D’var Torah: Shira Fischer ’92 (Vayeitzei)

In the first part of this parasha, Ya’akov is running away from his parents and brother. As he heads toward Charan, he stops in a place where he sees angels and God appears to him. He takes a stone to mark the place and gives the place a name—Beit El, or house of God—and then makes a vow to God.

When Ya’akov sees the angels, they are noted to be “olim v’yordim” on the famous ladder. Ascending and descending: up and then down. You might ask, as Rashi does (RAbbi SHlomo Itzhaki, 11th century France), why are the words in this order? If they’re angels, from heaven, shouldn’t they be going DOWN first and only then UP?

According to the midrash in Genesis Rabbah (68:12) on which Rashi bases his answer, angels from the land of Israel aren’t allowed to leave—so the ones from Israel had to go back up, and different ones came down to accompany him out of the land.

That same section of midrash has many other explanations of what this up and down is. It suggests a connection to the sacrifices in the Temple and the priests going up and down the ramp to the altar. It connects to Mount Sinai with Moshe himself going up and down, using the same verbs. It even brings a proof from gematria: SuLaM (60+30+40) has the same value as SINaI (60+10+50+10), meaning the ladder represents Mount Sinai. Interestingly, the Rashbam, Rashi’s grandson who is known for his literal read of the text, wants nothing to do with the midrashic interpretation. He writes, “According to the plain meaning of the text, there is no need to read any special message into the word ‘climbing’ appearing before the word ‘descending,’” directly disagreeing with his grandfather.

However you want to interpret this short phrase, the discussion among the commentators illustrates the importance and power of close reading. We ask, why is the text written the way it is? What can we learn from it? And also, how do we disagree, respectfully, with others who might read the text differently?

In the last part of this week’s Torah reading, Ya’akov, now with 4 wives and 11 children, is again running away from his family, this time his father-in-law and uncle Lavan. He takes a stone to mark the place, names the place (Gal’ed and Mitzpah), and makes a vow to Lavan. God’s angels then encounter him and he names that place Machanaim. A close read reveals many parallels to the beginning of the parasha. What do you think these parallels mean?

— Shira Fischer ’92, Schechter Parent

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D’var Torah: Rabbi Dov Bard (Toldot)

Peace and Tranquility – Really?

Although we regularly recite that the Torah “…is a tree of life to those who grasp it, and those who uphold it are happy.  Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace,” but is the Torah really about pleasantness and peace?   Happiness?  It would seem that a life focused on Torah would result in a deep sense of spirituality, tranquility and peace.  However did you ever stop to read Genesis?

As we progress in our study of Genesis we are amazed by some constant themes which focus on physical struggle, deception, confrontation and conflict.  Siblings are in conflict, barren wives are jealous, couples encounter profound tensions . . . and then this week Rebekah is “barren” and Isaac pleads with God for a child.  She gets pregnant however it is an agonizing pregnancy – וַיִּתְרֹֽצֲצ֤וּ הַבָּנִים֙ בְּקִרְבָּ֔הּ וַתֹּ֣אמֶר אִם־כֵּ֔ן לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֖ה אָנֹ֑כִי וַתֵּ֖לֶךְ לִדְרֹ֥שׁ אֶת־יְהוָֽה׃   “But the children struggled in her womb, and she said, “If so, why do I exist?”

Rabbi Steinsaltz focuses on this agonizing pregnancy and warns us that in general we shouldn’t fool ourselves.  He teaches that life is a permanent struggle without and within and we should understand the existence of conflict.  Hoping for peace and tranquility is not realistic

“With this knowledge, one is not disappointed about failing to attain peace, nor does one feel that one’s life has been wasted if one does not achieve a decisive victory in the battle of life. A person must realize that everything he does involves a struggle, that life is war in which “nation over nation shall strengthen itself.”  The pendulum swings from side to side, and the task of man is to make every effort to emerge from the struggle in a better state that he entered it. In the course of the struggles, in between battles, he should make sure to move forward. Ultimately, this is all a human being can achieve.”  (Opening the Tanya p. 229)

This is sobering but isn’t it good to be sober?

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

 

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D’var Torah: Rabbi Ilana C. Garber ’91

Imagine if we could live forever. Ignore the problems with this idea, like serious overcrowding, scarcity of resources, and the technological developments that we can’t even fathom right now. Imagine what it would be like to know that we could live forever. 

When our matriarch Sarah dies this week in Chayei Sarah, the portion bearing her name tells us about her life. And, to be more literal, about her lives. Sarah lives to be 127 years old. And while she dies in the first sentence, the rest of the portion is about the influence of her life on those who loved her and who came after her. You could say that Sarah lives on forever in her descendants, even us.

