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Parashat Chayei Sarah: Teen Dvar Torah

As Beth Ami’s Jewish Cultural School Director, I have had the privilege of being Katya Hirsch’s mentor as she prepared for her Bat Mitzvah. At Beth Ami, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs are special opportunities to reinforce Jewish identity, humanistic behavior, and community solidarity. Rabbi Wine, the founder of Humanistic Judaism wrote, “Thirteen is an important age for both boys and girls in our culture. It no longer marks the advent of adulthood. But it does indicate the arrival of adolescence. Thirteen is a perfect time for a public ceremony, not to celebrate the approach of adulthood but to mark the reality of adolescence.”  I am proud to share Katya’s D’var Torah with the Boulder Jewish community.

The piece I read in Hebrew from the Torah is about Rebecca, one of the Jewish matriarchs and leaders of the Jewish people. Following the tradition of Beth Ami, Colorado Congregation for Humanistic Judaism, my mitzvah mentor Lenore Kingston asked me to choose my own Torah portion to study, a portion that would connect with my life.

Lenore began my mitzvah training by having me take Gallup’s strength finder test developed by Tom Rath. I worked my way through the questionnaire and several pages of activities. I learned that I have the strengths of caring, dependability and relating. So, I looked through the Torah to find a passage that reflected those strengths. I chose the section on Rebecca at the Well because I connected to the kindness, compassion, and generosity brought out in the story. Kindness, compassion and generosity blend together in the Jewish value of chessed. I think chessed is extremely important in life.

The Hebrew verses I read are the well known story of Rebecca at the Well which is part of a longer parsha Genesis 23:1–25:18 traditionally called Chayei Sarah, “The life of Sarah”. It is called this not because it is about the life of Sarah, but because it begins with the words “The life of Sarah was 100 years, 20 years and 7 years”. Strangely, the parsha actually starts by talking about Sarah’s death and goes into details of her burial. Eventually the parsha tells the story of Rebecca and how Isaac, son of Abraham finds and marries her.

After his wife, Sarah, died, Abraham, who was very old and wealthy, said to his oldest servant, “Swear to me that you will find a wife for my son in the community where I grew up.” The servant asks, “What if the woman wants to stay in that town? Then I will need to leave your son there”. Abraham says, “No, you may not leave my son there because I promised God that I would have my children here.” The servant swears that he will do as told.

The servant takes ten camels and some presents and goes off to the city of Nahor. He brings the camels to the city well at nighttime, because that is when women come out to get water. He has the camels kneel down by the well, and, as predicted, the women come out. The servant thinks to himself, “When I ask for some water and the woman says, ‘Yes, I will give you water, and I will give your camels water too,’ that will be the woman for Isaac.”

Before the servant even finishes his question, Rebecca, a very beautiful young woman, quickly fills up her pitcher of water at the well. She gives him water and then offers to give water to his camels until they are done drinking. Rebecca puts water into the camel trough again and again until the animals are no longer thirsty. That’s a lot of water.

The servant is impressed by Rebecca. He gives her gold rings and bracelets and asks if he can stay at her father Bethuel’s house. Her brother, Leban, comes out and is impressed by the the rings and bracelets. The servant comes into the house and is given food. The family also gives food to the camels. The servant explains that Isaac comes from a wealthy family and that he has been sent out to find a wife from this town. He goes on to explain what happened at the well, and how he feels that Rebecca should be Isaac’s wife.

Bethuel agrees to the marriage, and the servant gives the family gold and silver. He also gives Rebecca more gold and silver. The parents ask for Rebecca to stay a few days, but Rebecca says that she will go now. She receives a blessing from her parents and she rides off, with her servants to live with Isaac, a person she has never met!

Rebecca travels to where Isaac is working the fields. When she sees Isaac she covers herself with a veil. Together they go into what was once Isaac’s mother’s tent and get married. This helps to comfort Isaac after the death of his mother.

The section of the Talmud dealing with ethics and morals is called Pirkei Avot. One of its sayings is “Good deeds are better than wise sayings.” I think this is an interesting saying, because it is a wise saying that encourages us to do good deeds instead of just saying good sayings. I think it also relates to the story of Rebecca because you can say all the good things you want, but to be a good person you need to actually do good things.

Rebecca did not just say the servant could have the water and that his camels could drink too. She actually put out the effort to give the water to the servant and his camels. This was no easy task. The servant had 10 camels and Rebecca could not just turn on the tap to get water, she had to bring the water up from the well over and over again until the camels were done drinking. I looked on the Internet and found that a thirsty Arabian camel can drink up to 25 gallons of water at a time. That means for 10 camels Rebecca needed 250 gallons of water, not counting the water the servant drank. That is a lot of work! From this I can see Rebecca must have been a strong young woman who was generous and did not run away from doing a good thing just because it was difficult.

