(An Introduction by Rabbi Corinne Copnick)

My friends,

This past week, my grand-daughter, Samantha Spiegel, turned 18, legally the age of adulthood. In 1999 I moved to Los Angeles from Canada to welcome my grand-daughter’s birth on the cusp of the new century and to help my daughter, Janet, a single mother, bring her to this happy day.

In Judaism, however, religious and moral responsibility begins a few years earlier, with the Bat or Bar Mitzvah ceremony. When my grand-daughter was assigned “Mishpatim” as her Torah portion, I gasped because there are so many complex rules about how to live as a Jew, so much to absorb, so much from which to choose for a young girl’s commentary.

In the end, Samantha, decided to talk about the Three Festivals, and in particular, Passover, because it raised the topic of liberation from slavery, a subject that certainly did not end with the Exodus from Egypt. Slavery still exists in various parts of the globe, and, sadly, even in our own country, human trafficking takes place.

Here is Samantha’s D’var Torah, just as she expressed it on her Bat Mitzvah day. I was proud of her considerable Jewish learning then, and as she looks forward to her college days to come, I am proud of her now.

Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1 – 24:18)

By Samantha Spiegel

Shabbat Shalom,

In the biblical book of Genesis, we learn about human relations. In Exodus, we learn about the development of a nation. The section in Exodus, chapter 23, in which my Torah portion is found, is called Mishpatim. These are the laws by which the Jewish people were supposed to live in biblical times in order to have an orderly and holy conduct of life. If you read all of the laws, you will find many that make a lot of sense and that still apply to everyday life today. In fact, our American constitution contains some of the most important of these laws.

The particular portion that I read from the Torah today, my Maftir, is called Shalosh Regalim. Literally that means three legs; that is, three pillars of Judaism. It refers to the Three Festivals that were celebrated from the early days of the Israelites in the Holy Land. They are Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot. All of these are festivals of gratitude to God: Passover is not just about eating Matzah for eight days. It marks the time when the Jews were liberated from 400 years of slavery to the Egyptians. It is a festival of freedom. Shavuot, which coincided with the agricultural barley festival, is not just a holiday when we eat cheesecake. It is the holiday that marks the giving of the Ten Commandments and the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai, and we are eternally grateful for that. Shavuot occurs exactly 50 days after the last day of Passover. Sukkot is yet another festival of gratitude, and this one coincides with the fall harvest. We are so grateful to have the fruit and crops of the field for our sustenance.

So, you may be surprised to learn that our first Jewish holy days were not Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. They came later. So did Hanukah and Purim and the other Jewish holidays. And the Three Festivals of Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot are holidays that taught the Jewish people to thank God for the good things they have in life.

And another thing about the Three Festivals. Unlike the Sabbath, which was a day of rest for all of humanity, they were created especially for the Jewish people, and they must take place at the set times that I have described. You can’t have them any old time.

For this Bat Mitzvah speech, I want to focus on the festival of Passover, because it concerns liberation from slavery, which is what my Haftarah portion from Jeremiah 34, chapter 8, is all about.  In ancient times, most nations had slavery. Either they captured slaves in battle, or else people who were very poor sold themselves into slavery. Finally the Judean King, who was called Zedekiah, told the Jewish people in Jerusalem to set free their Hebrew slaves, that no Judean should enslave another Judean. So the slave owners reluctantly let them go. But later on they were sorry, and they forced people into slavery again. This is where Jeremiah came in. He heard the word of the Lord who was furious that the people had broken God’s covenant with them by forcing people into slavery. And the prophet Jeremiah spoke out strongly against slavery.

Some of you may think that all this happened a very long time ago. It may shock you to know that forced hard labor and slavery still exists today in many countries of the world, but it is hidden, and, generally speaking, people don’t think about it. Judaism is a religion of action. Jews are supposed to DO things to make life better. They are supposed to follow the Mishpatim, the laws of moral human conduct. They are good rules for everyone, not only Jews.

Out of sight, out of mind is a phrase which often gets me thinking. So many people choose to ignore some of the horrible things that happen to other people in the world because it is not happening to them or anyone they care about. We are very lucky to live in the United States. But after you have the experience of seeing something like a graphic picture in a book or movie or on television that depicts human suffering, it hurts you because it shows the pain in the eyes of the workers, and you feel their pain. It is called empathy. For example, when I was in fifth grade I watched a movie in my Hebrew school class that told about World War II, and there were pictures of people in concentration camps  — they looked like skeletons — and it terrified me to think that humans would not feed other human beings and work them so hard that they would die, and, if they didn’t die, they would be killed.  Of course, I couldn’t actually feel their pain the way they did because I was not actually being starved or imprisoned against my will or facing death. The worst part of it was that they knew they were going to die a horrible way. The anticipation alone is enough to kill someone.

However, seeing such painful situations does make each of us think, “Wow, maybe I should do something to help stop this injustice,” but the thing is, we so rarely do. I know that I have often said, “I’d like to help them,” and I’m sure you have thought the same thing, but it takes a lot of effort and moral, physical, and emotional strength to change these horrific situations. One person may not be able to do it alone. But sometimes one person can stimulate others to take action together against injustices that still exist. Like slavery.

The purpose of studying the Torah and the Haftarah is to remind us how to live a good life and moral life and to help others live a good and moral life too. This is what a poem in the Mishkan T’fillah says:

When Torah entered the world, freedom entered it.

The whole Torah exists only to establish peace.

Its highest teaching is love and kindness.

What is hateful to you, do not do to any person.

That is the whole Torah; all the rest is commentary.

That is the message I want to bring to you today.