Opening the Dialogue with God in B’nai Mitzvah Preparation

The B-Mitzvah (R)evolution

by Rabbi Hanna Tiferet Siegel

An anxious pre-teen enters tentatively into my home for the first day of b’nai mitzvah training. We begin by chatting to learn the basics about each other. Listed below are some of the questions I ask and some of the responses I receive.

“What’s your name in English and Hebrew?”

“Tell me about your family. Do you have brothers and sisters?”

“Do you have two parents? What is their work? Are your grandparents living?”

“Where do you go to school?”

“What are your favorite subjects and activities?”

“When and where were you born?”

“Would you like to find out your Hebrew birthday and birth parasha?” (weekly reading from Torah)


“What is the scheduled date of your bar/bat mitzvah?”

“What is the Torah portion of that week?”I don’t know.

“Have you attended other b’nai mitzvah ceremonies?” Yes.

“When and where was that?”

It was my cousin’s bar mitzvah.

“How was it for you?”

I didn’t understand what was going on.

“What do you think of synagogue services?”

They’re boring.

“How’s your Hebrew?”

Not so good. I feel really stupid in Hebrew school.

“What does bar/bat mitzvah mean to you?”

Not much yet except a lot of work with presents at the end for my reward.

“Is this something that you want to do?”

No, my parents expect me to do this.

Or,Yes, and my parents can’t understand why.

I listen very carefully, noticing how the child speaks and relates. Then I share some aspects of the story of my own Jewish journey and why I have found that preparing for bar/bat mitzvah is an important moment in one’s life. I confirm that this will be a year of intense study and that the rewards will be far greater than s/he could ever imagine.

As a b’nai mitzvah tutor, I consider myself a “personal spiritual trainer.” Amazing breakthroughs in learning and comprehension can take place in this one-on-one relationship. It has been my joy and responsibility to encourage the uniqueness of each student and to nurture his/her soul. I have been called upon to teach a wide variety of children. Some excel in school and social skills while others are challenged by ADD, ADHD, dyslexia, Asperger syndrome, and depression. I have taught children who are angry, distracted, resistant, nervous, shy, and curious. And with each one, I have found that the assignment is the same - to establish trust and then open the heart, open the mind, and open the gateway to the soul.

For many years, I taught in communities of disenfranchised and assimilated Jews. I prepared my students with basic synagogue skills, each one according to his or her ability, but there was something lacking. It was too predictable. I sought a different model. It was clear to me that the power of the bar/bat mitzvah passage could last a lifetime if it were a meaningful experience for the student. I knew that our brief time of study together had to be relevant and creatively grounded in tradition. I saw it as a precious opportunity, when the window of wonder was still open for these children-becoming-adults.

As I looked at the traditional framework of the liturgy, I felt that it was important for the students to explore and understand the words of the Shema (the prayer that expresses the Oneness of God and our relationship with God). As the essential message of Jewish religious practice, it holds within it endless mysteries and countless interpretations. By studying the three paragraphs of the Shema and also the accompanying Barukh Shem verse, I sensed that we could tap into the student’s personal theology and philosophy of life and bring the relevance of these ancient words alive today. Although the students weren’t necessarily able to express the depth of their wisdom in written form, they could speak it. As a result of that realization, I developed a dialogical process in which I asked questions of them and they were able to free-associate and tell their stories, while I wrote them down.

At first there is often a stiffness and resistance because they are straining their brains to come up with the right answer. But once they settle into a level of trust in me, the process, and their own inner wisdom, the heart opens and their insights flow freely. I also have to trust the student to find the truth within him or herself and be courageous enough to express it. Embarrassment is a common condition of that age and I want to reassure the student that a revelation of his or her true feelings and insights is part of becoming a bar/bat mitzvah. After all, how can we take on the responsibilities of a tradition if we do not understand our personal relationship to it?

