The following essay about a Torah portion was written by SZ, a middle schooler, enrolled in City Congregation’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah program. Students spend a year and a half researching their heritage, values and beliefs, and write on a Jewish subject of their choice, their major project; an example of this last component can be seen below. The process improves both the student’s writing and critical thinking skills, as well as his/her self confidence and overall maturity.
Within modern Judaism, there is tremendous emphasis on the ritual of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah, and its celebration. Ironically, though Judaism is thousands of years old, Bar Mitzvahs began only in the 13th or 14th century. At that time, the custom of calling a boy up to the Torah was established as the way of recognizing entry into manhood.
Not only is this ritual disproportionately new in an otherwise very ancient religion, but it’s a ritual which isn’t even discussed in the Torah. The Bat Mitzvah is even newer! In fact, it was less than 100 years ago that the first Bat Mitzvah was ever recorded in North America. It was the Bat Mitzvah of Judith Kaplan in 1922, which not only took place in New York City, but occurred right here at the very same Society for the Advancement of Judaism on 86th Street, where we celebrate today! Not only was that event noteworthy as the first of its kind, in this same space, but there were other ironies as well. Though I embarked on my Bat-Mitzvah-Adventure over a year ago, there was minimal preparation for Judith’s Bat Mitzvah, which her father suggested to her just the day before the ceremony. Judith’s father was Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of The Society for the Advancement of Judaism, which later became known as Reconstructionist Judaism. This was his synagogue. Judith only practiced reading her Torah portion with her father on the night before the event. “I didn’t work on it the way kids work on it now, for a half year with lessons every week,” she said in 1992. “All I did was read it through with him Friday night, and Saturday morning I went into the synagogue and did it,” she said (Jewish News Northern California). While modern Jews plan their Bar or Bat Mitzvahs years in advance with elaborate celebrations afterwards, this modern-day ritual first occurred here, with barely any preparation, and without any party as we’re so accustomed to today.
What is the Torah? The word Torah refers to the first five of twenty-four books that comprise the Hebrew Bible, also known as the Tanach. Those first Five Books are also called the Five Books of Moses, or the Pentateuch. The Torah was written to be a unifying document for the ancient Jews, and as a source of reference, and inspiration. The two main actors in the Torah are the Jewish people, and their faceless and formless God. Each book consists of a compilation of stories, rules, poetry, ideals, myths, and history, and it begins with the creation of the world. It continues on through Moses’ death, just before the Hebrew people are said to have entered the Promised Land, after wandering the desert for 40 years.
Modern Bible scholars believe the Torah was composed by multiple authors in the late 7th or 6th century BCE. Classic Rabbinic views hold that the Torah was given to Moses by its author, God, on Mount Sinai, in 1312 BCE. However, what I believe makes sense is that it was passed down by many men (not women!) over many generations, each of whom added a bit more. Note, I said men, and not women, as their roles within Judaism back then were very unequal- as within the rest of society. Women could not benefit from formal education, and so were less likely to even know how to write at that time, regardless of their interests.
In addition to the written Torah, there is the Oral Law. Modern Bible scholars believe this developed over generations, prior to the Babylonian exile of 586-530 through 200 CE, when an edition of the Oral Law was put down in writing by Rabbi Judah HaNasi. He did this to ensure that the law would be preserved. This compilation is called the Mishna. The commentary on the Mishna is called the Gemara, which was developed between 300-500 CE. Together, the Mishna and the Gemara make up the Talmud. Classic Rabbinic tradition holds that the Oral Law was also given to Moses on Mount Sinai.
Every week, a portion of the Torah is traditionally read four times. The primary reading is on Shabbat or Saturday morning. There is a smaller reading on Saturday afternoons, and on Mondays and Thursdays (the ancient market days), which would preview the upcoming Saturday morning’s selection.
Every Saturday on Shabbat, the weekly Torah section (also called a “parashah” or “sidrah”) is read. It is divided into seven sections, or aliyot. One of these sections is customarily read by the Bar or Bat Mitzvah of that Shabbat, which is called an aliyah. On weeks when there is no Bat or Bar Mitzvah, the Torah is read by the rabbi or the ba-al keriah, (a person especially trained in reading the Torah).
Starting on the Shabbat after Rosh Hashanah, the reading begins with the book of Genesis and the story of Creation. It then continues every week, until the following Rosh Hashanah arrives. Then the Torah reading starts over again. However, in some liberal synagogues, the Torah is read over a three-year cycle before starting over again.
In order to maintain a traditional element of my Bat Mitzvah, I want to share a story with you from this week’s Torah portion, Chukat. (Numbers 19:1 – 22:1). Although most of the portion seemed random and strange, there was one particular story which stood out as both interesting and inspiring.
