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