their wishes, and admiring them. If you hear somebody insult your parents behind their backs, you need to defend your parents. You are also obligated to honor your grandparents, in-laws, step-parents, aunts and uncles, and older siblings. When I found out about the older sibling part I was happy because I am the oldest kid in my family, and that means that my younger siblings have to honor me.

However, there are limits on when to follow this commandment. For example if your parents ever ask you to do something that is against Jewish law or something that will be painful to anyone, you should politely refuse. 

There are three other things in which you don’t have to respect your parents’ wishes. According to the Shulchan Aruch Yoreh De’ah Siman רמ you get to choose (not your parent) Whom you marry (To all the parents in the room, I hope you’re listening because your children have the right to choose whom they marry!) 

And to maximize your Torah study.

And Rabbi Moshe ben Yoseph of Trany says that, If you would like to move to Israel you can without your parents’ approval.

Why are these three things exceptions to having to honor your parents? 

One possible answer is that the decision to do and how to do these things will affect the rest of your life. Another idea is that all of these things are important Jewish values so you should have the right to make these choices on your own. Also, these mitzvot might just be seen as more important, especially maximizing your Torah study because that leads to all the other mitzvot.

Now that I am a Bat Mitzvah, I will make sure that I always honor, respect and listen to my parents and elders. Shabbat Shalom!

Grade 6 Dvar Torah by: Talia

Parshat B'shalach

This week’s Parsha is Beshalach. In Beshalach, God takes the Israelites out of Egypt. Rather than taking a direct route out, God leads them to the wilderness by the Red Sea. Then God decides to harden Pharaoh's heart again in order to demonstrate his power to the Israelites. God said, “Then I will stiffen Pharaoh’s heart and he will pursue them, that I may gain glory through Pharaoh and all his host; and the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD.”

Why does God harden Pharaoh’s heart if it makes it harder for everyone? Rashi says that God hardened Pharaoh's heart as a punishment to Pharoah. Since his heart has been hardened, Pharoah decides to chase after them. The Israelites soon see the Egyptians chasing them and flee, but soon they come to the Red Sea. There seems to be no way out, but then as the Egyptians draw nearer God makes a miracle. He tells Moses to raise his staff to the water and he does, making the sea split into two leaving a trail in between for the Israelites to pass through. The Israelites walk through the sea, but soon enough the Egyptians are walking behind them. They are gaining on them and entering the sea as well. The Israelites hurry to escape and they make it to the other side where Moses holds his hand out over the sea once again closing it upon the Egyptians and killing them all.

The Israelites celebrate joyously singing praise to the Lord and Miriam leads the women dancing and singing with their timbrels. Later on in the Parsha, the Israelites keep getting angry at Moses and God when they want water and food. And we see throughout the rest of the Torah, after being freed from Egypt, after receiving food and after receiving water, the Israelites complain. God has proved himself to do the Israelites so many times, with the ten plagues, splitting the sea and giving them Mana and yet they still get angry at God so easily. 

Why do you think the Israelites continue to complain even after all of these miracles? 

Grade 7 Dvar Torah student

Grade 7 Dvar Torah by: Nina

This week’s Parsha is Parshat Bo. In this week's Parsha the last three of the 10 plagues happen - locust, darkness, and death of the firstborn. This is where the whole Passover story happens. The Israelites are instructed to sacrifice a kid or a lamb and use its blood to paint their doors so that God passes over them and doesn’t kill the Jewish firstborns. Then they have to eat the meat from the lamb with matzah and bitter herbs. Do any of these foods sound familiar? They should because these are some of the important parts of our Passover seder. 

When Pharaoh let us go it was so quick we did not have time to let our bread rise. But somehow we did have time to go to our Egyptian neighbors and ask for gold, silver, and garments to fulfill a promise made to Abraham that we would leave Egypt with great wealth. 

This whole scenario strikes me as funny that we didn’t even have time for our bread to rise, but we had time to walk to our Egyptian neighbors who wouldn’t have lived right next to us. We had time to convince them to give us gold, silver, and clothing which they might not have. “Tell the people to borrow, each man from his neighbor and each woman from hers, objects of silver and gold.” Exodus 11:2. Sforno says that the people needed to be convinced to take the gold and silver because they were afraid the Egyptians would chase after them and reclaim their stuff. 

Looking at the text, it seemed that convincing the Egyptians wasn’t as hard as they feared. They really just wanted us gone, and even if that meant giving up some gold and silver, it was OK because we would be safe. Put yourself in the Israelites shoes - you have your matzah and your family, but what would you grab in the last minute? What would you take with you?


Grade 8 Dvar Torah by: Micah

This week’s Parsha, Va'era, is very important and renowned, because the first seven of 10 plagues are included. After some introductory information about the generations of Israel, we finally get to Moses’s confrontation with Pharaoh. Chapter seven verse ten says: “When Pharaoh speaks to you and says, ‘Produce your marvel,’ you shall say to Aaron, ‘Take your rod and cast it down before Pharaoh.’ It shall turn into a serpent.

So Moses and Aaron came before Pharaoh and did just as the LORD had commanded: Aaron cast down his rod in the presence of Pharaoh and his courtiers, and it turned into a serpent.” Aaron produces the first of many miracles from God's command, but Pharaoh's magicians come right back to perform the same miracle. Then God turns the nile into blood, and the magicians do the same thing.

