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by Susan Segal
BAR/BAT MITZVAH D’VAR TORAH GUIDELINES.
PLEASE FILL THIS FORM OUT IN FULL, AND YOUR SPEECH WILL PRACTICALLY WRITE ITSELF.
NAME: Sadie Sutherland
TORAH PORTION: Balak, Numbers 22:2–25:9
1. Remember to begin and end with the traditional greeting, “Shabbat Shalom.” Explain for your non-Jewish guests that it means “good or peaceful Sabbath.” Briefly summarize the Torah portion -- no more than a few sentences.
SHABBAT SHALOM. It means “good or peaceful Sabbath.”
I have a really interesting Torah portion. All my friends’ portions have been unbelievably boring. My friend Carly’s was literally just a count of the number of all the Israelites who got out of Egypt. The census for godssake. Try making that interesting. Balak, on the other hand, is juicy. It’s the story of how Pinchas, son of Eleazar the priest, and grandson of Moses’s brother, Aaron, received the gift of eternal priesthood from God.
The story would totally make a movie. What happens is, while the Israelites were in the desert, the people began to “behave immorally” with the Moabite women. Actually, the text says “people,” but I think it’s obvious we’re only talking about the men here. As far as I can tell, the Israelite women were minding their own business making matzoh and playing mah jong while the men were “misbehaving.” The Moabite women got them to come over to their tents and drink and worship the Moabite gods. This really pissed God off. So He says to Moses, “Take the people’s leaders and have them impale the idolators publicly before Me. This will reverse My anger.” Basically, that means he told Moses to kill everyone who was fornicating -- I assume I can say “fornicating” at my bat mitzvah -- and worshipping the idols. Meanwhile, because he was so mad, God brought a plague on the Israelites. So Moses calls all of Israel’s judges and told them to kill the people they were in charge of who had worshipped the idols.
The judges didn’t want to do this so they started crying and wailing etc., and while they were crying, this Moabite woman and Israelite man come into the tent, go in the other room and start doing it, and that’s when Pinchas jumps up and grabs a spear and stabs them both in one blow -- through the man, into the woman, who is below him. I mean, it’s right there in the Bible, and this is the clean version.
And so because Pinchas punished the man and the woman without hesitating, God rewarded him and his descendants, since he did what God asked without questioning. And Pinchas also got God to calm down so He would remove the plague from the Israelites and forgive them. Twenty-four thousand people died of the plague first, though, which seems pretty harsh.
I know this is more than a few sentences, but it’s a pretty complicated story.
2: Discuss the part that you liked best. Explain what makes it meaningful.
Am I allowed to say that I liked the part with the people having sex and then being impaled? I mean, it’s so gory and graphic -- it’s like something on HBO that my mom would never let me watch. And it’s something that would never happen to me -- not the sex part but the impaling part -- so it’s interesting like when you hear about someone having a brain tumor or a car accident.
My portion could mean a bunch of things. It could mean that we need to do what God tells us to do even if it seems harsh or wrong, just because He told us to. But that makes me wonder how we’re supposed to know what God wants us to do because nobody I know has ever heard God talking directly to them. So there’s always the possibility that we will do something we think God wants us to do but it turns out we’re wrong. Then there’s the whole question of whether there even is a God, but I know you don’t want me to go into that. Let me just say, however, that my mother has said out loud that she herself isn’t sure there’s a God, so the whole question of hypocrisy comes up, which, given that it’s my mother, isn’t surprising.
My mom said that I should think about my Torah portion in terms of what happens when people “take the law into their own hands” -- those were her words -- and I said, Well, in this story, they get rewarded for it and she said, Yes, but some good people also get killed in the story and I said, There’s collateral damage whenever people just do whatever they want and she congratulated me for knowing what “collateral” meant, which was kind of missing the point.
I was also thinking it might be saying something about sex and when to have it and who to have it with. This makes the most sense to me. It’s God’s way of saying don’t have sex with the wrong person. And that’s meaningful to me I guess, of course not to do with me, but you could relate it to the fact that my mom and dad don’t have it any more because they got divorced. And now my mom has this new boyfriend. Actually, he’s her fiancé, supposedly, but I don’t see any ring or anything on her finger. She says she and Charles are too old for that but my dad gave his new wife a diamond as big as her fingernail and they had a real wedding in a church with a violin and a cello and flowers and a honeymoon and everything.