In the story the servant does not judge Rebecca by how she looks or how she speaks. He is interested in what she does. It is what she does that defines her as a good person. Rebecca does not know that she is being judged, however she behaves kindly because that is part of her nature. She behaves as she would on any other day. We are always being tested or judged by the people around us, and we always have opportunities to demonstrate our compassion and generosity. Like Abraham’s servant decides, what is on the inside is more important than what is on the outside. It is sort of like Martin Luther King Jr. saying we shouldn’t judge people by the color of their skin but instead by the content of their character. What you do is an expression of your character. Chessed is important both because being kind is the right thing to do and because others will see you in a better light when you are kind to them.

When I was in kindergarten in Georgia, I went to a small private school where we were not allowed to have sweets in our lunches. Sometimes my mom would give me two or three cookies in my lunch box to eat after school. When school was over and we were waiting for our parents in the play yard, I would share the cookies with my classmates. I would break them into little tiny pieces so that everyone who wanted some could have some. Sometimes I wouldn’t even eat any myself, I would just give them all away. The teachers commented to my mother about how generous I was and that they admired this quality in me. I was judged to be generous by my actions. I was rewarded for my generosity by gaining the admiration of my teachers.

Rebecca is a wonderful biblical role model. She was strong, kind and generous. As a Humanistic Bat Mitzvah, I was also asked to choose a modern hero to study. My grandmother, Marjorie Abraham is a hero to me because she was kind, thoughtful, patient and loving. I admired her so much, when I was 3, I named one of my dolls after her.

She worked with kids for most of her life. She was a teacher of children with mild learning disabilities. In retirement, she read books to kids at a library outreach program. The children would listen to some number of books and then would get to choose one of them to keep. When I was younger and could not read well myself, she would read Babar the elephant books to me when I visited her in Berkeley, California. Before my sister and I would visit, she would go to the library and pick out a bunch of books for us to read while we were there. My Grandmother would often pick out stories that she remembered reading to my mom when she was little.

I am interested in people who work with children and are kind and giving. I came across the children’s author Patricia Polacco. I looked around my house and noticed that we have quite a few of her books, and that I had read and enjoyed most of them. My favorite is My Rotten Redheaded Older Brother, a story about sibling competition. I feel connected to that book, because my sister and I have similar issues. The story shows that even though siblings can give each other a hard time, they still care deeply about one another. Patricia Polacco clearly values kindness.

I also remember the book Mrs Katz and Tush because every year on Sukkot my mom puts it out on our coffee table. The story, that takes place during Sukkot, is about two very different people coming together and forming a friendship. The old Jewish woman and the young black boy find similarities in their heritages. This book really shows Patricia Polacco’s value of compassion. This book reminds me of my best friend Sofie. We are different in almost all respects, yet we are as close as can be. We have different cultural backgrounds, different religious beliefs, she is a vegetarian and I am not. Even so, we are as close as family.

When I began researching Patricia Polacco, I found that I had many similarities to her. Like Patricia Polacco I am of Russian and Ukrainian descent on one of my parents side and part Irish as well. Also like Patricia Polacco, I am dyslexic, except I learned to read in first grade and she learned to read when she was in the 5th grade. She did not know she was dyslexic until she was 14, but I have pretty much always known that I am.

Patricia Polacco was born in Lansing, Michigan on July 11 in 1944. After her parents divorced she lived in Union City, Michigan for the summers and went to Oakland, California for the school year. Her book Thank You, Mr. Faulkner describes the teacher who first noticed her dyslexia and tells the story of how she learned to read. Even before she learned how to read she was an amazing artist. She said, “So when I would draw, that’s when kids would get out of their seats and stand behind me and go, ‘Wow, you can really draw.'” She went on to earn an M.F.A. and a Ph. D. in art history, specializing in Russian and Greek painting and iconographic history. She worked as a museum consultant for the restoration of icons, and she traveled many times to Russia.

Polacco didn’t begin writing children’s books until she was 41 years old. Her stories come from her family and childhood experiences. Some of the stories are from the tales her Russian grandmother, Babushka, told her. Spending time telling stories was something her family valued. She once said, “My fondest memories are of sitting around a stove or open fire, eating apples and popping corn, while listening to the old ones tell glorious stories about their homeland and the past.”

Once she became a well known author, she started doing many projects involving children. Some of her projects were in the inner city doing things that promote peaceful resolution of conflict. She also was involved in projects that encourage art and literacy. Now, she lives on a farm in Michigan and continues to write new books. Sometimes she visits schools and does author talks. I saw an Internet video of one of her author talks where she talked to a group of kids about the importance of reading and the importance of getting along peacefully.

Patricia Polacco has written about 50 children’s books and received over 20 awards for her work – including the Children’s Literature and Social Responsibility Award and several Parents Choice Honors. She is an inspiring human being who clearly values kindness, generosity and compassion. Learning about Patricia Polacco inspired me to do something with children for my Mitzvah project. With the help of my Bat Mitzvah mentor, Lenore, I have started running our Jewish Cultural School preschool class. I do the lesson planning and collect the materials. Julia Litz, a Beth Ami student, has been helping me lead the class. To go along with my Bat Mitzvah value, I choose to focus on a year long theme of chessed, kindness.