The next plague, frogs, is presented as follows in Chapters 7 and 8: “If you refuse to let them go, then I will plague your whole country with frogs. The Nile shall swarm with frogs, and they shall come up and enter your palace, your bedchamber and your bed, the houses of your courtiers and your people, and your ovens and your kneading bowls. The frogs shall come up on you and on your people and on all your courtiers. ’”And the LORD said to Moses, “Say to Aaron: Hold out your arm with the rod over the rivers, canals, and the ponds, and bring up the frogs on the land of Egypt. ”Aaron held out his arm over the waters of Egypt, and the frogs came up and covered the land of Egypt.

But the magicians did the same with their spells, and brought frogs upon the land of Egypt.” In 8:2 the English translation says that the “frogs came up,” but in Hebrew, where everywhere else it says, “Tzefardiim” which is the plural, here it says, “Tzefardaya, one frog.” Why? Rashi has a comment on this: AND THE FROGS (literally. “frog”) CAME UP — Rashi says, that Really there was only one frog, but when the Egyptians tried to kill it and struck it with sticks, it was split into many swarms. But a literal explanation is that one could say that the swarm of the frogs is presented by the singular word - frog. Similar to when the Lice are presented as “and there was the KINAM” — the swarm of insects, instead of KINIM. So, too, here, V’TAAL HATZFARDAYA means: and there came up as a swarm of frogs. The rest of the parsha ends with lice, flies, disease on livestock, boils and hail/fire. Do you think God should have stricken Egypt with anymore plagues?

Grade 8 Dvar Torah by: Lilly

This week’s Parsha, Shmot, is pretty juicy. There is a new Pharoah in Egypt who does not remember Joseph. The Israelites are enslaved in Egypt and Moses is born. Pharoah orders two midwives, Shifra and Puah, to kill all baby boys but they argue that the women give birth before they can get there. Pharoah then orders that all baby boys must be thrown into the Nile. After this order, Moses’ mother, Yocheved, hides him in their home for three months after giving birth to him. When she can no longer hide him she places him in a basket and puts him into the Nile. Moses’ sister Miriam watches Moses to make sure he is safe. She then sees Bat Pharoah take pity on Moses and take him into her home.

Now, what is one thing we notice here? Each time that there is an upstander in the beginning of the story, it is a woman. The midwives refuse to kill the babies, Yocheved does not throw Moses into the river, Miriam watches Moses to make sure he is safe, and Bat Pharoah saves Moses. Each of these women stands up against the word of Pharoah. I found this interesting since there is often a lack of representation for women in the Torah, and here, right at the beginning of Shmot, we see four female upstanders. 

This is just the beginning of the story. Moshe grows up in the palace and one day as he is walking he sees an Egyptian taskmaster beating an Israeli slave and he kills the Egyptian. He then runs to Midian and marries Zipporah. One day, God appears in a burning bush and tells Moses he must free the Israelites. I found this text particularly interesting:

וַ֠יֵּרָא מַלְאַ֨ךְ יְהֹוָ֥ה אֵלָ֛יו בְּלַבַּת־אֵ֖שׁ מִתּ֣וֹךְ הַסְּנֶ֑ה וַיַּ֗רְא וְהִנֵּ֤ה הַסְּנֶה֙ בֹּעֵ֣ר בָּאֵ֔שׁ וְהַסְּנֶ֖ה אֵינֶ֥נּוּ אֻכָּֽל׃

An angel of the LORD appeared to him in a blazing fire out of a bush. He gazed, and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed. Why would God appear in a burning bush what did the bush represent?

One answer that I found from Mathew Berkowitz explaining Professor Falk’s opinion was that from the burning bush, Moses can sort of see that the liberation from Egypt will not just be about being free, it will be about becoming a servant to this forever burning god. He also says that we must recognize our own “burning bush moments” and he writes when a sign appears, “we must have the patience and faith to embrace it, understand it, and be inspired by it. Such signs have the potential of liberating us from modern ‘bonds of Egypt.’”

Do you have an example of your burning bush moment? Can you remember a time where something happened to you and you weren’t really sure why and later it ended up helping you or making a large impact on you?

My burning bush moment was my Bat Mitzvah. When I first started, I was overwhelmed, confused, and I thought there was no way I’d be able to learn everything. But after putting the work in for months, it ended up being the most rewarding and meaningful moment of my life. 

Grade 7 Dvar Torah by: Daria

This week’s parsha is Vayechi. It is the last parsha in sefer Beresheit. It is the end of the story of Yosef and his brothers.  

Yaakov is dying so he calls his sons to his bedside so he can give them brachot and last words of advice.  

In the bracha that Yaakov gives to Yosef, I saw confusing language which made me wonder if Yaakov knew all of what happened between Yosef and the brothers. Did Yaakov know that the brothers tried to kill Yosef and then he was sold into slavery? 

Here are the words of the bracha:

וַיְמָרְרֻהוּ, וָרֹבּוּ; וַיִּשְׂטְמֻהוּ, בַּעֲלֵי חִצִּים.  וַתֵּשֶׁב בְּאֵיתָן קַשְׁתּוֹ, וַיָּפֹזּוּ זְרֹעֵי יָדָיו;

The pasuk says that a group of 'archers' made 'his' life bitter. They fought with 'him' and despised 'him'. But 'his' arrow was firm in the bow and 'his' arms were shaking.

