Living in an Unprecedented Time: Our Students Respond

We are living in an unprecedented time. This means that this  exact type of situation has never happened before.

What will you want to remember about this time? What details do you remember?

The Sickening Days by Naomi Luria, Grade 4

I call these the sickening days. They can turn into weeks that can turn into months that can turn to years. Being in your corner, in your room, in your house. Not going out into the open. Not to school, not to friends, not even out into the fresh breath of the earth and life. Be it the flu, be it the fever, be it the coronavirus. Dear God, please make it stop. Please stop the panicking and hurts in our hearts. Make it life, make it normal, make it happiness. Together shall we be, you and I, you and me. Though still remember, how sad we were, and take for granted, our shining light of happiness. Remember not seeing anybody, standing lonely in the cold wind. Online school, though awkward must be done for there was no other choice. You needed courage to get through the sadness. Bravery to get through the night. Happiness and strength too. But most of all, you needed family and friends, to stand strong with you!!

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D’var Torah: Arnold Zar-Kessler (Parashat Vayakhel/Pekudei)

As we sit today, most of us hunkered down in our own homes, by definition ‘isolated’ from each other, we may seek some guidance beyond the compelling – and proper – directives from those helping us through this public health crisis.  I’d like us to look for an extra moment at this week’s Torah portion, and what it can offer us.

To be a “wise-hearted person” a person “whose heart moves them” – isn’t that what we all aspire to be?  And isn’t that what we want for our children, as well?

In this week’s portion, Va-yekhel, a sidra devoted to the gathering of all of Children of Israel – men and women together – where Moses addresses the entire nation, and charges them with the privilege of building the Tabernacle (the Mishkan), according to the instructions previously given, we see repeated use of the terms “for every one with a wise heart,” or “for everyone who hearts move them.”

Every person had some role to play in the building of the Mishkan – some to construct, some to donate, some to support,  and yet Moses addressed all and every member of B’nei Yisrael.  In other words, everyone had a role, and everyone thus had only to find that calling in their hearts. And while the detailed instructions that followed are about construction materials and techniques, little is directly said of instructions for growing a heart of wisdom, or a heart that moves us.

Perhaps we need to explore the text from a somewhat different angle to get some insight into that question.

Rabbi Benjamin Samuels (a great friend of Schechter) wrote recently about a teaching from the Sages on a related topic.  The Sages encourage every Jew to see themselves as a single letter of the Torah.  Since there is no Hebrew word of just a single letter (in distinction from English, where the first person singular is just one letter standing alone), every Hebrew word needs other letters to form words.

Then the words need other words in order form a sentence, or a page, or a poem, or a Torah.  Similarly, every one of us has an important contribution to make, for without our heart-felt contributions, there would be no poetry, no Torah.  Together, though, we compose something way beyond what we can each imagine for ourselves;  we can compose something sacred.

Perhaps that is the lesson of a wise heart – to pursue the gift that is special to each of us, knowing that nothing sacred is ever achieved without the hearts and gifts of many, and that our goal is always focused on something higher, something greater.

Let this be a guide for us, and for our children: to keep “searching for that heart of gold,” and finding ways to build that center of sanctity with others on the journey, even when we might feel that we are isolated, alone.

For, indeed, the Torah teaches us, as Jews we are never alone.  On days – and possibly weeks – like these, we are always “alone together;” always engaged, always part of something larger.

Rabbi Toba Spitzer (another Schechter friend) shared a poem by Lynn Ungar that might help frame this time for us:

…..Know that we are connected

in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.

(You could hardly deny it now.)

Know that our lives

are in one another’s hands.

(Surely, that has come clear.)

Do not reach out your hands.

Reach out your heart.

Reach out your words.

Reach out all the tendrils

of compassion that move, invisibly,

where we cannot touch.

Promise this world your love—

for better or for worse,

in sickness and in health,

so long as we all shall live.

 

God willing, we will all emerge from this difficult period – together and stronger.

Arnold Zar-Kessler, Executive Director Inspiring Educators, Former Head of School, Schechter Alumni Parent and Grandparent

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D’var Torah: Dan Savitt (Ki Tissa)

“Yes!… They Did It Again”

Unlike Britney Spears who sang about her proclivity for “unintentionally” repeating behaviors in “Oops!… I Did It Again,” the biblical writers intentionally repeated words, roots, and phrases. (In reality, repetition does exist in music in the form of a refrain or chorus. According to educator and musician, David Schockett, “A chorus of a song is like a thesis of an essay.”)

In his commentary on the Torah, Dr. Umberto Cassuto (1883–1951; rabbi and Bible scholar originally from Florence, Italy), writes the following about the literary repetition that occurs in Parashat Ki Tissa (more specifically, in Exodus 31:12-17):

“Of course, this repetition is not unintentional. The root שבת (Sabbath/cease) appears seven times in the passage. Similarly, we don’t see the threefold repetition of the verb שמר (keep), of the language of קדושה (holy), and of the term עשה מלאכה (doing work) unintentionally; all of these are intended for the sake of emphasis.”

Dr. Robert Alter, Emeritus Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of California at Berkeley, writes in his book, The Art of Biblical Narrative, that when a word, root, or phrase is repeated significantly in a text, “by following these repetitions, one is able to decipher or grasp a meaning of the text, or at any rate, the meaning will be revealed more strikingly” (117).

In fact, philosophers Martin Buber (1878-1965) and Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929) who began translating the Hebrew Bible into German in 1925, were the “first to recognize that this kind of purposeful repetition of words constitutes a distinctive convention of biblical prose, which they called Leitwortstil (literally, ‘leading-word style’), coining Leitwort on the model of Leitmotiv” (Alter 116). (The Hebrew equivalent of the German term Leitwort is מִלָּה מַנְחָה.)

This literary device, along with many others, greatly influenced the work done by Dr. Everett Fox, Allen M. Glick Professor of Judaic and Biblical Studies at Clark University, in his translations of Torah (The Five Books of Moses) and the Former Prophets (The Early Prophets).

Interestingly, taking note of literary repetitions can prove useful when trying to understand the meaning of prayers, because the siddur is replete with repeating words, roots, and phrases. For example, in the blessings before the Shema on Shabbat morning we have the root ברכ (bless) 10 times, the root אור (light/illuminate) 12 times, the root מלכ (reign) 13 times, and the root קדש (holy) 16 times. 

I often hear people say that if they understood the meaning of the prayers, then tefillot would be a much more positive experience. I would argue that even if we don’t understand the entirety of our tefillot, by taking note of literary repetitions we can “decipher or grasp a meaning of the text, or at any rate, the meaning will be revealed more strikingly” (Alter 117).

Bibliography

Alter, Robert. The Art of Biblical Narrative. New York: Basic Books, 2011. Print. 116-117.

 

Dan Savitt, Grade 6 and 7 Torah She’b’al Peh, Tefillah Coordinator, Schechter Parent