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‘Love Thy PALESTINIAN Neighbor’ – Perhaps the Greatest Bar Mitzvah Commentary Ever


The following message comes to us from the D’var Torah, the Torah lesson or commentary delivered by thirteen year old Elijah David Gold at his Bar Mitzvah.

The commentary was given at Congregation Tikkun v’Or in Ithaca, NY where Jewish Voices for Peace Rabbinical Council member Brian Walt serves as rabbi.

Elijah Gold’s Torah lesson to his community powerfully applies the Biblical lesson of loving one’s neighbor as oneself, that is so often forgotten by members of the Abrahamic faiths. The young bar mitzvah applied this teaching to the Israeli military’s treatment of Palestinian children in the West Bank.

Read the transcript from the D’var Torah below…

Thank you for coming to my Bar Mitzvah.

My Torah portion is K’doshim, Leviticus 19:1- 20:27. It is a very important Torah portion because it gives us guidelines for how to treat others. I would like dedicate my D’var Torah to the memory of Wolf Karo. Our congregation participates in the Remember Us project. The Remember Us project has Bar or Bat Mitzvah children lift up the spirit of a child who died during the Holocaust before they had a chance to become Bar or Bat Mitzvahs.

Wolf Karo, who I am lifting up today was relative of mine from Babiak, Poland, where my great Grandma Anne was born. My mother and I requested a child from Babiak or with the last name Caro. It turns out that Wolf Karo’s name had been submitted by my great Grandmother’s cousin in Pennsylvania who has the same name as Wolf Karo.

We tried to do research about Wolf Karo’s life, but we were unable to find out much. His Hebrew name was Zev. His father’s name was Chiel-Maier And his mother’s name was Ester and he was born around 1922. We don’t know how or when Wolf Karo died, but we believe it was likely in the Chelmo Concentration Camp because the first transports to Chelmo came from neighboring Babiak and Chelmo was the first camp where the Nazis used poisonous gas for extermination. At the end of the service I will say Kaddish for Wolf Caro.

K’doshim is a Torah portion of God’s laws and commandments as told by Moses to the Israelites. It includes the Holiness Code and prescribed punishments for sex offenses which includes a prohibition on gay sex. The Tikkun v’Or community strongly disagrees with this and openly welcomes everyone. In Judaism, laws are meant for everyone to understand the reason and significance of the  law. For this purpose, the famous Jewish legal scholar who was also a mystic, Joseph Karo, who I and Wolf Karo are direct descendants of, wrote the Shulchan Aruch, or “Set Table,” so that Jewish law would be laid out for the Jewish people “like a set table ready for eating”.

The Holiness Code includes the Ten Commandments, stated again, but in a different order. The Holiness Code involves a number of different subjects including, how to farm and eat, how to be a person of integrity, how to relate to others in your personal and work life, some laws of Jewish religious practice, and obligations to work for social justice.

For farming and eating, The Holiness Code says that when we plant fruit trees, we should let them mature for five years before eating them. It also says not to eat anything with it’s blood. The Holiness Code tells us that we should not sow two kinds of seeds

In terms of being a person of integrity, the Holiness Code tells us to be kind to and feed the less fortunate. This relates to my Mitzvah Project because for my Mitzvah Project every other week I would go to Loaves and Fishes which is a place where anybody can go to get a free meal. I would play guitar for fifteen to thirty minutes for others’ entertainment.

The Holiness Code says to respect God. It says to love your neighbor as yourself. It tells us not to place a stumbling block before the blind and not to insult the deaf in front of them. It tells us not to steal. It says not to degrade your daughter and make her a whore. The Holiness Code says to love the stranger as yourself.

For relating to others in your personal and work life, the Holiness Code says to not cheat or rob, It says not to hate your relatives or hold grudges, It says not to hate your relatives or hold grudges, It says not be selfish or unethical. To not be unbiased and be fair. To have good labor practices, And to revere our parents.

For religious practice and to set ourselves apart as Jews, the Holiness Code tells us that we must keep the Sabbath and not worship false idols. It says men are not to shave the hair at the corner of their heads. It says not to permanently mark yourself, and to observe God’s laws.

The Holiness Code also includes rules about sacrificing animals. It says not to let your cattle mate with another kind, not to make clothing out of two type of cloth, not  to turn to ghosts or spirits and includes rules about having relations with someone else’s slave.

After the Holiness Code, K’doshim includes a large section outlining punishments for sex offenses, as I mentioned before.

I am going to talk about three parts of the Holiness Code that stood out for me. The first is “You shall not eat anything with its blood too.” In kosher law this commandment is interpreted as you must drain the blood of an animal before you eat it. I think this is a very bland interpretation of the commandment. Cornell professor Sherry Colb,  who read the Torah for us today, points out that when a commandment is repeated three or more times in the Torah it has a deeper meaning than just the words of the commandment. Sherry thinks that kosher laws are interpreted too simply and instead of just not mixing milk and meat we should not eat animals and dairy because it is cruel and unnecessary.