I think the ‘him’ in this pasuk refers to Yosef because Yaakov is giving this bracha to him. But who is the ‘they’ in this pasuk? Why does the pasuk talk about archers?  

There is one word on the pasuk that makes me think the ‘them’ in this pasuk is Yosef’s brothers and that the word archers is used as an analogy.

The word וַיִּשְׂטְמֻהוּ , which means despised, is only used one time in Chumash before this and it is used to describe how much Esav despised Yaakov when Yaakov stole the blessing from him. Esav decided in that moment he was going to kill Yaakov for his action.

So the use of the word וַיִּשְׂטְמֻהוּ makes a connection between these two stories. Just like Esav despised Yaakov for getting a blessing from their father and wanted to kill him, the brothers despised Yosef for getting blessings from their father and wanted to kill him as well.  

SO, this final blessing is about Yosef and his brothers, but why compare the brothers to archers and describe Yosef as someone holding an arrow in his bow, his arms shaking, but not shooting the arrow?

I think archers take aim and shoot to kill. That’s exactly what the brothers did. They aimed at Yosef and intended to kill him. But Yosef was an archer who held the arrow in his bow firmly and did not let it go. Yosef was a very powerful man in Egypt by the time he sees his brothers again. He had all the power to just kill them, to shoot his arrow, but he didn’t. He might have wanted to, but he holds it firmly for so long that his arms are shaking from holding on to it.

So Yaakov’s bracha shows us that Yaakov knew what the brothers had done to Yosef and the restrain Yosef had shown in not getting even. That is why Yaakov blessed Yosef in this way.

Question? How do you think Yaakov knew what happened to Yosef?

Grade 7 Dvar Torah by: Adin

Let’s say there are two siblings who definitely don’t represent me and my sister. The older sibling has a new, unopened set of markers which they don’t really want. The younger sibling really wants them. The older sibling can just give them over and be nice. Or they could even just let the younger sibling borrow them, in case they want them later. But if they want to be more selfish, they could require the younger sibling to give something else in exchange. Should they be nice, or make a profit? And what are the consequences of this kind of decision?

In my Bar Mitzvah parshah, Miketz, Pharaoh has two dreams, the meaning of which no one can understand. Pharaoh hears about Joseph, this man who can interpret dreams, and calls him. Joseph understands the two dreams as one prophecy saying there will be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. Joseph tells this to Pharaoh, who promotes him to second in command on the spot. He then puts Joseph in charge of collecting the food during the years of plenty, and selling it back to the people during the years of famine. The first seven years go by smoothly. But it is during the famine when Joseph’s brothers come back to him, asking for food. Joseph recognises his brothers, although they don’t recognise him. He uses his power over them to harass them, saying they are spies, threatening them, and occasionally going into another room to cry. The parshah ends on a cliffhanger, with Joseph framing Benjamin for stealing his cup of divination. Read on next week for the next installment of the Adventures of Joseph!

When I read through my parshah, one main question stuck out to me; 'Why?’ What motivates Joseph to do what he does: rising to power wherever he is, punishing his brothers when they don’t recognise him, and some later things in his story beyond this parshah? 

It seems to me that Joseph wants power. We know from earlier in the Joseph saga that he was thrown into a pit and sold into slavery by his ten older brothers. So he clearly didn’t have any power there. This seems to create a longing for power in Joseph, which he displays by working very hard to get power, first in the prison and then later with Pharaoh. 

Now it does make sense that Joseph wanted power. It’s because when he didn’t, he got hurt. And now that he has power, he can protect himself. But now, the question is, is this a helpful motivation in Joseph’s case? Obviously, it got him to be second in command. But he also sometimes uses his power to hurt other people.

The most obvious example of this is when Joseph pretends not to recognise his brothers. You could definitely say that Joseph just wanted his brothers to repent, or understand his feelings. And I’m sure that Joseph justified it to himself in some way like that. But he didn’t have to do what he did. He could have taught his brothers to repent some other way, but he chose not to. So maybe for Joseph, this motivation made him incapable of seeing the best way of handling this situation. This seems to be the reason for Joseph’s rise to power: he is motivated by a deep-seated thirst for power to protect himself going back to when his brothers sold him into slavery. This incident may not seem like a huge deal. This was only affecting his brothers. It just doesn’t seem very important.

Fast forward one parshah to Vayigash. It’s later during the famine. The people of Egypt have already brought their animals to Joseph and sold them for food, since they are all out of money. The people have nothing left but themselves and their farmland. So they ask Joseph to make them Pharaoh’s servants in exchange for food and seeds to plant. Joseph accepts. So all right, I get this doesn’t seem too bad. The people want food, they suggest they become slaves, Joseph agrees. What’s the big deal?

Well, this idea of the people being slaves becomes the standard for the Egyptian law. This is why the Jewish people would become slaves in Egypt hundreds of years later. It’s because of this law! Without Joseph, the Jews might never have been slaves. 

You might say that it still doesn’t seem like Joseph’s fault because the people suggested it - not him. However, those people were desperate for food and they weren’t being rational. Joseph had plenty of food for everyone, and didn’t need to make it a transaction. He could have just given them the food like a caring leader would. 