Don’t worry, I won’t talk about the church in my speech.
Anyway, my mom says she and Charles are keeping everything “low key” and aren’t going to do anything till June, when seventh grade is over, so I can start eighth grade in Charles’s neighborhood, as if that’s supposed to be reassuring to me or something. The point is, about hypocrisy, my mom says all she wants is for me and Jen to be happy, but did she ask me whether I want to leave all my friends and move across town and live in a stranger’s house? Did she ask me if I wanted to have a new “brother” who is Jen’s age and probably uses the bathroom too long and leaves the seat up? I think the answer here is obvious.
It’s not like I think someone should go and impale my mom and Charles or anything. They’re adults, so they get to do what they want, and their children have to go along with whatever plan the adults come up with, like they’re email attachments or something, which, to give my mother credit, she seems to somewhat understand. Right after my father moved out she said to me that one of the few “perks” (her word) of being grown up is that you get to make your own decisions about your life, even if they are “woefully wrong” (obviously, also her words) and she should know. She said it’s no wonder teenagers are mad all the time, but it’s not like it made her change her mind about my fate and give me a choice of what I want or anything.
Jenny has been whining about leaving ever since mom told us she’s getting married and we’re moving into Charles’ place, and she and mom have been going at it and it hasn’t gotten Jenny anywhere, so I figure, why bother speaking up. Just suck it up, Sadie, is what I tell myself. Suck-it-Up-Sadie. That’s going to be my new name for myself.
But I think I’ve gone off topic here.
3. Name three circumstances that show how this portion relates to you becoming a bar or bat mitzvah, keeping in mind that you are now an adult in eyes of the Jewish faith. Some useful buzzwords to keep in mind are “responsibility,” “community” and “accountability.”
The ceremony means tons of presents and a huge party. That’s a joke, of course, can I say that in the speech? My dad says cracking jokes when he’s lecturing gets his students on his side. I realize everyone comes to this thing sort of already on my side, but there’s this one friend of mine -- he’s in my science and Language Arts classes and he was my lab partner when we did the ink in the squid dissection and he got covered in ink and smelled like a tuna sandwich for the whole class and he laughed when I made a face and he has this Justin Bieber hair except it’s black and these gray eyes that look like felt and they go all bright when he laughs. Anyway, I’m inviting him to the bat mitzvah even though we don’t know each other all that well, so cracking a few jokes might lighten the mood for him a little in case he’s uncomfortable.
My dad says teaching is like going into combat, and humor is his weapon. My classroom battle strategy is to keep my head down, but that’s another story. Let me just say that my sister invited three of her favorite teachers to her bat mitzvah and I don’t think three of my teachers even know who I am.
Anyway, how this portion relates to me is that since I will be considered an adult in the Jewish faith, I will need to make decisions about things that are hard, just like Pinchas did, without asking my parents or other adults if it’s right. So for example: after my mother got on Facebook she of course insisted on friending me, and so got a look at some of the messages on my page, and she saw that I’m friends with that boy in my science and Language Arts classes I was just talking about and she started asking me all kinds of questions about him.
So let’s call it a moment of weakness. She was all emotional about something that obviously had nothing to do with me since she kept smiling that smile she has when she’s trying to pretend that she’s not miserable, the one that looks like she attached strings from the sides of her mouth to the ceiling. I don’t think it was about my dad, since she was already dating Charles by this time and she was avoiding my dad’s phone calls, but anyway, she seemed to want me to sit there with her at the computer and I sort of ran out of things to say so I ended up telling her about how when this particular boy leans over the microscope his hair falls over his face and sways back and forth and it’s kind of hypnotizing and how I was thinking I might invite him to this shindig but I didn’t know how to approach him. And it did the trick; it pulled her right out of her mood and she got all excited and involved. She started saying all this stuff about how I was growing up (I mean really, do parents get their language off sitcoms or what?) and she suggested that I write the boy a note and slip it to him and that way there wouldn’t be any embarrassment on either side if he didn’t want to go.
