This week’s parsha finds us still in the desert, with tragedy marring an otherwise joyous scene. In Vayikra Chapter Nine, Aaron brings a Shalamim offering to God. The Shalamin, from the same shoresh (root word) as our Modern Hebrew Shalom, was a friendship and goodwill offering. It was given voluntarily, unattached to a sin, as a mode of connection with the divine. After Aaron brings the offering, the nation feels blessed.

The text then brings us two perplexing pasukim (verses) at the start of Chapter Ten:

  1. וַיִּקְח֣וּבְנֵֽי־אַ֠הֲרֹן נָדָ֨ב וַאֲבִיה֜וּא אִ֣ישׁ מַחְתָּת֗וֹ וַיִּתְּנ֤וּבָהֵן֙ אֵ֔שׁ וַיָּשִׂ֥ימוּ עָלֶ֖יהָ קְטֹ֑רֶת וַיַּקְרִ֜בוּ לִפְנֵ֤ייְהוָה֙ אֵ֣שׁ זָרָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֧ר לֹ֦א צִוָּ֖ה אֹתָֽם׃ And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the LORD, which God had not commanded them.
  2. וַתֵּ֥צֵא אֵ֛שׁ מִלִּפְנֵ֥י יְהוָ֖ה וַתֹּ֣אכַל אוֹתָ֑ם וַיָּמֻ֖תוּ לִפְנֵ֥י יְהוָֽה׃ And there came forth fire from before the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD.

In a fast slew of verbs, Aaron’s sons hastily bring an additional voluntary offering to God that is rejected with dire consequences. No words of comfort are offered by Moses, only the acknowledgement that God has acted.

Much ink has been spilled by classical and modern commentaries on the nature of Nadab and Abihu’s offering, but I have always been more mesmerized by Aarons’ reaction: “וַיִּדֹּ֖ם אַהֲרֹֽן” (And Aaron held his peace.) How could a father, after such a traumatic event, remain at peace? How could it be that those that Aaron is in community with also seem to not respond to his situation?

The shoresh (root word) of vayiddom means “to be still” or even “to be petrified”. This can change our understanding: Aaron is shocked, so shocked that he has no words for what has happened to his family. Those around him might have also have realized that in such a situation, words of comfort would be empty.

As a community today, we sometimes encounter tragedy that hits close to home. The lesson behind this parshah is that sometimes, there can be no words and no comfort, from both ourselves and others. As it says in Mishnah Perkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 4:18, “Do not assuage the anger of your friend at the time of his anger; do not console him at the time when his deceased lies before him.” May it be a bracha (blessing) to all of us to know when words are needed, and when presence alone will be the most healing.

Purim Robotics in Kindergarten!

Purim Robotics in Kindergarten!

Kindergarteners have been busy learning about robotics. The robotics unit began last week with a look at parades to set the stage for their robotic Purim parade. “Then we learned about the commands and symbols we could use to tell the robots how to move” explains Sondra Kaminsky. Judi Rapaport shares, “Wednesday was the day of the big robotic Purim parade. The children learned how to program the robots, decorated them and made scenery while listening to music and telling the story of Purim. They had a wonderful time and produced quite a show!”



Whenever I make pesto, the scent of the basil immediately transports me back to my grandfather’s abundant garden, which took up most of the yard in back of their house on Mountainview Avenue in Syracuse, New York. I am five, or six or seven, and secure in the embrace and love of my grandparents.

Neuroscientific research now can tell us the how and why behind what most of us have know instinctively from very young ages: smells can trigger powerful and vivid emotional memories. This Torah portion helps us to see that as with many things, what it has taken modern humans millennia to figure out was embedded into our system of ritual from the beginning by God.

Tzav contains a rather exhaustive description of the ritual of various kinds of sacrifices – the meal offering, the sin offering, the guilt offering, the sacrifice of well-being.  We read details that to many of us, especially this vegetarian writer, can feel like a bit too much information about slaughter and entrails of animals. There is a constant refrain, however, which should catch our attention. Several of the sacrifices, the burnt offerings, are left on the altar all night long. The offerings made of grain are prepared with oil on a griddle. These rituals are designed with an attention to the scent that will emerge – the reyach nikoach – pleasing scent for God. Think about the scent of grilling meat on a summer night, or fried dough at a street fair. As with my grandfather’s basil, I imagine that each of us has associations with the scents of places, people, and seasons. What the Israelites are commanded to do in the desert sets their olfactory systems to feel connected to God even when they emerge from the wilderness – every time there is grilling meat or cooking food, they will feel connected to God and community.

