We are pleased to share Ilana Bulcacz’ D’var Torah on Parashat Acharei Mot from her recent bat mitzvah at Congregation Nevei Kodesh.
by Ilana Bulcacz
Thank you all for coming. I am here today to show you all what I have been working and complaining about for the past year. I have worked hard to be able to read from the Torah in order to continue a family tradition. From my Aunt Ilene who was the first girl in Denver to have a bat- mitzvah, to my grandparents Harvey and Judy, who started their own congregation with their friends, to my other grandparents, June and Jaime, who worked to maintain a strong jewish identity while living in Augusta, Georgia in the 1970’s, I will now take their place to continue this tradition.
Being Jewish may mean being a minority, but it also means being special. It comes with many perks, the biggest being the relationship that I have developed with my family going through this process.
I knew from the first day I read a hebrew letter when I was ten that if I was going to have a bat mitzvah it would be a lot of work, yet it was something worth working for. I didn’t always want to work, and it still is a pain to sit down and work on it, but fake it ‘till you make it, right? I wanted to have a bat mitzvah to show people, but mostly show myself, that if I put my mind to something and work hard enough , I could do it.
What’s the Torah? The Torah is a handwritten Hebrew scroll. I don’t fully understand its significance yet. To me, the Torah is something that provides a framework for living, gives laws, and also brings people together, because everywhere in the world all the Jews are reading the same passages. The Torah is also intimidating. It has these rules that I don’t always agree with which makes it hard to think of it as holy. But I only know a very small part of the Torah.
Today, I will be chanting the parsha Acharei Mot from the Torah. I have learned how to read and sing the hebrew parsha, but I have also worked on understanding the meaning of the story. In Acharei Mot, we learn that Aharon, the Kohen Gadol – or High Priest, has the honor of entering the Inner Sanctuary of Mishkan, once a year. This holy occasion occurred on the 10th day of the month of Tishrei. Today, Jews know this day as Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year. Yom Kippur is more than a holiday; it is a day which we separate from all other days in several ways. First of all, it is a time to atone for our mistakes of the past year. We do this by fasting, praying, and looking deep into ourselves, to see where we have missed the mark, which is a sacrifice in itself. Although this is how Yom Kippur is observed today, this is not what it looked like in ancient times. Let me tell you about what the very first Yom Kippur looked like.
In order for Aharon to act as an agent to atone for all of the Israelites’ sins (or as I like to say, mistakes,) he had to be dressed in special clothing. First, he purified himself in a Mikvah – a ritual cleansing bath. Once he was cleansed, he was dressed in a sacramental white tunic. He was instructed to take two goats and one ram for a burnt offering to bring himself closer to God. Before he could attempt to atone for the sins of the Israelites, he first had to look within and atone for himself and his family. I think it is important that Aharon started with himself, so he would be honest and could do his work from a place of integrity.
After the sacrifice of the ram, he took two goats to stand before God at the entrance of the Communal Tent of Meeting. One goat would be slaughtered, the other would to be sent out to the wilderness to the mysterious Azazel. Azazel is the unknown. It is understood as a negative energy, but is still respected in the Torah.
Long ago, the sacrifice of an animal was significant because everyone saw the animal and how it was killed. Today we have it easier. As Rabbi David Zaslow pointed out to me, today people eat animals regularly without thinking what the animals went through. I wonder if the way we regard animals today could be considered worthy of a place in Azazel? Anyway, this animal sacrifice was significant enough for Aharon to atone for the Israelites mistakes. Luckily, today we don’t have an animal to send out to the desert to atone for us. The difference today is we have to do the improvement of ourselves with personal work. It is a modern day sacrifice. In biblical times they had scapegoats, which were actual goats. All the mistakes (sins) of the Israelites were cast upon the goat which was left to wander through Azazel. Today we still have scapegoats, but they are people such as the Jews in Nazi Germany or gays in homophobic societies. It is the hebrew year 5774 and people still look to attach blame to others for their own shortcomings or mistakes.
As I have been reading this parsha, I have started to think about how many things people did in biblical times aren’t acceptable now, like animal sacrifice, but modern forms of unacceptable acts like scapegoating continue. Some lessons I have learned with the parsha have shown many themes that should be noticed today. I have now had the opportunity to sit down and think about these things on my own with some amazing mentors and try to understand for myself.
The most important thing that I want to remember about this parsha, is how the Israelites value forgiveness. No matter how big of a mistake or a sin, the Israelites forgave each other and taught that you should always forgive yourself.
My bat mitzvah experience has been very eye opening. I have never had any religious outlook before my bat mitzvah I didn’t know any other types of Judaism besides what my family has shown me inside our home, which I am very grateful for. Throughout this process I have rediscovered things about myself through old stories that my parents have shared with me, that, believe it or not, aren’t so different from the stories in my parsha. One story in particular was from when I was just starting elementary school. Back then, I went by the name Lani. Lani spelled backward is Inal. My grandma Judy would call me Inal whenever I was bad or did something wrong. I realized that even cute kids have a little Azazel inside of them, the mischievous, trouble-making side. This doesn’t make the kids bad, it just reminds me that there is always work to make yourself the best person you can be.
Yasher koach, Ilana! 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.