I thought about doing it that way. My mom always writes notes. Whenever she gets upset at me or Jen or even about something that has nothing to do with us, she ends up leaving us a note at the breakfast table the next day to “explain” what I already got when she was upset in the first place; but it seems to make her feel better to write it out. So I considered the idea about writing to the guy in my class so it wouldn’t be embarrassing for me or him, but then I thought about how I felt when I was at my dad’s a couple months ago and was looking for some staples in his desk and found a stack of letters in the back of a drawer from my mother to him -- there must have been five or six, all from after they separated since they all had addresses and stamps on them -- and okay, I can write this because you’re a rabbi and you’re like bound by law or something not to tell anyone about it, right, and I of course am not going to put it in the speech.
I read a couple of them.
Scanned them really; I was afraid my dad or Bridget would walk in any minute. They basically were like those little explanatory notes my mom writes to us, about why she told him to go and how she couldn’t believe when he went. In one of them she said Maybe we should try again, if only for the girls’ sake, and I felt like throwing up when I read that because it’s so completely clear to me and every friend I have whose parents are divorced that what the kids want is pretty much the last thing the grownups consider at times like these.
I guess those letters were written before my dad married Bridget, back in the days when he wouldn’t speak to my mom at all. Like this one night when Jenny and I were staying over at his place and I couldn’t sleep and I came downstairs and he was drinking a beer at the kitchen table and he may have been crying before I got there because his eyes were all puffy, but by the time I sat down with him he was super pissed off and when I asked him if he was okay he said how could he be okay when he hardly got to see us and that my mom threw him out in the first place, even though that’s not the story they told us when he left. I could see from the way he gripped his beer bottle, scraping away at the label with his fingernail, that he hated her like poison. This was a while ago. By the time I found the letters, Dad was happy with Bridget, I think, and he and mom were actually taking each other’s calls.
It’s interesting though, that he kept the letters, don’t you think?
But back to my writing that guy a note. Here’s the thing. My mother is a writer. That’s what she does for work; that’s what she’s good at. The notes she writes to us, to my father, are like her trying to explain in detail exactly what made her say and do the things she did. And even then we don’t really want to read what she has to say. I mean, the letters I found were opened, so my dad probably read them, but he didn’t go back to her or anything so it’s not like they had much impact.
So if nobody responds to my mother-the-writer’s little notes, imagine what it would be like for me to write a note to someone I don’t even really know when I had something delicate to say. I’m a numbers person, anyway. So I made up my own mind, and I talked to the boy in my class instead, face to face. Well, sort of face to face. It was in science lab and I was looking in the microscope so I didn’t have to look at him, which I know was kind of weenie, but he said I can’t hear you with all that hair in your face and he brushed my hair behind my ears, gently.
I won’t lie. It gave me goose bumps.
He said if he didn’t have a baseball game he would for sure come. We don’t have his RSVP yet, but I am hopeful. So that’s an example, I think, of “taking the law into my own hands.” I mean, I’m a little young to have a life example that has to do with the actual law.
And by the way, my mother did tell me later that my asking him in person to come reminded her of my father and for once, I think that was a compliment about him. My father, that is.
Another example is how I have to take responsibility for myself. I feel like I’ve been doing that for a while now, actually, ever since my dad moved out. After he left, my mother did a lot of muffled crying in in her room, even though when they told us they were splitting up they said they were both in agreement. They also said that neither one of them had cheated on the other (Jenny asked this, of course). I think that’s true, because near the end, most of the time they were around each other they either argued or said everything they had to say in a way like they were using the fewest words possible. As in, You working today? Yes, home late. OK. Looking back, it should have been obvious to Jen and me that they weren’t going to make it whether there was an illicit lover or not.
Even so, for all their “This is best for everyones” and “We both love you just the sames” blah blah balah, for a few months after dad left and then started dating Bridget mom walked around like she was on drugs, bumping into things, going on these baking binges and putting too much salt in the cookies as if she wanted them to look good but she didn’t want anyone to actually enjoy them, fussing over our homework and grades, and saying “Where’s Sadie” all the time, as if I weren’t sitting right there.