This same command is found in the instructions for the first Pesach ritual. In Exodus 12, the Israelites are told to roast this first Passover offering, all night long (not cooked in any way with water, or raw, but roasted), and eat it with sandals on their feet, hurriedly.  The scents of Pesach stay in our communal memories till this day. I imagine that the sacrifices in the wilderness, after God has taken the Israelites out of Egypt, and given the Torah, bring the Israelites back to that time of redemption. The rabbis recognized this as well, establishing no fewer than four brachot for different scents. Scent connects us to the past and to the future.

God gave the Israelites, and the Kohanim, instructions on the rituals of Jewish life in the wilderness  into which lasting emotional impact was embedded. We would do well, here at Schechter, as we inculcate our children into Jewish life and values, to turn our attention to those scents, that reyach nikoach. What is the scent that we are transmitting to our children, our faculty, our leaders, our parent community during the everyday and during times of transition? How Schechter treats all of the members of this community, from our head of school to the beginning toddler at Gan Shelanu produces a reyach that impacts individual lives, our community, and wafts into the broader community as well.

Grade 5

Grade 5 is Making a Difference Using Art

Fifth grade students are learning to embrace diversity and are teaching others to do the same through their art. In a unit on diversity and making a difference, fifth graders were asked to come up with a slogan and then create a poster. Upper School Art Teacher, Joy Chertow, shares about the project, “Each child creates a slogan and does the art work to encourage others to embrace differences.” Check out the artwork, which is decorating the halls of the Shoolman Campus.

Pictured:  Fifth grader, Eyal Kopcow, works on his poster, with the slogan, “It doesn’t matter what’s on the outside. What matters is on the inside.”

Rabbi Elan Babchuck,

Vaykira – Holy Chutzpah

As the book of Vayikra begins, we read that God calls out to Moses in order to give him instructions to share with the Israelites. In translated form, nothing appears out of the ordinary; God calls out to Moses countless times. Nothing new here.
But if you read the text in a Torah scroll you’ll notice that the aleph at the end of the word “Vayikra” appears much smaller than the rest of the word, thus pointing to an alternate reading of the word: “Vayikar.” The former means “and God called to Moses”, whereas the latter (which appears in Number 23:24 in reference to Bilaam the prophet) means “And God happened upon Moses.”
Midrash Yefeh Toar, a 16th century commentary on Midrash Rabbah, builds on the notion that Moses transcribed the words of the Bible as dictated by God, and while he stays true to the words themselves, he makes a statement by making the aleph much smaller. The Midrash posits that the act is one of deep humility; Moses hints that God didn’t really select him to lead the Israelites intentionally, but rather just chanced upon him. In that sense, Moses is no better than Bilaam the prophet.
While the midrashic interpretation is insightful and important, it only tells half the story. Yes, Moses has always been a humble leader – even from the outset, he deflected God’s attempts to recruit him into the leadership role, essentially saying “I’m not the one you’re looking for.” On the other hand, though, Moses was told to transcribe the words of Torah precisely as God gave them to him, and he had the audacity to change how he wrote this one, in order to infuse his own perspective into the text.
Perhaps, then, the message is not just about humility, nor solely about audacity. Perhaps the takeaway is that we can take inspiration to be both humble and audacious, and the holy work ahead is about picking our spots and finding balance between those two poles. There are moments that call for the deepest humility your soul has to offer, and other times when the world needs nothing more than a dose of your holiest chutzpah.
As our eyes gaze out to the chaotic world around us, and our souls turn towards the Shabbat ahead, my hope is that each of us can embrace the Moses within, and share our humble and bold gifts with the world that so needs them both.

Happy Pi Day 2016!

Happy Pi Day 2016!

Afterschool Teacher, Chris DiRico, remembers the time his brother got to “pie” the vice principal of their elementary school after memorizing the most numbers of Pi in the school. This week, on “Pi Day” (March 14th), Chris carried on this tradition by challenging his students in the Shaller Campus Afterschool Program to memorize as many numbers of Pi as they could. The student who memorized the most numbers got to throw a pie in Chris’ face. There were eight contestants, with second grader, Maddie Kadden, coming out as the winner after memorizing 47 numbers!


Pictured: Maddie Kadden “pies” Chris DiRico

Purim Preparations

Gan Shelanu Purim Preparations Begin!

Purim preparations are in full swing at Gan Shelanu. In Gan Shelanu’s Dubim class, Dubim Teacher Judi Boviard shares, “We read the book Purim and sang ‘Once There Was A Wicked, Wicked Man’ and ‘My Hat It Has Three Corners.’ The Dubim students also used bingo daubers to decorate paper plates which will become our groggers. In Hebrew, Hebrew Specialist, Ruhama  Shitrit sang “La Kova Sheli” with us again. After that, each child got a shaker and we sang ‘Mishe Mishe.'”


