Tuesday, December 17, 2013

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Joshua Labkoff on Sh'mot

Shabbat shalom!

          Those of you who know me know well, know that I’ve always been fascinated by amphibians and reptiles.  It all started when I was young hanging out at our local pool club, a place that my whole family loved.  One of my favorite memories was the endless hours we would spend “frogging” in the pond, behind the club. The pond was teeming with animals, like snakes, frogs, and, if we were especially lucky, the occasional snapping turtle.   Looking back now, I really appreciate mom for letting us keep our catches on the kitchen counter!  My parents used to call them our “guests” because they would always make me take them back to the pond a few days or weeks later.

As the years went on, my interest in these critters grew. From frogs to snakes, to salamanders to newts, to turtles we’d seen them all here in Stamford – mostly in my back yard! At times, frogs filled the house just like they did in the ten plagues! But for me at the time, it seemed like the 10 blessings! Over the years, we’ve had frogs, snakes, lizards, turtles, hamsters, fish – oh yes, we eventually moved up the evolutionary ladder and got a mammal, a cat we named Perry. 

I currently care for a snake.  Believe me when I tell you this, the snake can be a better pet than a cat . For starters one day, Perry decided he was hungry… for my pet beta fish. My snake, Gingi, has never eaten any of my other pets. Gingi sleeps through the night with little interruption, while Perry decides to be cute at the most inconvenient early hours.

In the Torah, the cat hardly appears.  In fact, in ancient Egypt, the cat was considered a god (Similar to how Perry thinks of himself!). The snake, meanwhile, appears in the Torah right at the beginning, with a starring role in the Garden of Eden.  True, it was evil, but loveable.  Really, can you blame it for the fact that Adam and Eve were so gullible? 

In my portion, Moses stands before Pharaoh, and he demonstrates the power of God by turning his staff into a snake.   As the midrash states, the Holy One carries out a mission through anything, even through a snake, even through a gnat, even though a frog. That’s really an important message, that every animal has a purpose like all of Gods creations, including us. 

          Becoming a Bar Mitzvah I am finding my own purpose and place in the world.  As mom would say, I am developing my identity, my own sense of who I am and the roles that I will play as I grow older. It is an on-going challenge for me, like it is for so many young people.  I am grateful to my mom and dad and Bicultural Day School for giving me such a strong secular and Jewish education and such a firm grounding in positive Jewish values.  I know that I will take those values with me anywhere that I go into the world. 

Over the years, one of the most important values that I have learned is to respect the environment and all of god’s creatures. Cruelty towards any living thing is wrong, even when directed against something as simple as a frog or a snake.  With most of our critters, we’d catch them and release them back into the pond or brook, showing our respect for the environment and for the “circle of life”.  My parents always said if we took the animals out of their environment, what would be left for us to find the next time we’d go out Frogging?     

I’ve taken these life lessons to heart. For my mitzvah project I am working at the Animal Embassy at the Stamford Nature Center. That is also a place of happy memories with my mom and dad. While there, I plan to work with the staff help them get their message about endangered species and ecology out to the kids of Fairfield County.  Another role is to use one of my other hobbies, video editing, to help create some interesting videos for their website.

In just two weeks, I will be going to the Galapagos Islands with my dad and sister, to learn more about the endangered species and the role of reptiles and other species in the environment.  The Galapagos is one of the last places on earth where literally thousands of species, many of them endangered, live with little impact of mankind. 

The Torah teaches us to be mindful of our environment, to treat it with respect and to leave things better than we found them.  It’s my hope that through my project and trip, I can bring these lessons to life.

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