Perhaps that is how we live forever. Our children carry on the values we share with them as our legacy. Their children inherit that legacy along with our names and our history. Chayei Sarah, the lives of Sarah, means that her life influences ours even to this day.

Peter Stark, zichrono livracha, is one such “ancestor” that continues to influence my life and the lives of our children. He was our beloved Tanakh teacher at Schechter in the 80s and 90s. I had the sad honor to officiate at his funeral several years ago.

I am so proud to be part of a community that has come together to remember Peter and to ensure that his values and legacy live on in our Schechter students and in generations to come. Peter’s students and alumni parents, along with his family, are establishing an endowment in his name. This fund will provide professional development for Schechter’s teachers to bring innovative pedagogy to the classroom. It will also give each 8th grader a copy of the text of Kohelet/Ecclesiastes, the megilah that we just read on Sukkot that invites questions of life, death, value, and merit to be explored, that they will study and take with them on their Jewish journeys.

I recently had the privilege to share Kohelet and Peter’s legacy with this year’s 8th grade class. I stood in the library on Wells Ave, a space that should have been his classroom and would have been his creative learning lab, and I felt that my teacher was standing behind me. He would have loved that I taught the 8th graders to recite Kohelet 1:2 out loud in Hebrew (look it up and recite it dramatically, with an extra long haaaaaavel as the last word). Peter would have been so grateful to the Schechter community that his impact has a ripple effect on generations to come.

While we cannot live forever, we know that our teacher was taken from this earth too soon. As I challenged the 8th graders that morning, I’ll challenge you as well: think of someone who has influenced your life in a way that continues to live on in you and in others. Now, strive to be that person who impacts others’ lives. That way, your legacy will endure forever.

 

Rabbi Ilana C. Garber ’91, Rabbinic Director of Lifelong Learning & Community Engagement, Beth El Temple, West Hartford

D’var Torah: Rabbi Michael Swarttz (Vayerah)

Vayerah:  There All Along, Here All Along

We are quite familiar with the last two chapters of Vayerah, as they are read on Rosh Hashanah.  Hagar and Ishmael are expelled from Abraham and Sarah’s household in order to assure Isaac’s inheritance. Out in the wilderness and homeless, they are soon out of water, and Hagar assumes that they will die. She separates herself from Ishmael because she cannot bear to see her beloved son die, and she cries.  God hears her and sends an angel who assures her that they will not only survive, but that Ishmael will go on to become the father of a great nation.

And then “God opened her eyes and she saw a well with water. She went and filled the skin with water and let the boy drink.” A miracle!  But most commentators see the miracle not that God suddenly created the well for them, but that Hagar’s outlook and perspective changed so that she could see the well that was there all along.

I often think of this image in connection with the hundreds of thousands of young American Jews who abandon Jewish life and their connection to Jewish community after their Bar or Bat Mitzvah.  The well, or wellspring, of Torah is there, but they can’t see it, because they have gone through a minimal “supplementary” educational system that cannot possibly convey the beauty and depth of Jewish tradition in the limited time it has with its students. So they drift away, not having gained a love of Torah and Jewish life, maybe to come back later, maybe not.

Meet Sarah Hurwitz. Sarah is one of those young people who left and came back. In this limited space I can’t do justice to her story, so read her book, entitled Here All Along: Finding Meaning, Spirituality, and a Deeper Connection to Life—in Judaism (After Finally Choosing to Look There).

Sarah grew up in Wayland, became a Bat Mitzvah and “left the fold,” as it were. Professionally she became a lawyer, then a speechwriter for prominent Democratic candidates, including Barack Obama, and eventually the chief speechwriter for Michelle Obama. By chance Sarah signed up for an Introduction to Judaism class in D.C., which opened her eyes to Jewish teachings and wisdom.  This led to Jewish meditation retreats, immersion in Jewish study and ultimately to her writing the book she wished had been available to her as she engaged in her search and return.  In it she describes what she considers to be the important elements of Jewish thought and practice. While it is not a memoir, Sarah does describe her “Jewish journey” (an overused but apt expression here).

Hagar opened her eyes to see the well that was there all along.  Sarah Hurwitz opened her eyes to the beauty and depth of Torah and Judaism that she realized had been “Here All Along” but had alluded her.  The book is inspiring and informative, regardless of how strong a Jewish background you have. I have made it the focus of my adult education class in my shul this year, and I anticipate that many other rabbis and educators will as well. I encourage you to read it, and to give it anyone you know—young or not so young—who need to open their eyes to Jewish life and tradition.

Rabbi Michael Swarttz is the parent of Schechter alumnus Nadav Swarttz