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D’var Torah: Rabbi Victor Reinstein (Yitro)

As if – When the Vision and the Way become as One

Such a small phrase that holds so much promise and possibility, it is all of two words in English, and but one in Hebrew. Often spoken lightly, quickly left behind without realizing their depth and fullness, as if/k’ilu. In the realm of children, words used in relation to behavior, at times to discourage, hopefully more often to encourage, “you are behaving as if…, or, so much better to say and hear, “spread your arms and soar, as if you are an eagle.” In the realm of the positive and hopeful, these are simple words for planting seeds of imagination, as if/k’ilu.

In the fullness of imagination begins the vibrant stirrings of soaring vision. It is how we want our children to be, free to imagine, to strive and to soar. It is not only about children, though, a gift for all of us to imagine, in the way of as if . As if consciousness emerges as deep and simple teaching from this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Yitro (Ex. 18:1-20:23). Standing at Sinai, a time and place apart, yet ever near, the Ten Commandments are given. The fourth commandment is to make Shabbos, Remember the Sabbath day to make it holy/Zachor et yom ha’Shabbat l’kadsho. And then we are told: Six days shall you serve and do all your creating work/sheshet yamim ta’avod v’asita kol m’lachtecha. The rabbis focus on that little word, all, and ask so simply, as fully aware of time and its challenges as we are, is it possible for a person to do all of their work in six days? It is our question too, how can we ever be finished with all there is to do? The rabbis then answer, rest on Shabbos as if/k’ilu all your work was done (Mechilta).

From this profoundly important teaching, we learn to live in the realm of k’ilu/as if consciousness. Of two realms, in relation to our selves and in relation to the world all around, it is a way of creating a sense of place and possibility, of rest and renewal from which great things can emerge. In order to receive the gift of Shabbos and be refreshed, we need to be able to breathe with fullness of breath and being, unfettered by all that remains yet to be done. In the way of k’ilu consciousness, we learn to let go, to step back and pause as if all were complete. It is beautiful advice as it comes to us through time, a way of softening the rough edges of our own lives. It is also about the future, though, a gentle challenge and guide toward softening the rough edges of the world and imagining another way, another time, a challenge to behave as if that other time had already arrived, k’ilu.

Shabbos offers a model of the world as it might be, setting before us the vision and the way. Stepping back in order to be more fully present, relationships are deepened, meals are shared, words of prayer rising as one from many hearts. Putting aside money and ways of competition and strife, even anger to be avoided on Shabbos, another way begins to emerge. It is not the way of day to day, and yet it is meant to be. We pray on Shabbos for the day that is all Shabbos, yom she’kulo Shabbos. One seventh of all of our days are lived as if/k’ilu it is another time, as if we are already there. Rehearsing the ways of another time, we become familiar with what it is like, with what could be. If we can do it for one day, then why can we not do it every day? With Havdallah at the end of each Shabbos, we draw from the essence of a day its way of shalom, seeking to infuse that essence into the days of the coming week. As ripples flowing out in time, we come ever closer to the day that is all Shabbos.

If we are to get there, we need to bring k’ilu consciousness into the turning of world and time. We cannot rely on the old ways that block the way. In our own lives, it means to live as if we are already there, using ways of conflict resolution that serve to join rather than to divide. It means to be in the world as if it really is the garden it was and ever is meant to be. It means to find ways of pause, of stopping long enough to see and affirm God’s face in our selves and in each other. It means to cry out and act to end the way of war and weapons as the way of peoples and nations. It is to cry out against all that denies humanity, and to live with love and in the way of harmony as if we are already there, when such Shabbos peace shall be the way of every day. If we live each day as if/k’ilu, then some day what seemed for so long to be as if shall be as it is. When the vision and the way become as one, we shall have arrived.

Rabbi Victor Reinstein is the rabbi and founder of Nehar Shalom Community Synagogue in Jamaica Plain and a Schechter alumni parent, teacher and school rabbi.

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D’var Torah: Dan Savitt (Beshallach)

Music to My Ears (Parashat B’shallah)

There’s a song that they sing when they take to the highway

A song that they sing when they take to the sea

A song that they sing of their home in the sky

Maybe you can believe it if it helps you to sleep

But singing works just fine for me.

“Sweet Baby James” (song) (1970)1

 

James Taylor poignantly captures the ubiquity of song—whenever or wherever we are singing is fitting.

What we see with our eyes can stir up powerful memories, and the power of our olfactory senses can bring back memories, but I would argue that the power of music can stir up perhaps some of our most powerful memories, and allow us to recreate emotions experienced long ago.

From time immemorial music has existed. In antiquity, music would have been used for a variety of purposes. For example, while engaging in strenuous or monotonous work such as digging wells or raising a new house “musical chants could be used to help maintain the rhythm of the workers and speed completion of the day’s toil.”2 Another common use for music was in celebrations. Music was used to commemorate major events in the life of the people.