I divide the Shema into five sections. Each part has specific questions which arise from the nature of the words. That is the starting place, but where it goes, no one knows. That is the excitement of the spiritual journey. I want to be surprised by what the students uncover for themselves as they go to new places of personal discovery in the telling of their own story. The goal is to find the entryway into the child’s experience and then let the telling begin. The response is not always positive. I do my best to leave room for questioning, cynicism, resistance, and even anger. It is my hope that we can engage in a dialogue that allows them to grow up in their relation to God and the tradition as they wrestle with its quintessential teachings.

Shema - Listen

We begin by looking at the six words of the Shema and try to translate them. It’s not an easy task. What are these words trying to say? What does it mean to listen? We talk about the custom of covering one’s eyes while saying the Shema, so that one can truly listen. What are we listening for? To whom are we listening?

As we move on to the second word, Yisrael, we ask, who is Israel? It can mean the people, the land, and the literal translation of "God-wrestler." We talk about the biblical story of Jacob who wrestled with an angel and received his spirit name of Yisrael. Translating Yisrael as "God-wrestler" also allows us to read this verse in a more universal way, since most people we know are searching for the meaning of life and are engaged in a relationship to a power greater than themselves.

Is our God Jewish, or is there one God who manifests in many different ways for all of creation? We look at the three consecutive God words - YHVH Eloheynu YHVH - and talk about the transcendent qualities of God and the immanence of God. We discuss compassion and karma (cause and effect), and the idea that the great power of God is also personal for each and every one of us.

The last word, echad, evokes a lot of questions. There are many different ways to understand the meaning of "one" - alone, unique, above in heaven, a part of everything. This is an interpretation that evolves as we, as humans, evolve, from childhood to adulthood, and through every new wave of conscious awareness. We look at the enlarged Hebrew letter ayin in the word ShemA as well as the enlarged dalet of ehaD that together spell AYD/witness and discuss what it means to be witnesses to something that we cannot see.

After defining and discussing the nature of these words and coming up with our own translation, we begin to talk about God in his/her life. Who is God for you? We talk about God’s gender and all the names we have for God in Judaism. Have you ever felt or experienced God in your life? Maybe you don’t call it God, but you feel a presence, or a tingling in your spine. Have you ever prayed to God? What do you pray for? When do you pray? Can you pray in the synagogue? Why or why not? Can you pray to God in nature? This is when the storytelling begins. It’s often difficult to talk about God if the student’s family is not spiritually attuned, but it is my belief that each of us has a relationship with God. Sometimes children will relate a story of a time they prayed to God to pass a test or to win a sports game. Sometimes they have experienced an illness in the family, or a death. Some are more articulate than others, but each one has a story. Here are some examples of the inner wisdom that they are able to articulate as a result of our dialogue.


“There have been times when I wasn’t so sure God existed and I felt that people made him up because they wanted to feel like they had a Higher Power. I used to think that God made the world a happy place where people liked each other. But there are wars and that’s because people don’t like each other. Also, I thought people he made were supposed to have long, happy lives. But good people, like Mark, have died because of diseases, because of war, and because of accidents. They are too young and deprived of a good life that could have happened.

“People say God is everywhere, but I’m not quite sure if I believe them. If God was everywhere, he’d control what we say and how we act. He’d be inside of us. If he did control everything, then wouldn’t there be peace in the world? Wouldn’t bad people - murderers, thieves, etc., not exist? I think God doesn’t want to control us. He wants to see how we manage on our own. God doesn’t stop us from doing the wrong thing. We have to do that ourselves. But he’s there in case we need him and that’s why we pray to him. I think he’s almost everything: flowers, rivers, trees, the winds. That’s how we know he’s beautiful. Nature is part of him. So, in a way, he does have a physical form, but we don’t recognize him until he has passed us by.”


“We say that God exists and God created us, but what if the big bang theory is true and God doesn’t exist? What if nobody believed in God, would God still exist? Is God the essence of life, or does God depend on our believing in Him?

