Shabbat shalom. Just now I read in Hebrew from the Torah. The Torah is the story of the beginning of the Jewish people and contains our basic moral principles. The Torah is divided into five books and each book is divided into portions. We read one portion each week and my portion is in the last book of the Torah, near the end. Moses is talking with God about crossing the Jordan river and going into the Promised Land.
Moses is eager to move forward and let the Hebrews into the promised land, but God doesn’t want that yet. Moses and the Hebrews have been wandering in the desert for many years and Moses wants to go to the Promised Land so they can start to settle down and build homes and cities and survive with resources available. God wants to wait until a new younger and stronger generation is ready to move forward.
This difference of opinion stems from an incident in the Book of Numbers, years before my portion takes place. God asked Moses to send out a group of twelve spies from all the tribes to scout out the Promised Land. The go and look the place over, but they see the place is heavily guarded. Ten of the spies are very afraid and negative. Only two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, feel enough faith and strength to go forward. The people start to lose faith and act in a fearful way. (I don’t want to bring up Trump but) It’s similar to people today who are fearful of Mexicans or Muslims because they’ve listened to Donald Trump and accepted his simple explanations and stereotypes rather than being brave and digging a little deeper and seeing a more realistic view.
So God is pretty disturbed that the people lost faith so easily. God decides to that it might be good to wait until a new generation, more courageous and hopeful, grows up and that Joshua and Caleb can be their leaders. I hope that we don’t need to wait this long for people in the United States to be more courageous and hopeful.
So now God is giving Moses and Aaron the bad news that they are just too old and behind the times to be the leaders in the Promised Land. So Moses is sad, but decides that he can still do something – that he needs to teach the younger generation what he knows so they can learn from him before he dies.
Moses teaches them the Ten Commandments. And Moses teaches them the Shema and V’ahavta, two prayers we recited this very day. These prayers are about three thousand years old, and Jews have been saying them every day for three thousand years. Nachmonides, the greatest medieval torah commentator, believes that in the Shema, Moses actually used the second person pronoun – “Hear O’Israel, Adonai is your God” rather than “Adonai is our God.” That’s because by this point Moses has stopped seeing himself as a member of the community. He doesn’t mean to exclude himself, but now he thinks of himself as a witness or a teacher. I think this happens to some people as they age, but other older people still engaged and still enjoy life. Like my grandma still goes on walks every day, and I think she may even be playing Pokemon Go.
Rabbi Sofer, a 19th century Hungarian torah interpreter says that the reason the Shema includes God’s name – Adonai – twice is to symbolize to the beginning and the end, and that all human life is in between.
The word “Shema” literally means “listen” – and Moses is teaching the younger generation the importance of listening. This reminds me of a time about five years ago when I was going down to Moss Beach Park with my mother and brother. I decided I wanted a soda from home, but my mom thought it was a bad idea since I’d already had one that day. I was annoyed, and didn’t really listen to her because I didn’t agree with her. So I took off on my scooter really really fast, and then I fell and hurt my knee, and never got to go to the park…. Or more importantly get the soda. So I ended up with nothing because I wouldn’t listen. This is the classic kind of not listening to experience and then having to learn the hard way.
There is another kind of listening, that isn’t about learning from experience. It’s about connecting with people in a deep way. I had a friend who had some really troubling issues. I listened to my friend and was able to help with the issues. If I hadn’t listened, I couldn’t have helped. I think it’s important to pay attention because it’s easy to miss things big or small and not be able to be there for your friends and help them out.
After Moses teaches the younger generation about listening, he immediately continues with the prayer we call the “v’ahavta.” It says that you should teach the ideas of Torah to your children, which is what he is doing. You speak of them when you rise up and when you go to sleep. You write them on your doorposts, which is what many Jews still do – it’s called a mezuzah.
So what are the ideas of Torah? The Torah teaches that we should be kind to others – love your neighbor as yourself. It teaches us not to murder other people. We’re supposed to honor our mother and father.
