D’var Torah: Rabbi Michael Swarttz (Vayerah)

The Good and the Bad of Vayerah

Vayerah is a very rich parashah. It moves swiftly from one narrative to the next. There are elements that are consistent with our modern sensibilities, but there are others that are troubling, to say the least.

Among the positives: Abraham and Sarah are the paradigms for hachnasat orchim (hospitality) when they welcome the three strangers/messengers to their tent. Abraham, the very first “Jew,” as it were, bargains, or argues, with God to spare the innocent when God wants to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. In this he is the model for the rich Jewish tradition of arguing with God. The birth of Isaac, a fulfillment of God’s promise to Sarah that she would have a child.

On the other hand, Vayerah is filled with violence, and not just the obvious violence of the aforementioned destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the implicit violence of Akedat Yitzhak, the binding of Isaac. Additionally, as Judith Plaskow highlights in her commentary in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, there are numerous incidents of violence against women:

  • Lot’s offering his daughters to the people of Sodom in an effort to spare the men —“Do with them as you please.”
  • Abraham’s seeking to pass off Sarah as his sister in order to protect himself. Sarah’s potential rape by Avimelech, king of Gerar, is averted by a divinely sent dream. This is the second “wife-sister” incident with Abraham; it occurs once again with Isaac and Rebecca.
  • Violence against Hagar in expelling her and Ishmael from the household in order to assure Isaacs inheritance. Sadly in this case Sarah is the initiator here, with Abraham being the willing enforcer.

We always need to be careful in judging and evaluating biblical texts in light of our contemporary values and sensibilities. Obviously it was a very different world, and the status of women was radically different than today, at least in our Western world. Still, these narratives are extremely troubling to us, and it is striking to see so many examples chronicled in one parashah.

Plaskow asserts, “This Torah portion makes clear that our ancestors are by no means always models of ethical behavior that edify and inspire us. On the contrary, often the Torah holds up a mirror to the ugliest aspects of human nature and society. It provides us with opportunities to look honestly at ourselves…, to reflect on destructive patterns of human relating, and to ask how we might address and change them.”

Speaking of progressive change, Martin Luther King, Jr., famously said, “[T]he arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” [King was apparently quoting Reverend Theodor Parker.] Sadly, in our supposedly enlightened era, violence against women, particularly by powerful men abusing their power, continues unabated.   Famous examples abound, notably Bill Cosby, Bill O’Reilly, Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump, as do countless #MeToo’s.

From Vayerah to our own time. King’s moral arc moves excruciatingly slowly. We cannot complete the task, but neither are we free to desist from the work of bringing justice and dignity to women and to all of the vulnerable in our midst. May each of us do our part to move that moral arc in the right direction.

Michael Swarttz, alumni parent, is the rabbi of Beth Tikvah Synagogue of Westborough, the Jewish Chaplain at the Phillips Academy in Andover, and the Coordinator of the Harold Cotton Leadership Center of the Jewish Federation of Central Mass. 

 

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D’var Torah: Rabbi Ravid Tilles (Lech Lecha)

I still remember the first verse I was ever expected to memorize in my 3rd grade Tanach class at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, MD:

וַיֹּאמֶר ה אֶל-אַבְרָם, לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ.

“And God said to Avram, go out from your land, the place that you were born, from your father’s house to a Land that I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1)

These are the opening words of Parshat Lech Lecha, the first portion that focuses on the life and times of Abraham and his family. This verse marks the beginning of the relationship between Abraham and God, a relationship that we consider to be the catalyst for the creation of the Jewish people. When read at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, this verse highlights the great sacrifice that Abraham (still Avram here) had to make in order to establish a Great Nation. But when we broaden the scope of the Abraham story, to include the end of last week’s portion (Parshat Noach), we understand this verse differently.

Verse 1 of Genesis Chapter 12 relays God’s command to Avram to leave his land and the place that he was born, but many of our Ancient Sages note that Avram had already left his birthplace. Avram was born in Ur Kasdim, and we learn in verse 31 of chapter 11 that Avram’s father, Terach, had already brought Avram and Sarai and their family out of Ur Kasdim on their way to Canaan but that they stopped in Haran and never left. So the command from God to Avram to leave his birthplace and to leave his father’s home are actually different commands since his homeland was Ur Kasdim and his father’s home was newly settled in Haran. The Ramban posits that Avram actually received two separate prophecies that were combined into one in Lech Lecha’s opening verse. That Avram was told to leave his birthplace and his land while he was in Ur Kasdim and that he was then told to leave his father’s house while they were settled in Canaan. The Ramban explains that God is commanding Avram that he has more work to do and that he needs to continue to go further. That the Promised Land of Canaan awaits and that Avram has more work to do.

