Sample Speeches

Gabriel Schlachet, June 1, 2013:

My Torah portion, Shlach, is about overcoming fears by having faith that you can achieve your goals, despite the obstacles you may encounter in your way.

In my Torah portion, Moses and all the other Jews arrive just outside the land of Israel. Moses then gets a message from God telling him to send twelve men into the land to scout it out, during which the spies find out just how valuable the land is, and a bit about its inhabitants. The spies find out that the land of Israel holds many great things, such as large quantities of food and excellent farming land. But what they find out about who has been living here before them is not so pleasant. The spies find out that there are enormous monsters living in the land, and that they would be compared to the monsters as grasshoppers. All of the Jews begin to panic, saying things like “We should have stayed in the land of Egypt!!” and ” We should just kill ourselves now!!”. But two of the spies, Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Yefuneh, still had hope that everything would work out in the end, and tried to convince the Jews to have faith.

My Haftarah explains the story of how the Jews conquered the land of Israel and defeated the beasts standing in their way. Two men- Joshua and Caleb- set out into the land to try and find some way they could obtain it. They ended up being offered help from a woman named Rahab, who helps them greatly in their mission. She ends up signaling to the two men when all her people have left the village, and tells them when to shut the city walls and close off the town to outsiders.

Faith and fear played a big role in the preparation for my Bar Mitzvah. A year ago, when I thought about my Bar Mitzvah, I felt terrified, like I might fall over and die. I was nervous that my Bar Mitzvah would be a big mess because I felt like I didn’t know any of the prayers, Torah verses, and felt like I did not know how to read Hebrew. After finding my torah portion with my teacher Misha, I thought I was completely and utterly screwed. It looked like so many squiggly lines and shapes that some people knew as letters and expected me to read and understand! But then we picked out the parts that were the most important to me, and it didn’t seem like so much after all.

In the beginning, I had many fears: fear of messing up, of not sounding right when chanting, of looking weird on stage, of not knowing what to say, and many, many more. The first time Misha told me to “have faith”, I went all New York on him: “You said what now.” But after thousands of times practicing, I thought that maybe there was an itty bitty small little tiny chance that things wouldn’t be so bad?

I started off with little steps, reviewing the Hebrew letters and the sounds they make, and gradually worked my way up to being able to read, chant and sing everything you just heard me do. A couple weeks ago, when Misha arrived, I told him that I did not feel very nervous anymore, and actually felt excited, even prepared and ready for the event.

What changed my state from fear to excitement was not just the thought of being a semi-rich New York child after the event (which I will be honest, got me pretty excited), it had more to do with my realization that a lot of Jewish children go through this, and all those Jewish children end it with no problems whatsoever except maybe not knowing what to do with all their newly found money.

When I first heard all the things I will have to perform in front of you here, it felt very much like the moment in my Torah portion when the scouts have just reported to the people that the land of Israel is full of enormous beasts, and that they would have to fight them for the land. It felt like this moment because I knew there was a very big obstacle in my way, and I knew that it would be very difficult to overcome.

I reminded myself of Misha’s words, “have faith,” and I realized this was completely connected to my Haftorah portion. If they could do it, so could I! AND, If I am now reading this in front of all of you, I have just accomplished my goal! What I learned about faith from this process is that if you believe in good things to come, then they will come. To me, what creates faith is the desire to accomplish something, and what keeps faith alive is the hard work that you put in towards accomplishing your goal.

Olivia Joergens, September 10, 2016

Shabbat Shalom! Good morning. Thank you all for being here with me. Today’s reading,  Shoftim (Judges) comes from Deuteronomy. My portion is part of Moses’ final speech to his people before entering the Promised Land. Like Martin Luther King, Jr. in recent times, Moses knew he wouldn’t be with his people to see the rewards of their struggle. He also knew that a great struggle still lay ahead when they arrived. Keep in mind that after being enslaved for generations in Egypt and then wandering the desert for 40 years, the Jews would have to maintain a settled, unified and God-loving community. That was a HUGE task — especially in that time and place, and Moses didn’t expect them to be all that good at it! In his speech, he introduces a system of order and justice to ensure that the Jews would create a successful, functioning society and hold on to their faith.

