Why Give a D'var Torah?


Excerpted from Reclaiming Bar/Bat Mitzvah as a Spiritual Rite of Passage 
by Rabbi Goldie Milgram 

First, you might rightfully ask: Why is such a major task being asked of you? Surely enough insightful commentary has already been written in every generation! Nevertheless, to each generation passes the opportunity to make something more of this world—your visions, views, values, and voices matter. Your people want to hear your voice, to know you are learning our sacred texts and traditions and that you are able to bring us important and new ideas based on your studies and perspective. Your presence in the process is very important, because into your hands is being given the opportunity to shape the future by passing the light of Torah through  lens of changing times.

Is it surprising to learn that Judaism values change? Although our tradition can look formidable and permanent, this has never been the case. In the Talmud, BT Bava Batra175b, Torah is compared to water, as an “ever flowing stream.” The nature of a stream is to change according to the terrain it encounters: the more rocks—the more rapids, like life. Jewish people do not relate to the Torah as fundamentalists who expect rock solid, immutable answers. We understand it to be a stream, a living source of inspiration for all the times in which we will live.

Strategies for understanding and practicing our faith were often different in times past and have evolved dramatically over time. When we look back in Jewish time, many examples of major change become visible. Notice that “current” is a water metaphor: when you’re busy coping with a strong current in your life, it’s hard to remember that strategies were often different in times past and may need to change in times to come. Here are some examples of major changes in Jewish practices over time.

     •    According to the literal meaning of Torah, a rebellious teenager is supposed to be stoned to death; you don’t see anyone doing that these days!

     •    Moses, Jacob the patriarch, and kings such as David long engaged in having multiple simultaneous wives, polygamy, a practice that Ashkenazi Jews officially discontinued only about a thousand years ago.

     •    Abraham and Sarah served milk and meat together to their guests; those who keep kosher today don’t.

     •    We used to sacrifice animals and burn their fat and entrails to communicate with God; when the temple was destroyed, we were able to discover the greater power of words and deeds to make a better world.

There are a great many more examples of change in Judaism. For centuries it’s been our responsibility to read and reread our sacred documents, to understand what they mean, and to reinterpret how they can apply to our lives today. For example, B-Mitzvah students will often chant and interpret the prophetic writings known as Haftorah. This body of sacred literature is filled with depictions of urgent ethical problems in Jewish life that led the prophets to call passionately for change–in the community, in leaders, and sometimes in the way people of their time were practicing Judaism.

You are a precious member of our people. Your life is the lens you will bring to Torah. We need to hear your vision of what is important for us to pay attention to in the Torah and Haftorah portions. You are invited to step up to the plate as a leader and teacher for the Jewish and human future.

That said, the service is not about the B-Mitzvah student; it is about ensuring a meaningful experience of prayer, receiving Torah, and the celebration of Shabbat. Taking on a role of leadership in a service involves shiflut, “humility”; one serves without requiring a spotlight. Gratitude to teachers and family and the family and community’s nachas, “pride,” at the accomplishment of a B-Mitzvah initiate are important and must receive serious air time. But these are often best expressed at the reception or after the religious ceremonies have concluded and before announcements. Many communities have one or more B’nei Mitzvah (the plural of the term) on every weekend, and the experience of Shabbat and the special traditions of the congregation can get lost if the B’nei Mitzvah and their many visiting family members are allowed to predominate.

We will discuss matters of expressing pride and appreciation, including the giving and receiving of gifts, in the final chapter of Reclaiming Bar/Bat Mitzvah as a Spiritual Rite of Passage.