It might be difficult for anyone in the 21st century to relate to the Leviticus story of how God killed Aaron’s sons for burning “strange fire” in His honor. It’s even tougher when you’re 12.
Lexi Freund had no choice, however, as she wrote a d’var Torah (literally “word of Torah”) for her bat mitzvah in April at Temple Kol Tikvah, a Reform congregation in Woodland Hills. It wasn’t easy.
“At the beginning of my bat mitzvah process, I didn’t understand my portion correctly. For a couple weeks, I thought it had a completely different meaning behind it. Luckily, Rabbi Jon [Hanish] and Cantor Tifani Coyot helped me better understand my portion,” Lexi said. “I learned that there are so many great and inspirational meanings behind Jewish stories, and if you don’t really understand them, that wisdom can get washed away.”
The d’var Torah offers bar and bat mitzvah students an opportunity to dig into a section of biblical text. Many use it as a chance to connect the week’s parasha (Torah portion) with their everyday life in an essay meant to show the relevancy of the Torah to the modern world.
Lexi said that her portion eventually got her thinking about how people sometimes get in trouble for doing what they think is morally right.
“My parasha was about listening to an ultimate authority, which I believe is my conscience — my soul — guiding me to do what’s right.
“An example of getting into trouble for something I believed was right was when a friend’s little sister asked me to deliver a note to her brother. Of course, I asked my teacher first to make sure I was allowed to. She said no, but I wanted to go anyway because I was worried that the message was urgent. So I tried to sneak the note into his backpack. I got caught, and was scolded,” Lexi wrote in her d’var Torah. “I felt like I was doing the right thing — at least that’s what my conscience told me.”
Hanish works hand in hand helping bar and bat mitzvah students write their speeches.
“I view each student as my study partner,” Hanish said. “We examine their Torah portion and pull out verses which ‘jump out’ at them. We then take these verses and build a speech around them. I typically meet with each student for six sessions. The goal isn’t to have the world’s best speech, but to have a connection to Torah, one that comes directly from the heart. As long as the child feels connected and proud the day of his or her bar or bat mitzvah, we reached our goal.”
Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, of the Modern Orthodox synagogue B’nai David-Judea in Pico-Robertson, likes to review the parasha with each student and then helps the child break it down into four or five items.
“I have the kid choose which item is most appealing to him or her and explain why,” Kanefsky said. “I strategically choose items so that each is potentially relatable. I also try to keep the parents at bay. They’re fine for helping with the drafting or editing, but I’d much rather the speech be less profound and genuinely the child’s.”
Kanefsky also believes that the students should be given roughly three months to work on understanding their parasha and writing their speech, so it doesn’t become overwhelming.
Rabbi Rebecca Rosenthal, director of education with IKAR, a progressive, egalitarian Jewish community in West Los Angeles, takes a nearly opposite approach that brings parents directly into the process.
“I would encourage students and their parents to read the parasha and really go through line by line — ask questions about things that make them uncomfortable or feel strange, and start there,” Rosenthal said.
“I think one of the best things parents can do is to really sit down with their child and say, ‘We’re gonna be here for an hour and see where we get.’ The goal is not to finish but to write down any questions and bring it in to whichever clergy members are helping the child write their speech,” she said.
Emily Kilroy, a member of IKAR, said she selected the date of her bat mitzvah, which took place in November, to make sure she could write her d’var Torah about her favorite Bible story.
“I actually chose my bat mitzvah date because I love the story of Rebecca, but it wasn’t until I started studying the story with Rabbi Sharon [Brous] and Rabbi Ronit [Tsadok] that I saw how much it fit with my own ideas and values,” Emily said. “Like Rebecca, I want people to see me for who I am on the inside rather than judge me by my looks or what I’m wearing.”
The biggest challenges that Emily faced in writing her d’var Torah were narrowing down her ideas and learning to not feel too overwhelmed by the writing process.
“When you’re getting started and you think you have no idea what to write about, don’t stress it because you’ll end up having more ideas than you’ll know what to do with,” she said. “Once you find something that speaks to you, you just need to pour your heart and soul into it. When you do, chances are that you’ll learn something about yourself that you never knew before.”
Aaron Forman, a member of Temple Kol Tikvah who became a bar mitzvah in March, was given a parasha about Moses, who receives the Ten Commandments from God and then asks God to forgive the Israelites after they worship a golden calf as a false idol. Not only was Aaron able to connect it to his own experiences, but he made it relevant to the world around him.
“An example of standing up to authority in the modern world would be the people who protested the government in Egypt just last spring,” Aaron wrote in his speech, referring to events that began in Egypt in 2011. “The people stood up to their government by protesting against corruption and bad policies. They held protests in public places and demanded that the government give the people the liberties that they deserved. This is important because normal people risked punishment from the government by standing up for their beliefs on how the government should act.”
For Aaron, the most important thing was to come away from the process with a better understanding of himself and his relationship to Judaism and God.
“The biggest challenge that I faced was figuring out what I believed God was,” Aaron said. “This was a very difficult question for me to answer, but with Rabbi Jon’s help, I was able to figure out what my belief in God really means.”