D’var Torah: David Preiss (Lech Lecha)

Lech Lecha is our introduction to the relationship between Avraham – then Avram – and God. The parsha opens with God instructing Avram to leave his home and move his family to Canaan, where God promises to give him great blessings. At this point, God doesn’t go into detail about those blessings. For now, Avram and Sarai are settling childless – and advanced in age – in a foreign land.

A bit later in the parsha, God leads Avram through a ritual known as Brit Bein Habetarim – the Covenant of the Pieces. Through this covenant, God describes the great nation that will descend from Avram, and the land that will be theirs. Genesis 15:5 describes a famous moment in this episode, when Avram is “brought out” to count the stars. “So shall be your seed”, God explains. 

I always imagined Avram gazing up at an ancient, smog-free, star-filled sky, in which the entire galaxy might have been visible. It would have been impossible to count those stars because there would have been far too many of them. 

Oddly though, only 3 verses later – in Genesis 15:12 – the Torah tells us that “the sun was going down”. This timeframe seems puzzling. If God had just shown Avram all the stars in the sky – presumably at night, when the sky was dark –  how could the sun be setting now? 

One interpretation understands the words “vayotzei oto hachutza” – “God brought him out”  – to mean that God didn’t just take Avram out of his tent (as I’d imagined), but rather God took him outside of the entire world, allowing him to see the whole Earth and all its stars. 

The interpretation I like best however, accepts that stars are invisible during the day. God took Avram out of his tent and told him to count the stars. Avram, looking up at the sky, found the task impossible. He could see only one star, the brilliant sun: “So shall be thy seed.” Maybe God was giving Avram a hint about the nation that would descend from him: the people of Israel, the light unto the nations. Our world needs more light; may we live up to this promise.

David Preiss, Schechter Parent

D’var Torah: Kerry Newman (Noach)

This year, I imagine we can all relate to the story of Noach in an entirely new way. In the early weeks of the Coronavirus pandemic, we all gathered our immediate families and hunkered down in our “arks” as the storm of the pandemic raged around us.  Since then, we experienced much of what Noach and his family likely experienced: fear, uncertainty, and an unsettling sense of claustrophobia.  We are left wondering, “How will this all end?  Will the storm ever calm?”

Perhaps we can find some answers in the aftermath of the flood. We all know that the rain lasted for forty days – but what happened when it stopped raining? The parsha gives us several clues, telling us that “the waters swelled on the earth one hundred and fifty days” and “then the waters went on diminishing until the tenth month.” Rashi helps us piece together a cohesive timeline, which brings Noach’s total time in the ark to 365 days – one full year, far longer than the 40 days of rain. Instructively, Noach didn’t simply wake up at the end of that year and walk off the ark. The process played out in a much more gradual way.

First, we are told that he just “opened the window.” Then he sends out a raven who cannot find dry land. Then he sends out a dove three times, until it does not return, signaling it has found a safe place to roost. Only then does he remove the covering from the ark and see the ground is drying. Yet he still waits to exit until Hashem tells him to do so. His return to safety was slow, deliberate, and step-by-step.

In many ways the opening of school in September – thanks to the incredibly hard work of Schechter Boston’s administration, teachers, and lay leaders – was like Noach cracking open the ark’s window. Though we are certainly still surrounded by a turbulent storm, the ability for our children to return to the Schechter campus has let in some light and fresh air.

And though we have no way of knowing how long we will need to continue to seek shelter in our arks, G-d willing, one day, as a community we can begin to open our window a little wider, send out our raven, progress to our doves, remove our coverings, and leave these stormy and difficult times behind us. Like Noach, the world into which we emerge will look quite different than the one we left behind, and it will be up to us to rebuild it again, to ensure it is fertile, fruitful, and enriching – for our children and future generations.

Until that time arrives, may we all be blessed with the strength to continue to navigate the storm and the wisdom to understand how to safely emerge.

 

Kerry Newman, Schechter Parent

D’var Torah: Mira Weglein (Bereshit)

It was the start of a new unit in 6th grade science class [at the school I went to before transferring to Schechter]. The unit was about the beginning of life on our planet, otherwise known as the theory of evolution. But what my science teacher said next surprised me. He said, “We will be learning about Evolution. Please put your religious beliefs aside.” I thought, as a person who believes in God and the Torah  –  I can’t leave religion aside. So this d’var Torah is the result of what I learned from my curiosity. 

We started out in class, by focusing mainly on Charles Darwin’s theory. Darwin noticed that the shape of a bird’s beak determines what it eats, and that certain species of birds have different shaped beaks. He argued that the birds adapted over time in order to survive. Now, we suppose all creatures have evolved significantly over time. (Going from a kind of land fish to a human.)Darwin’s theory makes us think that every species has evolved and still does. 

While I was learning these ideas in class, I thought to myself, “Doesn’t the Torah say that God just created birds?” The Torah tells us that the story of creation took 7 days. Bereshit 1 verse 20 says that on the fifth day:

God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and birds that fly above the earth across the expanse of the sky.” 

