Tuesday, January 23, 2018

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Andrew Jaffe-Berkowitz on Vayechi (delivered in Jerusalem)

Merry Christmas!

Woops, wrong speech!

Thank you all for coming.  It means a lot that you all came so far to be here with me.

My portion is Vayechi.  In this portion, as Jacob’s life is coming to an end, he’s getting his affairs in order. 

One way he does that is to organize his family’s matters as well as his own.  In one instance, he crosses his hands in blessing his grandchildren Ephrayim and Menashe, in order to make sure that Ephrayim is seen as the leader.  The funny thing is, he’s the younger one, and in the ancient world, the older sibling always came first.  This signals that the ways of the past would not always be the same as present practice.  We have to think differently.  Creativity is a key to growth and you can never let yourself fall into a rut.

As some of you know, I have been writing computer code for the past three years.  I’ve created dozens of computer games in my spare time.  In a football game that I created, for each play there are around 4,000 possible results – and I’ve built in a code that randomizes the outcomes based on where each player is and the skill of each player.  I update it, so that if someone is having a bad season or is injured, I can take them out of the game or lower their skill level.  Of course I also lift their ratings if they are doing well.  There might be some bias here, in favor of the Giants, although this year   (pause) let’s not even go there.

My point here is that with billions of possible outcomes, one game played will never be exactly the same as the prior one.  The past can’t govern how you act moving forward.  Jacob expressed that perfectly with his crossover move.

Also, with coding, you have to be sure to keep in mind where you started and the goals that you had in mind.  Jacob does that too.  He makes his family promise that when he dies, they will bring his body back to Canaan.  In that way he encourages them to go back to their roots, to go back home, even though he knows that they are going to live in Egypt for many generations.

The lesson here is that we should never forget from where we came – the code that makes us who we are. That’s an important lesson for me, too.  I’ve always stayed close to my Jewish roots, and by becoming bar mitzvah here in Israel it really adds lots of extra meaning to the experience.  But what makes it even more special is that I also have deep personal, family roots.  My great grandfather Eddie, one of the men for whom I’m named,  was a survivor of Auschwitz.  His whole family was killed in the Nazi death camps– which also means that a large part of my family was killed.  But here I am, on what would have been Eddie’s 97th birthday.   His Hebrew name Yehuda is also my first Hebrew name.  It is also the Hebrew name of Judah Piasecky, a boy from Drohiczyn, Poland who was murdered by the Nazis  at the age of 14.  He is my bar mitzvah twin and tomorrow I will be going to yad vashem for a special ceremony linking our lives.  That name, Yehuda - that Eddie, Judah and I share, is also the word for “Jew,” and therefore, as a Jew, I am a testament to the survival of the Jewish people in our homeland – the same place to which the Biblical Jacob asked his kids to return.

My middle name Daveed, was given to me to honor my uncle David.  I know David always wanted to go to Israel but was never able to because of his condition.  So now, as I bear his name, here I am fulfilling his dream. His dream of returning back to the roots of his heritage.

Also, in David’s honor, for my mitzvah project, I have been  volunteering at the Special Olympics in Connecticut, specifically in scoring the bowling competitions– since I know that David won a lot of trophies in bowling, all of which sit proudly on display in my room.  I’m also collecting sports equipment for the special Olympics athletes to use in their various tournaments.  It’s another way to pay tribute to my heritage.

So I hope this can help you understand why today is so special for me.  And why like Jacob, this journey back to my roots is truly meaningful.  Like my football computer game, there were virtually an infinite number of outcomes of who I would be.  But the code encrypted in my DNA and in my family roots have made me the bar mitzvah that stands before you today.

Once again I want you all to know how much it means to my family and me that you made such an effort to be with us today.  By being here, each of you have written a line of code into the story of my life. 

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