Don’t Let Amelek Win – NHL’s Bar Mitzvah Speech

bitsela-7br-800x603During NHL’s Bar Mitzvah, he gave a speech, called a Dvar Torah, about the Torah portion that had just been read. I asked him for permission to reprint it here and he agreed. So, without further ado, here is NHL’s Dvar Torah:

In my portion, it says:

Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt – how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when the lord your God grants you safety from all of your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a heredity portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!

Why Amalek? Why do we need to blot out the memory of Amalek? Why not other groups who have persecuted Jewish people throughout history? For example, why not the Egyptians who enslaved the Israelites for hundreds of years? Or other groups who attacked the Israelites on their journey through the wilderness? Why is Amalek singled out for this treatment?

When Amalek attacked, they did not attack the Israelites’ military. They did not single out the strong fighters or other military targets. Instead, they went after the weak and defenseless people straggling behind the group. Other groups attacked directly instead of aiming for innocent civilians.

The Torah says that we should blot out the memory of Amalek. However, the Torah also says not to forget. How can we do both? If we blot out their memory, doesn’t that mean they would be forgotten? And if we do not forget, doesn’t that mean that we have not blotted out their memory? While it is true that blotting out their memory means eliminating them completely as a people, we also must remember what they did because other people can do what Amalek did.

There is a famous saying by Spanish-American philosopher and poet George Santayana. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Sadly, Amalek was not unique. There have been many other events in history that mirrored Amalek’s actions. Haman tried to kill all the Jews in the Persian Empire by using power over them from King Achashverosh. In the 1930s and 1940s, Hitler tried to kill many different people, including the Jews, using Germany’s military might. During the Sudan civil war of 1985, Salva Dut was around 11 years old when he was fleeing to Kenya though the Akobo Dessert. Looters from another tribe stole everything that the people traveling with Salva had including their clothes, food, and water. Then, they killed Salva’s uncle – the only family Salva had with him – right in front of him.

So why is it so important to remember? Won’t these tragedies still occur even if we recall each and every one of them? Do we have any power to stop them or are they inevitable? The Irish statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke said “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” We can make a difference if we act and it is easier to act when we remember what has happened before.

Mordechai and Esther led the charge to stop Haman. Their actions stopped Haman’s plot and saved the lives of many Jews. During the Holocaust, Oskar Schindler helped save 1,200 Jews. Schindler ran a factory that employed many Jews. When the Jewish people were being sent off to the Concentration Camps, Schindler bribed German officials to protect his employees and their families. This was very risky for him to do. If Schindler did nothing, he would have been just fine because he was a member of the Nazi Party. If Schindler was caught, he would have been killed for defying the Nazis. By the end of the war, his employees and their families were safe. Schindler had spent his entire fortune and had to rely on support from other people including the Jews he had saved. Schindler was named Righteous Among the Nations and was buried on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. He is the only member of the Nazi Party to receive this honor.

Another example of people standing up for what it right no matter the risk was the Underground Railroad during the nineteenth century. The members of the underground railroad helped escaped slaves get to Canada where they could be free. This was very illegal at the time. Armed bounty hunters and federal law enforcement agents were hunting the escaped slaves. If the escapees were caught, they would be taken back into slavery and anyone found assisting them would have gotten in huge trouble. Despite this risk, the people running the Underground Railroad still hid, fed, and provided shelter for the escaped slaves.

So, does this edict to not forget only apply to Jews? After all, some might say we should only look after our own people. What business is it of ours if other people suffer? Pastor Martin Niemöller was an outspoken opponent of Adolf Hitler. He spent 7 years in Nazi concentration camps and is most remembered for the following quote:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

His point was that if you do not stick up for others when they need help, there will not be enough people to speak for you when you require assistance. Therefore, we should concern ourselves with the plights of others, even when it has no impact on our day to day lives.

So, what kinds of situations does this apply to? It is easy to say “I will definitely stand up if another Holocaust happens.” But do we? Time after time we turn the other way when groups of people are persecuted. We do nothing because we believe it has nothing to do with us or we convince ourselves that we have too many problems of our own to deal with. Sometimes we remark about how awful the situation is and how somebody should do something, after which we do nothing and just continue with our day to day lives. It can be very easy to say you will act, but hard to break out of your average routine.

The bigger tragedies can seem overwhelming, but what about day to day injustices? Surely those are more manageable. And yet we still find it all too easy to look the other way if we see someone who is being bullied or someone whose life has taken a bad turn. For example, someone that is homeless and is asking for money to feed their family. While it may be easy to walk away and think that this has nothing to do with you, how would you feel if you were the one being bullied or that was homeless. Wouldn’t you want people to help you?

