D’var Torah: Evan Roffman (Acharei Mot/Kedoshim)

When I was 6, I wanted to play piano, so my parents found me a teacher whose name was Marco. Marco came to our house to give me lessons. He would teach and joke around with me, but he was a serious piano teacher, and he always expected my best. When the lessons were finished and he would go home, he expected me to practice. That’s when things got tricky… Sometimes I wanted to practice, and sometimes, I just wanted to do other things: play with my sisters, play video games, or just use my toys. The times that I did practice I chose to for a couple of reasons: first because I wanted to get better; second because I knew that if I didn’t, he would know and I would get in trouble. Finally, if I did a good job at the concert, I would get a prize.

I’m sharing this story, because when I read my Torah portion, parshat Kedoshim, it reminded me of Marco, and what motivated me to practice the piano. The Torah portion has two chapters, each filled with a collection of laws. As I read the two chapters, 19 and 20, I realized how similar they are, and how different. In many cases the laws in the two chapters are identical or very similar, but the reasons given for why someone might want to follow those rules, are very different. In Chapter 19, again and again, we see a positive reason for following the laws: to become Holy. In Chapter 20, again and again, we see a totally different side to why someone would want to follow the laws: because they would be severely punished if they did not.  After reading the chapters, I wondered why is it that the Torah states the same rules more than once, but provides different reasons for following them?

As I looked for answers to my question, I found a Midrash or a story related to my Torah portion. The story is about a king who owned a very expensive wine cellar. It was so valuable that he worried that robbers were going to rob his vault. He hired some guards to take care of the vault, some of whom were alcoholics. The next day the king discovered that his barrels were still full and untouched so he paid his guards for their service.  First he paid his non alcoholics one day’s worth of pay but then he went on to give his alcoholic guards double pay. The guards said that’s not fair but the king answered that although all of you guys did the same job, half of you put in much more effort than the other half.

I believe that the Torah and the Midrash are trying to remind us that people have or may need different motivations to follow the laws, and it is not the same for everyone; it varies from person to person based on individual’s backgrounds and believes. For me, I try to be nice to others because it is the right thing to do, not because I am going to get in trouble if I am mean. On the other hand, no matter how much I know it is the rule in my house to eat healthy food, I usually choose to eat junk food until my parents force me to eat healthy food before I can have dessert. Another example is my own Jewish observance. I would never consider eating non-Kosher meat, but I needed lots of reminders to learn Musaf for my Bar Mitzvah. Following one Jewish law is a regular part of my day-to-day life, and the other requires lots of encouragement and at times, the fear of punishment.  I need different incentives and punishments to follow different rules. I think the Torah gets that, which is why it was written that way that it was.

Many of the laws of my Torah portion are about how people treat each other. I am so blessed to be surrounded by people who treat me with respect and have helped me to get ready for this day. With that, I return to Marco. I was 11 years old when Marco died. I learned from Marco and from the Torah portion that to have a sense of holiness, it is important to work hard, not because I need prizes or want to avoid punishment, but because I want to be the best person I can be. I wish that I had one more chance to practice for Marco, to give my best effort for him. Unfortunately, that is not possible. Luckily, I have my whole life ahead of me to strive for holiness, and to remember the lessons that I learned from Marco and from my Torah portion.

Evan Roffman, Grade 8

D’var Torah: Rabbi Daniel Berman (Tazria-Metzora)

It’s a unique experience to be considering the meaning of contagion and separation that is so prominent in our Torah reading of Tazria-Metzora during a global pandemic, when we feel afraid, isolated, and distant. The Torah reading and our new reality feel both terribly destabilizing and strangely clarifying.
The illness that is the focus of this parasha is called tzara’at – in its biblical context, it is most likely a disease of the skin. The afflicted person is removed from the camp and then re-integrated by bringing sacrifices. The ritual is a “purifying” – or strengthening – force.
After the destruction of the Temple towards the end of the first century CE, the early rabbis reinterpreted laws of ritual purity in light of behavior and morality: in the Talmud we read that one becomes afflicted with tzara’at because of seven things: slander, bloodshed, false oath, incest, arrogance, robbery and envy.
It is possible our ancient rabbis believed that one in fact came down with a physical affliction because of acts of immorality. More likely they believed in tzara’at as an internal condition, a spiritual suffering that one experiences after acting in a way that harms others. No longer a mysterious physical illness, it was understood as an affliction that infects a community through a violation of trust.
Where the biblical text and rabbinic tradition are aligned is the insight that it takes separation for healing and repair of fractures in the community to begin.  In Torah, separation is required to preserve a religious system based on ritual purity.  For our rabbis, healing took place through mitzvot, prayer and teshuvah, all requiring some form of personal reflective work that a person would do both inside – and outside – a community.
What feels enduring and clarifying from both the ancient biblical and rabbinic traditions is that healing is not only an individual, but also a communal, concern. In this unique moment of our lives, the insight that we are in this together – our illness, healing, mourning, grief, fear, and sadness and in our joy, hope and loving kindness. Togetherness, as always, is our source of strength.
Rabbi Dan Berman, Temple Reyim

D’var Torah: Henry Goldstein (Pesach)

Engraved deep in our memories are the countless celebrations filled with traditional foods and treasured songs, captivating discussions and contagious laughter, religion and belief. Clearest of all is the basis of the Passover holiday: the importance of memory and faith.

At the beginning of the book of Exodus, the story of B’nei Israel seems to be a success. With Joseph’s help, they had plentiful food during the famine, Jacob’s sons were reunited, Joseph became a famous political figure, and the Israelites were soon strong and numerous. However, with success comes arrogance, and the naive Israelites began to forget God. They abandoned the consistency, trust, and direction that faith brings. This proved to be a horrible mistake, as when they were enslaved and faced with adversities, they had no source of hope or guidance. When Moses shared with the Israelites the optimistic future that God had told him, “they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage.” (Exodus 6:18) The Israelites could not even imagine a pain-free life; they were hopeless, and they had no faith to protect their spirits and restore their hope.

Throughout the rest of the Passover story, God tries to restore faith in B’nei Israel through miracles and plagues. Strangely, God also tests their fate and optimism by making conditions for the slaves even worse and “hardening Pharaoh’s heart.” Why would God both help the Israelites and test them? I believe that beliefs are not proven through miracles and heavenly deeds – faith comes from necessity. Religion’s purpose is not only to give reason for the unknown, but also to give hope, direction, and clarity in times of confusion and adversity. 

By losing their Jewish faith, the Israelites were incapable of finding optimism and purpose in the vast sea of despair. Only when they were placed in crueler and more unpredictable conditions did they find the loyal lifeboat of faith. We can all learn from B’nei Israel’s mistake – may we never forget the loyalty and consistency of faith. We must have faith not only when faced with adversities and failure, but also when faced with victory. Rabbi Jonathon Sacks connected this lesson of the Passover story to an Aesop’s fable about a competition between the sun and the wind. In this legend, the sun wins through gentleness and warmth while the wind loses although it’s strong and harsh. Failure may seem more powerful and dangerous than success, but the Passover story shows us that this is not true. Challenges make us yearn for the loyalty and consistency of religion, while success prompts us to arrogantly forget our faith.

In this odd and unpredictable era, it’s comforting, whether celebrating with just immediate family or through Zoom, to sing the Four Questions, as we do every year. This Passover night will most certainly be different from all other nights, but through religion, at least we have the consistency of having the Seder every year, the discipline and guidance of Passover’s many laws, the optimism of “next year in Jerusalem,” and the memories that we pass down from generation to generation. I hope and pray that faith will help us all through this strange, strange time.

 

Henry Goldstein, Grade 6