February 25, 2020

Finding strength, knowledge and joy in b’nai mitzvah study

News flash: The most important thing about becoming bar or bat mitzvah isn’t the party. Nor is it the presents. Nor even being able to celebrate with your family and friends — as wonderful as those things are. Nor is it even standing before the congregation and reading the prayers of the liturgy — as important as that is.

No, the most important thing about becoming bar or bat mitzvah is sharing Torah with the congregation. And why is that? Because of all Jewish skills, that is the most important one.

Here is what is true about rites of passage: You can tell what a culture values by the tasks it asks its young people to perform on their way to maturity. In American culture, you become responsible for driving, responsible for voting, and yes, responsible for drinking responsibly.

In some cultures, the rite of passage toward maturity includes some kind of trial, or a test of strength. Sometimes, it is a kind of “outward bound” camping adventure. Among the Maasai tribe in Africa, it is traditional for a young person to hunt and kill a lion. In some Hispanic cultures, 15-year-old girls celebrate the quinceañera, which marks their entrance into maturity.

What is Judaism’s way of marking maturity? It combines both of these rites of passage: responsibility and test. You show that you are on your way to becoming a responsible Jewish adult through a public test of strength and knowledge — reading or chanting Torah, and then teaching it to the congregation.

This is the most important Jewish ritual mitzvah (commandment), and that is how you demonstrate that you are, truly, bar or bat mitzvah — old enough to be responsible for the mitzvot.

What Is Torah? 

So, what exactly is the Torah? You probably know this already, but let’s review.

The Torah (teaching) consists of “the five books of Moses,” sometimes also called the chumash (from the Hebrew word chameish, which means “five”), or, sometimes, the Greek word Pentateuch (which means “the five teachings”).

Here are the five books of the Torah, with their common names and their Hebrew names.

Genesis (The beginning), which in Hebrew is Bere’shit (from the first words — “When God began to create”). Bere’shit spans the years from Creation to Joseph’s death in Egypt.

Exodus (Getting out), which in Hebrew is Shemot (These are the names). Exodus begins with the story of the Israelite slavery in Egypt. It then moves to the rise of Moses as a leader, and the Israelites’ liberation from slavery.

Leviticus (about the Levites), or, in Hebrew, Va-yikra’ (And God called). It goes into great detail about the kinds of sacrifices that the ancient Israelites brought as offerings; the laws of ritual purity; the animals that were permitted and forbidden for eating (the beginnings of the tradition of kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws) … Leviticus is basically the manual of ancient Judaism.

Numbers (because the book begins with the census of the Israelites), or, in Hebrew, Be-midbar (In the wilderness). The book describes the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness and the various rebellions against Moses.

Deuteronomy (The repetition of the laws of the Torah), or, in Hebrew, Devarim (The words). The final book of the Torah is, essentially, Moses’ farewell address to the Israelites as they prepare to enter the Land of Israel. Deuteronomy ends with the death of Moses on Mount Nebo as he looks across the Jordan Valley into the land that he will not enter.

Jews read the Torah in sequence — starting with Bere’shit right after Simchat Torah in the autumn, and then finishing Devarim on the following Simchat Torah. Each Torah portion is called a parashah (division; sometimes called a sidrah, a place in the order of the Torah reading). The stories go around in a full circle, reminding us that we can always gain more insights and more wisdom from the Torah. This means that if you don’t “get” the meaning this year, don’t worry — it will come around again.

And What Else? The Haftarah

We read or chant the Torah from the Torah scroll — the most sacred thing that a Jewish community has in its possession. The Torah is written without vowels, and the ability to read it and chant it is part of the challenge and the test.

But there is more to the synagogue reading. Every Torah reading has an accompanying haftarah reading. Haftarah means “conclusion,” because there was once a time when the service actually ended with that reading. Some scholars believe that the reading of the haftarah originated at a time when non-Jewish authorities outlawed the reading of the Torah, and the Jews read the haftarah sections instead. In fact, in some synagogues, young people who become bar or bat mitzvah read very little Torah and instead read the entire haftarah portion.

The haftarah portion comes from the Nevi’im, the prophetic books, which are the second part of the Jewish Bible. It is either read or chanted from a Hebrew Bible, or maybe from a booklet or a photocopy.

The ancient sages chose the haftarah passages because their themes reminded them of the words or stories in the Torah text. Sometimes, they chose haftarot with special themes in honor of a festival or an upcoming festival.