Fighting against indifference and taking action can be very difficult. Oftentimes the urge to do nothing is overpowering. However, this is all the more reason why we need to heed the Torah’s words and do not forget. So the next time you come upon someone who needs help, don’t let Amalek win. Do everything in your power to help those in need.


NOTE: The Bar Mitzvah Torah Reader image above is copyright Bitsela, used courtesy of

So Proud Of My Bar Mitzvah Man

On Saturday, NHL was called to the Torah for the first time. This rite of passage welcomes him as a man in the eyes of Judaism. I’m still beaming with pride.

To clarify, all that is required is that you get called up to the Torah, say an opening blessing and a closing blessing and you’re done. That’s the most basic requirement. There are traditions that the Bar Mitzvah boy (or Bat Mitzvah girl) read from the Torah and sing a Haftorah portion (an excerpt from one of the books of the prophets that is linked in some way to the Torah portion), but this doesn’t need to be done at all.

So what did NHL do? First, he led the service as we took out the Torah. Then, he read from the Torah (a long passage, might I add) as B and I were called up. Next, came his big moment. He was called up for the first time as a member of the Jewish community. He sang the opening prayers, read from the Torah again, and then sang the closing prayers. After this, he gave a speech about his Torah portion (a Dvar Torah) before reading his Haftorah.

As he walked across the stage to speak with the rabbi, we got to pelt NHL with candy as a traditional wish for the target to have a sweet life. It’s also a favorite among kids who then get to storm the front to gather candy. NHL was lucky that we chose the soft Sunkist Fruit Gems. My parents packed projectiles that included Hershey’s Kisses. Those things sting – or at least would have if I hadn’t been smart enough to duck behind the podium right after finishing my Haftorah. Back to NHL, though, I am happy to report that I hit him with my first throw.

Moving on, we said the traditional parental blessing over NHL and sang a quick song thanking God for letting us see this wonderful day. NHL sang the Ashrei (another prayer) before we put the Torah away and, later on, sang some closing prayers with his brother and cousins.

So how did he do?

From his practice sessions, I was confident that NHL knew his stuff.  I was sure that he was ready, albeit nervous – a perfectly normal reaction to such a momentous occasion. Still, as NHL often does, he blew away my expectations. He nailed all of the Hebrew readings and many people commented on how great his speech was. More than one specifically said that it greatly moved them. I will admit that I helped him craft the speech, but I was more a guiding force – helping direct him on the best way to make his point. The content and especially the delivery was all NHL. (NHL has given me permission to publish his speech on my blog so look for that later this week.)

I’m having trouble coming up with words to say how proud I am of NHL. He has put in a tremendous amount of effort into his Bar Mitzvah preparations. He would practice in the car on the way to school and then again at night after his homework was done. He went to temple with me countless Saturdays during which he didn’t just observe the service, but interjected himself into it. That Ashrei prayer I mentioned earlier? He was the regular reader of that virtually every Saturday we attended services. And after that prayer, he would walk around behind the Torah shaking everyone’s hands. So many other Bar/Bat Mitzvah kids show up at temple for the first time on their Bar/Bat Mitzvah day and then vanish forever. NHL has showed that he likes having a place in the synagogue. Though, I might give him a week off this coming Saturday – he’s earned it.

And the reading from the Torah that NHL did? Reading Hebrew is hard enough with vowels. Believe me, I know. I can read Hebrew but at a snail’s pace. I rely on having memorized virtually all of the prayers over the years. If I had to lead a service going solely by reading the Hebrew, the three hour long morning service would likely take a good ten hours or more. When you read from the Torah, though, all of the vowels are removed. Consider that for a moment. D y knw hw hrd t s t rd nglsh wtht vwls? Srsly. t’s xtrmly dffclt t d.*  Now take some text in a completely different language and remove the vowels. Or better yet, here’s a glimpse of NHL’s text from a photo taken at one of his practice sessions (since photos weren’t permitted on the big day):


Could you read that? I certainly couldn’t. I know that NHL memorized much, if not all, of it, but the sheer fact that he fit that much in his brain and still had room for everything else is amazing. I’m in awe of my son and will be telling him how proud I am of him until he’s sick of it. Then I will proceed to tell him a dozen more times before considering whether I should lay off of it for a couple of minutes.

Congratulations, NHL. You did amazing on Saturday and I’m so proud of my Bar Mitzvah Man!




* For those really confused: “Do you know how hard it is to read English without vowels? Seriously. It’s extremely difficult to do.”