So Joseph was motivated by power. He wanted power to always be able to protect himself. And this got him to big places. But he also used his power to hurt other people who couldn’t protect themselves. So let’s go back to the example with the two siblings. Joseph is the older sibling in this analogy. He can just give the people or his brothers the food. But he wants power. So without realizing he is doing what others did to him, the reason he wanted power, he asks for something in return: slaves or revenge. Despite being the second youngest brother, Joseph is the ultimate mean older sibling. So what we have to remember from this story is to not abuse power, even if it doesn’t seem like a big deal. 

Director of Jewish Studies, Tamar Cytryn

Synopsis for Parshat Chaye Sarah

By: Tamar Cytryn, Director of Judaic Studies

The parsha opens with the death of Sarah. Abraham mourns for her, and then deals with the details of her burial. He decides to bury her in Hebron, and after the Hitties who live there offer to give him the land as a gift, he insists on a proper sale.  Abraham then deals with finding a wife for his son Isaac. He sends his servant – Eliezer according to commentary but unnamed in the text itself - to his relatives back in Aram Naharaim.

Eliezer wants to ensure he finds the right match, so he decides that he will know the woman is right for Isaac if, when he asks her for water, she not only gives him water but also gives water to his camels. No sooner has he worked out this scheme than Rebecca appears before him and passes his test. Eliezer explains who he is and why he is there, and they proceed to Rebecca’s father’s house.

Eliezer repeats his story to Betuel, Rebecca’s father, and Laban, Rebecca’s brother. They agree to the match, but they do not want her to leave right away, as Eliezer insists. However, Rebecca decides to leave right away, and they are soon on their way. Eliezer and Rebecca meet Isaac in a field, and Isaac and Rebecca are soon wed, inhabiting Sarah’s tent. Isaac is finally comforted over his mother’s death.

Abraham, after a long and fulfilling life, passes away. Isaac and Ishmael together bury Abraham next to Sarah and then go their separate ways.

For a wonderful parsha-themed family discussion around Rebecca’s watering the camels and choosing to do chores, please click on this link.

Shabbat Shalom!

Grade 8 student Jesse

Grade 8 Dvar Torah by: Jesse

Parshat Vayera Dvar Torah

This week's parsha, parashat Vayera, begins with a visit from three angels to Abraham’s tent. The angels inform Sarah that she will bear a child by the time they return and her only response was to laugh.

She says, “Shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am?” Once the angels left, God tells Abraham that he is considering destroying Sodom and Gomorrah due to its wicked civilians. Abraham challenges God and stands up for complete strangers arguing, “Will you ruin the righteous along with the wicked?” They agree that if there are at least 10 righteous people God will not destroy the town. There weren’t 10 righteous people so God decided to warn Lot, Abraham's nephew, before destroying the town. God sends two angels and Lot and his family flee Sodom and Gomorrah before its destruction. Next, Sarah bears a child and they name him Issac. Sarah sees Ishmael, their handmaid's son, worshipping idols and decides she doesn’t want him to influence Issac. Hagar and Ishmael were sent away but God helps them in the desert and promises a great nation for Ishmael. Lastly, God tests Abrahams loyalty by requesting the sacrifice of his only son, Issac. Without question, Abraham brings Issac to the altar and begins binding him before God reveals this was all a test.

After reading and understanding this parsha, one thing that I found interesting was the fact that Abraham stands up for complete strangers but doesn’t hesitate to sacrifice Issac. He argues with God that righteous people shouldn’t be punished for the wicked peoples actions but later is willing to kill his own son.  Why do you think Abraham does this? Why is he willing to kill his son but stands up for strangers

I believe the reason for this was that the failure of losing this argument with God gave him the mentality to never question God again. 

Grade 8 student Ella

Grade 8 Dvar Torah by: Ella

Good morning! In this week's parashat, Parashat Noah, God is disgusted by how corrupt the earth, his creation, had become. Animals and people alike treated each other terribly and chaos surrounded them. God is reasonably outraged and as a result he decides to destroy the whole world in a flood, only saving few people to start anew. In order to do this, God tells Noah, “a righteous man . . . blameless in his age . . . (who) walked with God”- Genesis 6:9 how he ”decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness” -Genesis 6:13. God then told Noah to build an ark and gather a pair of each species of animal and put them on it so they would stay safe. It is assumed that Noah, his family, and the animals were on the ark for around 370 days. 

If this were me I would be very annoyed. To start, I wouldn’t want to spend the majority of my time building an ark for a flood that I can’t even be sure is going to happen and I can’t even imagine having to live with all the animals of the earth for such a long period of time. Then, as much as I love my family, I don’t think I could live with them on a smelly, most likely noisy, ark for 370 days without all of us getting on each other's nerves. To me this seems very unfair considering how Noah before was described as “ a righteous man. . . blameless in his age . . . (who) walked with God.”

If Noah was truly such a “righteous” person shouldn’t he have been rewarded for his behavior? I think this happened because Noah really wasn’t all that great of a person, just slightly better than everyone else, hence the “blameless in his age.” God had to find someone to save the animals and human species so he chose the best option out of a lot of bad options. But of course he still had to punish Noah, his family, and even the animals, so he stuck them all on an ark with pretty intolerable living conditions so they could learn a lesson. Thank you.