And there’s Jenny, all weepy half the time, giggly the other, but always talking about her feelings and how much her feelings were being damaged by the divorce and how she needed therapy, which means of course that I had to be dragged there too. Not that it was awful, just boring. Jenny did all the talking big surprise, and every once in a while the therapist, whose name was Jayne with a “y” as if that would make it any less boring, would say to me, “Do you have anything to add, Sadie?” and I would look up from the Lego set she let me build with every week and I have to give her credit, she didn’t say anything about me being too old for Legos or anything, and I’d shake my head and she’d give me this kind smile and then go back to talking to Jenny. Big yawn.
After we went for a few months we got to stop but first Mom said I should go one time alone so Jayne could talk to me about saying goodbye like it was going to be some big wrenching drama or something. I told her that wasn’t necessary but she made the appointment anyway. Jayne and I spent the time building a Lego shopping center and talking about how it was the sort of place Bridget would shop at but not my mom, who is always ranting against chain stores and about paving paradise to put up a parking lot and stuff like that. At the end of 45 minutes Jayne shook my hand and said, “It has been a pleasure knowing you, Sadie. I think you are going to be just fine,” as if I had asked her.
I probably shouldn’t say anything about therapy in the speech though, should I?
As for my community, there was this one time when that boy I mentioned kept calling to ask me about the Language Arts homework and I was like do I look like William Shakespeare or something? This was all before I started talking to him in science class, obviously. Anyway, he kept calling and I asked my mom what to do and she said it depended on whether or not I liked him and by the way, I’m not going to use any stuff about him in the speech obviously, because for one thing, he might actually be there. But you said three things and this stuff is all I can think of.
So anyway, my mom said if I liked this boy I should help him out with the homework and I’m like, I have a B minus in Language Arts I don’t think I can be much help and won’t that make him like me less? And she started in on some story about when she was in Junior High -- I mean it’s not even called Junior High any more, where has she been? And I kind of tuned out. But anyway, her advice was to help him but I sort of took the law into my own hands and decided not to. I told him to ask Megan Hirschman, who has self-published a book of poems and has like an A plus in Language Arts. And I thought he’d get how I had his best interests at heart and that would make him more into getting to know me. And it kind of worked. So like Pinchas, I did what I thought was right in my community. I didn’t invite Megan today and I did invite him, so we’ll see if I get a reward like Pinchas did.
4. What was your community service project? Why did you choose it and what did you learn from it?
I volunteered at Harbor View Retirement Home, reading to the elderly and talking to them. I chose it because it’s four blocks away and I could walk there whenever I wanted and get away from Jenny who has been impossible to be around ever since mom started dating Charles even though we hardly ever see him because mom usually sees him when we’re at dad’s and Jenny had no problem with Bridget, who is around dad’s house all the time, obviously. It’s like mom is her personal property and no one, not even me, is allowed to take any of her time.
Harbor View is super boring but it’s kind of peaceful too, and by the way, it’s nowhere near a harbor and has a view of the Target parking lot across the street. I read the old people Charles Dickens books -- we’re reading Bleak House right now which is incredibly long and unbelievably boring and I sort of lose track of what’s happening -- it’s something about a lawsuit big yawn and a woman having a child out of wedlock which this one Harbor View old lady, Margaret, explains to me every time I go there, was a big deal way back when, as if I didn’t already know that. Jenny told me the whole plot of The Scarlet Letter when I was 12, for heaven’s sake.
The rest of the old people don’t say much. They stare at me a lot, like they’re trying to figure out if they’re supposed to know me, and sometimes I call one of them grandma or grandpa if they look particularly sad. I don’t have to say much to them since I’m mostly reading, which is how I like it. Mom says that’s why Charles reminds her of me, because I don’t say much. I can’t tell if she thinks that’s a good thing or not.
This community service has taught me the importance of communicating and caring about our old people and making them feel good. Which, when you think about it, I’m already doing every time I tell my mom that I am happy for her.
5. Final thoughts. This is where you include thank-yous to the rabbi, your teachers, the cantor, and anyone else who helped you with your speech. Thank your relatives for coming from near and far. Thank your siblings and your parents -- these are the big ones, so make these personal and heartfelt.
