D’var Torah: Stephanie Fine Maroun (Beshalach)

Humans are creatures of habit and instinct, both good and bad. There is profound freedom in knowing what to expect, having dependable food and shelter, being able to plan and rely on order. It is hardly original to say that 2020 offered few of those cherished comforts. It was of a year of unknown territory, unthinkable losses and unforgiving realities.

The question upon us in 2021 and beyond is whether we can make our way out of this wilderness with a fresh understanding of ourselves. Can we rethink what matters and what we need and do not need? Can we adapt and improve our norms and behavior? 

In Parashat Beshelach, we read of Israel’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt and the crossing of the Red Sea. “Now when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines although it was nearer. God led the people roundabout, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds.” Moses instructs the people to “stand firm” and to realize a different and better future. Following their escape, the Israelites are soon troubled and unsure, calling out for food and water. They are instructed to gather just what they need for their household and not excess. Some obey while others collect more than they require, leaving it to waste only to be covered with maggots by morning. The fear and lack of choice while in bondage had been replaced with free will and communal accountability.

Over the coming year, let us hope that we emerge from the claws of the pandemic with lessons learned. We have seen that many do not have access to sustenance, let alone manna, while others have created personal stockpiles. Can we reevaluate what we are taking with us as we eventually return to a familiar order? If we leave this wilderness with our families, health, homes and jobs, let us be grateful and remember that others will not. While 2020 constricted our lives logistically, financially and socially at a minimum, it expanded our choices morally and collectively. It is time to recognize that caring for ourselves does not preclude a commitment to mutual responsibility and the larger good.

Stephanie Fine Maroun, Schechter alumni parent, Assistant Director of Admission

D’var Torah: Anna and Matya Schachter (Bo)

In his 2015, 2018, and 2020 Divrei Torah on Parashat Bo, Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z’l highlighted the uniquely Jewish nature of the Exodus story. The Jewish People had been in exile for between 210-430 years, toiling in slavery for much of that time. Suddenly, their prospects turn with Hashem unleashing nine plagues upon Egypt, and Moses warning of the final plague. At this point, all but Pharaoh realize that it is time to “send out the men that they may serve Hashem, their G!d! Do you not yet know that Egypt is lost?” (Exodus 10:7) Moses was known as “very great in the land of Egypt, in the eyes of the servants of Pharaoh and in the eyes of the people.” (Exodus 11:3) When he gathers the Jewish People to give one last speech before they leave Egypt, Moses does not speak about freedom, or leaving for a Land flowing with milk and honey, or about nursing grievances against the Egyptians. Instead, he looks to the future, speaking to the necessity of educating our children, a central theme of Judaism and for Jewish continuity.

One of the highlights of our family Seders has always been the story of the Four Children. The text for three of the four children come from the speeches that Moses delivers immediately before and after the Exodus in Parashat Bo: “And it shall be that when your [wicked] children say to you ‘What is this service to you?’ You shall say, ‘It is a Pesach feast-offering to Hashem, Who passed over the houses of the Children of Israel in Egypt when Hashem smote the Egyptians, but Hashem saved our households.’” (Exodus 12:26-27) “And you shall tell your child [who doesn’t know how to ask] on that day, saying, ‘It is because of this that Hashem acted on my behalf when I left Egypt.’” (Exodus 13:8) “And it shall be when your [simple] child will ask you at some future time, ‘What is this?’ You shall say to him, ‘With a strong hand, Hashem removed us from Egypt from the house of bondage.’” (Exodus 13:14) Families have recounted these instructions around the Seder table for generations, a sign of the importance of children asking questions, being answered, and learning to tell their people’s story. 

Rabbi David Wolpe of Los Angeles’s Sinai Temple teaches that Judaism’s focus on the importance of educating our children goes all the way back to Abraham. The Torah teaches that Abraham earned Hashem’s love and was chosen to be the first monotheist and father to many nations “because he commands his children and his household after him that they keep the way of Hashem.” (Genesis 18:19) The Shema emphasizes this, as well: “You shall teach them thoroughly to your children and you shall speak of them while you sit in your home, while you walk on the way, when you retire and when you arise.” (Deuteronomy 4:7) Where other societies might establish a courthouse, pub, or house of worship when they first establish a new outpost, Jews have always started by establishing a house of study. (Rashi on Genesis 46:28, Bereishit Rabba 95:3)

Without such a strong emphasis on childhood education, it is unlikely that the Jewish People could have survived almost 2,000 years in Diaspora, often as a very small minority of the population. As Rodger Kamenetz recounts in his book The Jew in the Lotus, documenting the 1990 visit with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala by a group of multi-denominational Rabbis, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z’l advised the Buddhist leaders to choreograph their own version of the Pesach Seder to prepare their children for life in Diaspora. Without intergenerational ritual surrounding education and storytelling, he saw assimilation as all but guaranteed.