During this time of year, with the High Holy Day season still very fresh in our minds, we find ourselves on the never-ending journey toward self-improvement and discovery. We can envision our Promised Land of self-actualization, or if we struggle to articulate our goals then we go forward with the faith that our vision will be shown to us along the way (Asher Ar’eka). Throughout the course of our journeys we need encouragement or reminders that will motivate us to go further. We made resolutions and set goals while we were in Ur Kasdim, our origin at the start of the year, and it will inevitably be a long journey that will require patience and commitment. So we may find ourselves stopping our journey, like in a Haran. Ramban’s message to us and the lesson of the first verse of Parshat Lech Lecha is that we need to go further. That we should not be so complaisant to say, Haran is good enough. We must resist the temptation to say that less than my goal was good enough because at least it is closer than I had been. Instead we need to continue to find motivation from within and from our family and friends. We must continuously go forward, on our journey toward self-improvement to turn the vision for this coming year into a reality. Shanah Tovah and Shabbat Shalom.     

Estelle_Gomolka

Meet Estelle Gomolka!

Estelle is excited to be at Schechter for her 18th year as a 5th-grade General Studies teacher. She holds a B.A. in Education from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Every year, Estelle looks forward to getting to know her students as each class is new and each year brings exciting challenges!

In her free time, Estelle works as the Waterfront Director at Camp Yavneh. She has been in this role for the last 34 years and has spent 42 years at camp in total! She is a licensed instructor in water safety, lifeguarding, CPR, first aid and AED. She also teaches swimming at Boston Sports Club during the year.

Estelle feels #SchechterPride when she has the opportunity to see many Schechter students and alumni grow and thrive beyond the walls of Schechter while at Camp Yavneh. She loves watching Schechter students and alumni working at camp at the waterfront or as counselors. Her greatest pride is when alumni return to Schechter to visit with their enormous smile and hugs and to share their many accomplishments. She feels great nachas and success for them and their families!

Wrapping Hanukkah Rap

Here’s the first installment of our Hanukkah Rap! See details below for more information.

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Students in Grades 1-3 are invited to participate in creating a song about Hanukkah in the form of a rap. Students will write the lyrics, come to the music room for a recording and have the song featured here on our blog. Lyrics either in Hebrew or English are welcome! Click below to listen to the beat and first verse.

“So they fought the Greeks heroically

And they boogied to the Temple in jubilee

They cleaned the dirt took the idols out

And when they were done the all began to shout”

This project allows students to:

  • Develop creativity in a new form
  • Learn about Jewish holidays through music and composition
  • Use technology during recording sessions
  • Build school community as we make one song with many verses, showing  the students’ thoughts about Hanukkah miracles and freedom

Deadline: Sign up your child for the project before November 1 by emailing eugenia.gerstein@ssdsboston.org.

Students will then need to bring the lyrics to Gene by November 13.

Recording sessions with Gene will take place at the Lower School on November 28, 29, 30.

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D’var Torah: Rabbi Sara Meirowitz (Noach)

I still remember the day when I had to face the fact that I was imperfect. I was in fifth grade, a dutiful student in David Wolf’s Language Arts class, memorizing spelling words for weekly quizzes. I was an anxious child and a perfectionist, dreading every possible mistake. And then the unthinkable happened: I misspelled a word. I dug my nails into my hand in self-blame.

Even to recall this level of drama seems absurd now, but I remember so clearly the feeling of frustration and panic which led me to unconsciously scratch at my hand. But more important were the gentle yet firm words of my teacher (who thankfully still instructs Schechter students today!):

Everyone makes mistakes. Be kind to yourself.

                  You will have another chance.

                  I will support you.

I think of this story this week with Parashat Noach, which tells of a world so steeped in imperfection. We see a world in turmoil, sin-ravaged, with just one simple man and his family standing out from the pack. Human wickedness causes God to regret all of creation — the world is too spoiled, too imperfect. Let’s try again with just Noah, God says. Perhaps perfection can then be possible.

And yet, after the flood, the world is no more utopian than before. God utters perhaps the most pessimistic line in the Torah: “Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth” (Gen. 8:21). Imperfection – even evil – is part of human nature. And in truth, when I look at the many terrors and troubles in the world around us, it’s hard for me to disagree.