“There are so many ways of perceiving God and everyone says that they’re doing something in the name of God, whether it be good or bad, but good or bad is an opinion. How can you believe in God when He doesn’t intervene? We seem to be doing all the work. People have said that God is there, but where is He? What if the messiah can’t come until it’s peaceful enough for him to stay alive?

“To me, God is the idea that can bring peace. To me, God is the idea and feeling of inner peace. To me, God is the universal idea that there is a greater power that can help us. The way I experience God is when the people around me are kind and give off a feeling of love. They know you have your troubles and they have theirs. They know how to let you be, without trying to change you or make you feel bad. The only exception is your parents who have the right to make you feel bad for doing something wrong, so you’ll feel guilty and you won’t do it again.

“When someone is mean, they take away from your connection to God and they make you feel like you don’t deserve to be there. I see God through other people because you can’t see God. When others are around you, they show you the part of God that’s in them and then you can see the piece that’s in you. Everything you know and learn comes from someone else. That’s why I experience God through other people.”


“When I say the Shema at school in minyan (prayer services), I feel closer to God and I can communicate with Him in a special way. I feel like He can help me and when I’m talking to Him, nothing can go wrong. God definitely helped me when I was a baby. I was very sick and they thought I would die and then I got better. My twin brother wasn’t quite as sick. My dad videotaped a lot of me in the hospital and it’s very sad and emotional to see how I was, but it’s amazing to see how far I’ve gotten.

“When I’m scared at night, I say the Shema to relax myself. Sometimes when I’m overwhelmed and I don’t think I’ll get all my work done, I know God will help me and He almost always does. He does make people suffer, but it usually turns out okay. And when it doesn’t, it’s usually for a good reason.”


“At home, when I’m alone, I sometimes ask myself what God is. Sometimes I don’t even believe in God, but sometimes I ask God to help me when life is hard. I don’t feel that anyone responds, but something hears me and knows and understands what I am feeling. God likes to be heard and so do we because we share the respect of listening and understanding each other.

“When my mom had cancer, I really hoped that nothing bad would happen to her. When I was alone, I would tell myself and God that she would be okay and not die. The night after she had the operation, I was scared. I was at home in bed, trying to go to sleep.  Silently, I said to myself, ‘Please God, don’t let anything happen to her.’ We went to visit her, and although friends assured me that she was going to be all right, I really couldn’t believe it until I saw her and she told me herself. Another time I prayed was when the year 2000 began. My uncle is a pilot and he had to fly that night, so I prayed that he wouldn’t crash and that I would be able to see him again.

“Thinking of God can help us feel more safe and comfortable. It helps to think of God because you say to yourself, ‘Oh, there’s God. Maybe He can make things better or just comfort me.’ When we’re talking to God or praying, we’re really talking to everyone around us in our community. Sometimes I think of God in the goodness and helpfulness of human beings. Everything and everyone is part of God, so if the community is helping us, then God is helping us too.”


“Shemais an announcement reminding people that YHVH is our God. ‘Listen, Everyone who wrestles with God, YHVH, the God of Being, is part of this Earth. YHVH is One with everything else and there is only One, even though there are so many things.’”

“Nature’s kind of like God for me. There are a lot of things that aren’t explained like, why are we the perfect distance from the sun so that we can live here on earth? Sometimes I pray, but not usually, at little times when I feel scared or sad or really happy. When something really good happens, I think of God.

“A lot of times, even when there’s something bad, there’s something good with it. When I was ten, my great aunt’s funeral was on my birthday. All my aunts and uncles on her side came from around the country. It was really sad, but in the evening, we all went out to dinner for my birthday, which was fun because we are rarely all together. That was when I realized that every cloud has a silver lining. Sometimes people can bring kindness in a bad situation. When people help each other, it’s like God is there.”


“It’s almost like I have two parts to me. One part is scientific and I don’t believe in God at all. Everything has a scientific explanation. Love is just chemicals in the body. At the same time, I totally believe in God. I believe in seeing things from past lifetimes. I believe in asking God for help and sometimes He helps you along the way. It doesn’t matter whether some guy made up the Torah and the Bible; it’s just another way of connecting to God. I always have two perspectives on life. When you vote, you can either be a Republican or a Democrat. I’m like an Independent. I don’t choose one side over the other. I always hold two different views at the same time.

