My Torah Portion: A Story Among Others

Nicky Young
June 13, 2013

My Bar Mitzvah is different from a traditional Bar Mitzvah. As you may know in a traditional Bar or Bat Mitzvah a 13 year old boy or girl reads or chants from the Torah in Hebrew. The torah is the first section of the Hebrew bible. It includes the 5 books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. It tells the story of the Hebrews beginning with creation and ending with the death of Moses and the Hebrews arrival in the Promised Land. There are 2 types of writing in the torah, the history and the parts telling the Israelites how to behave. It contains allegories, historical narratives, genealogy, poetry, and laws. There may be some historical facts, in the torah, but in many cases people have been unsure of how accurate they are.

In a traditional synagogue a portion from the torah, generally consisting of several chapters, is read every Shabbat, beginning with Genesis in the beginning of the Jewish year, and ending with Deuteronomy at the end of the Jewish year, this is how it is passed down from generation to generation. This cycle repeats itself each year and the reading of the Torah never ends.

In Humanistic Judaism, we don’t think of the torah as more important or more special than any other Jewish book. We consider the Torah a part of our literature alongside other valuable writings like the Talmud, modern Yiddish stories, Hebrew poetry, and so on. Instead of putting the torah on a pedestal we put the culture on a pedestal. By doing this we give ourselves the responsibility for our actions, not “God”. So, for our bar or bat mitzvahs Humanistic Jews are not required to read from the Torah.

For my final project I could choose to do anything I wanted, on any topic that interested me, that made me connect to Jewish culture.

I decided to learn more about my torah portion. I wanted to do this because I wanted to be more “in touch” with the traditional side of my Jewish life. I could have chosen any passage to explore but I wanted to explore the portion that would have been assigned to me by my birthdate. My portion is from Exodus: ki-tee-sah Chapter 30, verse 11 thru the end of chapter 34.

I just happened to start my life on the 27th of March. It is purely random that my passage is about the giving of the Ten Commandments. If I had been born on March 27th, 1998, instead of 1997, I would be talking today about semen, menstruation, and leprosy. Today isn’t even the date of my birthday; it’s about 3 months after my birthday which means that I don’t have to use this torah portion at all.

In a traditional bar mitzvah I would have chanted a section of the portion and made an interpretation about the section based on traditional teachings. I explored my full portion and got interpretations of it from my humanistic rabbi, Rabbi Peter Schweitzer, my dad’s aunt Irene, a devoted Christian, and an orthodox rabbi, Rabbi Bellino. By doing this I was able to explore what it means for me to be a Jew and how I fit into the Jewish community, what the torah means to me, what “God” means to me, and over all what religion means to me.

At the start of the story, Moses went up the mountain after “God” had come to the Hebrews and, with thunder and lightning, announced the commandments. The Hebrews got really scared and decided that Moses should just go up the mountain and get the commandments from “God” by himself. While Moses was with “God” for 40 day and 40 nights, the people got impatient and they lost faith in “God” and Moses. They then went to Aaron, Moses’ brother, and said “Come make us a god who should go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt-we do not know what has happened to him.” So Aaron told them to take of their gold jewelry and he threw it into the fire and using his tools he made a golden calf for them.

My rabbi talked with me about mob psychology. I noticed how it says “the people said…” making them one thing, not individual people. Even back then peer pressure played a heavy role. The people all went with what other people were saying because it’s a lot easier to follow society than to be off on your own. Even people who claim to be total individuals still are held by societies iron grasp.

Rabbi Bellino and I were talking about leadership. Society needs leaders to govern them and it’s much easier to listen to people than to break free from society and make your own decisions. As much as anyone wants to say that society has no hold on them, we are all ruled by society’s latest fashions and ideas in some way. Like I said in my values paper, to have a choice can be a good thing or a bad thing. Sometimes people just want to be told what to do instead of having to choose. It can be so much easier that way. In the case of the Hebrews worshipping the golden calf, they just wanted to find a leader or something that they could put their hopes on and look to for guidance. They were scared.

As the people were celebrating, “God” and Moses were busy going over the laws and “God” looked down and saw that the Hebrews had made a golden calf and that they were worshipping it. “God” then went nuts and had a huge temper tantrum. He told Moses that he was going to kill all the Hebrews down below. Moses then pretty much tells God to chill out. He says that if “God” does kill them, then the Egyptians will be able to say that God only let the Jews be free from Egypt so he could kill them in the mountains. Moses also reminded “God” of his promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob which stated that he would make their offspring as numerous as the stars in the heavens. God then calms down and gives Moses the tablets.

