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Teen Dvar Torah – Parashat Masei

We are pleased to share Talia Amaru-Kapantais’ Dvar Torah on Parshat Masei from her recent bat mitzvah at Congregation Bonai Shalom.

by Talia Amaru-Kapantais

Journeys

It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”

I found this quote online, but bizarrely, as I was doing my research, both Ursula Leguin and Ernest Hemingway came up as writers of this quote! This quote stood out to me because it ties together the parsha and the theme that connects it to my life. The parsha is Mas’ei, and it is about the journeys that the Israelites make, traveling to 42 different places. This number, 42, seems to have a symbolic value in Judaism.

The ve’ahavta is 42 words. The most important journey that we all go on is the trip from birth to death. The Shema is the first prayer that we are taught and the last prayer that we say before death. The Bal ShemTov, the 18th century charismatic founder of the Hasidic movement, had teachings that there were 42 stages of life. The Shema is an important symbol representing the journey that every single person in this room is making at this very moment: The journey of life.

There are many debates about why these 42 places are named in the Torah so specifically. Maimonides, a Spanish commentator; Rashi, a French commentator; and Sforno, an Italian commentator; all declare that Moses, one of the greatest and most powerful prophets, declared it necessary to write down these 42 places. Rashi explains that the Jews were not traveling non-stop. There were periods of rest and settlement. This means that the Jews made lives for themselves wherever they went. Jews are people who record their history by writing it all down. It is important to write down every detail so that it can be passed down to next generations. Rashi also states that God intended for the Jews to have a record of their journeys. If God wanted a record of these 42 places, that meant that they were important and not to be forgotten. Maimonides argues that God was compassionate towards His people, and that God provided the Jews with water and food in a desert where they would have died without the steady hand of God. This was a great miracle, and something that needed to be documented as a major part of history. Miracles are not ever something that should easily be forgotten.

There are many names for God. Some of them are too holy to be spoken or written down. According to both the Zohar and the Talmud, one of these mystical names is exactly 42 letters. This number is extremely sacred and symbolic considering that it is a name of the creator of our universe.  Rabbi Simon Jacobson, a contemporary commentator, describes each destination in detail, and each place has its own meaning. One thing that I interpreted from this is that maybe each destination is a face of God, a small puzzle piece that makes up Hashem. If there are 42 letters in God’s name and God intended for the Jewish people to write down the name of every place, it may be because God is giving us a key. God is allowing us to wander through this maze — through God’s maze! We are going to come to dead ends, but eventually, even if it is after we have journeyed to our own 42 destinations, we will come out the other end, and will have almost completed this amazing, confusing, complicated puzzle. I say “almost,” because we will never be able to understand every aspect of God. God is infinite; we are not.

I would like to go back to the quote that I started this off with. One thing that I have taken from this Parsha is that the journey is just as important as the destination. If we did not have a record of all of the journeys that the Jews had gone on, we wouldn’t be left with much. I think that this is why each and every one of these 42 places is named. All of the trips that I have gone on in my life are made up of separatejourneys. Every journey is made up of many other journeys.  Life itself is its own journey. To state the obvious:  There’s no way we could get to our destination if we didn’t have a way to get there. I think that the reason I love traveling so much is because of the experience. It wouldn’t be the same if there was no chaos, or flight delays, or expensive cabs, or airplane seats right next to the bathroom, or renting a car and getting lost, or all the restaurants being closed when you arrive, or… you get the point. Obviously, trips would not be the same without the destination, but even when you get to the destination, there are many more journeys in store — good and bad, funny and serious, happy and depressing, exciting and terrifying. All of our memories are journeys:  moments of laughter, joy, tears, love, and bravery.  A journey is more than just one journey, more than just one thing.

This parsha has made me think about the fact that the history of the Jewish journeys make up who we are as Jewish people today. Even though we weren’t on the journey itself, it is a key part to our history. We were not on the actualtrip traveling from Egypt to Israel, but that journey is a major part of what makes up Judaism. When I was four, I went on a trip around the world, and even thoughI do not remember every single detail of that trip, I am sure that I would not be the same person if I had not gone on that journey. I have many memories from that trip, but most of what I remember is because my family has told me stories, and I feel as though they are my own memories now. Several of my recollections have been different compared to the stories I have been told. We, as Jewish people, feel as though we participated in many of the Jewish journeys because we have passed down the stories and the history throughout generations, and they have now become our own.

When we were traveling, my family settled down and stayed in the places that we went to for periods of time. We did not arrive in one place and continue moving the next day. We were able to become familiar with the countries and cities, similar to how the Jews were not traveling every day, every night, every minute. I have been on many trips throughout my life, and some of them have stuck with me more than others. On one of the trips, my family and I went to Egypt. We awoke one morning at dawn, and took a bus to the mountain that has been declared Mount Sinai. As the sun was rising, I climbed onto a camel’s back and made my way up this holy mountain. I can still remember the view, the pink and orange sky, and the glimpse of the bright yellow sun. The camel that I rode was very close to the edge of the mountain, and if I looked down, I saw a hill, covered in rocks and wild grasses. It was a strange feeling:  to think about the fact that Moses may have climbed up that same mountain, at that same time of day, to receive the Torah. When we reached the top of the mountain, the sun was fully risen and the day, like any other day, had begun. Nobody will ever know if that mountain is the same one that Moses climbed, but it doesn’t really matter. Climbing that mountain, at dawn, and reaching my way to the top, just gave me this sense of beauty, a sense of what it was like to have light shining through, and to be able to hear the lightning and see the thunder. It was another puzzle piece, another sensation. I don’t fully remember the climb, but I think that I have made this memory even more powerful connecting it to one of the most important journeys in the Torah.