Your Mission — To Teach 

Torah to the Congregation

On the day when you become bar or bat mitzvah, you will be reading, or chanting, Torah — in Hebrew. You will be reading, or chanting, the haftarah — in Hebrew. That is the major skill that publicly marks the becoming of bar or bat mitzvah. But, perhaps even more important than that, you need to be able to teach something about the Torah portion, and perhaps the haftarah, as well.
Note: You don’t have to like everything that’s in a particular Torah portion. Some aren’t that lovable. Some are hard to understand; some are about religious practices that people today might find confusing, and even offensive; some contain ideas that we might find totally outmoded.

But this doesn’t have to get in the way. After all, most kids spend a lot of time thinking about stories that contain ideas that modern people would find totally bizarre. Any good medieval fantasy story falls into that category.

And we also believe that, if you spend just a little bit of time with those texts, you can begin to understand what the author was trying to say.

How Do I Write a 

Devar Torah

It really is easier than it looks.
There are many ways of thinking about the devar Torah. It is, of course, a short sermon on the meaning of the Torah (and, perhaps, the haftarah) portion. It might even be helpful to think of the devar Torah as a “book report” on the portion itself.

The most important thing you can know about this sacred task is: Learn the words. Love the words. Teach people what it could mean to live the words.

Here’s a basic outline for a devar Torah:

“My Torah portion is (name of portion) ____________________, from the book of _____________________, chapter ____________.

“In my Torah portion, we learn that _______________________ (summary of portion).

“For me, the most important lesson of this Torah portion is (what is the best thing in the portion? Take the portion as a whole; your devar Torah does not have to be only, or specifically, on the verses that you are reading).

“As I learned my Torah portion, I found myself wondering:

Raise a question that the Torah portion itself raises.

“Pick a fight” with the portion. Argue with it.

Answer a question that is listed in the “Connections” section of each Torah portion.

Suggest a question to your rabbi that you would want the rabbi
to answer in his or her own devar Torah or sermon.

“I have lived the values of the Torah by _________________________ (here, you can talk about how the Torah portion relates to your own life. If you have done a mitzvah project, you can talk about that here).

How to Keep It From Being Boring (and You From Being Bored)

Some people just don’t like giving traditional speeches. From our perspective, that’s really OK. Perhaps you can teach Torah in a different way — one that makes sense to you.

• Write an “open letter” to one of the characters in your Torah portion. “Dear Abraham: I hope that your trip to Canaan was not too hard …” “Dear Moses: Were you afraid when you got the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai? I sure would have been …”

• Write a news story about what happens. Imagine yourself to be a television or news reporter. “Residents of neighboring cities were horrified yesterday as the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were burned to the ground. Some say that God was responsible …”

• Write an imaginary interview with a character in your Torah portion.

• Tell the story from the point of view of another character, or a minor character, in the story. For instance, tell the story of the Garden of Eden from the point of view of the serpent. Or the story of the Binding of Isaac from the point of view of the ram, which was substituted for Isaac as a sacrifice. Or perhaps the story of the sale of Joseph from the point of view of his coat, which was stripped off him and dipped in a goat’s blood.

• Write a poem about your Torah portion.

• Write a song about your Torah portion.

• Write a play about your Torah portion, and have some friends act
it out with you.

• Create a piece of artwork about your Torah portion.

The bottom line is: Make this a joyful experience. Yes — it could even be fun.

The Very Last Thing You Need to Know at This Point 

The Torah scroll is written without vowels. Why? Don’t sofrim (Torah scribes) know the vowels?

Of course they do. So, why do they leave the vowels out?
One reason is that the Torah came into existence at a time when sages were still arguing about the proper vowels and the proper pronunciation.

But here is another reason: The Torah text, as we have it today, and as it sits in the scroll, is actually an unfinished work. Think of it: The words are just sitting there. Because they have no vowels, it is as if they have no voice.

When we read the Torah publicly, we give voice to the ancient words. And when we find meaning in those ancient words, and we talk about those meanings, those words jump to life. They enter our lives. They make our world deeper and better.

Mazal tov to you and your family. This is your journey toward Jewish maturity. Love it.

RABBI JEFFREY K. SALKIN is senior rabbi of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and author of the recently released “JPS B’nai Mitzvah Torah Commentary.” This edited excerpt is reprinted with permission from the Jewish Publication Society and University of Nebraska Press.