One thing I wondered about was if it was necessary for “God” to give the Hebrews the commandments and to be an enforcer of the rules. I think it was necessary because humans don’t usually keep a lot of laws unless they’re set in stone, in this case literally, and they fear the consequences of not obeying them. According to a rabbinic story, “God” had held Mount Sinai over the Hebrews heads and threatened to drop it on them if they didn’t follow the rules. They lived in the fear of the lord, following his rules because they were afraid of him.
Rabbi Bellino asked me if the Hebrews should have already known to not kill people, for instance. This was interesting because I, for instance, will ignore homework even though I know I should be doing it, but I won’t ignore the feeling that I shouldn’t kill people. I think people would have known the instinctual laws, but not always followed. If the rabbis had sat in a room and tried to come up with laws I’m sure “thou shall not kill” would have come up, but because of the fear of “God”, I think the law was more enforced. In today’s culture, killing is illegal but people still do it. Even with the death penalty in some states. I think this is because we sometimes struggle to control our anger and impulses.

What I also don’t get is that if “God” made these people, why did he make them so rebellious or as “God” himself stated, so stiff-necked? Shouldn’t he understand that these people only doubted him and Moses because of the human nature that “god” himself created?

But here is what I think is really interesting and very human about the story. The people needed a leader like a child needs a parent and since their leader wasn’t there they started to doubt. When you were a little kid and your parents told you they would be back by 8 pm, and the clock hits 8:01 pm you start to freak out and think of all the bad possibilities that could have happened. Since Moses took a lot longer than the Jews expected they started to freak out after a while.

And here’s another very familiar human reaction. After Moses calmed down “God”, Moses was still left with his own anger. He descended from the mountain and when he saw the Hebrews dancing and worshipping the golden calf he let loose his anger and he threw down the tablets with all the rules from “God” and he burned the golden calf; then he ground it into a powder and put it in the Hebrews water and made them drink it.

Moses was being pretty hypocritical – he got “God” to calm down but didn’t calm down himself – and he was also pretty sadistic. Aaron told him that the Hebrews had wanted a God so he asked for all their gold and threw it into the fire, and out popped a golden calf. He hid the fact that he actually made the calf himself. Aaron made himself look good to the people, and in the story he told Moses, he made himself look innocent.

Then Moses told the Hebrews that all who had faith in the lord should come to him and all the Levites came to his side. Then he told the Levites to kill the rest of the people.
Apparently Moses needed someone to calm him down too.

One thing that I noticed about this story was that the format in which it was written was very close to the format that a modern day fiction story would be written in. You have characters, a conflict, beginning, middle and end, and a twist. The fact that the story was written in this format really makes me think that these stories aren’t factual because life doesn’t always fit that format.

Another thing that I noticed was that “God” and Moses act as parents of the Hebrews in the story; “God” as the temperamental father, and Moses as the calmer but still frustrated mother- or vice versa. When “God” gets really mad about the Hebrews worshipping the golden calf he’s like an angry parent who sees his kids doing something bad and he becomes so blinded by rage that he almost does something stupid. Moses is like the comforting parent because he is able to calm “God” down, but is still left with his own anger to deal with. This anger comes out when he actually sees what the Hebrews (the children) are doing and he then does something not so smart, he (Moses) orders the killing of 3,000 Jews.

“God” is a character and like any other character in a story, “God” has contrasting traits that cause conflict and make him more interesting. “God” isn’t perfect; he kills, has temper tantrums, and can be a pretty scary guy from what I’ve read. God loses his cool A LOT throughout the torah and when he does, it almost always results in the death of human beings. I’ve noticed that “God” gives a lot of ultimatums. People have faults and insecurities even if they are striving for perfection. To become so angry with people because of that is just wrong. All of those things don’t mean that he’s not a good god though. These very human like faults probably make it easier for people to relate to “God”. Overall I think the main themes of my portion are loyalty, leadership, and forgiveness. Whether the story is true or false, these themes are things we can all learn from.

One of the biggest opportunities I got from writing this paper was that I got to read my Torah portion, challenge it, and make my own interpretation of it. The stories of my family’s religions have been passed down from generation to generation. This opportunity, especially challenging the Torah, gave me the sense that I have a say in my Jewish world, and that’s what a bar or bat mitzvah’s all about, finding your place in the Jewish community.