A Seder Filled With Pandemic, Lost Teeth, And No Internet

Toothless_JSLFriday night was the first night of Passover.  As such, we had the first Seder.  It was nice and the boys enjoyed it.  They even stayed up until the very end – going to sleep at 12:30am!  (Their bed time is usually 8:30pm so this was quite the late night for them.)  The next day/night, though.  THAT’s when things got interesting.

As the second Seder neared, we decided to give the boys a snack.  After all, there’s a lot of stuff to get through in a Seder before we eat.  So, among other snacks, I cut up some apples for us to share.  Now, JSL had two very loose teeth for some time.  They were actually pointing outward a bit which was quite creepy to look at.  The first one came out after JSL bit into a slice of pizza at an Autism fair.  (I ran with him to the bathroom to extradite the tooth.)  As he bit into an apple slice, the second tooth began to bleed and got very wiggly.  As much as I shook it, though, it wouldn’t come out.  The bleeding stopped, though, so we made our way to the Seder.

Once we arrived, the boys and I played a few games with one of B’s relatives.  It turns out that he’s quite the gamer and brought along Pandemic.  He explained the game as he set up for the four of us. We didn’t get to play the whole game (as the Seder started), but what we did play was very different from other games I’ve played.   In other games, you are out for yourself (and, perhaps, a teammate) trying to beat the other players.  In Pandemic, all of the players are working together.  You don’t sabotage the people playing with you, but try to figure out ways to help them.  After all, you are all playing as medical professionals fighting a series of illnesses.  If you all lose, the illnesses spread out of control.  If you all win, the illnesses are eradicated.  I could definitely see playing this with B and the boys to help NHL understand how to work with people to achieve a goal.  I could also see this being used in an office environment as a team building exercise.  I’ve been eyeing the game ever since that night and it’s only a matter of time before I buy it.

The pre-meal portion of the Seder passed without anything unusual happening.  Which is saying something considering that B’s family’s Seder routinely involves people being whipped with scallions, her uncle talking like one of her aunts, and another relative of hers read her passage with liberal use of the Hebrew word shadayim (breasts).  (It’s quite a fun Seder.)  As we began eating the meal, JSL eagerly started eating the matzo ball in his soup… and then screamed out.  His tooth was bleeding again.  I was prepared and took him away from the table where this time the tooth came out.  I wrapped it up, helped him with his bleeding mouth, and comforted him (it was late already and a bit traumatic).

After dessert, the Seder started back up, but we had to leave.  It was already past midnight.  We got home and despite my suggestions, JSL insisted on writing a note to the Tooth Fairy that night.

We also discovered something else:  We had no Internet.  None at all.  It had been getting a bit flaky over the past month.  Honestly, we wondered whether this was intentional due to our cutting cable, but the person on the phone insisted (after trying many things) that it looked like a bad Ethernet port in our cable modem.  Since we own our own modem and don’t rent it from the cable company, we had to buy a new one.  (We figured out that – given how much this one cost us and how long it lasted – we paid about $2.80 a month for it.  So it was a very good deal.)   On Sunday, we decided to shop for modems.

Except there was one problem.

It was Easter Sunday.

Stores are closed on Easter Sunday.

In the end, we found a store that was open, had the cable modem we needed, and at a decent price as well.  We brought it home, got it set up, and… still nothing.  Another call to our cable company and some tests later and we still had no Internet.  Just when I thought we’d need to wait a few days until they could send a technician over, the guy on the phone said he’d try sending a refresh signal to our modem.  Sure enough, that did it.  Which leads me to wonder whether that was the problem all along and whether our old modem is still good.  (We might give it to B’s parents to try since they need to stop renting a modem.)  Either way, we have Internet again and it seems pretty reliable so far.

And that was our eventful Seder.  Instead of "Next Year In Jerusalem", perhaps I should close my Seders with "Next Year… a bit more boring please."

Was your holiday weekend eventful?

Matzah Time Is Here

matzahI’ve spent the past few days in deep-cleaning mode.  You see, Passover is coming so this means I need to clean the kitchen up.  The stove and oven needs to be scrubbed.  The fridge and microwave must be cleansed.  Cabinets and countertops need to be washed down.  All non-Passover foods must be put away and the Passover boxes (pots, pans, etc) need to be taken down from the attic.  It’s an involved affair that leaves me exhausted with little time for anything else.

Add in that I’ll be offline for the next few days thanks to the first couple of days of Passover being a holiday, and you’ll see little in the way of posting from me this week.  Rest assured that I’ll be here happily munching matzah.  (For some values of "happily.")

To those that celebrate Passover:  I hope you have a fantastic Pesach.

To those that don’t celebrate Passover:  I hope you have a great week.  And please try not to flaunt any bread you might be eating in front of us that are matzah-bound.

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