I have to admit, when I first found out what my bat mitzvah Torah portion would be, I was disappointed. It just seemed dry and nitpicky, not all that dramatic or exciting. None of that parting of the seas stuff. Another clump of paragraphs referring to God like some big angry man in the sky. “You shall not set up a sacred pillar, which the Lord your God hates.” “You shall not sacrifice [an animal] with any blemish, for that IS an abomination to the Lord your God.” Moses even goes on to mention that if anyone is caught worshipping other gods, he’ll be stoned to death, and the reporting witnesses will have to be the ones to do the stoning. That’s just brutal! So, really, what does this all mean to me, and how can it be significant right now, in today’s world?

One point that stands out for me comes in the second half of my portion, where Moses instructs the Israelite tribes on the Principles Governing Kings. What’s unusual here is that Moses makes choosing a king optional. Once the Jews settled in the land of Israel, appointed judges and officers and established their legal justice system, then they might desire a king to represent them like the surrounding lands. They could appoint one of their own people, but unlike kings in other lands, their king would not be allowed to have multiple wives, collect horses or hoard gold. In other words, the Jews could not afford to have a single ruler corrupted by his own power and wealth, and more to the point, they couldn’t have a ruler who might cause them to go back again to the slavery and despair of Egypt. For the Jewish people, there was no moving backward. Only forward. Like priests, judges and officers, the king would have to follow God’s law, to “hear and fear God”, so that “his heart may not be lifted above his brethren.” If the Jews loved their king, they would have the power to prolong his reign. If he didn’t prove fit, he wouldn’t last.  Moses’ speech represents a GIANT accomplishment in Jewish thought and culture. He plants the seeds of democracy, complete with checks and balances, with the aim of serving justice and doing God’s work.

That’s lofty and reasonable, but reading through my portion again and again only brings up harder, bigger questions for me. This summer I met with Misha in a café downtown, and he asked me, “So, Olivia, what is justice?  Can you give me a definition?” My first reaction was to shrug and say, “Oh, I dunno.” What is justice? As I continue to see and hear news all around me concerning unfit presidential candidates, police brutality, gun violence, racism, poverty, attacks on LGBT and women’s rights, xenophobia, poisoned drinking water and environmental abuse, I DO know that different people have their own definition for justice depending on how they’ve been hurt by the lack of it.  If I look at it this way, it’s clear that my Torah portion is as relevant today as ever.

As I wrestle with the definition of justice, I take a cue from an interview my teacher Avital showed me. It features Yeshayahu Leibowitz,, a former professor and scientist at Hebrew University. He is now remembered in Israel as a modern prophet, because he outraged Israelis into action with bitter but truthful commentary on their country’s political, military and religious practices. In this interview, Leibowitz said, “Human history is the chronicle of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of man and his struggle to overcome those crimes, follies and misfortunes..” For Leibowitz the good news was that despite flawed human nature, man has the will and the decision-making power to STRUGGLE. That struggle is eternal, and it is our essential human experience. So I can say that the work to make the world more whole and healthy, to come as close to the ideal of God as possible, is  justice. Leibowitz referred to a line in the shulchan aruch, urging Jews to “overcome like a lion to get up for the work of God.” – emphasis on the word OVERCOME. In other words, we humans have never managed to WORK GOD, but we still can and must try. This is why Jews don’t believe a messiah has come yet and why we believe the Messiah is not a person but a time when there is no absence of justice in our world.  Now this thought leads to another question. What IS God?

I believe that there is a creative force greater than our universe and far greater than humans can comprehend, and Jews called it God. It’s there whether we give it a name or not, and there’s a spark of it in all of us. As my brother Ben said in his bar mitzvah speech:  “There is one God, flowing through us, all around us, yet totally beyond us. That part of us connected to God feels creative, healing, productive, and right.” This for me is the connection between justice and God that appears throughout my Torah portion. Jews conceived of ONE GOD, because we know there is an ideal way to coexist, but as humans, we are never perfect. We all have different needs, sometimes competing needs, and we can be pretty near-sighted. We need to look beyond ourselves to respect and acknowledge one another’s basic humanity. We need the unity of values and purpose that is our God in order to move forward and live just lives. As long as this is true, the Torah will always be relevant.

This is what I take away from my Torah studies. This is the Jewish part of my identity that I celebrate today.

Shabbat Shalom!



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