Two major events in the life of the Jewish people are read this coming Shabbat, Shabbat Shira: the Song of Miriam and the Song of Deborah. These two songs were composed between the 12th and 9th centuries BCE.3 “[Professor David Noel Freedman] identified them as the two oldest things in the Bible. They were composed close to the time of the events that they portray.”4 We must also keep in mind that both the Song of Miriam (recited daily during p’sukei d’zimrah) and the Song of Deborah (chanted annually as a haftarah) are integral parts of our liturgical calendar.

On this Shabbat Shira, let us bear in mind that these songs, composed approximately 3,000 years ago, are two of the oldest compositions in the Tanakh, and that both were included as part of our liturgy. And on this Shabbat Shira let us sing, sing, sing—not with the sound of silence, but with the sound of music!

Sources

  1. “The Yale Book of Quotations”, ©2006 by Fred Shapiro
  2. Matthews, Victor H. “Music and Musical Instruments: Music in the Bible.” Ed. David Noel Freedman. The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary 1992: 931. Print.
  3. Cross, Frank Moore, and David Noel Freedman. Studies in Ancient Yahwistic Poetry, 2nd ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997, p. x.
  4. Friedman, Richard Elliott. The Exodus: How It Happened and Why It Matters. New York, NY: HarperOne, 2017, p. 36.
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D’var Torah: Ari Gordon – Grade 7 (Bo)

In this Parsha, Parashat Bo, the Egyptians and the Israelites are dealing with the last three plagues: locusts, darkness, and the killing of the firstborn. God spares the people of Israel’s first born, but kills off the Egyptians’ firstborn. These awful deaths cause Pharaoh to break down, and he tells the Israelites to go. Fast. The Israelites had to rush, so there was no time to let their dough rise. You know that whole tradition of eating matzah on Pesach? It all begins with Bo.

While reading the Parsha, I thought, “Why did God kill all the Egyptians’ first born? He must have known that some of them were innocent!” It also made me think about what God really is, and how God functions in the world.

All my life I felt that I could personally talk to God, but no one else could. I could always send him a message. I’ve never really thought about how other people felt about God, so while preparing this I kept an open mind.

While talking to David Wolf, my tutor, about my dvar, he told me about an idea that I thought explained a lot. He suggested that each person has their perception of  “God.” I thought this was an amazing idea, so I looked a bit more into it. While studying Mr Savitt’s “Yak List,” a list of words that appear the most in the Bible, one word I kept coming across was ELOHEIM, which is used as a name for God, but being the plural form, it directly translates to “Gods.” I thought it was weird that the word I have used my whole life to refer to “God,” really meant “multiple Gods.” In the beginning of the Amidah, it says “Elohey Sarah Elohey Rivkah, etc.” This means the God of Sarah, and the God of Rivkah, etc. It supports my opinion that everyone has their own perception of God, which makes everyone’s God seem different. Since God is abstract and cannot be seen or touched, everyone has their own opinion of God’s role and image. God is all about faith: if you believe your God can only watch, then your God can only watch. If you believe your God can only influence situations, then your God can only influence, and so on and so on.

As for me: I believe God does not directly make things happen. Believing in God is learning from God’s stories. God as a character is less important than the meaning of the Torah’s stories. When we read the stories, we become better people–that’s God at work. That’s Judaism. There’s no point in arguing about whether or not God really did free the Jews from Egypt. It’s more important that we use those stories to learn from our mistakes and our successes. My dvar is a prime example of a story with a lesson.

The second question I want to answer is: why does God find it necessary to kill all of the Egyptians’ firstborns?

At first, I thought what God did was terrible and unnecessary. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that God made the correct decision. Why? I understood that in order to really teach a lesson, you must take something, the recipient must feel loss. This applies today too. For example, if a kid is doing something wrong and a parent says, “Stop it,” the kid may not listen. But if the parent takes away the kid’s phone–not a murder exactly, but pretty horrible–99% of the time the kid will stop the bad behavior. God did not kill the Egyptian firstborns for fun. God did it to teach them a lesson.

So what about me? I’ve read, over and over again the same Torah stories every year–and each time I learn new skills that allow me to become a nicer and better person. Well, a somewhat better person. Before studying my portion, I never would thought that in order for me to change I, Ari Gordon, might have to suffer. Now I do.

D’var Torah: Henry Goldstein (Va’era)

 

In this week’s parsha, Va’era, G-d told Moses about his promise to let the Israelites have a home in the land of Canaan and his plan to help the Israelites leave Egypt. G-d asked Moses to speak to Pharoah, and Moses responded “וְאֵיךְ֙ יִשְׁמָעֵ֣נִי פַרְעֹ֔ה וַֽאֲנִ֖י עֲרַ֥ל שְׂפָתָֽיִם” “How then will Pharaoh hearken to me, seeing that I am of closed lips?” Moses admitted to G-d twice that he did not feel comfortable speaking, so G-d told him to have his brother Aaron speak for him. Despite Moses’ imperfections, (including impulsively killing an Egyptian), G-d still chose him to be the leader of a new nation. G-d told Moses that he also made the promise of Canaan to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. These men were also not perfect: Jacob took advantage of his brother, Isaac favored one of his sons over the other, and Abraham laughed at G-d when G-d said he and Sarah would have a child. Just as the characters in the Torah are imperfect, none of us is perfect either.

