Parashat Shoftim (Bar Mitzvah), 2020

Shabbat Shalom!

First, I would like to tell you a little about myself.

I was born in Houston, Texas.

About a year ago my Dad and I started watching football together. “GO Hawks!!”  Every time the Seahawks were playing on tv, my Dad and I and sometimes my Mom would make a different snack. Some of our snacks consisted of nachos, cheese sticks and pretty much anything you can think of. This was fun becaue every week we would learn how to make a new thing. After we started to watch football, we started to play it too. My Dad and I would pass a football around in the driveway at least 5 times a week. We would watch YouTube videos about how to catch the ball easier and how to make it not slip out of our hands.

Now that’s enough about me.

Let´s talk about my Torah portion and how I interpret it looking at the problems going on now.

My Parshah is Shoftim, that means judges. We find it in the Book of Deuteronomy, Chapter 16 beginning with verse 18.

The beginning of the Parsha says that it is almost entirely devoted to justice and if you read on some more it talks about the obligations of judges and kings and how much power they should have. Later it states the law will treat everybody the same and protect the vulnerable from the powerful. It also says not to form the habit of seeing only the worst in people rather than seeing both the good and bad.

One of the most important verses in the Torah is found in my Parsha: “Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof”, which  means Justice, Justice, you shall pursue.

The Rabbis interpreted the verse by saying that not only the goals should be just, but the ways to achieve them as well.

Justice means to me pretty much what it says in Parshat Shoftim, which is to treat everybody the same and to make fair judgment.

I believe in having the same rights for everyone no matter their skin color or any other external difference. As we read in the Torah, many years ago Moses instructed the people of Israel to appoint judges and enforcement officers in every city without corruption or favoritism and that you shall judge people with fair judgment.

This portion is so relevant nowadays! Why? Because what Moses said thousands of years ago has not been happening for a while now. Police officers have been killing people of color for little or no reason and many have barely been punished at all. On the streets all across America there have been peaceful protests and riots protesting what happened to George Floyd and many other people.

But even with all the protests there is still racism all over America and I think Moses would be sad if he saw how much racism is still present today.  I also think he would be proud about how people have started fighting for black rights and the same rights for all. I also think that because Jewish people have been oppressed many times over history because of our religion that we should consider any people being oppressed to be our fight.

Is it important that in the Torah Tzedek is repeated twice in the phrase Tzedeck Tzedeck Tirdof?  A couple of Spanish rabbis helped me figure that out.

In the 13th century, Spanish Rabbi  Bachya ben Asher  in his commentary on the phrase “Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof”,  said: “Do not use unjust means to secure justice. Rather, pursue justice under all circumstances, whether to your profit or loss, whether in words or deeds, whether to Jew or non-Jew.”   I interpret this to mean we need to strive for justice for all people, no matter their religion, skin color, or any other difference.

Ibn Ezra was a  twelfth-century Spanish bible scholar and he gave this explanation for saying Tzedek twice:  The repetition conveys recurrence and endless justice.  We don’t look for  justice one time only – we should go after it time after time after time throughout our whole lives.

Turning back to the opening words of our Parsha, the Hebrew phrase “Teeten Lecha” is translated as, “You shall appoint.”  The literal meaning of the phrase, though, is “YOU SHALL GIVE TO YOURSELF”.  I think this is important. This means to me that every single one of us is responsible for choosing our leaders. This phrase makes me think of our upcoming election.  In the weeks before my bar mitzvah, my Dad and I have been  writing letters to people who may not vote to try to get them to vote. I think everyone should vote so we will all have a voice in electing a leader who can help bring Tzedek–or justice–for everyone and change  all our lives for the better.

I want to thank everyone at Congregation Kol Shalom and especially the Rabbi for spending countless hours teaching me  through Zoom and Facetime, my relatives and friends present online, and my family who accompanied me during this process.

Shabbat Shalom.