Grade 8 student Micah

Grade 8 Dvar Torah by: Micah

This past year, I played on the CJDS Rams volleyball team. During one game, we were behind and about to lose when the opposing team hit the ball to the back of the court. One of our teammates ran back, attempting to make a near impossible shot. Unfortunately, it didn’t work - and we lost the game.

Some teams would have blamed our friend. But we realized any one of us could have made the same mistake. All of us have dropped the ball at some point. But each of us needed to own up to our mistakes. After all, volleyball is a team sport, and the only way to win is if we cheer each other on, not put each other down, and TAKE RESPONSIBILITY.

This idea - of responsibility - is a major theme in this week’s parsha.

In B’reishit, G-d created Adam and gives him one main rule to follow:

וּמֵעֵ֗ץ הַדַּ֙עַת֙ ט֣וֹב וָרָ֔ע לֹ֥א תֹאכַ֖ל מִמֶּ֑נּוּ כִּ֗י בְּי֛וֹם אֲכָלְךָ֥ מִמֶּ֖נּוּ מ֥וֹת תָּמֽוּת 

Eat off any tree or bush except for the tree of knowledge. This is literally where the phrase “forbidden fruit” comes from. As we all know, Adam and Eve do eat the fruit. And then the story gets interesting.

Let’s start with the snake. According to the text, the snake first got Eve to touch the fruit. Then he got Eve to taste it. He’s certainly at least partially to blame.

Then, we have Eve. G-d told Adam that it was forbidden to EAT the fruit from the tree of knowledge, but Eve, in her discussion with the snake, adds that they cannot TOUCH it either. By creating this extra and unnecessary rule she allows herself to believe that if she touched the fruit and nothing happened, surely eating it would be fine as well. And it certainly wasn’t. By putting words in G-d’s mouth, eating the fruit, and by sharing it with Adam, Eve is also to blame.

Finally, we get to Adam. I personally think that Adam didn’t know what fruit he was eating, but he probably should have been more careful, and asked, ‘Hey, where is this fruit from?' Adam was careless in his actions. For this, he bears some blame as well.

Clearly, a lot went wrong in this story. There’s the eating of the fruit, of course… But my biggest concern is that there’s also a lot of finger pointing. It’s a classic tale of he said, she said, snake said.

When G-d asked if they ate from the tree, Adam blames G-d for putting Eve at his side. And he blames Eve for giving him the fruit in the first place. Then Eve, when confronted, said the serpent tricked her into taking a bite. But as I studied the text, it seemed clear to me that G-d wasn’t that mad about what they ate. Instead, I think He got angry that they didn’t own up to their mistakes.

G-d, and the parsha, are teaching us: take responsibility for your actions.

If you read the news these days, an interesting parallel can be found regarding the future of our planet. Despite all of the scientific evidence that humans have created our climate crisis, virtually no one wants to take responsibility. The people, countries and corporations who can bring about the greatest change, are failing to raise their hands. They won’t stand up for the planet we call home, the planet Hashem so beautifully and carefully built in six days.

In recent decades, many mistakes have been made and the blessings of the Earth have been taken for granted. The quests for convenience and economic growth have come at a devastating cost:

  • 19 of the 20 warmest years on record have occurred since the year 2000.
  • The melting of glaciers and ice sheets are causing sea levels to rise and extreme weather events like droughts, hurricanes and flooding.

The Earth has been neglected and abused - and no one seems willing to own up to it.  But unlike Adam, Eve and the snake, each of us must take responsibility. This planet is our Garden of Eden… if we are driven out - by flood, famine, name your natural disaster, we have nowhere else to go.

In Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:28 it says: In the hour when the Holy one, blessed be He, created the first person, He showed him the trees in the Garden of Eden, and said to him: “See My works, how fine they are; Now all that I have created, I created for your benefit. Think upon this and do not corrupt and destroy My world, For if you destroy it, there is no one to restore it after you.

As a 13-year-old, I know that the things I can personally do are somewhat limited. Recycle. Pass on plastic straws. Compost after kiddush - which I encourage all of you to do so please read the signs by the garbage cans at lunch! But the most important thing that I - and all of us - can do is raise our hands and make ourselves heard… like 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg.

“What we should do as individuals,” said Greta, “is to use the power of democracy to make our voices heard and to make sure that the people in power cannot continue to ignore this.”

Just last month, on September 20th, millions of young people around the world did just that as part of a Global Climate Strike... raising their hands and their voices - to fight for their future.

For my Bar Mitzvah project I wanted to do something directly connected with my parsha. Thanks to a unique program at KAM Isaiah Israel Synagogue on the south side of Chicago, this was pretty easy to do.

Since 2009, dozens of volunteers have transformed the shul's lawns and other spaces around the neighborhood into food-producing gardens, growing fruits and vegetables and distributing the harvests to those in need. As a volunteer, I learned how to build a tomato trellis, identify when radishes are ready to be pulled, that green beans like to climb (and they taste pretty great), and that it takes a lot of time and effort to go from planting to plate.

As a volunteer, I got my hands dirty - literally - and was able to take direct responsibility for the city I am proud to call home. This idea of planting, not for me, but for others, reminded me of a story I’ve heard many times throughout my Jewish life. 