Just looking at the plain meaning of the text, you would think that there were birds of all kinds, all of a sudden. So how can I think about such different ideas at the same time, Darwin’s evolution and the Torah? I decided to put my science aside for a while and see what my religion had to say about evolution.

What does Judaism have to say about evolution? Or does Judaism even have anything to say about evolution since many of our most important thinkers lived nearly 800 (eight hundred) years before Darwin!

I have already looked at evolution from a scientific perspective, so I started looking for an answer from my religious perspective. So let’s begin at the beginning. 

 בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹקים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ׃

In the beginning God created heaven and earth—

וְהָאָרֶץ הָיְתָה תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ וְחֹשֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵי תְהוֹם וְרוּחַ אֱלֹקים מְרַחֶפֶת עַל־פְּנֵי הַמָּיִם׃

the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water—

Rashi, the Medieval French rabbi and Biblical commentator said on the first verse “The text does not intend to point out the order of the acts of Creation — to state that heaven and earth were created first; for if it intended to point this out, it should have written “At first God created.” instead of saying In the beginning. 

Rashi explains that when you read this verse, you might think that heaven and earth were created first. But if we look more closely at the text of the Torah we will notice that the water was created first. So Rashi is saying that the Torah does not intend to give us an exact timeline of creation. The Torah does not tell us when the waters were created just that they were there at the beginning. Rashi says that therefore, logically, you have to believe that God made the water before starting anything else. Rashi concludes, that “therefore you must admit that the text teaches nothing about the earlier or later sequence of the acts of Creation.”

Rashi tells us that the Torah is not a flat-out history book, with a timeline stating everything in its order. Rashi claims that water was created before heaven and earth, proving that the Torah isn’t giving us a step-by-step story of creation. So without a time machine how do we figure out what happened in those seven days – or were there only seven days? Scientists says that evolution took millions of years but the Torah says seven days. 

 In the biblical book of Psalms chapter 50 verse 4:

 כִּי אֶלֶף שָׁנִים בְּעֵינֶיךָ כְּיוֹם אֶתְמוֹל כִּי יַעֲבֹר וְאַשְׁמוּרָה בַלָּיְלָה׃

For in Your sight a thousand years are like yesterday that has passed, like a watch of the night. 

Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, a 20th century Talmudic scholar, and Jewish philosopher says in his commentary, Michtav MeEliyahu, that the verse shows that God has a different sense of time than we do. He says that the seven days mentioned in the Torah are a way of talking about the whole time before creation was completed. Once creation was completed we started counting time in human time and not God time. Because we know that the Torah was written b’leshon bnei Adam – in the language that people understand. Rabbi Dessler said, “[the Torah] speaks to us in accordance with our own perceptions of matter and our own concepts of space and time.” Seven days doesn’t necessarily mean seven days as we know them.

But since God has all this power, why didn’t God create the world all at once? I think that making a world like this one is something that takes time and consideration. Maybe God thought, “What do I want it to look like? Smell like? Feel like? Taste like? Sound like?” Each and every detail was thought out and constructed by God. How did God do that?

 The midrash in Genesis Rabbah tells us that “the Holy One, blessed be God, went on creating worlds and destroying them until God created [heaven and earth], and then God said: ‘These please Me; those did not please Me.’” as it says in Genesis chapter 1 verse 31 “And God saw everything that God had made, and behold, it was very good”‘ Maybe we could think about those other worlds being similar to the way that scientist talk about different eras. For example the world when the dinosaurs roamed the Earth seems very different from the world today.  Maybe  the Jurasic or Cretaceous Periods were different “worlds” or a different way to describe evolution. 

Another way that I could understand this midrash is that God made and destroyed worlds and left small bits of them until God created a version that God liked. When God made this one it was Vayehi Tov – it was good. That is what we find today. All sorts of evidence like fossils that we find, are leftovers of God’s old creation. Interestingly, today sometimes people are born with fish-like traits that could be parts of the leftovers.

If the Torah is not, as Rashi said, here to tell us how the world was created and the midrash is not that different from Darwin. Then why is the story of creation in the Torah at all? What question is the story answering? Maybe our question should not be how but why did God create the world?

Our sources tell us, that God created the world for a number of reasons, but all of those reasons have one strong connection. That connection is us – human beings. Why did God create us? I have several answers. 

The Zohar, our first book of Jewish mysticism, tells us that when God created light at the beginning of the creation, God put some of that primordial light in ten holy vessels. God then sent the 10 vessels of light into the world, “ like a fleet of ships”. They were so delicate that they didn’t land together. If they had, the world would have been perfect. Instead they broke apart and the holy sparks of light were separated all over. We were created to bring those sparks together to make the world the perfect place it’s supposed to be. 