Pictured: Dubim student, Lior Gaathon, decorates her paper plate grogger.


Pekudei – Effort Matters

The book Difficult Conversations points out something fascinating about how we appraise effort. We are more interested in knowing that another person is trying to empathize with us – that they are willing to struggle to understand how we feel and how we see – than we are in believing that they will actually accomplish their goal. Struggling to understand, thinking hard, sends a strongly positive message. After all, you wouldn’t invest that kind of energy in a relationship that you didn’t care about. So arriving at the point of saying “I understand just how you feel” is not the only outcome that registers powerfully with us. Effort counts.
Curiously, in the final chapter of the Book of Exodus Moses never speaks. Instead, his deeds eloquently depict the completion of the Tabernacle. “And Moses did it. According to everything that God commanded him, he did so” (Ex. 40:16). This particular verse takes us all the way back to a virtually identical verse in Noah’s construction of the ark (Gen.6:22). There are several parallels between Noah and Moses, the Bible’s only two figures identified with floating in arks (Gen. 6:14; Ex. 2:3). Why the subtle comparison between Moses and Noah at the conclusion of theTorah’s second book? Perhaps the contrast between them enables us to measure biblical progress since the antediluvian, nonverbal obedience of Noah. Much has changed since then for God and for God’s representatives. The shift from God’s creating a world to make space for humans, to our making a Tabernacle to make space for God is noteworthy.
Even more nuanced, however, is the shift in approach to deeds. Simplistic labor has given way to maasei hoshev designer’s work. Indeed, maasei hoshev may mean more than designer’s work. Perhaps it is also alludes to “thoughts as deeds” (literally maasei hoshev). The work of thinking hard, careful consideration, can be tantamount to a concrete deed.
Behavioral psychologist Dan Arielly writes about the “IKEA effect,” which suggests we care more for something we’ve worked to assemble. It works for ideas too. Try discussing a text together with somebody, and note how differently you feel about the fresh ideas that you helped to create. Perhaps it also works for effort exertion in struggling relationships. As we complete tabernacle furnishings in this week’s Sedra, try a different kind of furnishing work this weekend. May sincere efforts at empathy be recognized and rewarded.


Schechter is pleased

Schechter Names Incoming Lower Division Principal and Early Childhood Assistant Principal

Schechter is pleased to announce that the school’s leadership has named Ellen Agulnick, Gan Shelanu Director, to the newly created position of Lower Division Principal for the next school year. Pre-kindergarten teacher, Deborah (Debbie) Moukit, will be named Assistant Principal of the Early Childhood Program and will manage the day-to-day operations under Ellen’s leadership.

In her new role, Ellen will oversee both Schechter’s Early Childhood Program and Lower School. Head of School Rabbi Elliot Goldberg says, “Ellen has made tremendous contributions to our community and, with this new position, she will have an even greater impact at Schechter in the years to come.”

Members of the Lower School faculty and staff met with the school’s search consultants earlier this winter and discussed the qualities they would like to see embodied by the Lower School Principal including passion and excitement for Jewish day school education; successful experience leading and administrating a school; knowledge of best practices in teaching and learning; and, of course, a love of children.

Schechter Board of Trustees President, Lauri Union, shares, “We are blessed at this time to have someone who embodies these qualities and is already part of our Schechter community and our senior leadership team. Our search consultants interviewed Ellen and were impressed with her strong administrative skills, educational philosophy and vision for Schechter’s young learners.”

Ellen came to Schechter over six years ago to envision, design and build our Early Childhood Program. Through Ellen’s leadership and expertise, Gan Shelanu has nurtured the hearts, spirits, minds and bodies of over 200 children since its founding five years ago. Union adds, “Ellen is a visionary leader with a passion for helping children and their teachers to reach their full potential.”

Ellen holds a B.A. from Brandeis University in psychology and elementary education, and a M.A. in Jewish education from Hebrew College. She holds Massachusetts state certifications in both early childhood administration and elementary education for grades one through six. She has over 25 years of experience in both early childhood and elementary school settings. In fact, Ellen began her career in education as a student teacher at Schechter’s Lower School!

Debbie has over 18 years of experience in both early childhood and elementary settings. She received a B.A. in education from Lesley University and holds Massachusetts state certifications in early childhood administration and elementary education. Ellen shares, “Debbie brings expertise, warmth and spirit to our youngest learners and has much to offer in her new role.” She will also continue as a music specialist and part-time pre-kindergarten classroom teacher.

Founded in 1961, Solomon Schechter Day School is a premier Jewish independent school in Newton, Massachusetts for close to 500 children ages 18 months through eighth grade. Schechter’s unparalleled academic program fosters critical thinking, academic preparedness and a strong sense of Jewish identity. For more information, visit