Imagine a different world from the world we currently live in. A world that is harsh, unfair and filled with countless injustices. Think for a moment what that world might look like. Picture waking up this morning and turning on the television to your local news channel. The news is censored by the government and only the information they want you to hear about is being broadcasted. Next, you try to text message a friend about wanting to carpool to my Bat Mitzvah, but the cellular phone networks were shut down by the government and you are unable to send out messages. After that, you go to the Davis farmers market, and there are police officers with a sign that reads only men are allowed in the market and women are not. You then attempt to eat breakfast at Crepeville, however, they will not serve you because of the color of your skin, your ethnicity, or your religion. And finally, imagine you are driving or walking to the synagogue and you have to stop at a checkpoint with armed guards and have to present your identity papers. When the guards feel like it, they can choose to not let you pass or even put you in prison. You are lucky you were able to get past the security check point and to make it safely to my Bat Mitzvah today.
I presented you with this extreme story to give you a sense of what the world could look like without justice. Sadly, there are many places in the world today where this story is true and happens every day. Many people live under repressive governments, have no basic rights, and live in fear everyday that they can be arrested. My Torah portion of this week, Parashat Shoftim, teaches about the importance of justice within a society. The portion gives us an example of creating a well balanced and just society with laws to govern fairly.
Specifically, this portion of the Torah gives many examples of how justice should be pursued. In fact, one of the most famous verses from this portion is “Justice, Justice, shall you pursue”. It is interesting that Justice is repeated, to doubly emphasize the importance of pursuing justice in creating a society.
In ancient Israel, this Torah portion required court judges to never play favorites or to take bribes. Imagine living in a society where judges took bribes, and whoever had the most money and power always were favored in legal cases. This would create an unfair and corrupt legal system. This portion also talks about if a person accidentally caused someone’s death, cities of refuge were established where that person could go so that the family of the deceased would not seek revenge and kill them without a fair trial. This is similar to our current legal system that says you are innocent until proven guilty. This system protects the person who might have committed a crime.
This Torah portion also tells the ancient Israelites never to cut down fruit trees during war because the fruit trees cannot protect themselves by running away. I think this law is very applicable today. When a country attacks another in war it is important not to destroy natural resources and food supplies for innocent civilians.
Another interesting set of laws from the portion advises how the ancient Kings of Israel should rule. The king must live a humble life and have a Torah with him at all times. The king is required to study the laws of Torah all throughout his life to make sure that he is never arrogant towards his people. Although we don’t have a king ruling us today, we do have a president. I think a just president is similar to a king in ancient Israel who should know the laws of the country and obey them by not putting him or herself above the laws.
All of us have felt at some point in our lives a form of injustice. In my own life, I have experienced what it feels like to be treated unfairly. A story that I want to share with you is when I went to Israel three years ago for Passover to visit my uncle Eric and his family. During the visit, My dad, my Uncle, two of my male cousins, and I, went to the western wall in Jerusalem to pray. The western wall, also known as the kotel, is the most holy of Jewish sites. The western wall is the only retaining wall standing from the second temple when the romans demolished it in 70 C.E. Today, at the wall, the ultra-orthodox community separates women and men from praying together, and I had to be on a different side from all of my family members. I felt scared being alone especially because most of the women there seemed to speak a different language and I was in a foreign country. Also the women’s section of the wall is much smaller and crammed with many people, while the men have more space to pray. Finally it felt unjust to me because I wanted to pray with my family and to not be alone in such a holy spiritual place.
Pursuing this further, today if a woman wants to wear a tallit or read from the Torah, just like I am doing, even on the women’s side of the Kotel, she can be arrested or harassed. As I think about my own experience at the wall and the importance of equality and justice in our Jewish tradition, I wanted to do something that would make a difference. For my mitzvah project I have decided to raise money for an organization called Women of the wall. Known as, Neshot HaKotel, this organization is a multi-denominational feminist organization based in Israel whose goal is to secure the rights of women to pray at the Western Wall in a fashion that consists of singing, reading aloud from the Torah and wearing religious garments such as the tallit and kippah, traditionally worn only by men. The group holds monthly prayer services for women at the wall on Rosh Hodesh, which is the first day of each Hebrew month and falls on the new moon. These actions have upset members of the ultra- Orthodox Jewish community, sparking protests and arrests.
