David's Bar Mitzvah
Speech (D'var Torah)
David Tepper's Bar Mitzvah Speech

Highlights of Torah portion (Vayyetze)

Good morning.

First, I would like to tell you what this morning's Torah portion--called Vayyetze--means.

Before my Torah portion begins, Isaac had given his son Jacob a special blessing that was really meant for Isaac's firstborn son, who was named Esau. But because Jacob got the blessing that was meant for Esau, their mother is afraid that Esau might kill Jacob. So, to protect Jacob, his mother sends Jacob away

As my Torah portion begins, Jacob leaves home in Beersheba and goes to Haran, where his uncle Laban lives. Jacob doesn't know it yet, but Laban is dishonest, a con man. One lesson we can learn here is that the founding fathers and mothers of the Jewish people had their flaws just like everyone else.

On his way to Haran, Jacob has a dream. He dreams about a ladder stretching from the earth all the way to heaven with angels going up and down. In Jacob's dream, God appears and repeats a pledge that He had made earlier--to Jacob's father, Isaac, and Jacob's grandfather, Abraham--that the land he is on will some day belong to Jacob and the many children he will have.

The next day, Jacob builds an altar on the spot and calls the place Beth El--meaning House of God.

When Jacob finally arrives in Haran, he meets his cousin Rachel and they fall in love. He wants to marry Rachel, but he doesn't have any property-and back then you needed to own property in order to get married. So Jacob agrees to work Rachel's father, Laban, as a shepherd for seven years to earn her. He does willingly because he loves Rachel.

It turns out that Laban has two daughters. Rachel is the younger one. The older one is named Leah.

So Jacob works for Laban for seven years, although the Torah says it only seemed like a few days because he loved her so much.

After those seven years, Jacob has finally earned the right to marry Rachel. On the night of the wedding, Laban tricks Jacob. Laban replaces Rachel with his older daughter, Leah. When Jacob wakes up the next morning, he sees that he is married to Leah and not Rachel. Laban tells Jacob that the custom where they live is that the older daughter must be married before the younger. And that, Laban says, is why Jacob ended up with Leah, the older one.

Jacob still wants to marry Rachel. So Laban says, "No problem," or--to borrow a line from one of my favorite movies, The Terminator--"No problemo."

Laban's solution: Work seven more years, and he will give Rachel to Jacob. While Jacob was probably very upset with Laban's dishonesty, he worked another seven years to earn Rachel.

One result of this is that in Jewish marriages today, the bridegroom ceremoniously unveils his bride before the wedding blessings are said just to make certain he doesn't suffer from Laban's bait-and-switch tactic with Jacob. Or, to borrow a line from one recent U.S. President, "Trust, but verify."

Then the story gets complicated. By now, Jacob has two wives-Leah and Rachel. As we know, Jacob liked Rachel more. God saw this, so he let Leah have four children, all sons. Meanwhile, Rachel wasn't having children, so she offered her handmaiden to Jacob as a wife--that makes wife number three--and the handmaiden had two more of Jacob's sons.

Then Leah, who had already had four children, stopped having babies. So she gave her own handmaiden to Jacob as a wife--that makes four wives--and this second handmaiden had two more sons. Then Leah started having children again, and had two more sons, as well as a daughter. Finally, God remembered Rachel's prayers, and she had another son.

Now back to Jacob. After working 14 years to gain his wives Leah and Rachel, Jacob works an additional six years to build up some wealth in flocks of animals. While God helped Jacob and his new family, Laban prospered too.

But by now Jacob wanted to return home to the land of his parents, Isaac and Rebecca. This made Laban and his sons very angry. When Laban threatened to prevent Jacob from leaving with his family and all his property, God appeared in a dream to Laban. God warned Laban not to harm Jacob and his family.

Laban then made a peace treaty with Jacob and officially blessed him and his family as they prepared to return to the promised land. And so, in the words of the movie The Terminator, "Hasta la vista, baby." As Jacob is traveling, he meets a group of angels. And that's the end of my Torah portion.

Afterwards, Jacob led his family back to Beth El where--twenty years earlier--he dreamt about the ladder to heaven. Again, to quote from the movie The Terminator, Jacob kept his promise when he said, "I'll be back."

Looking ahead, Jacob and his family will have many trials and tribulations. Eventually he dies in Egypt.

Highlights of Haftarah portion and how it relates to the Torah

Now I'd like to tell you what happens in my Haftorah portion and how it is related to my Torah portion.

The connection with my Haftorah comes right at the beginning. The prophet Hosea wrote: "And Jacob fled into the field of Aram, and Israel served for a wife, and for a wife he kept sheep." In that sentence, the prophet Hosea summed up the early hard life led by our ancestor Jacob.

