Wednesday, January 19, 2011

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Zoë Finkelstein on Beshallach (Shabbat Shira)

Hello, and thank you so much for coming and sharing this special day with me and my family. A special Mazal Tov to Ethan. It’s been very special to share today with you.

This Shabbat is Shabbat Shira, the Shabbat of Song. It is called the Shabbat of Song because in our Torah portion and Haftarah, we have two of the top ten songs in Jewish history: the Song of the Sea, when the Israelites cross the Red Sea, and the Song of Deborah (both sung by women, by the way).

I am glad that we have this portion for a few reasons. One is just the fact that it is part of the Passover story, and Passover is a big holiday in my family. Every year my family comes over and Dad leads the Seder. He was born during the first Seder, so it’s his Jewish Birthday. I always have a great time, especially with my cousins, which is why it’s one of my favorite holidays. I especially love it when we all search for the afikomen, which my cousin Evan usually hides.
Another reason why I am so glad we have this portion is because of all the music.

I love music a lot and I have for as long as I can remember. I love it because it is a way for people to express themselves, it brings people together, it inspires a lot of things, it can be relaxing as well as electrifying, and it has the ability to make any situation so much more fun.
I love listening to it, but I also love singing, both for choral groups in school and at home on my own. I love playing songs on the piano, reading off of sheet music, or just playing around, improvising and experimenting, seeing how different combinations of notes sound together. I just started teaching myself to play guitar, which I have also quickly come to love.

I love all kinds of music, and my tastes are very eclectic; at least that’s what my dad says. I like almost every style: hip hop, alternative, pop, rock…almost everything but Miley Cyrus, and my favorite songs and bands, they're almost uncountable.

I’ve been looking closer at the lyrics of some of the songs that I like, and the more I look into it, the more I see that many songs have Jewish themes or lessons, even songs that don’t appear to be “Jewish” on the surface.

Take “Livin’ on a Prayer,” by Bon Jovi, for instance.

We’re half way there, livin' on a prayer
Take my hand, we'll make it I swear, livin on a prayer.

It means that if you trust, you can get where you want to go. Like in the portion we read today, the Jews trusted in God and in Moses, and were able to cross the Red Sea.

Or a more recent song, like “Grenade,” by Bruno Mars – here are some of the lyrics:

I’d catch a grenade for you,
throw my hand on a blade for you,
I’d jump in front of a train for you,
you know I’d do anything for you.

This song is all about being totally and completely dedicated, willing to give everything, even a life, for what we believe in. Jews have suffered so much over the centuries, just because they were Jewish. Still, Jews have not given up and stayed Jewish, risking their lives but never giving up.

And how about the song “Beautiful,” by Christina Aguilera?

You are beautiful no matter what they say,
Words can't bring you down,
You are beautiful in every single way,
words can't bring you down,
Don't you bring me down today.

This song teaches us how important it is to be confident, believe in yourself, and not let things get to you, no matter what nasty stuff people say. We, as Jews, have survived over a long period of time because, even when people threatened us, or made us feel unwelcome, we believed in Judaism and stayed Jewish.

Or “Miracle,” by Paramore

I'm not going cause I've been waiting for a miracle
And I'm not leaving I won't let you,
Let you give up on a miracle
Cause it might save you.

It means to never give up on what you believe in, and to try to make sure no one else does either. Going back to the Passover story, right after the Jews cross the Red Sea, they start to complain. Moses believes G-d has many miracles in store, and tried to get the complaining Jews to believe the same.

I think that almost every song has a meaningful moral, if you go down deep enough. In learning this, I realized that, yes, music inspires things, but the music itself is inspired by so many amazing things.

My mitzvah project was to collect toiletries, sheets, towels, and blankets for the Pacific House homeless shelter, as well as St. Luke’s homeless shelter, both here in Stamford. I’ve helped out at Pacific House by serving dinner on Christmas Eve with my family for the past few years and the men are in a very difficult situation, so I decided to help by collecting the items on their “wish list.” Many of these items are basic necessities such as shampoo, soap, conditioner, tooth brushes, and tooth paste.

When it was near Christmas Eve, I wrapped up enough toiletries for both shelters, listening to holiday music on the radio to get into the mood. Listening to the music made me want to be festive and have red and green bags, and snowflakes on the boxes, just for them.

On Christmas Eve the men were happy and laughing, with the Christmas music playing along in the background. We handed out the toiletries that night. The men are so nice, and they deserve so much more than they have, and seeing their faces as the toiletries were placed into their hands made me so glad I chose this project to do. I was so inspired by these men, that I wrote a song about them.

That is an example of how music is created through inspiration, and how music can be inspiring, too. Looking back on what I’ve said, I realize that what I love the most about music is how much it inspires and how much inspires it. Everything is music and music is everything.

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