I’m pleased to share John Hanson’s dvar torah, Parashat Noach, from his recent bar mitzvah at Congregation Bonai Shalom.
By John Solomon Hanson
I am Jewish. I’ve been raised in a Jewish home, belonging to an amazing Synagogue, attending Hebrew school for a long time…learning from dedicated teachers, studying with a great tutor, and receiving advice and direction from a wise Rabbi. I celebrate Jewish holidays and follow Jewish traditions and I am now undergoing the ancient Jewish ceremony of the Bar Mitzvah – the taking on the responsibilities of Jewish adulthood.
However…there is more to me than my Jewish heritage. I am Jewish, descended from the Jews of Galicia in Eastern Europe and before them descended from our ancestors who lived in ancient Israel. But, I am also English, Irish, and American Indian. My English ancestors arrived in what they called the New World, on the famous ship, the Mayflower. My Native American ancestors, the Mandan Sioux, were already here. My Irish ancestors arrived in the 19th and 20th centuries.
My Aunt Helen has done research on our family genealogy and I am amazed at how many different family name and how many different cultures make up my history. Do you know that 35 million Americans are descended from the people who arrived on the Mayflower? Really, it’s not that big a distinction. Those people had big families and their children and grandchildren had big families and so on.
That means that I am related to thousands of people I have never met. In fact, yesterday I met a whole part of my family – cousins that I had never met, before they arrived in Boulder for my Bar Mitzvah. My mom’s cousin, Courtney, found my mom on Ancestry.com, less than two years ago, and now, here they are, our cousins. At the same time there are people I have met in my life who shared a common ancestor with me – and neither of us knew it! We never knew that we were part of the same extended family.
But what you’re all wondering is, where is he going with this? As most of you know, my Parsha is the Book of Noah. And when I read this Parsha I realized something that I had never thought about before: I realized that according to the Torah every person on this planet is descended from Noah’s family. Jews believe that we are all Noah’s sons and daughters.
No matter what religion we practice, no matter what we look like or what language we speak, or what traditions we hold dear, we all came from one family on one lonely boat, desperately searching for land and trusting in G-d.
To me, this is an important lesson that most of the world seems to have forgotten. In Hebrew, Bnei Noah, or “Children of Noah,” is a common term used to describe all human beings, and these rabbis of the Talmud say (Tractate Sanhedrin 56b) that there are seven halachot, or laws, that apply to all the Bnei Noah which include belief in one god, no murder, no theft, establishing courts of justice, and no eating the flesh of a live animal. The rabbis taught that all humans who follow these seven halachot are righteous people in the eyes of G-d. My point is that in Judaism, all human beings are descendants of Noah, and that there are certain obligations that go along with this.
Right now, there are certain people constantly at work, who are trying to get us to hate one another for their own advantage. For political power or money, these people want us to fear each other and to despise each other’s differences. We see this in New York City where people want to stop a Muslim community center from occupying an existing building in a neighborhood two city blocks from the World Trade Center. Of course, there is already an actual Mosque four blocks from the World Trade Center. Apparently, that distance is all right.
These same people are trying to get Americans to hate and fear immigrants – in a nation of immigrants. And I am not talking about those citizens who are, rightfully, concerned about the security of our borders and respect for our laws – of course we have the right to enforce our laws. I’m talking about the type of people (and politicians) who, not that long ago, were calling for the expulsion of the Jews, the Chinese, the Irish, and the Italians – because they were not “real Americans.”
We see this in the Middle East where people of good intentions are trying to start a peace process in Israel with the Palestinian people. Yet others are doing everything they can, including the murder of the innocent, to keep that from happening. And their message is always the same: you can’t trust those other people. They are evil. They are not like us. They do not love. They do not have families. They don’t value human life. They are Others — they are Things.
I believe that one of the lessons of my parsha is that G-d gave humanity another chance. That G-d started humanity over from one family and that we have forgotten what G-d did for us. We are all Noah’s sons and daughters. When we left the ark we went forth and filled up the whole world. But we remained one family. The Jews, Christians, and Muslims are the children of Abraham, but all of humanity are the sons and daughters of Noah. We forget this at our peril. Perhaps the memory of our ancestor Noah and the memory of the flood can help us to fight back against the evil forces that are trying to get us to hate one another.
To me, that is one of the lessons of Noah.
Having this realization as a Bar Mitzvah is a relevant reminder of the obligations that I have. Becoming a Jewish adult means taking more personal responsibility to keep the mitzvot, or various commandments, the ones specific to Jews, and the ones that are for all humanity. As a Bar Mitzvah, I hope to make people realize this important message: that we are all one family of human beings, regardless of the fact that we are different from each other in many ways, and we can live with one another in peace if we will accept that basic truth – the truth of the story of Noah.
Most of us know the story of the rainbow – that G-d set his bow in the sky to serve as a sign of the covenant (the breet) between G-d and humanity that the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. Judaism teaches us that we are all connected, whether we acknowledge it or not. The rainbow has also become an important symbol of acceptance and tolerance of our diversity, so when we see a rainbow it reminds us of God’s promise but also, that the whole spectrum of cultures, races and religions are in that rainbow! The next time you see a rainbow, please remember the story of Noah, and that we are all Noah’s children.
Now, even though G-d promised Noah that there will never be a flood to destroy all flesh, but there still is flood danger of a lesser kind, and my Bar Mitzvah Project was to bring flood awareness to Bonai Shalom, because Bonai Shalom’s building is in a high risk flood area, because it is so close to the creek. I met with a city flood engineer, and I am completing a report for the synagogue’s board. This report describes the flood risk, and makes recommendations about flood preparations, and how to conduct emergency evacuations if necessary. I think this project fits perfectly with my Parsha Noach, as well as me stepping up to take responsible action as I become a Bar Mitzvah.
Shabbat shalom and chodesh tov!
Yasher koach, John! Boulder Jewish News encourages Bar and Bat Mitzvah students to submit their d’var torah for publication, so that the community may learn from our young adults. Information about Mitzvah/Tikkun Olam projects is also welcome. For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.