D’var Torah: Sukkot (Rabbi Dov Bard)

Sukkot – The Time of our Rejoicing?  Really?

What is left when the world we live in looks less like a house than a sukkah, open to the wind, the rain and the cold?  What remains, other than fear, in a state of radical insecurity?

This is the question, indeed the challenge, that Rabbi Sacks shared several years ago – before the pandemic, before the raging forest fires, and the incredibly polarized American public.  Our world today does feel, more fragile than ever, like a sukkah shuddering in the breeze.

And the rabbi’s response:

The answer is simcha, joy.  For joy does not involve, as does happiness, a judgment about life as a whole.  Joy lives in the moment.  It asks no questions about tomorrow.  It celebrates the power of now . . . Joy blesses God day by day.  It celebrates the mere fact of being here, now, . . . inhaling to the full this day, this hour, this eternity-in-a-moment that was not before and will not be again Joy embraces the contingency of life.  It knows that yesterday has gone and tomorrow is unknown.  It does not ask what was or will be.  It makes no calculations.  It is a state of radical thankfulness for the gift of being.  Even in an age too fraught for happiness, there can still be joy(Sukkot Machzor, p.xlviii)

Sukkot commemorates not the completed event of liberation of Pesach but the maturation of a free people, living with very little, but marching on a long wilderness path to redemption.  It challenges us to live with joy despite the vulnerability of a temporary structure – pilloried by the rain, the cold, the winds and the fires.  And yet it is to be “the time of our rejoicing.”  And as Rabbi Sacks teaches, the answer is simcha, joy.  For joy does not involve, as does happiness, a judgment about life as a whole.  Joy lives in the moment. 

May we be blessed with the ability to rejoice in the moment.

And may we be an inspiration for our children.

 

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

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D’var Torah: Shira Fischer (Ha’azinu)

Ha’azinu contains one of the two great poems in the Torah. Along with Shirat Hayam, it is written in a special way such that it is identifiable from just a glance into the scroll—if you see two narrow columns side by side, that’s the song in Haazinu.

Nachmanides (13th century Spain) summarizes the poem thus: “Great is this Song, since it contains within it the present, and the past, that which is to come, this life and the Hereafter.”

As Nechama Leibowitz points out in her commentary, Moshe is given two instructions regarding the poem. The first is to write it down, and the second is to teach it to the children of Israel: “Therefore, write down this poem and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths…” (D’varim 31:19, from last week’s parasha).

While this could be referring to just the poem in our parasha, much of the rabbinic tradition understands that what Moshe is supposed to teach is instead the whole Torah, because the text describes what Moshe wrote as follows: “When Moses had put down in writing the words of this Torah/Teaching to the very end” (D’varim 31:24).

Why is Torah called poetry? Nechama Leibowitz quotes the Netziv (19th century Russia) to explain that while the Torah is not written as a poem, it is essentially poetry: it is symbolic and requires rereading to fully understand and appreciate, and it is filled with many levels of meaning.

At the time Moses recites the poem in Ha’azinu, he is staring in the face of a severe decree that feels too heavy to bear. Like Moses, we are all questioning, why? Can we be given another chance? Is there any chance of the judgement being changed? “With whom shall I seek mercy for myself?” he asks (Midrash Tanchuma Va’etchanan 6). The midrash even has Moshe using the formulation we repeat over and over on the High Holidays: “Adonai, adonai, el rachum v’chanun” (Sh’mot 34:6), which placates God and makes him almost relent. The Torah, as poetry, helps the people of Israel understand their story, and helps Moshe appease God.

May our prayers be heard in this year of pain and suffering, and may the words—and the poetry—of the Torah and of the high holiday prayers provide comfort and new understanding.

Shana tova!

Shira Fischer ’92, Schechter parent

Rebecca Lurie

D’var Torah: Rebecca Lurie (Rosh Hashanah)

 

When I transitioned into a career in school leadership, I was warned that one of the greatest challenges would be the efforts to balance the tension between the different perspectives of our community members. And while it has been a challenge, the path forward has generally been pretty clear. Over the past few months, however, the tension between the perspectives has become extremely pronounced. The needs and desires of our faculty and staff are often in direct opposition to the needs and desires of our parents, which can be in direct opposition to the needs and desires of our students. Finding a path forward, while recognizing this tension, has been the hardest challenge I have personally faced as the leader of our school.

