Finding Meaning in Your Torah Portion

FINDING MEANING IN YOUR TORAH PORTION from Make Your Own Bar/Bat Mitzvah: A Personal Approach to Creating a Meaningful Rite of Passage (Jossey-Bass Publishing) by Rabbi Goldie Milgram

The most interesting meanings to be found in your Torah portion will not tend to be obvious. That is part of the genius of the Torah’s design. It is constructed in such a way as to afford apparently infinite possibilities for finding new meanings in its stories, characters, symbols, commandments, and practices. Exploring your Torah portion can be a lot of fascinating fun; it is a prism filled with doorways to higher consciousness.

     It helps to begin with a wide, open-hearted curiosity about your portion. As time goes on, you will need to narrow your focus onto the moments, key words, phrases, commands, tradition, and questions about your parsha that most capture your spirit and that might be meaningful to those who will be at your B-Mitzvah.

Torah Portion as a Script

Consider your portion as though it is a script for a screenplay. This can help matters come to life. After filling in the elements in each of the categories that follow, create a sketch of the backdrop, props, and characters for each scene:

Location(s):Where does the story take place—desert, forest, sea?

Characters: Describe them, name their qualities, even imagine their looks and manner.

Symbols and props: What symbols are involved? What props might the screenplay need—water, stone tablets, swords, or frogs?

Major events: What events take place—battle, love scene, sacrifice?

You have been dealing with the p’shat of the text, the “simple” or basic story line. Let’s move on.

The Significance of Translations

By definition all translations are interpretations, often reflecting specific ideological orientations. If you take a shelf full of different translations of the Torah and open them all to the same chapter and verse, often you will find significant variations in the meaning that the translator assigned.

     For example, in the parsha titled Vayera, in Genesis 22:2 some translations have God saying to Abraham, “Take your son” (and sacrifice him). Others render it as a request and not a command: “Please take your son,” which is more faithful to the meaning of the Hebrew. What a difference to the story if this is viewed as request or a command!

     Hebrew is a language perfect for spirituality because words have many shades of meaning; this allows the translation of a verse to depend on the current situation of the reader. Those who translate the Bible have their own needs and biases. So unless you are fairly skillful in Hebrew, look at more than one translation.

     If you are very new to Hebrew literacy, a good mentor will be able to show you even a few of the portals of higher meaning that are encoded within the Hebrew. It is here that you are likely to discover the excitement so many feel about Torah study.

     For example, in the section we first outlined in this chapter, Genesis 24:64, how did Rebecca react when she first saw Isaac: Va-tee-pole min ha gamal. She fell off the camel!

     Have you ever been so surprised or excited by someone that one could say you “fell off your camel” for him or her? Try having a conversation with family, mentors, and friends about the difference between falling in love and growing in love. See how only a few words can trigger a great awareness that can form the basis for a heartfelt d’var Torah. This is the power of the Torah to deepen our lives by making room for each other’s wisdom to emerge.

     But this dramatic moment of interpretive opportunity is often unavailable in translations of the Bible published before the year 2000. It has taken a long time for women to be read as realistic characters. Prior translators could only imagine presenting our matriarch-to-be like a lady, and so you would find them saying that she “descended from her camel” or “alighted.”

     Translators have conscious and unconscious agendas having to do with when they lived, how they grew up, what their approach to Jewish observance was, and more. Christian scholars who have translated the Torah are also reading events through their own Christian-value lens, which is different from viewing events through a Jewish-value lens.

     Select those edition(s) of the Torah from which you will study with great consciousness. Translators have a huge impact upon what the text can mean.  The resource section at the back of this book offers many of the contemporary Torah translations available to you. It is helpful to own more than one so that you can compare the translators’ perspectives and begin to find your own.

Your Reactions

Does any aspect of the parsha arouse your passion? Does something seem unfair, exciting, frightening, peculiar, missing, or momentous? Trust your gut. Places in your portion that arouse strong feelings in you are where you, personally, will be best able to mine for meaning.

     Here’s an example of a d’var Torah based on a passionate awareness. It is for the parsha known as Chukat (pronounced khu-kaht, there’s no “ch” sound in Hebrew) (Numbers 19:1–22:1):

"In my Torah portion, Moses and Aaron learn they will not enter the promised land because instead of listening precisely to God’s instructions for finding water, Moses hits a rock instead of speaking to it. It is amazing to see that Moses disobeys God. How could this be?

     By looking back just before this portion, I discovered that Moses’ and Aaron’s sister Miriam has just died. She not only arranged for the princess to find baby Moses in the water, she also had a talent for finding water and leading the people in dance and song. Lively Miriam helped the people survive in the wilderness through her special talents. Now that she is gone, they have to figure out how to go on without her.

     I’ve noticed that people do strange things when they are very sad; sometimes they get angry with God. That’s how I felt when a classmate died of leukemia; I was very angry with God. I’m older now, and my ways of thinking have changed; now I pray for the courage to dedicate my life to working for a cure, and I believe that acts of nature aren’t personal.

     But in the Torah, why doesn’t Moses get understanding for his anger from God? Surely what he did can be forgiven when you think of the circumstances.

     I think it’s because he wasn’t able to control himself in front of the people. Leaders have such a strong sense of responsibility that they might think they can’t take a day off. But leaders need to be able to prepare someone else to lead long in advance of when a problem arises. Then when something devastating happens in their personal lives, people don’t have to worry that they will try to function when it is not humanly possible.

     Leaders are only human, and I believe this story about Moses is to teach about the importance of knowing when you are fit to lead, to go to work, to parent, or even to captain a school team, and when not. It seems to me this applies today, at home and in the government.

     Let’s all try to learn from Moses’ mistake. I have three blessings to give today:

     The first is for all the leaders in the room to have the wisdom to know when not to go to work. Sometimes the work you need to do is at home and inside yourself.

     My second blessing is for all of us to do what we can to eat and exercise and support ourselves to live in good health.

     My third blessing is also for all of us. In the course of life, we will all lose someone to a terrible disease. Judaism teaches that we are partners with God in creation. May we all be blessed to have the ability and actively support medical research. Thank you."

:This d’var Torah used the p’shat of the story, the simple facts, to support important emotional insights about major challenges we all face in life. This is one effective way to approach creating a d’var Torah.

Lets move on to Characteristics of a Memorable Dvar Torah