In Taanit 23b it says: "While the sage Choni was walking along a road, he saw an old man planting a carob tree. Choni asked him: “How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?” “Seventy years,” replied the man. Choni then asked: “Are you so healthy a man that you expect to live that length of time and eat its fruit?” The man answered: “I found a fruitful world because my ancestors planted it for me. Likewise, I am planting for my children.”

CJDS Grade 8 student Noa

Grade 8 Dvar Torah by: Noa and Isabel

Moed tov Middle School,

Today we would like to talk about Sukkot!

How many of you built a sukkah this year? Well, we both did. Sukkot is a super fun and cheerful holiday. It is centered around community and we are supposed to invite others into our sukkahs to celebrate. So, why is Sukkot supposed to be a very joyous occasion? 

We just had Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, in which we cried out to God and we focused on our sins this past year. They are both personal holidays and times for self-reflection. We are asking God for forgiveness in a desperate way and we are becoming vulnerable. 

Now that our name is inscribed in the book of life we should rejoice! It's time to celebrate after observing a holiday in which we focused primarily on ourselves as we reflected on our sins.

The Torah says that we must invite the stranger and the neighbor into our sukkah. Inviting our community into the sukkah is not only a mitzvah - it allows us to acknowledge others after focusing on just ourselves. 

What are some ways you connect you God in a positive and thoughtful way? One way that we feel we connect is by doing mitzvot. It gives us great pleasure to help people in our community and elsewhere. 

Director of Jewish Studies, Tamar Cytryn

Sukkot Family Learning by: Tamar Cytryn, Director of Jewish Studies

Chag sameach! Happy holiday!

Gather your family together for a conversation about what we do on Sukkot. Read the following text and discuss the questions below. When you're done, enjoy the two videos that follow!

We'd love to hear about any great answers or questions that arise!  

Leviticus 23:39-43

39 But on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you gather in the produce of the land, you shall celebrate the festival of the Lord for a seven day period; the first day shall be a rest day, and the eighth day shall be a rest day.

ל אַ֡ךְ בַּֽחֲמִשָּׁה֩ עָשָׂ֨ר י֜וֹם לַחֹ֣דֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִ֗י בְּאָסְפְּכֶם֙ אֶת־תְּבוּאַ֣ת הָאָ֔רֶץ תָּחֹ֥גּוּ אֶת־חַג־יְהֹוָ֖ה שִׁבְעַ֣ת יָמִ֑ים בַּיּ֤וֹם הָֽרִאשׁוֹן֙ שַׁבָּת֔וֹן וּבַיּ֥וֹם הַשְּׁמִינִ֖י שַׁבָּתֽוֹן

40 And you shall take for yourselves on the first day, the fruit of the hadar tree, date palm fronds, a branch of a braided tree, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for a seven day period.

מ וּלְקַחְתֶּ֨ם לָכֶ֜ם בַּיּ֣וֹם הָֽרִאשׁ֗וֹן פְּרִ֨י עֵ֤ץ הָדָר֙ כַּפֹּ֣ת תְּמָרִ֔ים וַֽעֲנַ֥ף עֵֽץ־עָבֹ֖ת וְעַרְבֵי־נָ֑חַל וּשְׂמַחְתֶּ֗ם לִפְנֵ֛י יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶ֖ם שִׁבְעַ֥ת יָמִֽים

41 And you shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord for seven days in the year. [It is] an eternal statute throughout your generations [that] you celebrate it in the seventh month.

מא וְחַגֹּתֶ֤ם אֹתוֹ֙ חַ֣ג לַֽיהֹוָ֔ה שִׁבְעַ֥ת יָמִ֖ים בַּשָּׁנָ֑ה חֻקַּ֤ת עוֹלָם֙ לְדֹרֹ֣תֵיכֶ֔ם בַּחֹ֥דֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִ֖י תָּחֹ֥גּוּ אֹתֽוֹ

42 For a seven day period you shall live in booths. Every resident among the Israelites shall live in booths,

מב בַּסֻּכֹּ֥ת תֵּֽשְׁב֖וּ שִׁבְעַ֣ת יָמִ֑ים כָּל־הָֽאֶזְרָח֙ בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל יֵֽשְׁב֖וּ בַּסֻּכֹּֽת

43 in order that your [ensuing] generations should know that I had the children of Israel live in booths when I took them out of the land of Egypt. I am the Lord, your God.

מג לְמַ֘עַן֘ יֵֽדְע֣וּ דֹרֹֽתֵיכֶם֒ כִּ֣י בַסֻּכּ֗וֹת הוֹשַׁ֨בְתִּי֙ אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל בְּהֽוֹצִיאִ֥י אוֹתָ֖ם מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם אֲנִ֖י יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶֽם

1) According to this text, what time of the year do we celebrate this holiday?  What did we just complete?

2) Why do you think we should be happy at this time of the year?

3) Can you identify at least two ways we should celebrate this holiday according to this text?  What are they?

4) What is the reason this text gives us for why we live in sukkot/booths on this holiday?

5) What questions do you have about this text?


Do you love the holidays?  Do you love Lego?  This is the video for you!

Sukkot is a time of the year when we welcome guests to our Sukkot and our homes.  Enjoy this video about hachnasat orchim/welcoming guests.