So how do those of us engaged in tikkun olam, perfectionists in our hearts, continue to have courage among this imperfection? I look to the next part of our parashah for inspiration, where God plays the role of teacher and coach to humanity.

Let’s make a covenant together, God says.

                  I’ll support you, and you do your part

                  There will be consequences for mistakes – but I will stand by you, no matter what.

And God gives the rainbow as a sign of the covenant.

May we all be blessed to have teachers and mentors who help us make mistakes, forgive ourselves, and live perfectly well in our imperfect world.

 

Rabbi Sara Meirowitz ’91 is Assistant Chair of Jewish Studies at Gann Academy in Waltham, MA.

 

David_Srebnick

Meet David Srebnick!

David is excited to be part of the Schechter community for his 14th year as an 8th- grade math teacher and the 8th-grade Head Advisor. He holds a B.S. in Engineering from the University of Connecticut (UConn) and an M.S. in Computer Science from Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI). Prior to working at Schechter, David worked in the computer industry for 25 years as a computer programmer, corporate customer service engineer and engineering manager.

Every year, David looks forward to the 8th All-Hebrew Musical and the opportunity to see talents that are hidden in his math class! He also looks forward to the Israel Study Tour which allows him the opportunity to interact with students outside of the classroom and to get to know them on a personal as well as academic level.

In his free time, David has been volunteering for United Synagogue Youth (USY) for over 40 years in Connecticut (Hanefesh) and New England Region USY (NERUSY) in various capacities. He has staffed 37 USY International Conventions, 34 NERUSY Spring Conventions and 34 NERUSY Encampments!

David feels #SchechterPride when students choose to stay in touch after school ends as that is when he knows he has really made a difference. In addition, he feels #SchechterPride when he reconnects with former students who tell him how well Schechter prepared them for high school and how much they valued their education. It makes him proud to be part of a school that has such a positive impact on its students.

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D’var Torah: Abraham Wyett (Bereshit)

Today, the Jewish people start over when we read Bereshit, the Hebrew word for “in the beginning”. But what I have come to realize during my yearlong study of my parasha is that many people are not so fortunate as to be able to start over and have a new beginning. Some people make moral choices that change their lives forever. Why do we make the choices we do? How do we resist temptation and make good moral choices?

These questions arise from the beginning of time, in Bereshit, when G-D creates the world and Adam and Eve. G-D warns Adam, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.” Adam does not heed God’s warning and eats the apple from the tree of knowledge after the serpent convinces Eve that she could eat the forbidden fruit. G-D banishes Adam and Eve from the garden of good and evil and punishes all their descendants. From here on, humans no longer get a free pass – when we make moral choices, we must live with the outcomes of our decisions. Today, I would like to share with you three examples of people who made moral choices that greatly affected their lives in serious ways and tell you what I have learned from their collective stories.

“That’s when I began to pray/ Lord show me how to say no to this/ I don’t know how to say no to this”

These words could easily have been uttered by Adam before he took a bite of the forbidden fruit. But if they sound familiar, you probably recognize them as the lyrics from the Broadway musical, Hamilton. The lyrics are part of a song when Alexander Hamilton thinks about having an affair with a stranger. One regretful night, Hamilton comes across a helpless woman, Maria Reynolds, who claims to be in an abusive marriage, begs Hamilton for help and ultimately invites Hamilton into her house starting a lengthy affair. Although Hamilton begs for G-D’s help in “saying no to this”, G-D obviously does not prevent his mistake. Similarly, when Eve reaches for the apple from the tree of knowledge, G-D does not slap Eve’s hand away but rather lets Eve make the mistake of taking the apple. This decision nearly ruins Hamilton’s marriage and political career, but Hamilton’s worst decision came many years later when he agreed to a duel with Aaron Burr. While Burr fired his pistol, Hamilton held up his gun as a sign of respect. Hamilton died, leaving his kids fatherless and his wife a widow for nearly another 50 years.

Amar’e Stoudemire said he was “the best player I’ve played with at any level.” Carmelo Anthony said he had “skills that evoke comparisons to Allen Iverson.” He might have been the first guard ever drafted directly out of high school. He might have been…except you have probably never heard of him. He is Jonathan Hargett, a high school basketball sensation, and top ten recruit in the class of 2001, who just a couple years ago was released from a five-year prison sentence for dealing drugs. Hargett began smoking marijuana in 7th grade and selling small amounts of drugs; by high school, he was smoking whenever he could. Hargett began bouncing around high schools and suffering academically. He committed to West Virginia and after a good start to their season the team lost 18 of their last 19 games with Hargett playing selfishly and shooting arbitrarily. He stopped listening to his coaches. His draft stock plummeted. He returned to Richmond, began selling drugs and was arrested with 40 grams of cocaine hidden in the ashtray of his car. His story shows the domino effect of making poor decisions.

