We are pleased to share Andy Better’s D’var Torah on Parashat Ki Tisa from his recent bar mitzvah at Congregation Nevei Kodesh.
by Andy Better
Shabbat Shalom, and welcome to my Bar Mitzvah.*
Bienvenidos y muchas gracias por venir a mi Bar Mitzvah.*
It is a great honor for me to have friends and family here today from faraway places such as Ecuador, Argentina, Canada, Los Angeles, Miami, Denver, and even Boulder.* I’m very glad to see all of you here today. Thank you for being here as I begin my journey into manhood.*
This week’s Shabbat is called Shabbat Chol Hamoed Pesach, or the “Intermediate Shabbat of Passover.” It is a special Shabbat, not just because it is my Bar Mitzvah,* but also because it falls in the middle of Pesach. In this Shabbat, Jews all over the world interrupt the normal cycle of readings from the Torah, to read passages meant to remind us of hope, freedom, and God’s love.* It also happens to be the day before Easter. Its very coincidental to have this overlap of holidays during my barmitzvah. Today, I will read a portion of Parasha Ki Tisa, in which I will recite the thirteen “midot”, or thirteen attributes of God – I will say more about that in a few minutes.*
You are probably wondering why I chose to become a Bar Mitzvah. Getting to this point has not been an easy process. And “oooy vayyy” did I have to study a lot.* To get all this done, I had to leave aside many things during this past year, like skiing on some weekends, soccer games, and even hanging out with my friends.* So, why do it, you ask? Well, for a number of reasons (apart from the party and the presents, of course.)*
First, I saw my brothers and cousins become Bar Mitzvah, and I saw them change, for the better, during the process. They seemed to mature and become more responsible. I also want to experience that. Second, many of my ancestors have been Bar Mitzvad, and I want to follow in their footsteps and continue the chain. Third, and probably most important, and what makes all of the hard work really worth it, is that I feel that by doing my Bar Mitzvah I purify my relationship with God, and strengthen my connection to Hashem and the Jewish tradition.*
Some of you may not know this, but only a few years ago I converted to Judaism,* because my Mom’s side of the family is not Jewish. But becoming a Jew was not an easy decision. Jews have had to suffer much injustice and violence in the past, and there is still a lot of anti-Semitism in the world today. So why become Jewish?* The answer, for me, is easy. I have always felt Jewish, as far back as I can remember. I feel that being Jewish brings me one step closer to God, and by living a Jewish life I can keep that connection alive.* I must always remember how my ancestors have brought up generations through generations of Jews until I appeared on this never-ending timeline.*
As I said, I will be chanting a portion of Ki Tisa from the Torah. The Torah is a scroll that is the five books of Moses, written on animal skin. It is written with absolutely no vowels or punctuation, so reading it is almost like putting together a puzzle. You have to really understand what you are reading.* To me, the Torah is this massive womb nurturing and protecting it’s baby, Judaism. It is the source of Judaism.* The Torah tells stories of love, shame, family dynamics, hatred, happiness, greed, and spirituality.*
Now, I’m going to talk about my parasha, Ki Tisa. First, I should say that all Jewish people around the world today are studying the same parasha that we are about to study.* Ki Tisa, which most translations translate to “when you take” really means to “raise up”, or to “bring up.” Ki Tisa starts with a great census, a census where every person was asked to “bring up” their soul to account, by paying a half shekel. God chose a half shekel to express that one is not complete without another.* The portion of the Torah that I will read today goes on to tell about Moses’s second time up in Mount Sinai. Yes, he had to climb it twice to receive the Ten Commandments. He also went up Mount Sinai to ask God to forgive the Israelites for a powerful sin.
You see, there are always ups and downs in every story. The Jews had a huge connection and spiritual high with God when he brought them out of slavery, but they lost it. They lost faith, and when Moses was on Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments for the first time, their impatience led them to create the golden calf, and to worship an idol. They just could not maintain that level of spiritual purity. As soon as Moses came down from Mount Sinai, he saw this, and immediately threw the stones with the Ten Commandments to the ground, shattering them into a million pieces.* God told Moses that He was going to wipe out the Israelites. He was full of anger. Moses urged God not to. He persuaded Him not to destroy them. From this, Moses and God’s relationship grew even stronger.* They transformed their anger into something really special between the two. The fire of their anger became a very deep connection – maybe even Love!*
The part I am going to be reading shortly refers to the story when God, having decided to forgive the Israelites, tells Moses that he must go up to the mountain a second time, to receive the “final draft” of the Ten Commandments this time.* While on the mountain, God reveals himself to Moses through thirteen “midot” or attributes that all have to do with compassion, patience, and forgiveness.* These are thirteen qualities that we should all strive for. Especially giving out random acts of kindness. For example, Just opening a door for someone is a random act of kindness.* In the 13 Midot, God states that He visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children. According to Hasidic interpretation this means that “God holds parents responsible for not giving their children a proper religious and moral upbringing.” I think that my parents have followed this, through a decision made more than a decade ago, and a decision made just a year ago, which was to set me in the midst of this process of becoming a man. And I will have to thank them endlessly for this.
This brings me to the subject of Gematria. As some of you know, I am a numbers person* Gematria is a numerology system. It assigns a numerical value to every hebrew letter. For example, the hebrew word, Ahavah, translates to the word love In English. If you sum up the value of its letters, aleph, hey, vet, and hey, it equals 13, like the thirteen attributes of God. The Hebrew word for one is ehad, and its numeric value also equals 13. * If you add Love and One together, you get 26, which is the value of yud hay vav hay, the name of God.* To me, this means that God is one love (you see, Bob Marley had it right all along).* It also means that His attributes sum up to one source, and that source is love. It all starts and ends with love.* When I heard that you wrap part of the knots on the tzitzit of the tallit 13 times, that number 13 became even more meaningful to me. Therefore, the tallit that I am wearing intensifies my intention of living a life full of love according to the number 13.*
One of the crucial moments in the Torah occurs during this parasha: the moment when God reveals the Torah to our people.* God orders Moses to assemble all his people at the foot of Mount Sinai, and He descends as a cloud of fire and lightning, and proclaims the Ten Commandments to the people. According to midrash, all Jewish souls were present at this very moment on Mount Sinai, even your souls and my own. A few months ago, I asked Reb Zalman, the founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, about this. I specifically wanted to know if my soul was present at Mount Sinai because I wasn’t born a Jew, I converted to Judaism. What Reb Zalman said has stuck with me for a long time. He said that everyone’s soul was there, even those belonging to people in the process of becoming Jews.* He explained that he believes in reincarnation, and that after the Holocaust there were many souls that were afraid to come back to the world as Jews, because they had suffered so much for it.* He said that there was still Judaism in their hearts and souls so, they converted to Judaism, just like me. This is something that I think about all the time now, and will continue to think about it until I fully understand it.*
I’d like to say that my experience through this Bar Mitzvah process is a crazy story. I had about eight different teachers because so many things have been changing around Nevei Kodesh. First, Reb Tirzah decided to retire, Reb Gavriel, who was my brother’s tutor, left town after my third class with him. In addition, I finished the Crossing the River Program a year ago. Meanwhile, I wanted to play the ukulele and the oboe in my Bar Mitzvah. So apart from those three lessons with Reb Gavriel, I had my tutor,* my Torah teacher,* Haftorah teacher,* ukulele teacher, oboe coach,* meetings with Reb David,* etc, to name only a few.* Not that this was all bad, but it did get a little overwhelming sometimes. On the other hand, I did get to connect with a lot of great people, and get many different perspectives on my parasha, the process, and even on myself.*
Yasher koach, Andy! 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.