Rav Simcha Zissel who is best known as the founder and director of the Kelm Talmud Torah. says that the prohibition of eating blood is because the blood is the soul of the animal, and we shouldn’t eat another soul, whereas plants don’t have a soul. Rav Simcha Zissel also says that this is why the Torah mentions the concept of “doing what is correct and good” in connection with the prohibition of eating blood. When the Torah tells us not to eat blood, it is telling us to respect life, even animal life. I think the main way to respect life is to not take from it or kill it.

The next two parts of the holiness code that I am going to talk about are “love your neighbor as yourself” and “love the stranger” Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, of Congregation Beth Israel in the North Berkshires, says that “love your neighbor” is God’s mitzvah. She says that according to a Hasidic teaching, God created humans because God needed a partner or “neighbor” to be in a relationship with because God couldn’t be whole without without extending love to another. Because we are called to be like God, we are supposed to extend love to “others” too.

There is the famous story of where a convert asked Hillel to teach him the entire Torah while he stood on one foot. Hillel said, “what is hateful to you, don’t do to others. That is the entire Torah, the rest is commentary”. Second century rabbinic sage, Ben-Azzai disagreed that loving your neighbor is the greatest requirement of the Torah. He said that the teaching “God created human beings, making them in the likeness of God” is a more important principle. Ben-Azzai thought that people should not be able to use their likes and dislikes, or if they understand others, as a guideline for how to treat others because we are all created in God’s image.

I believe “love your neighbor” should include all human beings, not just Jews. But even if you do not agree with that, K’doshim also includes the requirement to love the stranger. It says:

When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Certainly in this case, it is clear that we are to treat all human beings with dignity, equality, and respect. For this reason, for my D’var Torah I decided to learn more about how Palestinians, and especially Palestinian children, are treated in the state of Israel. To do this I watched the documentary “5 Broken Cameras” that takes place in the West Bank. I read testimonies of detained Palestinian children in +972 Magazine, I read testimonies of Israeli soldiers who served in the Occupied Territories in “Breaking the Silence,” I read parts of the book, “Stolen Youth,” published by Defense of Children International – Palestine, and I read a report on the psychological effects of child detention that my mother helped prepare for the human rights organization, Friends of Sabeel – North America.

If the Torah says that you are to love your neighbor and love the stranger as yourself, it seems that Israel is in serious violation of this. Palestinians in the West Bank only get 20 percent of the water that Israelis get. As I learned about Palestinians living in the West and Gaza Strip, what affected me the most was the children.

The Israeli military targets children for arrest and detention in order to uproot Palestinian communities. Around 200 Palestinian children are arrested per month. They are tried in the only juvenile military court in the world. The most common charge is rock throwing. Even with no one getting hurt, they still get a sentence of two years. They are between the age of twelve and seventeen. This includes what is my Bar Mitzvah age.

During their arrests 90% are blindfolded, 75% undergo physical violence, and 60% are placed in solitary confinement. They are not given lawyers or allowed to see their parents. They are verbally abused and forced to sign confessions in a language they don’t know with the false promise of being allowed to see their parents if they will sign. After they are released, they do not go back to being the children they previously were. They suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, they have nightmares, trouble sleeping, anxiety, behavior problems, scared to leave their houses, and many other problems.

Last fall my mother traveled to the West Bank and spent time in the village of Bil’in where “5 Broken Cameras” was made. She became friends with the filmmaker’s brother. She recently learned that his daughter, Mayar, who is my sister’s age, has not been able to sleep because she has nightmares from when the soldiers have come into her home with tear gas in the middle of the night. Most children are arrested during the middle of the night and more than once in their childhood. As you can see, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are not treated like human beings should be treated; certainly not like neighbors or like their Israeli counterparts whose children are are tried in civil, rather than military, courts.

In my Torah portion, God commands us to help our fellow Israelites return to good if they are committing sinful acts. In fact, it is a sin not to help. Maimonides and Nachmanidies who were famous for their work on Jewish law say that the commandment is about collective responsibility and we are not only responsible for ourselves but also the behavior of others.

If you see someone committing a sin, or going down a wrong path, you are commanded to try to make him go back to a path of good. Nachmanides says “You shall surely rebuke your neighbor”As I have now become a Bar Mitzvah, I  have moral and ethical responsibilities and I am required to fulfill mitzvot. I am responsible for my own actions and the actions of my community. As long as the State of Israel is committing crimes, it is a sin for me to stand idly by and not help my fellow Israelites return to a path of goodness. That is why I will be donating some of my Bar Mitzvah money to the organization, Defense of Children international – Palestine.

Now for the thank yous, I would like to thank my mom for helping me with all of my D’var Torah and supporting me. Thank you to my dad for taking me to Loaves and Fishes and supporting me. Thank you to Isabella for being a loving sister. Thank you Cantor Abby and my Hebrew school teachers for helping me get ready for my Bar Mitzvah. Thank you to my Grandparents and great Grandparents for loving me. Thank you to all of my Torah readers for helping me out.

(Article by M.B. David of the Hashlamah Project Foundation; h/t to Rabbi Brant Rosen for transcribing the Bar Mitzvah message)

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