Rabbi, family and friends; Thank you for coming to shul today on our bat mitzvah. For those of you who don’t know us, I’m Katie.
When you grow up as a twin, you find yourself thinking not just in individual terms. Of course, I have always been, and will continue to be my own person. However, having a twin sister means that I don’t always think of myself in the single person. When the time came to choose a topic to talk to you all about on this important day, I realised that this aspect of my life was reflected in this week’s parsha, Va'yakhel Pekudi. The special relationship between an individual and their wider community is demonstrated very clearly through the Mishkan – the portable temple used when the Jews were travelling through the desert.
Within the Mishkan, there was the Aron HaKodesh which was a decorative box made out of acacia wood and gold, holding some of the most holy items known in Judaism, with the Keruvim- two angel-like figures that stood atop it.
What I have learnt over the past few months – in addition to the fascinating nature and symbolism of the objects that I will discuss today – is that Judaism is a religion that relies both on the existence of the individual and the community; one cannot be without the other, just like I am not complete without Talia. Looking around my community at Woodside Park Shul today and sharing my own special day with all of you as I become Bat Mitzvah, these facts become very real.
The Aron HaKodesh contained some of the most sacred objects in Judaic history; the broken tablets of stone called the Luchot, a Sefer Torah, Aharon’s Staff, a small pot of manna and a jug of Shemen Hamishka- the holy oil. I would like to talk to you today about the special features of each of these items.
It seems strange that the Aron HaKodesh should house a set of broken tablets. The Mishkan was supposed to represent the ultimate in serving Hashem, so wouldn’t it have made more sense to have an unbroken set? One interpretation as I think about the individual and the community, is that the broken tablets represent the danger of following the crowd. When the Jews believed that they had been abandoned by God, they built a Golden Calf known in Hebrew as the Egel Hazahav. When Moshe returned from Mount Sinai, he was so shocked and frustrated by this act that he threw down the tablets on which the ten commandments were written.
The tablets were smashed as a result of no individual standing up against the community, to say that the creation of the Golden Calf and the worship of idols was forbidden.
Jewish history – even modern day history – provides many examples of the importance of taking a stand. Someone that I particularly admire is Golda Meir, the first – and to date, only – female Prime Minister of Israel who was a strong Zionist and advocate for the creation of the state in 1948. Although Golda represented a community, it was her individual, decisive voice that took Israel through some of the most challenging times in its history. The broken Tablets and Golda Meir are a message to me of the importance of voicing my principles and beliefs, and being a leader when the time is right. My Hebrew name, Hannah - meaning “declaring loudly” - is also a reminder of this.
The Sefer Torah, another item kept in the Aron HaKodesh, also has meaning for the concepts of individuality and community – but in a very different way. To me, the Sefer Torah represents three things: equality, endurance and family values. The Torah we read today has not changed since its first writing, and this in itself shows that it is part of a community that passed its teachings down from generation to generation.
All tribes, branches and parts of the Jewish nation read the same Torah – this, I think, is what links us not only as communities, but unites us a nation. Our services may require a Rabbi or Chazan to guide us, but these individuals who read and explain the Torah help encourage the wider community to take part and become active members of the Jewish religion. I believe that reading the Torah and performing mitzvot can also be understood as thanking God for what He has done, not only for myself but also for others. In these ways, the Torah represents the important combination of individuals and their communities.
Whilst the Luchot - the tablets and the Sefer Torah signify the ways that we can understand these concepts on a spiritual level, the pot of Manna that was kept in the Aron HaKodesh has a physical message. The Manna was the food that God provided for the Jewish people whilst they travelled through the desert en route to Israel. When I learnt about the Manna, I thought that it represented something very special: God’s commitment to preserving the individual physically, in order to sustain the wider Jewish nation to fulfil their spiritual duty. The Jewish people are a nation that lives in the physical world. Unlike the malachim or angels, we need to eat, sleep and work.
The next item was a jug of Shemen Hamishcha, the oil that was used to anoint important leaders, kings and holy objects. It was kept in the Aron Hakodesh and represents a mix of the physicality and spirituality. This oil was used to designate people and things as fit for public service, and was able to make anything and anyone it touched holy. I think there is an important message to be learnt here about leadership, which also applies to the final item inside the Aron Hakodesh, Aharon’s staff. His staff miraculously bloomed to show G-d’s appointment of him as a leader. Aharon, who was the High Priest pursued the ideal of ohev shalom v’rodef shalom – loving peace, and chasing peace. He would resolve arguments between friends, families and couples quietly – there was no public recognition of his individual actions, but they nevertheless had a lasting impact on the community. This shows that a leader does not only have to be someone who publicly leads a group a leader can exist on an individual level too. And although I am part of a community, a group of friends and a family, I – and indeed, all of you sitting here today – have the possibility of making a difference to the world, whether big or small.
In my everyday life I have been both a form captain and netball captain and I know how difficult it can be to represent a group of people as an individual. Aharon has taught me that to be a leader is a decision that I can make for myself; not always in a public way, but also quietly amongst those closest to me.
Finally, I would like to tell you all about the keruvim. The keruvim were two angelic figures – identical, almost like twins! – carved out of pure gold that stood atop the Aron HaKodesh. The keruvim were special because they represented the status of the Jewish people. When the nation respected and got along, they faced each other. When the Jewish people were being selfish and disrespectful of one another, they had their backs turned to the other. I think the interaction between the keruvim shows us how even though we all have individual opinions, we are all part of the same nation and should respect and help one another.
Each object I have discussed, whether signalling the importance of leadership, respect, spirituality and physicality and peace, has indicated that an individual needs a community and a community needs the voices of individuals.
This community has been very important to my family, with my great grandparents, grandparents, parents, uncles and aunts all celebrating many simchas here over the last 40 something years. On my bat mitzvah today, I have spoken to you as an individual; but having given my dvar torah today, I feel that I am part of this wonderful community that I know I can learn a lot from and hopefully give a lot to.
Thank you all for coming to be a part of my special day!