I was exploring my portion to see the connections between it and my life and I discovered something interesting. The portion revolves around Jacob’s travels to his ancestral homeland and his success there in building a family, and in being a shepherd. So, it turns out that the name Shapiro comes from the German word scharf, which means sheep! Not only that, but one of the heroes of the story, Rachel – her name means “ewe,” or a female sheep.
There seems to be a message here for me. For one thing, it may be why, since I was about four years old, I’ve always been great at making sheep sounds (demonstrate). It also explains why I’m so popular at the Nature Center – and why I get all the animals so rowdy when I talk to them in their language.
But most of all, there’s a sense of wonder that you get from finding these hidden ancestral connections.
It’s the same feeling of wonder that Jacob got when he had his famous dream at the beginning of the portion, with angels going up and down a ladder. He woke up the next morning and said, “God was in this place - and I had no idea! How awesome is this place! This is a gateway to heaven!”
I get that feeling of amazement all the time, when I do my favorite activity, reading books.
I’ve loved to read since a very young age, when I first picked up those PJ Library books sent by the Jewish community – or maybe it was when I first read “Captain Underpants.” I loved reading so much that I took my love of literature to the next level - I wrote a short story – and I was only about five at the time. I think there was even a sheep in it!
My love of reading has only increased over time. I love especially books that have mythology, science fiction, and fantasy. So, lots of wonder. In a way, the Bible qualifies as a pretty awesome book as well – it’s like the best of Harry Potter or Percy Jackson’s books, which I love. And unlike Harry and Percy, the Bible is the story of my people. It gives me all the basics of my history and teaches me the ways to go forward into the future.
I average about a book a week, even at a time when I have lots of schoolwork and Bar Mitzvah studies, I still find time to get to my reading. I get all the other stuff done – usually – and then I’ll read for an hour or two. OK so maybe there’s a little TV mixed in too – but reading is still number one.
Jews have always been known as the People of the Book. In fact, we are right in the middle of Jewish Book Month – another coincidence that seems timed just perfectly for my Bar Mitzvah.
Oh, and by the way, Jacob, the hero of my portion, is described as a man who dwelled in tents – which commentators interpreted as meaning that he loved to read and in fact attended an academy of Torah study. Which is pretty amazing, considering that there was no Torah yet to study.
But reading has always been a big deal for Jews. As great writer and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel once said, “I do not recall a Jewish home without a book on the table.”
Books are so important, because they open up new worlds for us, worlds of amazement and wonder.
For my bar mitzvah, I chose numerous mitzvah projects, some close to home and others across the globe. I wanted to address different needs in different communities for children. The kippas many of you are wearing were knitted by women in Mbale, Uganda a poor and needy community. My family heard about this great opportunity to purchase from them and the money spent helps the knitters take care of their families. To further support their community, I also decided to raise money so we can send hygiene products for girls who are in school in this community. The girls are struggling to go to school since they don’t have the basic needs they should have. Without these simple necessities, the girls can’t go to school, and some get pregnant and never have an opportunity to finish school and escape poverty. All people should have an equal opportunity to be educated.
Closer to home I recently visited David’s Toy Closet at Stamford Hospital. My family and I brought bags of new toys for the closet where kids are able to pick something they like to help brighten their day. This was in memory of my friend Emmet, who I remember visiting at Boston Childrens hospital and wish he was here with us today.
Lastly, there is a local organization called Filling in the Blanks which helps hungry children. It is important to me since children in our own community are food insecure and for various reasons their families don’t make enough money to provide sufficient food. The organization packs weekend food bags to hand out at schools across our county for children at risk of weekend hunger. I have volunteered there myself, packing meals, and plan to do more to support this meaningful local organization in the future too.