Hosea tells the Jewish people that Jacob always found support and guidance by believing in the God of Abraham and Isaac. Later in Egypt, God frees the Children of Israel through the leadership of Moses. The prophet Hosea tells the Jewish people to do what Jacob did--to rely on God to save them. Hosea warns them not to rely on local alliances that the Kingdom of Israel was making.

But they did, and, sure enough, the Kingdom of Israel was lost. The Jewish people of today do not come from all twelve tribes. The Jews of today come primarily from the tribe of Judah and neighboring tribes who stuck with the Judeans. The Hebrew word for Jew, yehudi, comes from the Hebrew word for Judah, yehuda.

Personal Thoughts on the Above

Now comes the part of my speech where I explain why the two portions-the Torah and Haftorah-are important to me. What they mean today.

When my dad and I were researching the meaning of Vayyetze, we came across all sorts of symbolism in the story about Jacob. One of the most famous parts of this section is Jacob's first dream, when he's young, and he sees angels going up the ladder to heaven and down the ladder to earth. One way to look at it is that our goal every day should be to climb higher on the spiritual ladder.

Another way to look at the ladder is that our material desires are earth-bound, but our spiritual thoughts are heavenly. And there have been many other interpretations of that passage.

All these are possible. But I'm just a kid. And my parents say I'm very literal. So when I read my maftir, the message I kept getting is that, through diligence and determination, you can get through nearly anything.


I also like to draw. And the description of the angels going up and down the ladder reminds me of a drawing by an artist named Escher. The drawing shows a building, something like a castle. And at the top, above the four walls of the building, is a staircase that seems to be always climbing up. And there are people on the staircase....and the people are going around the staircase, forever climbing the steps and never getting anywhere.

In the story from the Torah, after Jacob has his dream about the ladder climbing, he works for seven years to get the right to marry Rachel. But after working those seven years, he's tricked into marrying Leah. So he has to work another seven years before he finally gets to marry Rachel. Again, Jacob got what he wanted only after a lot of hard work and a lot of patience.

There's also a message in the Torah portion about the importance of understanding the rules. Jacob didn't know about the custom of the oldest daughter getting married first. So he worked for seven years, thinking he'd marry Rachel, only to end up with Leah. Then he had to work seven more years. He might have done things differently if he had known what the rules were. Also--although it wasn't his fault--Jacob got into trouble at the very beginning because he received a blessing that should have gone to his brother Esau.

So, you can't know all the rules all the time. And sometimes it's not your fault when someone breaks a rule and you get punished for it. My parents have punished me for breaking rules, sometimes when I didn't even know there was a rule.

I've told them that that's not fair, but their response is: Life isn't always fair. What they've told me to do is to try to obey the rules I know about and also try to understand the purpose of the rules. And to ask questions when I'm not sure.

What It Means to Become a Bar Mitzvah

Now I'm supposed to talk about what it means to me to become a bar mitzvah.

My bar mitzvah represents a transition for me. Just as my Torah portion tells about Jacob leaving Beersheba to go to Haran, and later leaving Haran to return home--always moving, always going forward--that's part of what my bar mitzvah means to me. I'm going forward with my life and with my religious education and development.

There have been several changes like that for me recently. Last June, I graduated from sixth grade, leaving the elementary school I had been attending since I was in kindergarten. This fall, I entered the school I probably will be attending for the next six years. And this summer was my last one at a place I had gone to--first for day care, then for camp--ever since I was three or four years old.

I know that becoming a bar mitzvah also means accepting more responsibility, and I have been trying to do that. That includes preparing for today's services. It also includes my regular school work--knowing what is expected of me, and trying to meet those expectations.

It is traditional to begin the Bar Mitzvah speech with the sentence "Today I am a man."

And while that is correct in a religious sense, becoming an adult-in knowledge, behavior, abilities, and so forth-is a longer-term process. Many people would say that it is a life-long journey, just as Jacob's journey--as described in the Torah this morning--was life-long.

So, while I see that some things have ended-attending the school I used to go to, and studying for my bar mitzvah today-I also know that many things are just beginning.

Personal Thank Yous

I would like to thank everybody today for coming to my Bar Mitzvah.

I would like to thank everyone who supported me through this. Especially my parents for spending so much time helping me prepare for my Bar Mitzvah, and for all the other work that went into making today so special, and just for being there for me.

I would like to thank my aunt Esther and Grandma for constantly pounding Judaism into my brain.

I would like to thank Cantor Zuckor for helping me prepare for today. I would like to thank my friends for being interested in my Bar Mitzvah and for being here today.

I would like to thank Grandmaster Kwon, who has taught me martial arts for over five years. Through martial arts, I have learned a lot about patience, concentration, and how success depends on both physical strength and mental focus.

I would also like to thank my other congregation--Chabad--for originally teaching me much of the Judaism that I know today.

So, thank you everyone for coming.