By Ben Plaut
May 7, 2005
Bar Mitzvah d’var Torah

This week’s Torah portion covers many topics including several of the ten commandments, the golden rule, and some rules of sexual behavior. The Haftarah portion covers some of the rules of how to treat people from other lands.

A constant subject that comes up in this portion is that of holiness. Reading and studying the Torah by itself is not enough to be holy. One must also live by the rules stated. If you don’t find a way that your life connects to the Torah, then it is as insignificant as any other book. When we study Torah, we assume there’s wisdom in its words. However, as mortal men, we don’t know how the wisdom fits in our lives. Studying Torah is an act of holiness. The act of studying alone, forces us to consider, where does it fit in our lives?

The golden rule, veahavtah lereachah kamocha (love thy neighbor as thyself), can be considered the eleventh commandment. According to Jacob Hertz, editor of the Pentateuch you are using today, “The world at large is largely unaware of the fact that this comprehensive maxim of morality –the golden rule of human conduct– was first taught by Judaism”. Even though it is not officially one of the recognized commandments, it is thought by many scholars to be the big lesson underlying the whole Torah. The scholar Hillel was one of these. When a man asked Hillel to teach him the whole Torah, while he stood on one foot, outside Hillel’s door, Hillel replied, “Do not do unto others as you would not want done unto yourself. This is the whole Torah, the rest is only commentary. Go, learn it”. The great spiritual teachers of all religions have taught this universal law.

As I was growing up in Kentucky, I learned about the golden rule from our neighbor Dorothy. Whenever we went to Dorothy’s house, a smile was on her face and tuna fish sandwiches were on the table. Dorothy didn’t actually like tuna fish, she made it for our enjoyment. Dorothy invited us to dinner every Tuesday night for years. Dorothy would hardly eat anything; and yet, she would always prepare for us a full spread of at least seven dishes.

Good will for the common good flows strongly in Kentucky; and, I knew many people for whom the Golden Rule was a life goal. My 3rd and 4th grade teacher Mrs McDowell was a widow raising her three children alone. She also took care of her commuting sister’s one child. Many years ago, a tornado tore through central Kentucky, ravaging several farms. The teacher’s aide assigned to Mrs. McDowell was a partial-paraplegic whose husband was killed in the tornado. Mrs. McDowell took her two children into her home for many months while her aide was in the hospital.

The golden rule can be used in two forms, positive or negative. The positive form is the one found in my Torah portion, veahavtah lereachah kamocha (“love thy neighbor as thyself”). The golden rule can also be used in a negative form, as is in the story of Hillel, do not do unto others as you would not want done unto thyself. Dorothy and Mrs McDowell are examples of the positive golden rule. Try as we might, we are not perfect. In our lives, we have to deal with both permutations of the golden rule. When dealing with the negative form, we use the positive form to repent and forgive.

One form of the golden rule is the concept of Tzedaka. Tzdakah means charity and performing acts of loving kindness towards others. Moses Maimonides was a Jewish scholar who lived 800 years ago. He divided the golden rule into seven graduated levels of tzdaka. In its lowest form, one gives unwillingly, such as paying taxes. Slightly higher on the charitable side is one who gives cheerfully, but not enough, such as dropping a quarter into a beggar’s cup. The third level is one who gives enough, but not till he is asked, like volunteering at a community work day. The next level is the philanthropist who gives before being asked, but directly to the poor person; an example of this is sponsoring a child in a third world country. In the higher levels of giving, some anonymity comes into the equation. On the fifth level, the poor one knows from whom he or she takes, but the giver does not know who is receiving; most nonprofits, such as UNICEF, operate this way. You donate money to UNICEF, who, intern, uses it to benefit the less fortunate; who know that they are receiving support from UNICEF. The sixth states that the giver knows to whom he or she gives, but the receiver does not know the giver; an example of this is donating to a museum through a pay-as-you-like donation box. The highest level of giving inferred by Maimonides is when the giver does not know to whom he or she gives, nor does the poor person know from whom he or she receives; prayer is man’s attempt to reach for this seventh layer. We all strive to achieve this seventh level of giving.

This Bar Mitzvah has been a difficult experience for me, one I will never forget; yet I know it gave me the foundations to lead a Jewish life. Thanks to everyone who came, and to all the people who couldn’t come for the gifts and cards, and a big thanks to my grandmother Savta Annette, who came all the way from New York to be with me for this occasion. If Saba Dave, my late grandfather, was here with us during the most important event of my young-adult life, watching me in a polo shirt and shorts, with the ocean at my back and a gecko munching on the cheesecake, what would he say? He would probably just proudly smile, full of satisfaction.

