rabbi-dov-bard

D’var Torah: Rabbi Dov Bard (Naso)

AN ASTONISHING THING!

Within our contemporary Jewish community, we put enormous emphasis on the group and on the needs of the community.  We are investing deeply in day school educations as we invest deeply in our synagogues, our community and our State of Israel.  There are times, however, when that communal orientation can be stifling for the individual.  There are Jews, actually many Jews, who yearn for a personal and a deep spiritual connectivity and find themselves baffled and slightly alienated by the communal and even tribal agenda in modern Jewish life.

Such individuals can find their voice in this week’s parasha.  Although there are many examples of individuals who step aside from the pressures of community in their singular pursuit of closeness with God, the example of the “nazir” ( Nu 6:1-21) is an inspiration for the hungry soul.  “If anyone, man or woman explicitly utters a nazarite’s vow, to set himself apart for the Lord….”  We note that the expression “yaf’li” is translated as “explicitly” yet, here, it is better rendered “wondrously.” In fact Ibn Ezra comments on this act of self-discipline which goes beyond the letter of the law:  “He separates himself, he does an astonishing thing – for most human beings are slaves of their desires.”  Seforno goes even further:  The wondrous thing that the Nazarite does is to “…separate himself from all the vanities that divert men from their true goal – he holds himself aloof from these ordinary pleasures, in order to devote himself in his entirety to God, to study the Torah, to walk in His ways, and to cleave to Him.”  (6:2)

This obviously cannot be the basis of the curriculum for our schools.  We must use a broader, more inclusive and more communally oriented language and approach.  But we must also protect the student who “gets it.”  We must provide space, freedom, and encouragement for any Jew who hungers for deeper personal meaning in Jewish life.  As Heschel reminds us, our task is not to survive.  Our task is to be worthy of survival.

Rabbi Dov Bard, Former Head of School, Schechter Alumni Parent

D’var Torah: Rabbi Elan Babchuck (Bamidbar)

Bamidbar: Embracing the Unknown

On more of my childhood nights than not, my father used to retire from the dinner table to the piano bench to play some of the blues songs from his earliest memories. Most of his repertoire consisted of well-known hits by Aretha, Ella, and BB, but there was one Bessie Smith song he truly loved to sing: Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out. The song is about losing everything you’ve ever had, and dreaming of what it might be like to recover even just one silver dollar. His favorite line, which – if I close my eyes and think back to those vivid memories of evenings by the piano – I can still hear him singing: “If I ever get my hands on a dollar again, I’m gonna hang on to it ‘til the eagle grins.”

The fourth book of the Torah, Bamidbar – “in the wilderness” – describes the Israelites’ attempts to regain a sense of comfort and stability amidst the tumultuous conditions of their endless wanderings through the desert. We learn about three such efforts: (1) taking a census of the population, (2) developing systems around the traveling sanctuary called the Mishkan, and (3) better understanding the nature of the Promised Land ahead by sending 12 scouts across the border.

These three methods of seeking security and stability in the midst of the unknown are much more constructive and purposeful than the nostalgic complaints that this generation’s predecessors tended towards in the earliest years of their exodus. We could certainly conclude, then, that the takeaway from their wanderings is that we too must seek out a sense of security during tumultuous times. Like Bessie Smith gripping the silver dollar with all her strength, it’s human nature to seek comfort in the face of change.

But on the other side of the border from our wanderings is the Promised Land, the one flowing generously with milk and honey and the promise of a stable existence for this weary people. It is here that the Israelites will soon take root and build a nation. And while stability has its draws, on the flip side of this silver dollar is the danger of losing our wandering spirit – the sense of adventure, possibility, and curiosity that got us here in the first place.

In fact, our wandering story’s most important lesson is two-fold; two sides of the same coin. All of life is about finding forces of stability in the unknown wilderness, and seeking a wanderer’s spirit even in the midst of stasis. When our life’s wanderings weigh too heavily on our weary souls, we must find ways to anchor ourselves on the journey. And the moment we get too comfortable in place, it’s time for a new adventure – of the mind, body, or spirit. So whether your next step is to plant yourself right where you stand or to broaden your horizons and step forward, I wish you a nesiyah tovah – a safe, fulfilling, and enlightening journey ahead.

 

Rabbi Elan Babchuck ’96, Director of Innovation, Clal; Founding Director, Glean Incubator

rabbi-ron-fish

D’var Torah: Rabbi Ron Fish (Behar-Bechukotai)

If/Then is the (now closed) Broadway musical by Brian Yorkey that tells the story of a woman named Elizabeth.  It tracks her choices and follows two possible futures for the heroine as she moves back to New York City for a fresh start.  When she arrives she meets friends, one of whom suggest as part of her remaking herself she should go by a new name: ‘Liz.’ Another friend suggests she readopt her college nickname, ‘Beth.’  The play then follows Beth or Liz into their different futures.

The idea of the play, and of Parashat Bechukotai, is that we make our world.  IF we are faithful to our promises, IF we heed the voice of God and the commandments, IF we are committed to being fair and honest and selfless and decent…THEN we will be blessed and treasured and have the kind of just and holy society that God wants for us. The kind we want for ourselves.

And IF not…THEN.

On one level this message is very empowering. There is no one else who is responsible.  If we want a good and righteous world, then we can make it happen. If we don’t want to tolerate the opposite, the future is within our power to control.  

But the danger of this simple message is twofold.  One danger lies in the fact that things don’t always turn out as we hope, no matter how hard we try.  Bending the arc of justice from oppression to freedom is not as simple as changing your name. The other danger in this answer is that believing that people always get what they deserve can make us hard-hearted in the face of suffering.  If ‘they’ are not smart, healthy, or rich enough- then ‘they’ are obviously at fault. IF/THEN can be a convenient cover for not caring.

Perhaps the best lesson of the Parasha is a reminder of the wisdom of Rabbi Akiva in Pirkei Avot.  There are so many things in the world which we cannot control. Our goodness or wickedness is no guarantee of perfect rewards or punishments from God or the universe.  We are not able to predict or understand the world in such a simple and direct way. But the one crucial thing we can control, we can have perfect understanding of, is our own inner spiritual life.  “All is in the hands of Heaven except for Fear of Heaven.” (Ethics 3:11)

The truest IF/THEN of Jewish belief is that if you work to be the kind of person whom you admire…if you make decisions which are based on the truest values you hold dear…then you will be blessed to become the person you hope to be.  You will be the embodiment of all you seek. The power you hold in your hand, no matter what comes, is to ensure that your name be a blessing.

As Anne Frank put it, “Our very lives are fashioned by choice.  First we make choices.  Then our choices make us.”

 

Rabbi Ron Fish, Temple Israel, Sharon
Schechter Parent