“When I say the Shema, I feel like I’m a part of Israel. In that one moment of saying the Shema, we are taking in all the things that have happened to our people and accepting them. We are telling God that we are Israel too. It’s not just Moses and the people who left Egypt who went through the Exodus. Even though we’re not them, we feel their pain and happiness. This also includes the Holocaust and what happened to our ancestors there.

“People pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem that those who suffered in the Holocaust have a good afterlife because they didn’t deserve all that pain. Putting a letter in the Wall is like putting a letter in the canister at the Science Museum. It shoots up through the tubes that run along the ceiling, and you can send messages back and forth. With God, you don’t actually have to write a letter. The words in your heart are enough to travel through the invisible gateway to God and He sends it back to you.”

Barukh Shem – Blessed Name

The six words of the Barukh Shem are not found in the Torah, whereas all the other words of the three paragraphs are. Why was this verse inserted into the morning and evening prayer service? What does it add to the Shema and where does it come from? We learn several midrashim (pl, legends) regarding the origins of these words. There is one midrash that says that when Moses ascended to heaven to receive the Ten Commandments, these are the words that he heard the angels saying. From their vantage point, they were looking out and declaring the great glory of creation. Another midrash says that when Jacob was dying, his children gathered around his bed and declared their allegiance to his path of faith. They said, "Shema Yisrael (Jacob’s other name) YHVH Eloheynu YHVH Ehad." And Jacob responded with surprise and gratitude, "Barukh shem k’vod malkhuto l’olam va’ed."

We then begin the process of translating these words, which are somewhat vague. Barukh indicates blessing and shem refers to the name of God without saying it.K’vod is honor or glory andmalkhuto is God’s kingdom, which is this world and the way that God manifests in every part of it. L’olam va’ed means forever. The question is, how do you experience God in this world? Is there a place that you have been that had such awesome beauty that you felt God was there with you? Describe the details of that place - the sunlight, the air, the water, the trees, the birds, the snow, and the feelings inside of you. Sometimes the kids are awed by the perfection of nature, sometimes by the seasons, and sometimes by animals or birds. The most important thing is for them to connect an experience that they have had in the natural world with the creative presence of God. The Shema takes us to a private place of unification with the God of being and the Barukh Shem brings us into God’s presence in every detail of the world. The Barukh Shem serves as a bridge to theV’ahavta (“and you will love”).


Barukh Shem is awareness of more than yourself. This verse says, not only do I love myself and God, but I have to love the rest of the earth and its creatures. If we don’t think of each other, then it’s just every person for him or herself and that doesn’t seem right. The Barukh Shem is also about appreciating the beauty of this world and working to preserve it.

“One of the most moving and beautiful experiences I’ve ever had was when I went scuba diving with dolphins in Eilat during our trip to Israel a few years ago. Each person in the group was given an instructor to guide us. We strapped on our oxygen tanks and dove in. It was incredible to be “in” the water, to be still and have it move around me. The color of the water was aqua, so different from here in Massachusetts. And on the bottom, there was beautiful coral and fishes. We were in their home, observing their environment.

“The first dolphin I saw went by and didn’t stop. We kept moving and another one came and I was hesitant to pet it. By the time I decided to reach out, it wasn’t within my arm range anymore, but I still got to see it. I didn’t want to scare the dolphin because I’m used to cats, and if you make a sudden movement, they run away. By the time I made up my mind, it was gone, but just the experience of seeing it was incredible.

Even if there weren’t any dolphins, fish, or coral, just scuba diving would have been amazing. When we came out, the realization hit that I wasn’t floating any more and I had an oxygen tank on that was really heavy, but I still had the feeling of being in the water. I felt so happy to observe and be a part of something so beautiful. The whole experience was breathtaking. Dolphins have had a special meaning to me since then.”


