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D’var Torah: Rabbi Michael Fel (Bamidbar-Shavuot)

On Passover we eat matzah.

On Sukkot we dwell in the Sukkah.

On Hanukkah we light the Hanukkiah.

But how do we celebrate Shavuot which begins on Saturday night?

For being one of the three pilgrimage festivals, the Torah is somewhat tight-lipped about the holiday’s rituals.  Even the Shulhan Arukh, arguably the definitive code of Jewish law published in 1565, gives very few details about how the holiday is to be observed.  Whereas for the other holidays, the Shulhan Arukh lists hundreds of details and customs, for Shavuot, it lists the Torah and Haftarah readings and specifies that full Hallel is recited.  It also mentions, somewhat casually, that some have the practice of decorating their homes and shuls with flowers (there is teaching that Mount Sinai bloomed at revelation) and that some have the practice of eating a dairy meal.  

So what are we to do?

Recognizing the void, for generation after generation, the Jewish people have added several layers of meaning and customs to the holiday.  For many Jewish communities, Shavuot has become a time to honor students, graduates, and teachers. Some communities stay up all night learning to make up for our ancestors who fell asleep before they received the Torah, and of course others have transformed the custom of eating dairy into a full-fledged religious obligation eating cheesecake, blintzes, and ice cream.

While some might see each generation’s creativity as a departure from the holiday’s original intent, I see it as an empowering mandate to make each holiday meaningful and personal.  I am sure many of us have added our own communal and familial marks on many Jewish events and holidays. For example, many families have modified the seder plate to include an orange or added Miriam’s Cup next to Elijah’s cup.  Others always make sure to eat bubbe’s matzah ball soup or brisket at Rosh Hashanah or use a specific melody while lighting the hannukiah.  

I know in my family, it doesn’t quite feel like Passover unless we are clinking our glasses to the beat during the 4 questions on Passover or eating home-baked honey filled challah on Rosh Hashanah.

May each of us merit to celebrate the holiday of Shavuot this year by bringing in the traditions of our ancestors while also ensuring the holiday is meaningful and delicious for future generations.

Rabbi Michael Fel, Temple Emunah, Schechter Parent

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D’var Torah: Rabbi Rachel Silverman (Bechukotai)

“If you don’t come downstairs by the time I count to three, you’re not watching TV!” I know I’m not the only parent who resorts to bribes and threats more often than I care to admit. Despite overwhelming evidence that bribes and threats aren’t an effective motivator, we continue to rely on them.
So at first glance, Behukkotai sets up a familiar trope of reward and punishment, where God is the parent and we are the children. If we behave (follow God’s laws), we’ll be rewarded (with rain, a good crop, and peace in our land). And if we do not behave as expected, punishments will abound.
In that frame, it would be easy for to write off this parsha, as science tells us that keeping kosher doesn’t cause the rain to fall, and not coveting our neighbor’s wife doesn’t produce a good crop. Although, not coveting, plus a good fence, might actually keep the peace between your neighbors…
And that’s the point. It would be a mistake to read Behukkotai as a list of rewards and punishments. Behukkotai is about natural consequences, and the beautiful possibilities that result from making the right choices that God is steering us towards.
If we stop abusing our planet, then perhaps the rain will fall when it is supposed to, the sea levels won’t rise, and the polar ice caps won’t melt. All of which would certainly lead to the land yielding produce and the trees bearing fruit (Leviticus 26:4).
If we take care of the vulnerable in our society, more people will be able to sleep without fear and eat until they are satisfied (Leviticus 26:5). If we remember that everyone is created b’tzelem Elohim, we’ll have fewer wars and more peace in the land (Leviticus 26:6).
And perhaps, if we cease from work (put the technology away and encounter one another) on Shabbat, we’ll be fruitful and multiply – yes, literally, but also figuratively (Leviticus 26:9). If we spent more time finding the humanity in one another, we’d spend less time making policies that destroy lives.
In other words, if we follow God’s laws, we might have a chance at the kind of world Behukkotai holds out as a beautiful reward. And I, for one, would love the chance to experience that.
Rabbi Rachel Silverman, Temple Israel of Sharon

D’var Torah: Rabbi Ed Gelb (Behar)

In parshat Behar, the concept of shmitah (one year in 7 of letting the land lay fallow) and Yovel (return of property to original owners) is introduced.  The broad theme is that both nature and things do not really belong to us but rather to God.  This concept helps us to remember that our mission in life is not to acquire but to work in partnership with God to perfect our world.  Although the economic structure that these laws envision may not be in force or practical today, the broader concept still retains meaning.

“Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield.  But in the seventh year the land shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, a Sabbath of the Lord”.  This may make agricultural sense, but the deeper lesson is that we are stewards of our land and not just using the land for ourselves.   When we remember that, we receive the double blessing of the long-term benefit of letting the land refresh and giving our offspring a sustained natural world.