And so Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh to free the Israelites. They threatened to send plagues to the land of Egypt, and Aaron turned his staff into a snake, but Pharaoh was still stubborn. 

וַֽיֶּֽחֱזַק֙ לֵ֣ב פַּרְעֹ֔ה וְלֹ֥א שָׁמַ֖ע

“Pharoah’s heart stiffened” the Torah says many times, to show how Pharoah still felt no sympathy for the Israelites. The plagues kept coming, and still Pharaoh did not let the Israelites leave Egypt and be free.

The plagues occur in order from least damaging to most severe. I think G-d wanted to do the least amount of damage possible to the Egyptians. First, the water of the Nile River turned into blood. Since Pharaoh did not let the Israelites go, the second plague hit. Frogs infested everywhere.

וַיִּקְרָ֨א פַרְעֹ֜ה לְמשֶׁ֣ה וּלְאַֽהֲרֹ֗ן וַיֹּ֨אמֶר֙ הַעְתִּ֣ירוּ אֶל־יְהֹוָ֔ה וְיָסֵר֙ הַֽצְפַרְדְּעִ֔ים מִמֶּ֖נִּי וּמֵֽעַמִּ֑י וַֽאֲשַׁלְּחָה֙ אֶת־הָעָ֔ם וְיִזְבְּח֖וּ לַֽיהֹוָֽה

Pharoah told Moses and Aaron that if they made the frogs go away, they would be able to pray and sacrifice to their G-d. The frogs went away, but Pharaoh changed his mind, and the Israelites were not allowed to leave Egypt. The same thing repeated itself again in the next plague, the plague of lice. Pharaoh again promised freedom, but then changed his mind.

Pharaoh made a big mistake. Every time he said “No,” the plagues got worse. Although everybody makes mistakes, and nobody is perfect, you can always change. Abraham lost faith only for a short time. Jacob realized trickery was bad, once he ran away, and Moses felt very bad, once he impulsively killed the Egyptian. But Pharaoh did not change. He could have, but he didn’t.

As 2018 starts, we should all recognize when we make a mistake, and always try to do better next time.

Henry Goldstein, Grade 4,  is a current Schechter student.

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D’var Torah: Professor Joseph Reimer (Shemot)

The Fascinating Daughter of Pharaoh

Of all the intriguing characters we are introduced to in the early chapters of ExodusI find the daughter of Pharaoh the most fascinating. Who is this woman? Why does she save the Hebrew infant? Is she aware of her father’s decree and does she purposely undermine that decree? Let’s read Exodus, Chapter 2 for clues to answering our questions.

We first meet Pharaoh’s daughter as she is going down to bathe in the river. She is accompanied by her girl attendants who help her bathe. While there, Pharaoh’s daughter spies the basket and sends an attendant to retrieve it. When she opens the basket, she sees the child and hears his crying. The crying arouses her mercy and she says, “This must be a Hebrew child.”

Let’s assume that bathing in the river is a regular feature of this princess’ life and the attendants shield her from the rough edges of life. And yet her eye is drawn to this basket floating down the water. She cannot know, as we readers do, that there is a baby inside and that baby’s family has sent him floating to where she regularly bathes. But she needs to be curious enough to explore this basket for our story to unfold.

She first sends an attendant to fetch the basket. I imagine even mild curiosity could motivate her to send that attendant. But significantly, it is she who opens the basket and first sees the baby within.  Many social psychological experiments have taught us this: there is no comparison between directly encountering another human versus being told by an intermediary that there is a human there. The direct encounter moves us in ways that mediated encounters do not.

Then there is the cry. It is the baby’s cry that most immediately moves this princess. She hears something in that cry that evokes her protective feelings. And then for the first time we hear her speak, “This must be a Hebrew child.”

Given her father’s decree to destroy all the male Israelite children, what are we to make of her first words? Is she distancing herself from the child by calling him “a Hebrew child?” Or is she moved to be more protective precisely because he is so endangered? The story indicates the latter. When the child’s older sister offers her a way to preserve this infant, Pharaoh’s daughter leaps at the opportunity and adopts this baby as her own. It is she who will name him Moses, saying, “I drew him from the water.”

How remarkable that Torah would assign Pharaoh’s daughter the role of naming baby Moses. That honor would indicate that Torah holds this foreign woman in high esteem. But it is not, I would claim, because she is directly defying her father’s rule. How could she be if she then brings Moses up in the Pharaoh’s palace? Rather what is remarkable is that she remains human in the face of such overwhelming dehumanization, that she sees this child as “Hebrew” and yet is moved to act by his human cry.

Is Pharaoh’s daughter not a signal to us, her contemporary readers?

Looking back at Pharaoh’s daughter, I pray that we too may be moved by the cries of children, separated by decree from their parents, and remember that at every border lies a baby Moses waiting to be heard.    

Joseph Reimer has been teaching at Brandeis University since 1986 in the Hornstein and Education Programs