Hannah Henderson–Charnow’s D’var Tora

Shabbat Shalom! I would like to thank all of you for being here. I would also like to thank my mother Sally Charnow for her love and encouragement, my great aunt Aviva Rosenberg for her generosity, my aunty K for being such an enthusiastic voice on the phone, Rabbi Lippmann for helping me with my d’var torah, Lisa B Segal for sharing her love of Jewish music with me and all of Kolot Chayeinu, Adina Back for teaching me how to bake challah, my cousins Mika and Noam, my brother Ian, and the rest of my family for their love and affection. I also want to thank my tutor Jocelyn Cohen, for guiding me through this amazing bat mitzvah journey. My Torah portion is Bechukotai. Its words enthralled me from the very first moment I encountered them because the language is so dramatic and fiery. But also because in this portion there is a certain connection with taking care of the environment for generations to come which I passionately agree with. In Bechukotai, Adonai lays out all of the punishments for the Israelites (us) if we do not follow his laws, and protect the earth, specifically if we do not let it lay fallow every seven years so the land may have a Sabbath of complete rest. Adonoi says that the land is holy, “All tithes from the land, whether seed from the ground or fruit from the tree, are the Lord’s; they are holy to the Lord.” He says he will destroy us, he will desecrate our people, everything we do will no longer have purpose, we will eat the flesh of our sons and the flesh of our daughters, our sky will be like iron and our earth like copper, we will flee as though from a sword though none pursues us if we disobey the laws. If we walk indifferently with God, if we forsake our covenant with him, if we remain hostile to our agreement we will be destroyed. But there is still hope. Note that I said IF, if we, if we, if we walk indifferently. If implies a choice, the Torah gives us the choice to act wisely, the chance to act morally in accordance with our conscience and the needs of our world. In this Torah portion the word keri is mentioned quite a lot. It is translated in the JPS Tanakh as “indifferently,” meaning, for example, walking indifferently with God. According to the medieval commentator Rashi keri might mean by chance, as though God is saying you cannot just obey my laws by chance or when you feel like it. For obeying a law only when it is convenient is not fulfilling it fully with one’s spirit. The test is actually to obey a law when it is difficult or inconvenient because that takes a certain kind of intention and a desire to overcome obstacles. Rashi also suggests that keri means hardening, as when the people are following God’s rule with hard hearts like Pharaoh’s. This might mean that they follow without truly believing that the words of God are what is right but following them out of fear or for no reason at all. In the Torah Commentary Etz Hayim, Israel Salanter is quoted as relating keri to kor or col, meaning cold, thus saying that the people are walking with God in a calculated way, legalistically, without spirit or passion. If they break God’s laws or they follow them in a way without their full spirit then they corrupt them until you can’t see the religious value anymore. Then we have broken our covenant with God. If we follow the law coldly, (keri) then God will act (b’keri) with coldness. And then we will feel how cold God’s power can be, when the curse is upon us. Curses are brought on by bad choices. The Torah does not doom us to suffer from our choices but instead it always has a way for us to redeem ourselves. I believe that choices are what defines us as human, so it is as if the Torah recognizes that we are fallible humans, not perfect people, and what we strive for should not be perfection because it is unattainable. The Torah gives us a way to realize what we did and gives us another choice, a most important choice, to choose the right path or the fork in the road that is for you. In the parsha it states three times, “But if, despite this, you disobey Me and remain hostile to Me, I will act against you in wrathful hostility*” This does not exactly state I will let you come back and I will forgive you. But by saying if you REMAIN hostile to me THEN I will*It is implying that you are choosing to remain hostile but you could choose not to. God also says if you remain hostile then I will act with hostility, God does not say what he will do if you choose not to remain hostile. We can safely assume that God does not like smiting and burning and killing us and he would much rather welcome us back to walk with him in commitment. But he give us a choice, he says IF, a choice to come back to the Torah, to embrace it again to show that even though we are human and are not perfect, we can make the right choices and fight for the things that support us. I believe that the right choice is the one that will not only fully embrace your life and elevate it to new heights but also touch the hearts of those around you. A rabbi once offered the following analogy: “Every Jew is a letter in the Torah. But a letter may, at times, grow somewhat faded. It is our sacred duty to mend these faded letters and make God’s Torah whole again.” Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitch heard this, and objected: “No, the identity of the Jew cannot be compared to erasable ink on parchment. Every Jew is indeed a letter in God’s Torah, but a letter carved in stone. At times, the dust and dirt may accumulate and distort—or even completely conceal—the letter’s true form; but underneath it all, the letter remains whole. We need only sweep away the surface grime, and the letter, in all its perfection and beauty, will come to light.” We must brush away the grime and dust concealing our letters; we must follow a path that will lead us to make the right choices. We need to Choose: Return to the Torah and be forgiven, and work towards rebuilding the natural world that we are destroying. Or remain hostile and walk indifferently, walk coldly, walk with hard hearts in our world, without realizing that we are a part of it and when it goes down we will follow. Bring the beauty and perfection to light; bring yourselves to realize what is happening to us and our earth. Make the right choice. What do I mean make the right choice? Let us remember what the Torah portion commands. If we do not treat the natural world in the right way: if we do not let it rest, if we do not treat our environment with respect. We will have to bear God’s curses: being forced to eat the flesh of our children, seeing our land overrun by our enemies, man and beast, overcome with consumption and fever which will cause our eyes to pine and our bodies to languish; our land will no longer yield its produce and our skies will be like iron and our earth will be like copper. That sounds like what is happening to our world right now, doesn’t it! There were no holy places or places of study at the time of King David, rather everywhere his feet took him was a holy sacred place. For me this is like nature itself, the natural is sacred and we have a duty to the wild places where God’s voice still echoes from long ago, we have a duty to these holy places, it is up to us to protect the wilderness, the eco-system, and our human environments, too and for it is here—in the woods and in the city—that God’s goodness and awesomeness shines the brightest. So our right path must include care for the natural world. That is why today I am asking myself and each one of you to consider our planet and to make the right choice. This is the only planet we know of that supports life. And right now we are walking indifferently, coldly, b’keri with hardened hearts toward the greatest crisis our planet faces, global warming. We know we have to reduce emissions, but we don't think we can make a difference and we don’t know how to change our way of life to become synchronized with the needs of our world. Now I am asking you to take a step, start walking in the right direction of change. I have postcards in the back of the shul addressed to our two senators to co-sponsor and strengthen the Lieberman–Warner Climate Security Act (S. 2191) when it moves to the Senate floor. The bill would set real, long–term reductions in global warming pollution and is the first bipartisan climate legislation in history to be voted out of committee. My hope is that each of you will make the right choice and fill out a postcard asking our lawmakers to support this bill. I will be giving part of my bat–mitzvah money to an organization called National Resources Defense Council. This organization works on a broad range of issues as they pursue their mission to safeguard the Earth; its people, its plants and animals, and the natural systems on which all life depends, issues including Global Warming, Oceans, Wild lands, Smart Growth, Wildlife and more. NRDC is one of the most prominent organizations advocating for environmental protection in the United States. Because they are so well established and well funded I trust that they will put my donation to the best possible use. Environmental organizations like NRDC need all of us to help them protect the sacred natural world. Wherever we walk our history is imbedded in stone, the memories of others are imprinted upon the sky and voices from long ago echo through the wind. We have a covenant with the earth that we must not break or my generation, my children and my children’s children will suffer. Our whole planet is blessed; the wild places are just as sacred as they were in King David’s time, perhaps even more so. Shabbat shalom!

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