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D’var Torah: Rabbi Ravid Tilles (Beshalach)

I love telling the parsha stories to students! They listen with rapt attention and will often ask incredibly profound questions. Recently, as I have told the stories about the 10 plagues and B’nai Yisrael’s Exodus from Mitzrayim (Egypt), the students have asked a lot of questions of why God would have hardened Pharaoh’s heart. They also asked why there were 10 plagues. Why not just one big one? Why any plagues? Couldn’t God have just zapped Pharaoh and the Israelites could have left? Or could God have lifted up B’nai Yisrael and dropped them in the Promised Land? These all feel like legitimate questions when we consider the ways that the Torah describes God’s powers. And I can’t wait until they hear about this week’s Parsha and the big question. Why did God insist that B’nai Yisrael take the long way?

In the opening pasuk (verse) of Parshat B’Shalach reads, “Now when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Phillistines, although it was nearer; for God said, “The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt,”  (Exodus 13:17). Not only is this route longer, we learn in the following chapter that this path includes an impassable Sea (wink wink). Again, like in the other Exodus moments, God opts for the long, deliberate route instead of the shorter, simpler version that my students were clamoring for. But in this case, God actually gives an explicit reason – lest the people may have a change of heart…and return to Egypt. Rashi explains that God did not want it to be easy to return back to Egypt, because the farther away and more treacherous the journey, the less likely they would be to reverse course.

This verse illuminates a possible explanation for why God didn’t just transport B’nai Yisrael directly to Cana’an. As a reminder, all of B’nai Yisrael had been born into slavery. Their parents had all been born slaves. Their grandparents, and great-grandparents had all been born and died as slaves. The idea of the imminent God of their ancestors was a distant myth. So in many ways the Plagues did not just serve as a punishment to Pharaoh and the Egyptians, but as signs to B’nai Yisrael that God had returned to them in a big way. 

God may have a lot of power in the stories of the Torah, but God does not have the power to change the minds of an entire people. God does not have the ability to coerce belief, so instead God works within nature to exhibit power and persuade B’nai Yisrael to follow Moshe out of Egypt. The remainder of the Torah is an exercise in God’s attempted persuasion. Though God frees B’nai Yisrael from Mitzrayim in last week’s parsha, this opening pasuk from B’Shalach is a reminder that God realizes that the work of persuading B’nai Yisrael is just beginning. Throughout their entire journey through the Wilderness, segments of B’nai Yisrael become fed up and begin to long for the days when they were in Egypt. We learn from this week’s parsha that God anticipated this lack of conviction, and saw this route as a strategy to dissuade a return to Egypt. 

The Torah provides a master class in long-term storytelling. My students love the twists and turns and the cliff-hangers – my favorite moment of every session is when the students groan after I say, “and that is how this parsha ends.” But even more relevant is the ways that God has a long-term goal for B’nai Yisrael. The centuries of slavery cannot be undone with a short spurt of wonders and miracles. Emerging from slavery only took 10 plagues but emerging from a slave mentality would require much more than that. The opening verse in this week’s parsha, the first verse after Egypt, is the first step on that long journey toward true redemption.

Rabbi Ravid Tilles, Director of Jewish Life and Learning, Schechter Parent

D’var Torah: Rabbi Benjamin J. Samuels (Bo)

For three weeks now, we have been vicariously reliving the Exodus experience. It all began with the enslavement of our ancestors, the Children of Israel. Moved by our people’s anguish and heaven-piercing cries, we cheered God’s election of Moshe as the leader of the redemption. With Moshe as our leader, we joined in his resounding request, “Let my people go,” only to stiffen at Pharaoh’s hard-hearted refusals. Last week, the hammering devastation of the first nine plagues made us nervously tremble with both fear and triumph; but this week, we shudder in horror at Moshe’s final exhortation to Pharaoh threatening the tenth plague — the plague to end all plagues: “Thus says the Lord: Toward midnight I will go forth among the Egyptians and every first-born in the land of Egypt shall die … ” (Ex 11 :4-9). We expect the Torah to then relieve our built-up tension, to recount the final blow and our subsequent liberation. We expect the Torah to continue, as it actually does twenty-nine verses later: “in the middle of the night the Lord struck down all the first-born in the land of Egypt…” (Ex 12:29). But instead, the Torah introduces Israel’s first commandment, “ha-chodesh hazeh lachem” (Ex 11: 10), the sanctification of the Jewish calendar. Why? What is the Torah’s purpose in introducing this commandment at this time? Why does the Torah interrupt its literary continuity?

