D’var Torah: Lech Lecha (Shoshi Jalfin)

It was for the love of the Hebrew language and Jewish texts that already at age 15, I decided to be a teacher. It was a special call, an inner voice telling me, “Lechi Lach – Go to yourself.” From that moment on, I followed the path leading to fulfill my dream, and after so many years, “Hineni, – Here I am,” still teaching with passion.

In parashat Lech Lecha, both Abram and Sarai hear a special call. Together they leave their country, their homeland and their family behind in Haran to go to a land they do not know because they feel, at that precise moment, that following that voice is what they have to do. Quoted in Pirkei Avot, Hilel says, “Im ein ani li, mi li… Ve Im lo achsav ei matai – If I am not for myself, then who will be for me?… And if not now when?” This is what I interpret that Abram and Sarai do upon leaving their comfort zone and when going toward the unknown. Sometimes too, we just hear that voice, the specific urgent call we must follow, knowing that although uncertain, it is a good one; a journey that is going to impact both our own life and the life of others. This, I believe, is what leadership is all about.

Recently, after many years of teaching, a new voice has called me forth. For a second year now, I have been involved in a Teacher Leadership Fellowship program at Brandeis University.  When I first heard about this program, I felt that this was my second Lechi Lach call. My initiative is to support the school vision of teaching Judaic Studies in depth, with purpose and joy. I can fulfill this mission by helping other teachers and myself perfect our instruction, by having discussions around what good teaching is, by deepening our knowledge and expertise, and by making the topics of what we teach more relevant to our students. While experiencing joy, students can understand the purpose of what we, the Jewish people, do and why we do it. 

Abram and Sarai who’s names in this parasha are changed to Abraham and Sarah, begin their own leadership journey and are promised to have as many children as the stars in the sky and the dust on earth so to carry on the legacy of their values and their belief in God to their offspring, Isaac and Rebecca; Jacob, Leah and Rachel. Like Rabbi Tarfon says, “Lo Alecha Hamelacha Ligmor…”. “It is not just up to you to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” We must be role models to others to continue what we have started. So following Abraham and Sarah’s foot steps, may we too hear that call, our inner voice, and pass it on “Mi dor  le dor”, “From generation to generation”. In our Schechter community, whether we are parents or teachers, we are partners in teaching our children keep our Jewish values and traditions alive and by living them to the fullest.

D’var Torah: Stephanie Maroun (Noach)

In Genesis 6:1-11:32, we read of God’s dismay and response to the growing wickedness and moral devolution among the descendents of Adam. God levies a catastrophic flood upon the earth in order to eradicate every living thing, but not before identifying Noah as a singularly righteous individual among humankind. Through explicit instructions, God commands the ever obedient Noah to build an ark to save and shelter his family and to bring along a male and female pair of all earth’s creatures, seven pairs of clean animals and all the foods necessary for the ark’s inhabitants during the 40 days of devastating rain and torrent.

Following the flood and its lengthy aftermath, Noah, his family and the creatures aboard the ark eventually emerge to a new world with the weighty, providential opportunity to begin again and to lead subsequent generations towards a brighter future. Pleased with Noah’s efforts, God establishes a covenant with him in which He vows never to destroy humankind again and marks this promise by setting a rainbow among the clouds.

To this day, the rainbow, one of nature’s loveliest and most ephemeral phenomena is an enduring and indelible sign of hope. It has emerged, especially powerfully, in recent years to signify tolerance and inclusion. Fortunately, biblical floods and thunderbolts have been replaced by education, awareness and progress. The world of today is not as binary or quantifiable as in Noah’s time. The divine seven-color rainbow bestowed by God has evolved into a symbol that represents the complex, modern spectrum of life. Indeed, God’s reminder to Himself now adorns clothing, flags, storefronts and bumper stickers as a charge and message of better, kinder days to come, but only with our attention and efforts.

Like the rainbow, though, progress can sometimes be hard to discern or see clearly. In an era of growing hate crimes, parochialism and antisemitism, the citizens of the earth must be put on notice to develop sensitivity and respect when it is lacking, to be upstanders against turpitude and not to slip silently into egocentrism and passiveness through complacency or habit. Let us not forget again our dangerous ability to destroy ourselves by forsaking the personal and shared morality we must show towards each other and the world.

D’var Torah: Rabbi Gilbert S. Rosenthal

I always loved Parshat B’reshit. It is the first chapter of the Torah and it says it all: The creation of the universe, the birth of living creatures, the fashioning of the first humans—Adam and Eve—love, marriage, jealousy, birth of children, sibling rivalry and fratricide, the formation of various tribes and nations, the insidious appearance of evil, etc. Perhaps the greatest verse is chapter 5:1: “And God created humans in His image.” Rabbi Akiva stressed the importance of this passage when he stated (Mishnah Avot 3:8), “Precious is humanity for having been created in the image of the Divine.” We are not merely animals; were are sentient, intelligent humans with the unique ability of choosing good versus evil and of developing our intellect and creating a better world.