My biggest journey this year has been traveling to this day. There has been tons of preparation and studying, excitement and nervousness, just for this day. One whole year, for one day! That makes it seem like it has not been worthwhile, but surely it has. I am now a Jewish woman, and this year, this day, has prepared me for the journey in front of me, and the ones to come after. A month ago, I went with my mom to Barbados  as my Bat Mitzvah trip. I love the beach, and so does my mom, so we chose a place where we would never get bored, and would never get tired of looking at that endless amount of water. My mom and sister love this quote, “this is water,” by David Foster Wallace, and I feel like I truly understand it now. This is water means that we have to be accepting of who we are in the world, and that we are just small pieces of this big world. My favorite book, “The Fault in Our Stars,” has a character named Hazel Grace who has cancer.  She falls in love with Augustus Waters, whose cancer has been in remission. He is diagnosed again, and doesn’t survive. Hazel Grace accepted the fact that she was going to die, and was not going to leave a major mark on this world, while Augustus Waters wanted to be a legacy more than anything. As Hazel Grace said, “there are an endless amount of numbers in between 0 and 1 and even more between 0 and 2.” She was thankful for her small life, and for her and Augustus’ small infinity. I learned in Barbados, and through reading “The Fault in Our Stars,” that I am so small compared to this huge planet, and that I can look out at the ocean and understand that my life is just one infinity, just one part of this infinite sea. Learning this is part of the Jewish journey that I have taken this year.

In Barbados, my mom and I visited the oldest synagogue in the Americas. It was originally built in 1654, and later rebuilt because much of it was destroyed by a hurricane, but some of the original structures remain. A man named Emerson, who was the Shammos of the shul, gave us a short history lesson on the synagogue. He took us outside to show us the cemetery that has been around longer than everybody in this room. There are still people getting buried there today, and it is unbelievable to see grave stones from the 1700s to the 2000s. A lot of the people who came to the synagogue arrived in Barbados in the year 1933 from Poland, the year Hitler came to power. My mom and I found this incredible —  these people were some of the lucky few who escaped and were able to make a life for themselves and die in peace, instead of being tortured and starved and desperate and killed, all before they could live out their own infinities.

This leads me to what I aim to do as my Bat Mitzvah project. I want to continue teaching stories of the Holocaust because the witnesses today are not going to be alive to pass on the story in the future. This transmission of memory is similar to the journeyings of the Jews. We have been given the stories of the Torah, and we have been passing them down to generations of Jews.  I want to take on the obligation of keeping the memory of the Holocaust, and the stories of the people who survived it, alive. Like the traveling of the Jews through Sinai, through 42 different places, this is a journey that needs to always be retold. I have been lucky enough to have interviewed some Holocaust survivors. I will not forget what they have told me. There is an obligation to retell the stories of the Holocaust, similar to what we do during Passover when we retell the Exodus story. This coming Spring, my mom, dad, and I are hopefully going to go to Europe to visit Holocaust memorials, museums, and concentration camps. For Pesach, we will be in Israel, passing on the story of the Jews’ journey from Egypt to Israel. My intention is to come back from this trip and share what I have learned with my community.

I would like to wrap up my D’var Torah with a quote by J.R.R Tolkien who is one of my dad’s and Rabbi Bronstein’s favorite authors:  “All that is gold does not glitter, not all those who wander are lost.”  The Jews believed that they were lost in the desert, although there was always a reason for them to be where they were. Maimonides said that the journey in the desert was intentional. Each place was an important journey in and of itself, even though the Jews may have thought that they were wandering aimlessly. My parsha teaches us that although the wandering may not glitter, the journey is as precious as gold.

Thank you and Shabbat Shalom!

Yasher koach, Talia! 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 editor@boulderjewishnews.org.

About Rabbi Marc Soloway

Marc is a native of London, England where he was an actor and practitioner of complimentary medicine before training as a rabbi in London, Jerusalem and Los Angeles. He was ordained at the Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies at the American Jewish University in 2004 and has been the the spiritual leader at Bonai Shalom in Boulder ever since. Marc was a close student of Rabbi Zalman Schechter Shalomi and received an additional smicha (rabbinic ordination) from him in 2014, just two months before he died. He has been the host and narrator of two documentary films shown on PBS; A Fire in the Forest: In Search of the Baal Shem Tov and Treasure under the Bridge: Pilgrimage to the Hasidic Masters of Ukraine. Marc is a graduate of the Institute of Jewish Spirituality, a fellow of Rabbis Without Borders, has traveled to Ghana in a rabbinic delegation with American Jewish World Service and co-chair of the Rabbinical Council and national board member of Hazon, which strives to create more sustainable Jewish communities. In 2015, Marc was among a group of 12 faith leaders honored at The White House as “Champions of Change” for work on the climate. Marc is a proud member of Beit Izim, Boulder’s Jewish goat milking co-op.

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