Rashi in the first words of his commentary on the Torah likewise asks our question, albeit from a different angle. Rashi quotes Rabbi Yitzhak: “The Torah which is a book of laws, should have begun with the verse, ‘This month shall be unto you the first of the months,’ which is the first commandment given to Israel. What then is the reason that the Torah begins with creation?” In other words, while we just asked why does the Torah interrupt the narrative with mitzvah, Rabbi Yitzhak asks why does the Torah interrupt mitzvot with narrative. The basic issue seems to be what is the purpose of the Torah? Is the Torah a book of commandments or a book of sacred stories? Both? Or more?

The prayer that is traditionally recited at the time of Friday night candle lighting includes a parent’s petition: “May I merit to raise children and grandchildren, wise and understanding, who love Hashem, are in awe of God, people of truth, holy offspring, who yearn for spiritual connection. May they light up our world with Torah and good deeds, and with their every effort and action serve their Creator.” Mitzvah teaches us how to act. Narrative gives us context to understand why. The Torah interrupts its story to bridge law and narrative; it calls time out for us to reflect on the interconnected hows, whys, and whats of being Jewish.

Rabbi Benjamin J. Samuels, PhD, is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Tefillah, a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Newton Center. 

D’var Torah: Dr. Dalia Hochman ’92 (Sh’mot)

Parashat Sh’mot: How Should Leaders Listen?

 

Pick up any leadership manual, and you’ll find the same suggestion for new leaders: spend your first several months listening and learning. As Gann Academy’s new Head of School, I have taken this advice to heart, and have spent the past year meeting with dozens of current students, parents, alumni, alumni parents, teachers, staff, community members, and colleagues from Schechter and other partner schools. 

As with any type of listening, the hardest part is remaining quiet. It is so easy to jump in, to interrupt, and to interject—especially in an effort to build rapport and deepen relationships. But there is such a power in hearing the entire arc of the story unfold, without intervening to shape the narrative. Our Western, post-Enlightenment brains have been wired to solve problems and to fix challenges. It requires tremendous discipline to let the words settle in without jumping to resolution. If we don’t listen fully, we risk not understanding deeply.  At the same time, a leader who does not act decisively may lose his or her constituents in the process. 

This dilemma of leadership plays out in our parasha this week as we begin the second book of the Torah, Sh’mot (Exodus). In the famous scene at the burning bush, G-d says to Moshe: “I have heard the cries of the Israelites.” The Hebrew word used is שמעתי, Shamati, coming from the verb לשמוע, L’shmoah, to hear. This is the same verb that we use to start the Sh’ma, the central prayer in our Tefilot. 

Thus begins, with this critical act of hearing and listening to the cries of the Israelites, one of the most significant moments in Jewish history—G-d’s intervention in freeing the slaves from Egypt. In this case, the cries of the Israelites were so poignant, so painful, that G-d heard and did try to fix and to act. We read the Torah and almost hear the cries ourselves. 

As Gann students beautifully leyn the parasha this coming week in our Z’man Kodesh (many of whom learned to chant the Torah at Schechter and at other wonderful Jewish Day Schools), the words of Sh’mot resonate deeply for me in a new way. How do we teach our students to listen deeply, and to balance listening with action?

Dalia Hochman ’92, Gann Academy Head of School, Schechter Parent

D’var Torah: Amy Newman (Vayechi)

In Parshat Vayechi, we read about the end of Yaakov’s life. Yaakov blesses each of his sons (and two of his grandsons) with a personalized blessing, and then he dies at age 147. Years later, Yosef dies as well.

The death of Yosef is the end of Bereishit. Next week we’ll start reading Shemot. Its opening verses describe the rapid growth of the Israelite nation, and its second chapter describes the birth of Moshe and his early life. 