“The Barukh Shem tells us to bless everything because everything was made by God and is holy. Being human is sometimes difficult, but when we stop to think about it, there is so much to appreciate. Through our senses we experience the wonders of the world. I am grateful to be able to see all the beauty of nature and all the things that human beings have made, like paintings, movies, and books. I am grateful to be able to hear peaceful birds chirping and school bands playing music; to taste delicious foods like butterscotch ice cream, fresh salads and watermelon; to smell the air outdoors after it rains, the sweet aroma of cookies and cakes from the bakery, and the fragrance of wild honeysuckle in the summertime.  And I am grateful to be able to touch soft silk fabric, to pet furry animals like a bunny, to feel soft fluffy snow as it falls gently on my shoulders, and to be able to hug people and feel comfort and understanding without talking.”

V’ahavta – You Will Love

How can you love God with all your heart, soul, and strength? Is this possible? It’s a pretty tall order, especially if God isn’t a part of your daily vocabulary. How can you be told to love someone if you don’t even know him or her? Most kids don’t feel connected to God in such a deep way, so I ask them what their passion in life is, what they truly love. It can be sports, music, rock collecting, drama, camping. Many say it is family and friends. This is an opportunity for them to describe what calls them and shapes their internal life. I ask them to tell a recent story about their passion and why it is important to them.

Then, focusing on the words, v’shinantam l’vanekha (and you shall teach your children), I ask them about their parents and what they have learned from them. At first they might be a little shy. I reassure them that this is not an exposé, but a deep way of appreciating what their parents have taught them and the best way to say "thank you." We talk about each parent separately and I ask if there is a phrase that the mom or dad repeats that encourages them or guides them. I ask about the work that each parent does in the world and what they admire about their parents. I ask them to open their hearts and describe the influence each parent has had on their lives. This is often the most touching part of the Shema. It is a profound way of acknowledging what the parents have given to the child. This can also include grandparents and siblings. Family is the most influential part of a child’s life and they have a lot to say about this. I am always sensitive to family dynamics. Sometimes a child is adopted and has only one parent, sometimes the parents are divorced and there may be a blended family, and sometimes there may be financial or emotional problems. I do not want to be invasive, but I want the child to be able to affirm his/her inheritance and know that s/he will take this with them into their adult lives.

If appropriate, we look at the teachings on tefillin and mezuzah, both being Jewish awareness tools that contain scribed manuscripts of the section of Deuteronomy that contains the Shema.I ask why someone would want to put the words of the Shema on the arm, the head, and the doorpost of their home. We talk about the sanctity of body and home and how we humans need reminders to stay connected to the Holy One of Blessing.


“I have many passions in life. I love to read books, write stories and poems, and play my violin. When I write, I enter another world. It’s a place where anything can happen. I can make the sun bloom off a butterfly’s wings or catch starlight on the water. Images of color fill my mind, spilling out onto the page. I create brilliant pictures that flash into the sky.

“I also love to ride horses. It gives me a sense of togetherness.  I love to ride through the lush Vermont forest, the wind rustling the leaves, accompanied by the muffled sound of trotting hooves. The feeling of galloping through a wide open space, the horse and me almost as one, is like a dream. It’s like flying though the sky.

“Playing my violin also gives me a wonderful feeling. I can feel the music all through my body as the notes burst into the air. The low ones, rich and deep, swirl around my head, echoing their glorious sounds over and over.  The high ones are like birds singing. They can be blossoming flowers or snowflakes softly falling. I play songs that go on and on, but I do not mind. I love it. After I play the last note, stand still listening.  The piece is over, but still I can hear the silence. It’s like the silence after a spring rain.”


“It’s hard for me to think about loving God with all my heart, soul, and strength although I will probably understand it as I get older. Writing poetry is my real passion, as well as traveling to other places and cultures. Sometimes when I get wrapped up in a poem, I feel like the words are coming from somewhere beyond me. I’m not thinking about what I’m writing down. The words are just flowing out of my pen. Poetry is the best way for me to interpret an event in my life. When I write poetry, I feel like I have understood a new aspect of the time, or even opened a new door for understanding myself. 