 

As I look towards Rosh Hashanah, I am reminded of the tensions that exist in this time of year. The first is the tension between the familiar and what is new. Rosh Hashanah is a holiday, just like all others, that comes each and every year like clockwork and yet at its core, Rosh Hashanah represents newness and renewal. The second tension is between creation and mortality. According to Rabbi Elazar in gemarah Rosh Hashanah, Rosh Hashanah is the collective birthday of humankind as it coincides with the sixth day of creation, when Adam and Eve were created – the birthday of humanity. This birthday is also the day on which sin, judgement and mortality came into being. A third tension on Rosh Hashanah is between optimism and helplessness. During this time of year, the grass is greenest, the fruit trees are ripest and our hopes are highest. Yet, with that hope comes a profound uncertainty: we feel the need to greet all of our friends and loved ones with the phrase Shanah Tovah Tekatevu Vtechatemu: May you and yours be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life for a good and sweet new year. It is not certain that we will be inscribed in the Book of Life, and 2020 has been a stark reminder of our fragility and mortality.
This Rosh Hashanah, I ask Hashem (God) for the strength to be able to navigate these waters for the sake of our community. While faced with these tensions each and every day, I promise to listen, reflect, communicate, admit mistakes and at the same time, be decisive because our community needs leadership right now. I am acutely aware of the fact that I will disappoint some of you with certain choices because when tension exists it is impossible to create consensus. In this new year, I ask for your appreciation of these tensions and patience as we try to do the unthinkable for the sake of our students. Wishing you all a year of renewal, reflection and joy. Shanah Tovah.

 

Rebecca Lurie, Head of School

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D’var Torah: Rabbi Ravid Tilles (Nitzavim/Vayelech)

Unprecedented. It is a word that has been used a lot this year, especially since March. I saw someone post a meme on Facebook that they miss the good old days when things were “precedented.” So often when we hear the word “unprecedented” to describe events and moments in 2020 it carries a negative connotation. But as a Schechter community we are doing something that is amazing and unprecedented – we are running a school (safely) in the midst of a global pandemic. We have students, in person, following strict protocols, including an unprecedented 94 new students. We have students zooming in, we have a full time remote track that is entirely online – we have every student, teacher and parent’s best interest in mind. 

This week’s double parsha of Nitzavim/Vayelech shares the closing words of Moshe’s very long sermon to B’nai Yisrael as they are about to enter the Land of Israel after an eventful 40 year journey through the wilderness. As an important reminder, Moshe is speaking to a different generation of B’nai Yisrael than the one that was freed from Egypt 40 years earlier. In parshat Shelach Lecha, the community was punished for doubting God after the unrest that was sewed by the m’raglim (scouts). As a result of this unfounded lack of faith (these are the same people who watched God split the sea!), the entire generation is set on a path that extends their journey through the desert causing the initial generation of freed people to die out. 

Remembering that Moshe is speaking to a new generation of B’nai Yisrael makes the words of this week’s parsha more profound. The Torah says: “I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the LORD our God and with those who are not with us here this day. Well you know that we dwelt in the land of Egypt and that we passed through the midst of various other nations through which you passed.” These p’sukim (verses) connect B’nai Yisrael with the previous generations, the ones who had actually been freed from Egypt, and, at the same time, all of the past and future generations of our ancient heritage. In these p’sukim, Moshe brings all people who had ever been and will ever be associated with the Jewish people to a single, shared, moment in history.

These words bend time and space and transport us backwards and forwards to different points in Jewish history. They blur the lines of generations to remind us that our story is paradoxically ancient and unwritten. That all moments in our history are unprecedented in their current iteration, and yet, as Kohelet says, “there is nothing new under the sun.” This means that at any point in history we can simultaneously look backward and forward to most fully understand and appreciate our present moment. 

We are living in unprecedented times and we are doing unprecedented things to make sure that Schechter can thrive, despite the challenge. But this is not the first time that Jewish education has been threatened and challenged. It is not the first time that history has forced the Jewish people to take stock of what is most important, compelling our leadership to make difficult and bold decisions. This is simply our moment in time. And Jewish life is so remarkable because our peoplehood has persevered through so much of the past thousands of years so no challenge feels impossible or unprecedented anymore. The precedence set by previous generations is that we can succeed during unprecedented times, and 2020 is simply our generation’s unprecedented moment. 

The final piece of this, however, is that our ability to persevere during unprecedented times is not a given. It is not an inherited birthright. It is earned. We work for it and we make sacrifices. The heroes of our school’s story, when it is told, will be the faculty and staff at Schechter. Whether members of the Jewish faith or not, every person who works at Schechter has given their entire selves to write a meaningful chapter in this long lasting story of B’nai Yisrael and the Jewish people. They are all confronting these unprecedented challenges with poise, collaboration, creativity and commitment. It is a great honor to stand alongside my colleagues to meet this moment in history on behalf of the generations that have come before us and the ones that will come after. 

Shabbat Shalom.

 

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