The Torah tells us a lot about Yaakov and sons, and it tells us a lot about Moshe (who was Yaakov’s great-great-grandson). It doesn’t tell us much about the generations that came between them. And these were important generations! It was during their lifetimes that Bnei Yisrael transformed from a family – the literal sons of Israel – into a nation large enough that the new Pharaoh, who didn’t know Yosef, felt threatened by their numbers. 

There is one detail of Jewish tradition that focuses on this in-between generation: the Shabbat blessing parents give their sons. On Friday nights, we bless our sons with the hope that God will make them like Yosef’s sons, Efraim and Menashe: “yesimecha elohim ke’efraim v’chi’menashe.” This bracha originates in our parsha; Yaakov says that the people of Israel should bless their children this way.

This blessing is one of the few details we have about the people who came between Yosef and Moshe, and invites us to consider its significance. The Torah is full of blessings, but this one is unusual. We often read about fathers blessing sons; here – in the Torah’s first depiction of a grandparent interacting with a grandchild – Yaakov blesses his son’s sons, and says that future generations should invoke this same bracha

Why does our traditional blessing invoke a grandparent and grandchildren, and not a parent and child? I am told that grandchildren can bring even greater joy than children. The relationship has the benefit of maturity and wisdom, and is unburdened by the challenges of parenthood. Through the grandchild, the grandparent might imagine a peek of the future beyond their own lifetime. It would bring Yaakov joy to see Yosef living by the values he taught him, but perhaps an even greater joy to see Efraim and Menashe continue in this path; it might reassure Yaakov that his legacy is likely to endure in the way he would hope. 

Yaakov created a standard blessing for Jewish families to bestow on their children, and this blessing can remind us of the chut hameshulash, the threefold cord that is not easily broken, of grandparent, parent, and child, and can help us raise our children and students and communities with the values that are dearest to us. Shabbat Shalom. 
Amy Newman, Grade 7 Tanach, Judaic Studies Coach, Schechter Parent

D’var Torah: Rabbi William Hamilton (Vayigash)

What to tell our kids

All around the streets of Tel Aviv this past weekend, people expressed concern for the safety and well-being of American Jewry.  The Hanukkah attack on a Monsey Rabbi’s home sent ripples of apprehension throughout the Jewish world. As we enter 2020, we look for guidance from our tradition to help us face our uncertain times.

What should we say to our kids?  Of course we first seek to reassure them.  It’s important that they trust that those invested with responsibility are doing all they can to keep them safe and healthy and happy. 

At the same time, they’ll sense it if we begin to feel uneasy about things.  It’s important to be able to talk about matters in ways that are developmentally sound, emotionally safe, and spiritually helpful.  

One of the most gifted leaders at doing this was Fred Rogers.  It’s no accident that our emotionally needy times have seen a rebirth of appreciation for the body of his work.  Mr. Rogers knew how to speak to young children about fear and anger and even death. Consider how his program – which began airing shortly after the assassination of Robert Kennedy and ended following September 11, 2001 – dealt with frightful times.

This week’s portion of Torah specializes in emotions.  Shock. Fear. Relief. Each of these heartfelt sensations finds a prominent place in the reunification of Joseph and his family.  When Joseph sends his brothers to retrieve their father Jacob, he is worried about the emotional upheaval their father will experience.  This is why he sends wagons. “And when Jacob saw the wagons that Joseph had sent to carry him, his heart was soothed” (Gen. 45:27).

Why did seeing wagons help Jacob emotionally?   Traditionally the wagons (agalot) allude to a Deuteronomy law (egla arufa) pertaining to ‘shared responsibility’.  Jacob finds this allusion calming because it evokes a spirit of ‘reassuring accountability’.

Facing those who seek our People harm is, alas, not a new challenge for us.  But the vast number of well-meaning allies of our People that we today enjoy is historically new.  Landing back in Boston on New Year’s Eve, I was moved to read of one proposal that is a natural outgrowth of so many good people who seek to generate faith-warming responses to our chilling challenges.  

May we too find allusions to a spirit of shared responsibility and reassuring accountability from fellow-travelers of all faiths to prove helpful and inspiring. 

A safe and sweet 2020 and Shabbat to you.

 

Rabbi William Hamilton

Congregation Kehillath Israel, Schechter Alumni Parent