In regard to the “Yovel”, the Torah states: “But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me.”  Our tradition understands that wealth and the pursuit of wealth is beneficial.   However, by remembering that ultimately the wealth we acquire is a means and not an ends, we can impact our communities in big ways.  The Torah uses strong language in saying we are “strangers resident”.  It means that we are not permanent.  It is a way to remind us of our mortality and that you cannot take it with you.  Also, our heritage is that we were once landless slaves and we need to always keep faith with those who are poor.    The “Yovel” reminds us of our relationship to God and this world.

Judaism is a practical religion.  We are encouraged to be successful and strive for material success.  However, as in all things, we are commanded to do this in a holy way.  A way that enhances God’s presence in the world.  Both “Shmitah” and “Yovel” are ideas that still resonate today..

Rabbi Ed Gelb, Camp Ramah

D’var Torah: Amy Newman (Emor)

In Parashat Emor, the Torah teaches about “moadei hashem”, the “appointed seasons of God”:  the festivals that fall throughout the year, and the weekly Shabbat. The text mentions Shabbat and festivals side by side, but there are differences between these two types of sacred time.

Long before there was a people of Israel, God declared Shabbat holy. Humans don’t set the date of Shabbat; it has been fixed on the calendar since the time of creation. In the Friday night kiddush blessing, we describe God as “mekadesh hashabbat”, God sanctifies the Shabbat; the holiness of Shabbat originates with God.

Regarding the festivals – Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot – the Torah says “These are the appointed seasons of God, which you shall proclaim as sacred occasions.” They don’t just happen; the people must announce them. The Torah specifies dates for most holidays, but it was the task of the court to determine the beginning of a new month based on the appearance of the moon. Only after the month had begun did the people know when the holiday would fall. Without human participation, there could be no festival. In the kiddush blessing on festivals, we describe God differently than we do on Shabbat; we say that God is “mekadesh yisrael v’hazmanim”, God sanctifies Israel and the seasons. God has entrusted people with the holy work of managing the calendar.

God created Shabbat long before God had a covenantal relationship with Israel, and God did (and does) the work of making Shabbat holy. In the early days of our nation – the childhood of the Jewish people – we weren’t ready to partner with God in proclaiming the festival dates. It was fitting that God took care of us like children, and didn’t ask too much. And it seems appropriate that centuries later, once the relationship between God and the people was more sophisticated, and we were bound to each other by covenant, God entrusted us with the high-stakes tasks of determining dates of festivals.

Our Jewish lives are punctuated by both types of sacred time: the Shabbat that God gave us, and the festivals that we create in partnership with God. When I think about work of raising and teaching Jewish children, I find guidance in these models. I hope we are blessed with opportunities to work in partnership with our children and students to create holy space, time, and ideas.

Amy Newman, Grade 7 and 8 Tanach, Schechter Parent

D’var Torah: Rabbi Marcia Plumb (Kedoshim)

Parashat Kedoshim is one of my favorite parshiot.  Its first verse led to major change in my life:  קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ כִּ֣י קָד֔וֹשׁ אֲנִ֖י יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃

You shall be holy, for I, the Eternal your God, am holy.   This verse is the root of Mussar, a genre of Jewish literature from the 11th century that tries to answer the question of how to fulfill the commandment from the verse. Studying and following Mussar has helped me change the way I behave toward others and toward myself.  I am a better parent, child, partner and rabbi because of what I have learned from Mussar.

So, what is Mussar?  It is a Jewish method to help us become holier people.   What does it mean to be holy and how do we achieve it? Bahya Ibn Pakuda, a Spanish theologian, the original Mussar thinker, said that holiness starts in our souls.   How do we build holy souls, you ask? Mussar says that we work on character traits to help us feel and behave better. Let’s take an example from the Torah: ‘You shall look after the poor and needy’.  According to Mussar, giving to the poor is part of the trait of hesed, loving kindness. We all have the ability to show loving kindness, but sometimes we give it more than at other times. According to Mussar, in order to be holy, we should show hesed as often as we can to others, and to ourselves.  Hesed toward ourselves is as important as doing acts of kindness for others. Mussar says that if we feel badly about ourselves, and berate ourselves again and again, that is not holiness. At the same time, if we hide our sins from ourselves and deny our faults, then we are not holy either. Holiness is finding a balance between our strengths and our weaknesses. We also need to find a balance with hesed. Of course, it is good to give tzedakah but the Talmud tells us that we shouldn’t give so much money away that we can’t pay the dentist bill. In other words, we can’t give so much away that we go broke ourselves.

Holiness comes from finding the right balance between giving and receiving, between looking after others and looking after ourselves.  This Shabbat, I hope you find holiness, peace and joy.

Rabbi Marcia Plumb, Congregation Mishkan Tefila