“I also love my family. My mom is always there for me, organizing her life around my brother and me, always being there in the morning to get us ready for school and make breakfast for us. She has taught me to never give up. I remember when I learned how to play the piano, at the age of seven, I had trouble on a piece of music, and she told me to keep on trying. When I’m really lost on a school project, she supports me and tries to help me. She encourages me to be the best that I can be. My mom grew up Catholic and when I was little we tried out both a church and a synagogue to see what was best. It was obvious that the synagogue was going to be the best place for us. She worked very hard on her conversion and has made time to go to services and make holidays really special for us. She’s a mediator and I’ve learned from her that it is very important for everybody to feel that they are treated fairly and that they have worked out their problems for themselves. As I grow older, she has told me that there will be people who will be prejudiced, but that I should just keep on being myself.

“My dad is always interested in what is going on with me, even if he comes home late from a meeting and we have already had dinner. I feel from him that I matter and that I’m important. Through his love of trying to preserve the environment, I’ve learned how much his work means to him and how much enthusiasm one can have in their job.  Both of my parents have taught me that spirituality is a big part of their life. They try to make the synagogue a good place for everybody.”


“To love with your heart means to be thankful. To love with your soul means to be aware of the godliness of every person. To love with your might means with every aspect of your being. This is a goal that everyone should strive for, but it’s pretty much impossible to accomplish. I think this means not to take things for granted like food, being alive, and living in a free country. It’s good to be appreciative. If you see someone less fortunate, you realize how much you really have and how important it is to use it in the best way possible.

“One of the ways that I love God is through the many things I like to do. My main sports are basketball, soccer, and baseball. I play the saxophone in my school’s band and jazz band. I enjoy acting and singing and last year I was in a musical for my school. I also like writing for my school newspaper and I draw comics for that. I am grateful to be able to do all these fun activities. But I couldn’t do these things without the help and support of my parents.

“My mom has taught me to be brave when facing new things. When I was little, she would always tell me that when I was scared, I should take a deep breath and keep repeating, “I can handle it. I can handle it.” During the first day in kindergarten, this really came in handy. I was very scared walking up the steps of the school, so I kept saying those words in my head and it got me pumped up to face this new experience. When I encounter a new scary situation, I think, “You can do it, David,” and I cheer myself on.

“My dad is my alarm clock. He wakes me up at 7 o’clock every morning and sets up breakfast for my sister and me. I’m grateful for his kindness because I’m really tired and he helps me to get going and gives me the extra boost for starting my day. He got me interested in musical instruments. He plays clarinet and saxophone and when I was little, he would let me try out playing with the instruments for fun. My sister is an important part of my life. Even though we fight a lot, we forgive each other in the end. Its fun to play together and I would be lonely without her.”

V’haya Im Shamo’a ― It Will Happen If You Follow Through

In the Barukh Shem, we talked about the beauty of this world. Now we have an opportunity to discuss ecological concerns and ways in which the child chooses to take action and work for healing the planet, tikkun olam. As we study this paragraph from Deuteronomy 11:13 we see its similarities to Deuteronomy 6:4 - loving God, passing it on to our children, tefillin and mezuzah. What stands out in this paragraph is how our actions affect the world around us. If we live in harmony with the laws of nature and care for the world that we have been given, then it will provide all that we need. But if we worship false gods, then the heavens will close up, there will be no food, and we will die.

I ask the kids about false gods. At first they respond by saying that false gods are idols, but then I ask them about what people really worship today and they name money, power, and fame as some of our modern idols. From here we begin to see how human greed is destroying the earth and that we need to return to the natural harmony of God’s rhythms. They list their concerns and the causes that they have worked for including recycling, hunger, abuse, and pollution. It is very important that they see the connection between the concerns of the Torah and their modern day concerns for the survival of the planet. Many of the kids have done projects in school or have particular concerns that can be expressed here. The description of the heavens closing can represent acid rain or the hole in the ozone layer. As genetically engineered seeds are used, there is a concern that the earth will no longer be able to naturally bear fruit and that all the neighboring plants will be harmed by the effects of human manipulation. There is a delicate balance which we must honor and we must not be afraid to speak up.