The main layout of our class sessions is: opening mitzvah project, storytime, craft, game, sandbox play and Hebrew Yoga if there is time. In the first semester, at the beginning of each class, the preschoolers frosted cookies and gave them to everyone in the congregation. Frosting the cookies each class was actually a very important part of my program. It was our first mitzvah project. A mitzvah is a good deed. When the children frosted the cookies they didn’t get to eat them right a way. This is a challenging thing for small children. Before they could have a cookie themselves, they would offer the cookies to other members of the congregation. In this way, the children were practicing kindness by giving something away before having any themselves. I believe the children enjoyed frosting and giving away the cookies because they seemed excited to do it, and they always had big smiles on their faces when they were serving people.

To learn more about mitzvah projects that educators can do with children, Lenore invited Julia and me to attend an 18 Pomegranates workshop called “A Service Learning Toolbox”. The workshop was educators getting together and talking about ideas for promoting tzdaka. Tzdaka can be translated as fairness, justice or charity. The keynote speaker, Rabbi Berkowitz, reminded me about a tikkum olam project that my Girl Scout troop had done previously. I decided to do this project at Beth Ami’s Jewish Cultural school’s second semester. The project expands from doing something immediate to something a little bigger.

My preschool class prepares trail mix by combining ingredients in a bowl. Then they fill snack bags with trail mix and keep them to hand out to hungry people they might see as they are driving around town with their parents. At lunchtime, other members of the congregation fill snack bags that they can also hand out to people on the street. I like that the preschoolers kicked off a Mitzvah project that our whole congregation participates in.

Let me tell you a little more about the class I teach. After the opening activity, it is story time. Julia, or I, reads a story to the class that features the value kindness. One of the first books we read was The Bee Tree by Patricia Polacco. I choose it because it was about honey and it was close to Rosh Hashonah. When we finish a book we always do a craft that symbolizes the story in some way. For The Bee Tree, I had the kids paint cardboard cutouts of bees and beehives. After that, we play a game. Whenever possible I like to play a cooperative game. Cooperation is an important part of kindness. I have enjoyed coming up with all the lessons for the classes and thinking of how to connect the values and themes.

The value of chessed is important to me. I find that it comes up in my life over and over.

I chose to go to Platt CHOICE Middle School. CHOICE stands for Community Hands On Integrated Cooperative Education. CHOICE is an amazing school because it is like a family. In my sixth grade year, within the first month, I knew everyone’s name in all three grades and now in seventh grade I feel like I am part of the CHOICE Community. Our main community building activity is Fall Trip. We go up to 100 Elk, a camp in the Rockies, for three days and have lots of fun. The main attraction is the High Ropes course where you work in groups to make it to the top of high ladders, jump from tall ledges, and work your way across wiggly bridges. On the activity “Stairway to Heaven” in my sixth grade year, my partner and I had to make it to the top of a ladder where the rungs get farther and farther apart as you go up. We had to coopreate and help each other to climb each rung all the way up. The values of kindness and cooperations are important in CHOICE.

I go to Aikido three times a week. Aikido is a Japanese Martial Art. It may not be Jewish, but it teaches chessed. Aikido is a way of defending yourself without hurting your attacker. The word Aikido means “the way of harmonious spirit.” When doing Aikido I need to blend with my attacker instead of forcefully attacking back. Instead of hurting your opponent, you are supposed to … “cradle them like a baby”, that’s what my Sensei says. When I am on the mat, I have to be kind to the other students and make sure they are not hurt when I am practicing my techniques.  At the end of every class we bow and thank each other for our training. From beginning to end we are practicing chessed.

I have been a Girl Scout since I was in Kindergarten.  The girl scout law says “I will do my best to be honest and fair, friendly and helpful, considerate and caring, courageous and strong, and responsible for what I say and do and to respect myself and others, respect authority, use resources wisely, make the world a better place, and be sisters to every girl scout.”  What a clear statement of cheesed!   All of these things in my life, show different aspects of kindness.  All of them add to my feeling that chessed is an important value for everyone all the time.

I am a Humanistic Jew.  I believe being a Humanistic Jew means that I have responsibility for my life.  I will succeed in life because of my own decisions and my own strength.  There is no overpowering, all-knowing being running it for me.  If I need support, I turn to the people around me whose opinions I value.  I think life is about personal dignity and self-esteem.   I believe in the history, culture and future of the Jewish people.

About Lenore Kingston

I am the Jewish Cultural School Director at Beth Ami CCHJ. Beth Ami is a welcoming community where we connect to Jewish past, celebrate Jewish present, and link to Jewish future through a humanistic philosophy. www.bethami.com

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