What can one say as we scan the world and witness such brutality and cruelty among the nations? Is this the way God planned things? And what shall our reaction be when our own nation—the land that welcomed the poor and persecuted and homeless masses to its shores of freedom and opportunity would wall-off millions and designate them as “criminals, rapists, murderers, drug dealers,” etc.? Had this attitude prevailed, my ancestors never would have made it to America in the 1880s, fleeing Czarist pogroms.

We need to study B’reshit carefully, once again. We need the religious leaders of all faiths to reemphasize its great teachings and value-system. We need politicians who are not just fixed on getting reelected but who stand for the principles that made America great and a beacon to all the other nations on earth, inspiring them to copy our example. Rabbi Tanhuma said it best in this wonderful passage (Genesis Rabbah 24:7): “

Whoever curses, deprecates or degrades another human being it is as if he cursed, deprecated or degraded God, because the human being is created in His image.”

Perhaps we might send a copy of this quote to all of our religious leaders, politicians, and school principals. Maybe, then, the hopes and dreams of the Creation tale might be realized?

elan-babchuck

D’var Torah: Rabbi Elan Babchuck ’96 (Chol Hamoed Sukkot)

The Medizbozer Rebbe used to say: During the High Holidays, we find ourselves serving God with the entirety of our being. On Rosh Hashanah, we serve with our head, as memory enwreathes our mind. On Yom Kippur, we serve with the heart, as fasting strains the heart to its fullest capacity, and we open our hearts to our loved ones in seeking and granting forgiveness. And on Sukkot, we serve with our hands, as we grasp the lulav and etrog and build our sukkot from the ground up.

Indeed, the head-work and heart-work of the High Holidays can be engrossing, engaging, and exhausting to the mind and the spirit, respectively. When we truly give ourselves over to the task of searching our heads and scanning our hearts for all that ails us, inspires us, and moves us, we often find ourselves collapsed in a heap after the rush of bagels and orange juice at break-fast. And yet – tired as we may be – our work is just beginning.

As soon as the break-fast is cleaned up and we’re once again properly caffeinated, our task moves from the head and heart to the hands; it’s time to build the sukkah, grasp the lulav and etrog, and get to work.

On its own, the metaphor of our High Holiday time as a full-bodied experience is profound. But it’s the progression – head to heart to hands – that I find most compelling. What is the work of our hands if not a reflection on the passion of the spirit, the conviction of the mind? How could we possibly put our hands to work before we intellectually and instinctually understand what it is we’re trying to build?

Whether your handiwork involves building a sukkah, extending outreach to someone in need, or simply embracing a loved one, my blessing for us all is that the work of our hands flows authentically from the newly-minted memories of our minds and the deeply-rooted hopes of our hearts. Chag Sameach!

Rabbi Elan Babchuck ’96 is the Director of Innovation of Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

 

D’var Torah: Ami Joseph (Haazinu)

Did you know there was a can of tuna in the Ark of the Covenant alongside the two tablets that Moses brought from Mount Sinai?

Well, maybe it wasn’t exactly tuna. It was a measure of the Manna that we ate each day in the desert, when Hashem was our miraculous sheltering sky in the daylight and a burning cloud protecting us in the night. Could you imagine opening the famous Ark of the Covenant, excited to peer inside at the writings of Moses, our teacher, with foundational words of the Torah written on stone, only to also see a small measure of food?

In the desert Moses instructed us to take as much Manna as we needed for a single day. If we took more, the extra Manna would rot. We had to have faith in Hashem that there would be food for us and for our families on the next day, without which we might not survive. Hashem was using the Manna to teach a slave people how to have faith in tomorrow, and how to behave in a community by leaving extra food for others rather than hoarding it for ourselves.

The Torah has a different word for hoarders, called ‘Asafsuf’ in BaMidbar chapter 11, when the people rebelled against Hashem’s system of Manna, and instead wanted to gorge themselves on meat and fish and poultry. The people protested to Moses, who for the first time seems to lose patience, and asks Hashem for help getting the job done. After a series of such episodes, Moses’ may have lost some measure of control when he used his staff to beat a rock for water rather than speak to it, as Hashem had commanded.

This week’s parsha of Haazinu ends with Hashem commanding Moses to climb to the top of Mount Nebo, to retire from serving the people of Israel, and to pass on from this world before the people enter the land of Israel. But the measure of Manna remained in the Ark of the Covenant and with the people of Israel as they entered their new home, intended to be an eternal reminder to have faith in tomorrow no matter the events of today.

I learned a lot of this from listening to classes of Rabbi Menachem Leibtag via the app Soundcloud.