“My opa, which is German for grandfather, was a part of the Kindertransport that saved children before the Holocaust. He came to America when he was only 13 and got adopted by a family in Indiana. A year later, his brother and parents came and they all lived together again, but the rest of our family died in Germany. He has passed stories of that time on to my mom and me and his other grandchildren.

“When I was writing this, the war with Iraq was about to happen and I was scared. Because we didn’t know what was going to happen next, it made me live in fear instead of just living life. When I read Anne Frank’s diary and learned about the Holocaust, I wondered what it would be like to live with the burden of war. Now I have a sense of what it feels like because we would wake up every day with the fear of a terrorist attack and we knew that in Iraq, people were dying. When I think about September 11 and the war with Iraq, I think about how in the future I’ll be able to tell my children and grandchildren that I lived during this era. If we all got along, there wouldn’t be war. I don’t think there would be as much conflict in Iraq and other places in the Middle East if we weren’t so dependent on oil. We need to find other ways to satisfy our needs for energy. I hope it’s not too late.”


“This paragraph says that if we care for the earth and protect it, then we’ll have what we need and be happy, but if we waste and pollute, then there will be consequences. I’m concerned about all the trees that are being cut down and the land that is being used for cities instead of left to be natural and wild. We need trees because they provide the oxygen that we breathe. And we need the land to grow our food, to be a home for wild plants and animals, and because it is beautiful. There are some things we ourselves can do to help. We can recycle our paper, plastic, and clothes, not waste the food we eat, and not buy more products than we need or use. On a larger scale, we can join organizations that help to buy and conserve land and protest the exploitation of the earth.  If we don’t work to save the land, the creatures and beauty of the earth will not survive.”


“We need to learn how to get along and stop having petty disputes over land, religion, wealth, beliefs, and power. We have to stop, or we will set an example for future generations that war is the way to live, like they did in medieval times. Back then it was pure butchery. How can we stop?  That’s the hard part! We need to learn how to negotiate and make life worth living. For that, people need the basic necessities of life - freedom, food, shelter, medicine, clothes, tools, and safety.  We have to share our wealth and help people who are in need. We have to give tzedakah (charitable donations), vote for honest representatives, and participate in rallies and campaign movements so our voices are heard.”

Va’yomer HaShem—God Said

The third paragraph of the Shema, Numbers 15:37, is different from the other two. Rather than tefillin and mezuzah, it refers to the tzitzit (symbolically knotted fringes) of the tallit (prayer shawl)as a reminder of the mitzvot. Many of the kids have learned to tie tzitzit or made their own tallit, so I ask them to talk about that process. We talk about the nature of mitzvot, what their purpose is, and which ones they know about and fulfill in their own lives. Usually the kids say that mitzvot are good deeds, or they mention the Ten Commandments, but they rarely understand the concept of mitzvot as guidelines for holy action in the world. We talk about the brakhah (blessing) formula that says, “asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav” (That Which makes us holy through Its sacred instructions)and question how the observance of mitzvot is connected to holiness. I ask them what it means to be holy, and that is perhaps the hardest question of all to answer.

It is a subtle concept to comprehend how we draw close to God through the way that we act. The end of the paragraph is reminiscent of the Ten Commandments and we discuss how the Children of Israel left Egypt to serve God rather than other masters. We question the meaning of freedom and how it is more than the ability to do whatever we want, but it comes with the responsibility and the desire to help others and to act kindly in the world.

