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D’var Torah: Rabbi Ravid Tilles (Tazria)

This week we read the portion of Tazria, which furthers the themes of the preceding chapters of Leviticus: purity and impurity. We learn about the ways that a person can become impure (ta’may), and therefore unfit to bring sacrifices to the Tabernacle. We also learn the process by which a person can be purified (tahor) and reintroduced into the ritual society. These two portions deal primarily with anatomical issues such as skin disease or bodily fluids and how these medical conditions can cause impurity (WARNING: This week’s portion and next week’s are rated PG-13 – though parental guidance is ALWAYS encouraged).

On the surface, the words ta’may and tahor (impure and pure) seem charged with judgment.  It is good to be tahor and it is bad to be ta’may. After all, one who is in a state of ritual impurity must not service God in the Tabernacle. Someone who is impure longs for purity, so impurity must be bad. The question arises, however, about the issue of childbirth, which is discussed at the beginning of Parshat Tazria. A woman who has just given birth is given the classification of “impure.” How can that be? How can such a beautiful, joyous, positive moment, such as childbirth, be associated with impurity or negativity?

From this we learn that ritual impurity is not a negative classification, rather it is a state of reality. Ta’may is not good or bad it just is. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of England, expounds, “Though we have immortal longings, mortality is the condition of human existence, as it is of all embodied life.” Meaning, even though we wish we were always perfect and even strive for perfection, the reality is that we will never be perfect. There will always be times that we are ta’may, and we should give ourselves permission to live with our challenges and accept them as a part of our whole being. Our goal should not be perfection, since that is impossible. Instead our goal should be to accept ourselves, 100% fully and purely, as we are.

Rabbi Ravid Tilles is the Director of Jewish Life and Learning at Schechter

D’var Torah: Esther Rosi-Kessel (Shemini)

My parsha, Parshat Shemini, in the book of Leviticus, begins with the inauguration of the Mishkan, the traveling Tabernacle. During the ceremony, Aaron’s sons, the priests Nadav and Avihu approach the altar and bring their own “alien fire” before God, not waiting for the Heavenly fire to consume the offerings. They are punished by death. Moshe asks the Kohanim, the priests, to remove the bodies and Moshe tells his brother Aaron that in order for the people not to become very upset and doubt the purpose of the mishkan, they must stay silent. There are very different opinions over the generations about what was Nadav and Avihu’s sin.

Then it says, “And Aaron was silent.” Many people think his silence was a bad thing, like he wasn’t allowed to mourn his son’s deaths, but I think it could have actually been his way of mourning. Not everyone cries or talks or is loud about their sadness. Many people deal with feelings silently, in their heads. Maybe the Torah was trying to tell us that there are different kinds of people, and everyone has their own way of dealing with things.

Then the portion continues with Kosher laws, such as: only eat land animals which have split hooves and chew their cud, and only fish with scales and fins can be eaten. It also gives the list of which birds can be eaten, and says that you can’t eat birds of prey.

According to some interpretations of Torah, humans were never really supposed to eat meat. In the Garden of Eden, God said: Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree that has seed-yielding fruit — to you it shall be for food.” God only says that plants can be eaten. Fast-forward to the time of Noah: after the flood, people really wanted to eat animals. God gives Noah and his descendants permission to eat meat, but God also says: “But flesh, with its soul, its blood, you shall not eat.” God prohibits eating blood, or the life of the animal. Much later, when the Israelites are stranded in the desert, God gives them Manna. Many people believe this was a second chance at a vegetarian diet. But they weren’t satisfied, the people wanted meat. So God gave them quail, but it was the ONLY thing they could eat. Think about it: only eating one food for about a month, wouldn’t you get sick of it, even if you liked it at first? This could be saying, maybe eating meat isn’t really the best option. The Kosher laws could be saying that if you have to eat meat, you still need to be mindful of what you’re eating.

The kosher laws tell people what they can and can’t eat. There are many things I can’t eat. I’m vegetarian, and I have never  eaten meat. My whole family is also vegetarian. I also have celiac disease, so I can’t eat gluten. I think this makes me much more aware of what I’m eating. When I go to a restaurant, I can’t just pick any item and say, “Oh, this looks good. I’ll get it.” I need to make sure it’s something I can eat. When many people eat food, they don’t really think much about what they’re eating. They don’t think about what’s in their food, because they don’t need to, but they also don’t think about where their food is coming from. Many people don’t realize that they might be eating an animal that had a really bad life while it was alive. Because I have to be more mindful about what I’m eating, I’m more sensitive to what it feels like to have restrictions on what I’m eating, so when there’s someone with a food allergy, I know what it feels like not to be able to eat anything at a party or event or restaurant. Even though the meat laws for kosher don’t really apply to me, because I don’t eat meat, I still think they’re important in helping people be more mindful about food. According to kosher laws, meat is only kosher if the animal was killed painlessly. People who keep kosher are often more mindful about their food. Whether or not you have food allergies, are vegan or vegetarian, or keep kosher, you can still be mindful about your food.


