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D’var Torah: Rabbi Ravid Tilles (Nitzavim)

“לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם, הִוא”, the Torah is not in the Heavens” (Deuteronomy 30:12). This famous verse from the Torah, about the Torah, is often pointed to as the archetypal statement of our partnership with God in keeping our tradition as a living, breathing entity. This verse is made most famous in a well known story from the Talmud known as Tanur Shel Achnai, the Oven of Achnai. In the story, the Ancient Sages are arguing about the status of Achnai’s oven, and Rabbi Joshua uses this verse, “לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם, הִוא” to essentially win a debate with God about how the Torah would rule. The story ends with God acknowledging that the Torah now belongs to us, the Jewish people, and no longer resides in the Divine realm. As we begin the new school year, though, this verse has even more meaning to us, at Schechter, because it is actually a mandate to teachers.

It is our job, as teachers, to make the academic material feel relevant to our students. For many students, when they are confronted with new material, they have a hard time internalizing it. All the more so with material that could potentially feel ancient and foreign, particularly Torah and Talmudic texts, and it is our responsibility to make sure that the students do not feel like the curriculum is floating somewhere in the heavens. It must belong to them.

Our tradition is a great treasure that has sustained our people for thousands of years and education is the key to unlocking this trove. However, we don’t simply hand the key over to our students. The verse continues, “לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם, הִוא:  לֵאמֹר, מִי יַעֲלֶה-לָּנוּ הַשָּׁמַיְמָה וְיִקָּחֶהָ לָּנו, it is not in the Heavens, so you shouldn’t ask, ‘who is going to go up to the Heaven and get it for us?’” The end of the verse is a challenge against the need for an emissary. That those accessing the material do not need to send someone else to retrieve the Torah for them. This is a clear allusion to the fear that B’nai Yisrael must be feeling as they begin to imagine a world without Moshe, their teacher and their previous emissary to God. With our students it is the same way. They don’t need us to give them the Torah, they need the tools and the skills to uncover our tradition for themselves.

This thought continues in verse 14, “כִּי-קָרוֹב אֵלֶיךָ הַדָּבָר, מְאֹד:  בְּפִיךָ וּבִלְבָבְךָ, לַעֲשֹׂתוֹ, it is actually very close to you, in your mouth, in your heart, that you can do it.” Our students are the natural inheritors of our tradition, it is a part of who they are, and our sacred task, as teachers, is to help them to discover their inheritance. The Torah is a living, breathing entity that requires every new generation to care for and nurture her essence. We don’t give them Torah, we don’t even really teach them Torah, instead we support them in their journey to uncover their own Torah.

The Jewish guideposts of our school’s Strategic Plan are our guiding principles in this work. We believe that through immersing our students in a depth of knowledge, connected with the joy of discovery, and by including every student in the process, that they will find purpose & meaning and realize that the Torah is not far away, but deep within them.

On behalf of the entire faculty, staff and administration, we are excited to embark on the coming year of discovery, growth and connection with you and your students. We all wish you and your families a Shanah Tovah: a Happy 5779 and an enriching new school year!