It starts out with the Israelites wandering through the desert under the leadership of Moses, with siblings Aaron and Miriam. Life is hard. Some along the way complain to Moses, saying “they wish they never had left Egypt in the first place”. They’re surviving the scorching heat because of prophet Miriam’s water well, which traveled with them. But then Miriam dies, and the water well dries up. Immediately people begin dying from dehydration, and desperately cry to Moses for help. Moses then prays to God for help. God answers, and tells Moses to ‘speak to the rock and water will flow’. Instead of speaking to it however, he hits the rock, twice, and water then gushes out. For this, Moses is punished, for disobeying and disrespecting God’s orders. The punishment God chooses is a severe one. Moses is forbidden from entering the Promised Land, despite the 40 years and endless energy he’d invested, ever since leaving Egypt.
So here’s the big question: Why did Moses hit the rock, when clearly God had told him to speak to it? This is a man who had dedicated most of his life to serving and following God’s exact commands. Why would he suddenly choose to defy God? It doesn’t add up!
Right before this episode, something shocking and devastating had occurred in Moses’s life. He had suffered the loss of his older sister, Miriam. Miriam understood Moses like no one else. She was his protector, and his rock. When Pharaoh declared that all newborn Jewish boys would be killed, and Moses’s mother placed the baby in a basket in the Nile, Miriam stood by to see what would happen to him. When Moses was discovered, Miriam came forward and offered to find a Hebrew woman, in fact, Moses’s mother, to nurse him.
Later in the Exodus, on account of Miriam’s merit, a well of water, (“Miriam’s Well”), accompanied the people on their journey. But when Miriam died, her water well dried up, bringing death to the community. In addition to dealing with the sudden loss of his sister, Moses was faced with this urgent and deadly crisis. He had no time to grieve Miriam’s death. I believe his unaddressed grief over his sister’s death is an excellent explanation for his rage when he struck the rock. He lost control, exploded with anger, and attacked the rock, rather than speaking to it as God had directed. What do we see from this episode? That when we don’t effectively mourn our losses, we create more symptoms.
The word ‘sad-mad’ was cleverly described in the very funny movie ‘Home’ (2015), by the Boove alien “Oh”. After landing on earth with his people to take over the planet, the Boove Oh notices his new human companion is clearly ‘sad-mad’ when he says to her, “So, your ‘My-Mom’…is a very important humansperson to you, more important than others. To not belong with her causes you being sad…. But recent moments ago, you are kicking on me and yelling. Which is seeming more to be mad than sad….So, …you are sad-mad. …Humans are more complicated than it said in the pamphlet.”
If we don’t heal a wound, it festers. This reminds us that unresolved issues don’t magically disappear when we ignore them. They only multiply and grow larger. It’s like if I stop brushing my teeth, my friends will likely stand far away from me because of my bad breath, and I’ll develop cavities. If I don’t get enough sleep, I’ll be cranky the next day and won’t be able to concentrate and learn. There’s a cost to not taking care of our needs and our responsibilities. When we as a society don’t empathize with injustice, it festers and we don’t have peace. In our country, when people with legitimate suffering are not heard, it leads to more suffering. For true healing to happen we must listen and be aware of ourselves and others around us.
Like Miriam, I am the older sister, to Nash and Micah. I may not have wandered the desert with them for forty years, but I have shared a tiny bedroom with them all their lives, and let me tell you- it is a tiny bit similar! But I would also protect them if necessary, and love them just as Miriam loved Moses. I fully understand how Miriam felt the need to save her brother’s life and to always watch over him.
I also find this Torah portion a little funny, because I picture the Israelites as a bunch of tough looking adults, yet complaining, whining, kvetching, and acting like kids in front of their already mad and over-stressed parent, Moses!
When Moses was instructed to speak to the rock to obtain water, he hit it instead, and so was prohibited from entering the promised land of Israel. I believe Moses’s punishment was excessive, and was disproportionate to Moses’s somewhat disobedient behavior. Especially because the behavior was actually a consequence of suffering, and Moses’s grief over his sister’s death. I think that in addition to grief, Moses’s anger may also have arisen in part because he was fed up with the constant kvetching of his people. However, their whining and kvetching also traces back to Miriam’s death, because they had suddenly lost their only source of water, and they only lost their water when Miriam’s well dried up, and it only dried up when she died. Therefore, again, Moses’s anger ultimately was a response to the death of his sister, Miriam, and I believe he should not have been forbidden from leading his people into the land of Israel.
Full disclosure- the process of studying and analyzing my Torah portion, and writing this essay, was a bit torturous. If you know me, then you know how much I hate writing! How long and dragged out the process can be for me! However, looking back, I realize now I’ve learned so much about my Jewish ancestors and my Jewish culture. Looking specifically at my Torah portion, I learned in more depth about the importance of anger management! As well as the importance of ‘observing shiva’ (or at least taking time to reflect on one’s grief and to process it). As for sibling relationships, I’ve learned a lot from Miriam’s helpfulness towards Moses, and how hard she worked to save and protect her brother. In the end, her efforts truly paid off, as saving her brother enabled the freedom of the Jews in Egypt, and eventually their entrance into the Promised Land. This reminds me of the importance of protecting our families and our loved ones.