Director of Jewish Studies, Tamar Cytryn

Rosh HaShanah 5780 Family Discussion by: Tamar Cytryn, Director of Jewish Studies

This week we want to challenge our families to do some learning and thinking together around Rosh Hashanah! 

In the mishna (oral tradition) our Rabbis ponder what the shofar blasts should sound like. What kind of noise should we aim to produce when blowing the shofar? The mishna suggests it sound like a "יבבה", a "yevava", often translated as a wail or sob or whine.

There is only person in the Tanakh (our Bible) described as making these sounds.  It is a woman who only appears once and doesn’t even have her own name!

In Shoftim/Judges 5:28 it reads:

בְּעַד הַחַלּוֹן נִשְׁקְפָה וַתְּיַבֵּב אֵם סִיסְרָא בְּעַד הָאֶשְׁנָב

מַדּוּעַ בֹּשֵׁשׁ רִכְבּוֹ לָבוֹא מַדּוּעַ אֶחֱרוּ פַּעֲמֵי מַרְכְּבוֹתָיו

“Through the window the mother of Sisera looked forth and sobbed, and peered through the window; why is his chariot late in coming? Why tarry the strides of his chariots?”   

Sisera was a very successful commander of the Canaanite army of King Jabin of Hazor, He commanded an army that included 900 chariots. According to Judges chapters 4 & 5 Sisera was eventually defeated by the forces of the Israelite tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali under the command of Barak and Deborah. The verse quoted above describes his mother waiting by the window for her son.


1.     What do you think the mother of Sisera is feeling at this moment?

2.     What do you think the Israelites felt at his defeat?

3.     Why do you think the Rabbis chose this particular woman to pattern the sound of the shofar after?

4.     Do you think there is a connection between her experience and our experience on Rosh Hashanah?

Wishing all a happy and sweet new year!


D'var Torah by: Nitai, Grade 7

Here is a simple riddle... 

A basket contains five apples. How can you distribute those five apples to five different people and still have one apple left in the basket?

You give up? You give one apple each to four people, and give the fifth person the basket with the last apple still inside.  Simple, right?

This Torah portion also describes baskets filled with fruits, and these baskets were brought as gifts. The gifts, called bikkurim, were the first fruits of each year’s harvest.  Farmers brought these “gifts” to Jerusalem and presented them before the priest and ultimately sacrificed them to God. The verse states:

וְלָקַחְתָּ מֵרֵאשִׁית כָּל־פְּרִי הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר תָּבִיא מֵאַרְצְךָ אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ וְשַׂמְתָּ בַטֶּנֶא וְהָלַכְתָּ אֶל־הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְשַׁכֵּן שְׁמוֹ שָׁם׃

“you shall take some of every first fruit of the soil, which you harvest from the land that the LORD your God is giving you, put it in a basket and go to the place where the LORD your God will choose to establish His name.”

The Torah continues and a few verses later it commands the farmer not just to bring the fruits but “to rejoice in all the bounty that the LORD your God has bestowed upon you and your household”

וְשָׂמַחְתָּ֣ בְכָל־הַטּ֗וֹב אֲשֶׁ֧ר נָֽתַן־לְךָ֛ ה' אֱ-לֹהֶ֖יךָ וּלְבֵיתֶ֑ךָ אַתָּה֙ וְהַלֵּוִ֔י וְהַגֵּ֖ר אֲשֶׁ֥ר בְּקִרְבֶּֽךָ׃ (ס)

Rashi, the medieval commentator adds that the farmer doesn’t just rejoice but needs to make a public statement when he brings the first fruits to demonstrate that he is grateful for all that he has been given.

Listen, I am just a kid, but it is pretty clear what is being described in the first verse -- “tax collection.” And then God commands the farmer to be happy about it!

Personally - I have never had to pay taxes, but to all the adults in the room, how many of you are rejoicing during that second week of April.  Or I’ll ask my Uncle David, the accountant. How many people run up to you when they hand over their W2s or are cutting their checks to the Federal Government rejoicing and make that public statement: “man - God is great!” 

But that is what this farmer is being asked to do, to make a dramatic speech, filled with joy when bringing his first fruits to Jerusalem .

Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, a 19th century Lithuanian rabbi known as the Netziv, builds on the verse and Rashi’s explanation and asks “What does it mean to rejoice in everything that is good? That it means “to rejoice with your body and soul together.”

The Netziv explains that the moment of bringing bikurim combines different types of happiness.  Happiness of the body - because we have lots of great fruit. And happiness of the soul because we are being reminded to feel gratitude. Feeling grateful comes from recognizing that these gifts, we bring to God are more appropriately framed as “gifts that God has given to us.”   Those fruits that we think come from all our hard work were gifts that we were actually granted.

So essentially, the torah flips the script and reframes the entire picture of giving.  That these gifts that come with us in the world, whether we are blessed with nourishment, like the farmer, or with talents or skills; they are truly gifts from God, and that what comes with these gifts is a responsibility to dedicate those gifts to giving back to our community and to the broader world.

But even more importantly, the Torah is teaching us that giving back is not done with any resentment, but just the opposite. It is done with joy, happiness, with gratitude in realizing that we have been blessed and privileged, and with that blessing comes the true gift of being able to help others.  We must understand that every opportunity to give means that we have been blessed with something to give.

