Monday, March 18, 2013

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Max Zussman on Vayikra

Shabbat Shalom.

Life is filled with encounters with people, both friends and relatives and total strangers.  Each one has the potential to greatly affect you – to change everything.

When I was 6 or 7 years old, I was hanging out with neighbor Mahesh, who is four years older than me.  So I went over to his house to shoot baskets – it was almost the only time we ever played together.  I was just beginning to get interested in basketball.  So I asked, “What’s your favorite team?” and he said the Boston Celtics.  So I decided, why not, sounds good - and I became a Celtics fan for life.  I watch a lot of games and follow them more closely than any team in any sport.  And if you ask most of my friends, they would tell you right away that I am a h-u-g-e Celtics fan.

Mahesh went his way.  He’s in high school now and I don’t see him much.  We hardly ever played basketball together after that day.  But his influence on me is still very strong.  On a court on one day, one encounter changed my life and my sporting world.

Jewish history is all about how simple encounters, even with strangers, can make a big difference in our lives.  My portion is the first one in the book of Leviticus – Vayikra – which describes the ancient form of religious worship known as sacrifice.  We don’t do sacrifices anymore, but there are still lessons for us to learn.

One lesson is the word sacrifice itself – In Hebrew, it’s KORBAN, which comes from the Hebrew word “Karov” which means “close.”  To give a sacrifice was a way that our ancestors brought themselves closer to God.  But in doing that, they had to take a trip to Jerusalem, which could have taken many days, and on the way, they would have encounters with many different people, including a brief encounter with the priest who took the animal from them at the temple.

It’s similar today – no we don’t sacrifice animals (Don’t worry, Dylan).  But in being part of a synagogue, while we are praying to God, we are also coming closer to other people. On the first day of Hebrew School we meet a new teacher and new madrich,  or teacher’s aide, people that I may not have known that well.  By the end of the year it’s clear that they have made a big difference in our lives.  Mrs. Hammerman was a great teacher this year and made going to Hebrew School a more positive experience.  (The Rabbi did NOT tell me to say that).  It’s encounters like these that help us become who we are.   And it doesn’t just happen in a synagogue of course, it’s everywhere.
A few years ago, my family traveled to Guatemala.  It was a very fun trip but along the way, I did see a lot of poor, hungry people on the streets.  In the markets, people would sell you five bracelets for, like, 25 cents.  So I bought a couple of dozen and just gave them to all my friends.  True, we managed to lose almost all of them within a week, but this brief encounter in the market helped these poor people and it made my friends happy. 

For my mitzvah project, I am doing two things.  I’m volunteering my time at Person to Person, where I am helping to sort food, clothes, toys and tools, so that people in need can come and get them.  I’m also donating some of my bar mitzvah money to an organization that my grandma started in Hilton Head, called Backpack Buddies.  This charity provides food over the weekend for disadvantaged children who get free meals at school during the week.

Although I will probably never meet the people who I am helping at Person to Person or Backpack Buddies, I know that I am affecting their lives every bit as much as Mahesh changed mine – maybe even more.

Through acts of kindness like this, the brief encounter that can change a life doesn’t even require you to even be in the same state as the person you help.  But it still can change a life.

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