The kids, of course, have their own words for all of these concepts and I encourage their fresh approach and individual interpretations. It is my job to open their hearts and minds and it is their job to be themselves. Since I do the writing and read it back to them, it allows them to get in touch with deep feelings and insights that might otherwise be lost in the writing process. This is an effective approach to preparing a d’var Torah, (interpretive teaching about the Torah portion keyed to the day of their ritual) no matter what the physical or mental limitations of a child. By the end, the students are amazed by the wisdom that has come through them and there is a sense of awesome delight as they share their stories with the community on their bar/bat mitzvah day.


“We respect God a lot because He let us get out of Egypt and be free. To thank God, we do mitzvot, which are good deeds and commandments. The purpose of mitzvot is to help us be holy. When you help somebody, they feel better and so do you. When you light candles onShabbat, you feel happiness and you feel the light of God around the people you are with. To be holy is to remember that we are from God. Just in case we forget, God told us to tie the fringes of the tzitzit on our tallis (Ashkenazi pronunciation of tallit). When we look at it, it helps us to remember God because it spells out God’s name. To everybody who is wearing a tallis today, take a minute to look at yourtzitzit. Maybe you never noticed them before. It’s traditional to kiss the tzitzit during the third paragraph of theShema. When you kiss thetzitzit, it’s like kissing God and appreciating life.”


“God reminds the people that S/He led them out of slavery in Egypt so they could be free. Then they got the Torah at Mount Sinai, including the Ten Commandments, which gave them basic laws for living. But God knew that they would need reminders, so God told them to put tzitzit (fringes) on the four corners of their clothes, which were like tunics.

“What does it mean for a person to be holy? God is holy. The Torah is holy. Jerusalem and the Western Wall are holy. Every person has the potential to be holy because God, is part of everyone. We just need to do certain things to bring it out. In the Jewish tradition, doing mitzvot is the way to holiness. But even if a person follows all the mitzvot and studies all day long, if s/he is not kind and doesn't help people, s/he is not holy. Holiness is not just about observing the laws and rituals of Judaism but also about helping others.”


“Sometimes when I have a problem, I picture myself walking down a narrow pathway with a dim light up ahead. There are feelings that are trying to pull me off the path, making me want to give up, but the light keeps me moving forward. I don’t know what lies ahead, but I do know that it’s good. 

“The tallit is our prayer shawl. It has tzitzit (fringes) that are tied on to each corner to spell out God’s name. When we put on the tallit and see the name of God, we are reminded not to stray off the path. The tallit reminds us that we want to be holy in our lives. It symbolizes that I am now a full member of the community even though I’m only 13. Well, almost 13. Now I can lead prayers, be called up to the Torah, and be counted in a minyan.

“The tallit I am wearing today, I picked out by myself. It’s unusual because it has a black background. The color black is strong and solid. It means that I won’t give in easily to being pushed around and that I will have the courage to be my own person. The white stripes are the light at the end of my dark path. I hold them close as I step further and further down the dark road, unafraid.”


blue through your
heart and eyes
holds you back
from temptation
remember the Faithful One
who freed us from
and bonded us
to truth
love is holy

What a great honor it has been to serve as witness and guide for this process of spiritual revelation. The students can hear the voice of truth ring inside of them and it establishes a foundation built upon courage and trust in oneself. Many of these students are in college or working in the world now and they have shared with me how important it was to have someone take the time to listen deeply, to respond thoughtfully, and to celebrate their human and divine wisdom.

BUY NOW: Seeking & Soaring: Jewish Approaches to Spiritual Direction
Also Consider: Make Your Own Bar/Bat Mitzvah: A Personal Approach to Creating a Meaningful Rite of Passage
by Rabbi Goldie Milgram

Bio: Rabbi Hanna Tiferet Siegel has been talking to God since the age of three. She has recorded seven albums of original liturgical music. In 1977, Hanna co-founded Or Shalom, a Jewish Renewal Synagogue in Vancouver, BC. In 1982, she was the first woman to receive the title, "Eshet Chazon”/Woman of Vision and Midwife of the Soul. Until recently she served as co-rabbi for B'nai Or of Boston. Currently, Hanna Tiferet is part of the Hashpa’ah faculty for the ALEPH Ordination Programs.