It is very appropriate that this reframe is one of the main themes of my Torah portion, as I get to see these lessons play out all around me.  When I look at my 4 grandparents, My GG and Zayde, My Saba and Savta, who I am so blessed to have here today, they have all dedicated their lives to live by this approach; they have dedicated their time, energy and many talents to their communities with absolute Chen - with grace, and with gratitude to God.  They built their communities, in Kansas City, Silver Spring and now Jerusalem, not out of a sense of obligation, but a sense of gratitude and pleasure. And my parents work every day to emulate their parents and pass those same lessons to me and my siblings.

So it is today, as I stand as a Bar Mitzvah, that  it is my turn to make the public declaration, to use my passions and skills to give back to my community and the world at large; and to do this, not from a sense of obligation, but out of a sense of gratitude, responsibility, and joy.

And though I imagine that when I grow up, I too will not be praising God when I cut my first check, to the Federal Government, I do hope I can live up to lessons in my torah portion, and the bar set by my family so that I can always be a source of pride for this wonderful community!  Shabbat Shalom.


In this week's Torah portion, Ki Teitze, we find an important  commandment/mitzvah - something named shiluach haken, which roughly translates to sending away the mother bird. We are commanded to shoo the mother bird away if we plan on taking baby birds or eggs for our own consumption. If we fulfill this commandment/mitzvah then the Torah tells us it will be good for us and it will prolong our lives on this earth.  

In Deuteronomy/Dvarim chapter 22, verses 6-7 the Torah commands us:

6 If a bird's nest chances before you on the road, on any tree, or on the ground, and [it contains] fledglings or eggs, if the mother is sitting upon the fledglings or upon the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young. 

כִּ֣י יִקָּרֵ֣א קַן־צִפּ֣וֹר | לְפָנֶ֡יךָ בַּדֶּ֜רֶךְ בְּכָל־עֵ֣ץ | א֣וֹ עַל־הָאָ֗רֶץ אֶפְרֹחִים֙ א֣וֹ בֵיצִ֔ים וְהָאֵ֤ם רֹבֶ֨צֶת֙ עַל־הָֽאֶפְרֹחִ֔ים א֖וֹ עַל־הַבֵּיצִ֑ים לֹֽא־תִקַּ֥ח הָאֵ֖ם עַל־הַבָּנִֽים:

7 You shall send away the mother, and [then] you may take the young for yourself, in order that it should be good for you, and you should lengthen your days.

שַׁלֵּ֤חַ תְּשַׁלַּח֙ אֶת־הָאֵ֔ם וְאֶת־הַבָּנִ֖ים תִּקַּח־לָ֑ךְ לְמַ֨עַן֙ יִ֣יטַב לָ֔ךְ וְהַֽאֲרַכְתָּ֖ יָמִֽים

Family Questions

1) Why might someone take birds or eggs from a nest?

2) What do you think it means when the Torah says "it should be good for you" if you fulfill this commandment?

3) What do you think it means when the Torah says "you should lengthen your days" if you fulfill this commandment?

4) There is only one other commandment/mitzvah in the Torah where you earn prolonged life if you do it, the commandment/mitzvah of honoring your mother and father. Can you think of any connection between these two commandments/mitzvot?

Grade 8 Bar Mitzvah student reads his dvar Torah

D'var Torah by: Noam, Grade 8

Means and Ends

One of the classic questions of philosophy is the relationship between ends and means. Do the ends, the goals that we are pursuing, justify the means that we use to pursue those goals. This question has occupied philosophers and politicians for thousands of years and one approach to this question appears in this week’s Torah portion.

Early in the parsha this week, we find the famous verse:

צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף לְמַ֤עַן תִּֽחְיֶה֙ וְיָרַשְׁתָּ֣ אֶת־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־ה' אֱ-לֹהֶ֖יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לָֽךְ׃ (ס)

Justice justice you shall pursue in order that you live and inherit the land that the Lord your God is giving to you.

Even though we know that the word צֶ֖דֶק means “justice” we don’t know why the word is repeated at the beginning of the verse. What does צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף mean?

Ibn Ezra offers the simplest explanation - but one that might be true. The Torah frequently repeats words just for emphasis.

R. Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (Netziv) looks to the Gemara in Sanhedrin which interprets one tzedek for law and one tzedek for compromise. There is a need for judges to rule in a fair and just way whether they are engaging in law or facilitating compromise. 

He then asks: Why would there need to be a special mitzvah for judges to be impartial in cases when they are asked to facilitate a compromise? They would only ever be asked to arbitrate if they are trusted and respected by the litigants.. He answers that  sometimes there is an obligation to compromise and therefore judges must treat it just as seriously as when they are deciding a case of law.  

He then points to a gemara in Bava kama which states that the beit hamikdash was destroyed because people only followed the letter of the law and were not willing to compromise

R. Simcha Bunim of Peshischa offers a different interesting interpretation. 

One must pursue justice justly. The ends don’t justify the means. Just because you are trying to do something with good intentions doesn’t mean that you can go about achieving them in bad ways.  

We can see the relevance of this insight in contemporary debates about crime and punishment. The fourth amendment to the Constitution prohibits searches and seizures without a warrant. This is an example of pursuing justice justly. 

From this verse we can take away the importance of compromise,  and making sure we are doing things in a just and moral way.