Child of the Commandments: Bar Mitzvah Speeches for Justice

This is the first in a series of b’nai mitzvah speeches delivered in recent years by members or family of members of JVP. The bar/bat mitzvah ritual literally means “son or daughter of the mitzvot,” and is the Jewish coming of age ritual that marks one’s transition into adulthood. With the honor of participating in a service as an adult, and the months of preparation that go into it, it also is the beginning of responsibility in Jewish life.

As part of the b’nai mitzvah ritual, the 13 year old will give a short d’var, a sermon, around the topic of the week’s Torah reading. Students might pick out a theme of ethics, or a textual confusion that interests them. However, these young people chose to speak to their congregation during their ceremonies about issues around justice in Palestine. How fitting that on the day that a child becomes a Jewish adult that they engage with one of the core issues of our lives as Jewish adults-how to Jewish ethics are in opposition to the Occupation. May they be an inspiration for us to similarly find words of justice in our Torah.

Bar mitzvah in New York City, December 2014
Submitted by a proud aunt in Bay Area JVP.

The story of Joseph can be approached many different ways. It can be seen through the lens of a psychiatrist, a psychologist, a parent, or a sibling. None of which I am. However, I can approach the story as what I do best, a student. Joseph is a very complex person who makes many controversial decisions.

At the beginning,  Joseph is a clueless son of a shepherd who angers his brothers. By the end of his life, Joseph is the effective ruler in Egypt, second only to Pharaoh. I will explore how and why Joseph changed and how the country of Israel can follow from his example.

When Joseph was a teenager working as a shepherd for Jacob,  he fostered resentment among his brothers by telling them they would all bow down to him and he would be the center of the universe. If Joseph had any common sense,  he would realize that telling his older brothers he would someday rule them is not going to go over well. After being sold into slavery, Joseph probably realized that he made a few mistakes. Then, landing in the household of Potiphar, the chief steward of the Pharaoh, Joseph does not run his mouth as much, but still lands in prison. During his time in prison, Joseph tells the dreams of Pharaoh’s chief baker and his chief cup-bearer, who are fellow prisoners. He tells them that the cup-bearer would return to his post, but that the baker would be hung. Joseph also instructed the cup-bearer to mention Joseph’s name to the Pharaoh to help secure his release. This is an example of how Joseph is using his ability to interpret dreams in a smart way that benefits him in the long run and does not get him in trouble. Later, Pharaoh is having dreams that his advisers cannot explain. The chief cup-bearer mentions Joseph as someone who could interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. Joseph interprets the meanings of Pharaoh’s dreams,  and is named the leader of Egypt by Pharaoh. Pharaoh determines that Joseph should be leader because no one understood God as well as Joseph, and was as wise as Joseph was. Once again, Joseph uses his dream interpreting talents in a good way that benefits Pharaoh, the people of Egypt, and Joseph himself.

A question still remains however: If it is so beneficial to change,  why don’t people do it? The answer is that people don’t like change and are comfortable with the status quo. People only change when they are forced to change. Once Joseph faced adversity and hardship because of his behavior, he realized that he needed to change or else things would just get worse.

The lessons that Joseph learns in Egypt can be applied to the way in which Israel handles itself in the modern-day world and especially in its relations with Palestine. Since Israel’s independence in 1948, and especially since the Six Day War in 1967, when Israel took over the West Bank, Gaza, Sinai, and the Golan Heights, Israel has had very tense relations with Palestine and the other countries in that region. Israel has not helped the tension between the two sides in recent years.

This past summer, Israeli airstrikes killed more than 2,000 Palestinians on the Gaza Strip, most of them civilians. In contrast, fewer than 75 Israelis died with only 6 civilian casualties. In addition, Israel continues to announce new housing projects in the West Bank and East Jerusalem that undermine the peace process, are irrational and against international law. Israel has seemed almost to be fighting against itself each time it announces a new settlement.
Israel is not helped when senior members of the Israeli government say things like “I will do everything in my power to make sure they never get a state” in reference to Palestine. However, Israel can still fix its course just like Joseph did and achieve a 2-state solution, which it has repeatedly said is its goal. Israel needs to realize that being stubborn will get it nowhere and that international condemnation and sanctions will continue if Israel continues to be the way that it is. Israel must be forced to change if it cannot do it by itself. Compromise — not confrontation– is the right path for Israel.

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