When I was younger I had some friends who I no longer feel close to. I don’t agree with their views anymore. However, I do treat them with respect. I hung out with them and I didn’t get into conflicts with them about different viewpoints. I don’t deny that they are entitled to their views even if I have a different view. I really hate some of their views, but I don’t yell at them. I try not to be overly judgmental, but accept that other people for who they are as people even when they have views I don’t agree with.
Here’s the thing: this is something my parents taught me, about being tolerant and not judgmental. So when I treat these kids with respect, I am also showing respect to my parents. When we live out the values taught our parents, that’s a way honoring them. This is not only about honor, but it’s also about caring. Honoring our parents’ values is a way of caring for our parents. I learn from my parents, and my children will learn from and honor me. That’s the message Moses is teaching.
Another teaching from Moses is about loving your neighbor as yourself. Once one of my neighbors had to get surgery, and needed someone to walk their dog. So they asked Sterling and me if we would walk the dog, and we agreed, even though we didn’t know it was from the Torah, we did know it is important to help your neighbor. We did get paid a little, but it wasn’t the incentive.
In 4th grade I had a friend who wouldn’t stop following me around. I was his only friend so he was always around. I wanted to play games and hang out with other people, but he didn’t want to. Often I would go hang out with the other people, but sometimes I felt compassion and would sit and listen to him, even though he was pretty boring. I didn’t want to kill his spirit. I think the Torah teaches not to murder literally, but also to be kind and not kill people’s spirit even if it means that sometimes you have to listen to someone who is boring.
Being sensitive to the feelings of others is a sign of growing up. A few weeks ago, I was hanging out with a friend and we sort of got tired and sat down. We talked about religion and different religions and the place that religion plays in one’s life. He told his point of view and I shared my point of view. We discussed the problem of parents forcing specific beliefs on their children. I think that religion can alter people’s judgment, for good or for bad. Earlier in my life, I wouldn’t have been able to handle this kind of conversation, but now I can talk about them freely and hear very interesting point of views from it. – that’s another sign of growing up.
Remember those kids who have a different view than I do. Well one of the issues of them was there is a youtuber that some of them watch and I don’t. I found the videos to be mean and hurtful to others. It’s not about this particular youtuber, but about a kind of comedy that delights in others’ pain or just straight up bullying. For me, it’s normal to make jokes and fool around, but they joke about serious topics like terrorism and suicide and rape. And I just don’t find those funny, and I don’t like the jokes. I think this is a sign that I’ve matured, which is what this ceremony is all about. That’s what it means to be a bar mitzvah.
Thinking about religion and my personal values helped me understand my Torah portion a little more. Unlike Moses, I am the next generation. I’ve learned from my elders, and I’ve found people who – like me – believe in treating others well and making the world a better place. PAWS
I want to thank all of you who came to celebrate this morning, whether you live close by or traveled halfway around the world. I am very grateful to Patti for being an awesome Hebrew teacher and always being there and helping me whenever I stumbled. She serves the best treats – everyone loves her brownies and cookies! Thanks to Rabbi Jane for helping me out with this drash. I learned a lot from our conversations – it started me thinking on a lot of things I otherwise would not have considered. I want to thank my Grandma Carla for coming to so many of the Patti meetings and spending time with me. There is nothing as wonderful as a loving grandmother. I really appreciate Sterling – he is the best brother in the world! He is always there to help if I have problems and just talking to me about stuff, even if he does take up too much time on the xbox.
My Dad is the best dad that anyone could have; he is always supportive, of this bar mitzvah and everything else. He had given me the gift of an open mind by working with his religious group UUCC. My Mom – like the rest of my family – is the best possible mom. She helps me whenever I’m stuck or have a problem. I really appreciate her getting me into Coastside Hope because I’ve found a true sense of meaning in helping people and doing good in the world.
Lastly, I must thank my cats: Colbi, Lynn, Pal, and Brie – As much as they have been a distraction, they have helped me relax and be happier.