Shabbat Shalom! (And have a nice day?)

By Yehudah Plaut

May 7, 2005
On the Occasion of his Son, Ben’s, Bar Mitzvah

Binyamin ben Yehudah ben Rav Binyamin (ל˝ז).  Benjamin, the son of Yehudah, the son of Rabbi Walter, blessed be his name. And so the mantle is laid once again on the shoulders of another treasured soul who has come of age and joined the Jewish kehelah (our congregational community).  You will pardon me in reviewing (or kvelling, as it is said in Yiddish), the accomplishments that Ben has demonstrated to us this Shabbat morning.  Just in case somehow you can not tell, I want you to know how hard Ben has worked to get to this point today.  He has sung, or cantilated as we say, 5 of the 8 Aliyot of this week’s Torah portion in entirety, having learned over forty lines of Torah as well as the musical trope which is unique to each word in his lines.  He has also cantilated the whole Haftorah having learned a completely different musical trope to accomplish this task. He has learned at least two dozen prayers, chants, and songs which form the core of the three daily Jewish services as well as those of the Jewish holidays. And, he has delivered his first d’var Torah, or drash, a traditional teaching and learning commentary on the Torah portion of the week.

When Ben began his preparations for this event last year, he begrudgingly struggled with every word, with every request to practice, with constant repetition, and with the tedium of a slow meticulous process which seemed endless in length and tiresome in content.   At that time, he and I had a conversation, which I vainly attempted to make into a pep talk, about the respect that would be his rightful due from the Jewish community, when the light at the end of the long tunnel was actually his accomplishment.  Needless to say, his facial expressions and general reluctance to commit to the task at hand, told me that he wasn’t sure that he could really believe such an adult view of his charge.  He was convinced, in his heart of hearts, that he was just going to go through the motions, figuratively kicking and screaming the whole way to the ark, because his parents told him he had to do it.

I am here to tell you today that I have watched Ben master each step along this path; and, in accordance, his personal self esteem has seemed to grow exponentially.   I look at my son and my heart and my soul swell with pride and joy.  What has actually transpired is that the real respect that Ben has earned, contrary to our initial dialogue, has been self-respect, self-confidence and self-worth.  Ben has always been an extremely intelligent kid, but he never did know where to put the Jewish part of his upbringing.  Having been brought up in rural Kentucky, a member of the only Jewish family in many surrounding counties, Ben, and his sister Ma’ayan, found themselves the only Jewish children in their respective schools.  I believe that as a parent, one of the most important teachings I can impart to my children is that not only is it OK to be different; it is what I expect of them.  I never wanted my children to be walking advertisements for Air Jordan sneakers or for the Nike swoosh.  Being different is good, but from the start, in reality, my children have had no choice because they were Jewish individuals in a pronounced non-Jewish world.

The Torah and Haftarah portions that were Ben’s lot today, talk specifically about the concept of being different.  In particular, they talk about one’s relationship with other peoples and the humility one must bear in a natural posture when having to live one’s life in an environment that is not one’s own, as so many Hawaiian transplants have done when relocating to this island.  We have just finished celebrating Pesach, Passover, the signature holiday of all Western civilization.  Let us remember the readings of the Haggadah, the prayer book read at Passover, that say that we were once slaves and strangers in a foreign land, Egypt.  We read this and remember that poverty of the soul and body can always be our lot.  We are not so far removed that we can ever forget how far man has come on the path to the free choice of freedom that is embodied in the Passover celebration revisited annually for the last 2000 years.

For a young person, being different can take on a completely distinct bent.  Being different is going to a school where “Smart is Cool, not square”.  Being different is getting straight A’s on your report card because you care enough to apply the effort.  Being different is being true to yourself in all situations.  Surely the lesson is there for all of us to see and learn; be different and God will bless you as he certainly has blessed us all this day, in gathering to recognize this transition that Ben has realized with such graciousness.

And thus, Binyamin ben Yehudah ben Rav Binyamin (ל˝ז) becomes a responsible member of the world Jewish community.  This small event yields greater ramifications for his life and gives him the tools to progress and find his rightful place in the world.  We pray together that as he continues to learn, he will continue to choose wisely.  Amen.

Á propos to this in closing, as Ben ponders moving forward with his life, I can provide all of you with a last measure of Ben’s perspective on his Bar Mitzvah.  So, I end with a direct quote Ben left me with a few days ago.  He said, “Today I am a man, but tomorrow, tomorrow…………….. ………………….I go back to 7th grade.”  I wish you all a Shabbat Shalom!

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