The organization was founded in December 1988 by North American women during the first International Jewish Feminist Conference in Jerusalem. A group of approximately one hundred attendees praying in the women’s section of the wall were verbally and physically assaulted by ultra-Orthodox Jews at the site. When the conference ended, a group of Jerusalem women continued to meet at the wall and formed Women of the Wall to assert their right to pray there without difficulty. In 2003 the Israeli Supreme Court ruled to prohibit women from carrying a Torah or wearing prayer shawls at the wall. It wasn’t until May of 2013 that another judge ruled that the Supreme Court had misinterpreted this, and that the prayer gatherings at the wall should be legal. The issues regarding women’s justice at the wall is the most covered women’s issue in the history of the Israeli media.
I feel that women should have the same rights as men in the Jewish community. I feel that they should have a right to read from the Torah, to wear a tallit and kippah, and be able to celebrate becoming a Bat Mitzvah. I am grateful that I am part of a Jewish community that allows me as a woman to participate equally in the Jewish community as men. Becoming a Bat Mitzvah means that I am now considered an adult in the Jewish community. Bat Mitzvah literally translates into English to become a ‘Daughter of the Commandment’. Being a Bat Mitzvah means that I am now obligated to follow the commandments talked about in the Torah and to contribute to my community as an adult participant and leader. One of the commandments of becoming a Bat Mitzvah is to read from the Torah and to teach about it’s meaning in my life. Another commandment is called Tikun Olam, which is an obligation to make the world a more just and better place for all people regardless of religion, ethnicity, and gender. I am proud that my Jewish community has women playing equal roles in leading prayers and serving in the community.
To raise money and support Women of the Wall, I have decided to do fundraiser that incorporates one of my favorites activities, playing water polo. I am going to do shoot – a –thon, where I will shoot water polo goals against one of my team members to raise money to support Women of the Wall. After services, you will have an opportunity to sponsor me to help raise money to support this important cause to create a more just opportunity for women to pray at the wall. I believe that a just society should allow men and women to have equal roles. I would invite you to think about ways you can make a difference in our society to be a more just place for everyone. I feel really fortunate to live in America, that has equal opportunities for boys and girls, and men and women.
Many people have helped make my Bat Mitzvah possible, and I would like to take this time to thank them. First, I would like to thank Rabbi Wolfe for being my Rabbi since I was baby and for teaching me about Judaism and helping me prepare for my Bat Mitzvah. I would like to thank Malka, and all my Sunday and Hebrew school teachers for giving me a great Jewish education and inspiring me about being Jewish. I would like to thank Carrie Shepherd for being my Bat Mitzcah tutor and teaching me my Torah portion, haftorah and blessings. I would like to thank my parents for helping me prepare for my Bat Mitzvah and for their love and support even when I was being difficult and not wanting to practice my Hebrew studies. I would like to thank Grammy Judy and Gramps Harvey for purchasing my Tallit when we were together in Israel when I was six years old, and also for hosting Shabbat dinner last night. I would like to thank my out of town family and friends for traveling to Davis to be together with me for my special day. Especially my Uncle Eric, Aunt Bracha, Cousins Noam, Yedid and Rachel for coming all the way from Israel. Also I would like to thank my friend Simone for helping me shop for my dress. And finally I want to thank my friends from Sunday school, Holmes Jr High school, and my water polo team for being such great friends and supporting me here today. Thank you everyone for being here this morning and I wish you a happy Shabbat Shalom.
Shayna Amster Bat Mitzvah D’var Torah August 30, 2014