Schechter Students Receive High Honors!

Several teams representing Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston achieved Highest Honors in the recent WordMasters Challenge™—a national vocabulary competition involving nearly 150,000 students annually. The eighth grade team scored an impressive 188 points out of a possible 200 in the second of three meets this year, placing first in the nation. In addition, the sixth grade team (184 points) and the seventh grade team (189 points) each finished in fifth place nationwide.

Competing in the difficult Blue Division of the WordMasters Challenge™, sixth grader Jonah Nathanson, seventh graders Yael Fraiman, Jacob Joseph and Sabrina Strapp, and eighth graders Yael Margolis and Jacob Zalis each earned a perfect score of 20 on the challenge. Nationally, only 20 sixth graders, 31 seventh graders and 17 eighth graders achieved this result. Other students from Solomon Schecter Day School of Greater Boston who achieved outstanding results in the meet include sixth graders Lily Commander, Eitan Leshem and Eli Schwartz, seventh graders Shira Levy, Alex Lincoln and Eli Williams, and eighth graders Miles Leitner, Eli Rabson, Jessica Weinfeld and Kayla Weissman. The students were coached in preparation for the WordMasters Challenge™ by Lauren Hollop, Rachel Katz and Pat Rigley.

The WordMasters Challenge™ is an exercise in critical thinking that first encourages students to become familiar with a set of interesting new words (considerably harder than grade level), and then challenges them to use those words to complete analogies expressing various kinds of logical relationships. Working to solve the analogies helps students learn to think both analytically and metaphorically. Although most vocabulary enrichment and analogy-solving programs are designed for use by high school students, WordMasters Challenge™ materials have been specifically created for younger students in grades three through eight. They are particularly well suited for children who are motivated by the challenge of learning new words and enjoy the logical puzzles posed by analogies.

The WordMasters Challenge™ program is administered by a company based in Indianapolis, Indiana, which is dedicated to inspiring high achievement in American schools. Further information is available at the company’s website: http://www.wordmasterschallenge.com.


D’var Torah: Jacob Pinnolis (Tzav)

There is a striking repetition near the opening of Tsav, this week’s parashah, as the work of the priests is described:

“The fire on the altar shall be kept burning, not to go out:  every morning the priest shall feed wood to it…A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out.”  (Vayikra 6:5-6, NJPS)

In two short verses the same basic idea is expressed five times—namely, that the fire on the altar, once set, should never be allowed to go out.  Twice it says the priest should keep it burning (תוקד); twice, not to quench it (לא תכבה); and once the fire is described as perpetual (אש תמיד).

The Rabbis of the Talmud (Yoma 45b) argue that the repetition is merely apparent.  These repeated words tell us how many piles of wood were involved and what other flames were lit from the fire on the altar (נר תמיד).

Yet, I want to think about these verses more symbolically by holding on both to the rabbinic reading AND to the repetition.

Consider the sacred work done by the teachers and staff of Schechter and other Jewish schools.  The task of a Jewish education involves lighting a fire in all our children, just as the priests light each and every pile of wood. It isn’t enough to engage and excite only some Jewish children about learning—it must be all our children.

Let’s not lose the repetition, however, since telling us to keep the flame alive is a reminder of two other critical aspects of the work.  First, each day we must renew our commitment to fuel the passion of our children for learning, and the connection they feel to Judaism and their people.  Second, that we take care to prevent experiences that might quench that passion and connection.  Teachers do this by infusing Jewish education with care, intention, and love.

May our Torah reading be a reminder of the challenge and sacred work of keeping the flame within our children burning brightly.

Jacob Pinnolis, Director of Teaching and Learning & Jewish Education, Gann Academy


D’var Torah: Rabbi Elan Babchuck (Vayikra)

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 Torahprecisely 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.

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

D’var Torah: Rabbi William Hamilton (Pekudei)

Effort Counts

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 struggle to understand how we feel – than we are in their demonstrating actual empathy. Struggling to understand sends a positive message. After all, you wouldn’t invest that kind of energy in a relationship that you didn’t care about. Effort counts.

In the final chapter of the Book of Exodus Moses never speaks. Instead, his deeds 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 the Torah’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. There is a shift from God’s creating a world to make space for humans, to our making a Tabernacle to make space for God.

Even more nuanced 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.

Rabbi William Hamilton, Congregation Kehillath Israel, Schechter Alumni Parent