I think that they aren’t physical vessels, but God wants us to come together and unite. We are the vessels, like each and everyone one of has a small piece of the vessel with in us. We are a human puzzle piece and we need to create positive relationships with one another to make the world a better place.  

Another reason for why we were created is taught by Rashi. He wrote “Our Rabbis explained it: as it says in Proverbs God created the world for the sake of the Torah Before creation we read that God already had a Torah which God wanted to give to people. One midrash even says that God offered the Torah to lots of different nations and we were the only ones to accept. God wanted the Torah to be in the world so that people could understand God better. We do that by learning Torah which tells us how to live our lives and do mitzvot (good deeds). The Torah is our instruction book and helps us be better people. 

A third reason that we were created is to have a special connection with God. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato, an 18th century Italian, Jewish kabbalist and philosopher, wrote in his book Mesillat Yesharim

“We were created for the sole purpose of rejoicing in God and deriving pleasure from the splendor of God’s Presence; for this is true joy and the greatest pleasure that can be found… the essence of a man’s existence in this world is solely the fulfilling of mitzvot, the serving of God.” God created us to do mitzvot and serve God.  Without us, God would have no one to rule over. When we do mitzvot, we get closer to God and this contributes to God’s need for us. We were made to have a special connection with God. God created us because God didn’t have a special connection with what was there before us. Pirkei Avot chapter 6 mishna 11 says” Everything that the Holy One, Blessed be God, created in this world, God created only for God’s honor.”

A final reason that I will discuss today is that the Torah tells us that God created us to be the keepers of the Earth.

 וַיִּקַּח ה’ אֱלֹקים אֶת־הָאָדָם וַיַּנִּחֵהוּ בְגַן־עֵדֶן לְעָבְדָהּ וּלְשָׁמְרָהּ׃

Vayikach Hashem Elokim et haAdam vayanichayhu b’gan eden l’avdah u’l’shamrah

The LORD God took the man and placed him in the garden of Eden, to till it and tend it.

The midrash in  Kohelet Rabbah tells us that:

At the time that the Holy One created the first person, God introduced him to every tree in the Garden of Eden, and said to him, ‘See how wonderful and pleasant these trees are. And all of this I have created for you; therefore take great care that you do not damage and destroy My world, for if you do there is no one else to put right what you have destroyed.’

God trust that we can take care of the Earth and keep all its beauty and make sure that evolution can keep happening.

In conclusion, God in Genesis created birds, not of any particular species. Those birds flew to different places around the world. There they evolved, like Darwin told us, into all the varieties of colors, sizes and kinds that we have today.

Through all of my studying, I have learned that we don’t have to choose between religion and science when it comes to the story of creation. There is a description of creation in the first chapter of Bereshit. Our Rabbis tell us that we should not read the Torah with a literal understanding. The Torah was written b’leshon bnei Adam – in the language that people understand – but God might understand that language differently. While the Torah doesn’t directly explain the story of creation, the Torah does tell us why we were created. The reasons we were created were to do mitzvot, honor God and take care of this world that God gave us. 

 

Mira Weglein ’20

bil-zarch

D’var Torah: Bil Zarch (Shemini Atzeret)

Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moshe, whom the Lord knew face to face. –From the Torah reading for Simchat Torah, Deuteronomy 34:10

Moshe was the perfect teacher. He was so smart. He was humble. He was even-handed, and yet he took a stand when it was really important. He educated his community and took pride in both small and big events. I bet he made many feel special. Seems pretty near perfection to me. 

Moshe had a direct connection to God and became uniquely qualified to communicate God’s wishes to the people. Yet, he was wise enough to figure out that he didn’t always know “where he stood” with God. How could he? God had some pretty big requests of Moshe and if it was perceived that he made one bad move, his community could turn on him. Moshe had to balance a lot and the weight of the world was on his shoulders.

Finding the right balance is impossible. We are living in subjective times, which means that a value that you and I might see as the highest priority can’t be or might not be shared by everyone in our community. We want our opinions to be validated and to matter, and I would say that this is what makes our school community one worth being a part of. Yet we must recognize that it can be challenging to make everyone in the community happy. 

I can’t help but correlate the many characteristics of Moshe with the situation that has been foisted upon us. Moshe frequently intervened between the people and God, and at times, his voice wasn’t always reporting the most popular message. I’m going to say it even though some won’t agree — we are downright lucky. Our children are getting to do something right now that has become rare at this time: they are learning in-person and enjoying the benefits of social interactions with friends, as well as the dedication of true educational professionals. 

Moshe was the ultimate consensus builder — even in the most difficult of times. In order to do that he needed to be able to rely on people’s ability to understand different perspectives. As these unprecedented times continue to rock the proverbial boat, we need to flow with the waves and remind ourselves that we have the shelter and support we need. As we think of what comes next, let’s rejoice in the gifts of the season, recognizing that the times we are now living in are a momentary blip.

 

Bil Zarch, Director of Camp Yavneh, Schechter Parent and Board of Trustees Member