Likewise, Len Bias was the second overall pick by the Boston Celtics in the 1986 NBA draft. Known as “the successor of Larry Bird” and considered “the next NBA superstar,” Bias already had a Reebok contract worth $1.6 million and a promising career. But 2 days after the draft. Bias collapsed to the ground and had a seizure. He was pronounced dead at 8:55 am of a cardiac arrhythmia, due to his use of cocaine. Bias was only 22 years old. His story connects to Bereshit because all of them – Len Bias, Adam and Eve – gave in to temptation and made a decision which, in a split second, changed their lives forever. Len’s decision to use cocaine was partly influenced by his friends, just as Adam was convinced by Eve to eat the forbidden fruit. All of their lives were changed drastically by one brief moment of time where the thoughts of others trumped their own thoughts.

As Rabbi Kushner explained, we live in a world of good and bad, and our moral decisions decide our outcomes. We don’t always have a guiding hand to help us make good moral choices. God did not stop Eve from picking the forbidden fruit. God did not stop Jonathan Hargett from doing drugs. God did not stop Len Bias from ingesting cocaine. If we want to make unwise choices that hurt us and the ones we love, God will not stop us either. How do we say no to this? By realizing that if we say yes to this, we can ruin our lives, and the lives of those we love. That insight, not God’s intervention, can help us make the right choice. 

Abraham Wyett, Grade 8 Student at Schechter

Deborah_Moukit

Meet Deborah Moukit!

Debbie is excited to return to Schechter for her 4th year, first as a teacher at Gan Shelanu and now as the Early Childhood Program’s Assistant Principal. Debbie holds a B.S. in Elementary and Early Childhood Education from Lesley University and is licensed as Director I and II. Prior to joining the Schechter team, Debbie was a Kindergarten and 1st-grade teacher in Abington, MA and the Auxiliary Services Coordinator and Director of Summer Program at the Striar Jewish Community Center in Stoughton, MA. Debbie was also a pre-Kindergarten teacher at the JCC in Canton and Stoughton as well as a Hebrew school and music teacher at Temple Israel of Sharon. Every year, Debbie looks forward to implementing new ideas as well as meeting and establishing relationships with new families — and especially the children!

In her free time, Debbie enjoys spending time with family, playing games, knitting and crocheting.

Debbie feels #SchechterPride when a student takes his or her parent by the hand to show something he or she has done or learned about in school!

D’var Torah: Rabbi David Splansky (Sukkot)

The festival of Sukkot comes all too soon after Yom Kippur, but provides a much needed contrast to the solemnity of the High Holidays. We make the adjustment.

Leviticus 23:40 instructs: “On the first day you shall take the product of the ‘hadar’ trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days.” The Torah, however, never includes a commandment to put those items together and wave them by hand. In fact, two verses later, Lev. 23:42, tells us to live in booths (“sukkot”), so perhaps these items from trees were actually to be used in the building of the sukkot! That seems to be precisely what a later book of the Bible confirms. “Go out to the mountains and bring leafy branches of olive trees, pine trees, myrtles, palms, and (other) leafy trees to make sukkot….So the people went out and brought them, and made themselves sukkot.” (Nehemiah 8:15-16)

The Biblical tradition, therefore, was to use these items for constructing sukkot. The post-Biblical tradition, especially the rabbinic one, was to grasp these items by hand and wave them in all directions, as we still do today.

This development-change of tradition is only one of many examples in which the ancient rabbis interpreted Biblical commandments to yield new meanings. Is that “kosher”? Of course it is. The real question is “How well do we respond to change, especially if we liked “the old way”? For that matter, how well do we respond to the new realities of how our children and grandchildren are changing as they grow?

The late Israeli poet Yehudah Amichai gave voice to this idea in part of his poem, “Open, Closed, Open”. He said his father passed on

“The Ten Commandments, not in thunder and not in fury, not in fire, and not in a cloud

But gently and with love…

…And he said: I want to add

Two to the Ten Commandments:

The eleventh commandment, ‘You shall not change,’

And the twelfth commandment, ‘Surely you shall change…’”

 

Rabbi Donald Splansky