I’d like to thank the rabbi and the cantor and my teachers for helping me to get ready for this special day. I’d like to thank my Grandpa Max and my Grandma Charlotte for coming down from Los Angeles even though Grandma Charlotte says that we live in a cesspool of Republicans. And I’m hoping to be able to thank my grandma for telling my mom how pretty she looks and for being nice to Charles, because even though my mom wants her parents there I know she is nervous about it too.
I’d like to thank my Aunt Lily and Uncle Randy for coming. And of course my dad and Bridget. Dad, you’re the best. Thanks for always being glad to see Jenny and me and for supporting us even though this isn’t even your religion. And Bridget, thanks for not trying to be my mom. One is more than enough.
And speaking of Jenny. Even though most of the time you are a pain in the you know what, I want you to know that I couldn’t have gotten through everything without you. And I don’t just mean your helping me with my Hebrew, even though that was huge, since mom was like, clueless. I mean being there for all this time since you know what. There were times when he first left when I felt like I was glued to my bed, like if I got out of bed the house would collapse around us and you never tried to make me get up, you just sat there with me and waited till I was ready. And I’m pretty sure it was you who told mom that she needed to stop telling me it was okay for me to be sad and start making the house a not-sad place and that’s what she did. At least she tried.
I’d like to thank all my friends for coming. I am going to miss you guys soooo much when I move. You are the wind beneath my wings lol. No, really, you guys have been with me through thick and thin and I don’t know how I would have gotten through these past couple of months without you. One thing I’ll say for my mom is that she is very cool about me spending time with my friends. She keeps telling me that she will drive me back to hang with you guys whenever I want and I am going to hold her to that.
And also thanks to the boy with the gray eyes who I hope will be sitting on the end of the aisle when the big day arrives so I can ask him to dance without it looking like I was looking too hard for him.
Thank you for making all this happen and nagging me to death so that I was ready for today. Thank you for the great party that’s going to happen and getting the DJ I wanted who said he’d play “One Less Lonely Girl” as many times as I asked him to, instead of the DJ you liked just because he didn’t have any piercings.
I know today means a lot to you. For one thing, you tell me that at least twice an hour (pause for laughter). Even though things went upside down in our house, I know you want everything to be as “normal” for us as it can be.
That’s a bit much to ask, but I’ll do my best. I don’t know anyone who’s done one of these who hasn’t done it more for the party than for the “meaning” of it all. Okay, maybe not Daniel Bergman, who asked to do his in Israel so he could be closer to God or something, but Daniel, who is very smart and kind of a nice guy, actually, is not exactly the center of anyone’s social circle. Most of us just want to hear Justin Bieber songs and do dance contests and have the DJ give out stupid glowing necklaces and stuff. Maybe you could say that for 13 year olds, listening and dancing to Justin is as close as we get to God.
Anyway, Mom, I can’t guarantee that I will have chanted my Torah portion perfectly, and I may not be able to keep distracting Grandma when she asks us why you let us stay up so late or tells us not to eat before the service. And I can’t do anything about the fact that dad might say something at the service or the party that will make you feel guilty or angry or both. There’s a lot I can’t control.
But I will do my best.
I know my portion well enough, and you are a great party planner and Charles will be holding your hand and everyone on your side of the family will be sitting next to you and giving you Kleenex when you cry and telling you how great a mom you are.
So if it doesn’t come off the way you want it to try not to worry to death that it means that everything else in our lives will fall apart. I don’t think you have to worry. It’s just one day, it’s not the rest of our lives.
Susan Segal’s novel, Aria (published in paperback by Berkeley Signature Editions and in hardback by Bridge Works Publishing), was chosen in 2014 by Barnes and Noble for its Nook First: Compelling Reads From Emerging Writers feature and was optioned by actress Holly Hunter. She has published short stories in Redbook, The Evansville Review, Juked, The Ilanot Review, and several other journals. She has an MFA in fiction from UC Irvine. She is an associate professor at the University of Southern California where she teaches fiction writing, editing and literature, and she lives in Orange County, CA.