May the teachers, staff, and parents at Schechter (and throughout the Jewish world) continue in this holy task of re-telling our story and preparing the next generation of Jewish leaders.

 

Anna and Matya Schachter, Schechter parents

D’var Torah: Eytan Luria ’21 (Va’era)

At the beginning of this week’s parsha, God tells Moses that God appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and established a covenant with them. God adds that God heard moaning from the Israelites, who were suffering at the hands of the Egyptians. God tells Moses that God will now lead the Israelites out of their bondage and that Moses should be their leader.

As I studied this parashah, I was immediately struck by the leaps of faith that are present in the text. First, why does God have faith in Moses to lead the people? What’s unique about Moses?

Second, why does Moses have faith in God? And third, how could Bnei Yisrael have faith in God or in Moses? They have been suffering for generations, and God had been absent. 

I want to begin by sharing my thoughts on the relationship of faith between Moses and God.

How did they come to trust each other? The story of Moses began in last week’s parashah, Shemot. Moses was a shepherd, and as he was tending to his sheep, he saw a bush that was burning but was not consumed. Moses felt compelled to look at the bush. When he did, God called out to Moses, and Moses responded, “hineni.”

Our rabbinic tradition teaches us that that word hineni means, “I’m ready.”

This language is not the language of greeting or location, but rather is the language of faith.

It is the same word that Avraham used when God asked him to take his son Yitzchak and offer him as a sacrifice.

When Moses answers this way, it tells God something important about Moses. God knows that he has that same intensity or quality of faith that Avraham had generations earlier.

There is a Midrash that there were many people who came to the burning bush and God called out to many of them. Some saw it and looked at it but couldn’t hear God. Some could hear God but didn’t respond. Only Moses saw it, heard God and declared his readiness to enter into a relationship of faith.

What was the core quality that God was looking for in order to establish a relationship with Moses? I think it’s about Moses staying true to himself. Moses was raised as royalty in an Egyptian palace with power and culture and luxury. After he was told he was born to an Israelite, I think he felt a connection and let go of all he had. God needed Moses to lead with a strong sense of purpose.

The story was different for Bnei Yisrael. They weren’t ready to be a people of faith. If God had appeared to them in a burning bush, I am not sure they would have even been able to say, “hinenu.” We are ready. They had no proof of God’s existence, and they probably thought that if God did exist, God would’ve helped them already. 

The text says their spirits were crushed by cruel bondage. In contrast to Moshe, Bnei Yisrael were not able to listen. Their slavery had oppressed their ability to have faith.

As I thought about these questions, I’ve wondered why certain people can easily have faith and that, for others, faith can take time. 

This topic of faith is really interesting because faith has no rules or boundaries. You could ask go on your phone and say, hey Siri, “define faith,” and she’d probably give you an answer, but the truth is that the qualities that we need to have faith are very different for all of us. There’s not just one way of being faithful.

I believe that there is so much to learn and understand about faith. 

I really love situations where events can turn either way. There’s no set formula for faith. Our experiences can lead us down different paths. We can’t predict the moment we will become aware of faith.

This feels important to me because trust and faith feel mysterious. In some ways, they are  similar but in other ways very different. With faith, you don’t necessarily have experience with a situation or person. You can take what we call a leap of faith.  Trust, on the other hand, is a concept that grows over time, and is not necessarily established right away.    

Personally, I have trouble giving and accepting getting others to have faith in me.

I have done some things in my life that have affected other’s faith and trust in me.

At times I have acted in a way that has strengthened others’ trust in me. Especially when I am caring for my siblings and taking my school work seriously and being accountable. I’ve also had times when there was a breakdown in trust. For example, there have been times I haven’t shared the whole story of what needed to be told.  Earning trust takes a long time to rebuild after breaking it. 

Knowing how important this concept of faith is to our ancestors, I think our question now becomes how we can become people of faith in God, and be trusting of others and ourselves.

Shabbat Shalom!

Eytan Luria ’21

D’var Torah: Dr. Dalia Hochman (Shemot)

Naming and Anonymity, Suffering and Redemption in Parashat Shemot (Exodus)

What I love most about Jewish learning is that I am able to return to even the most familiar of texts and derive new meaning from each encounter. 

I first learned the Exodus story right at our very own Stein Circle at some point in the mid-1980s. I remember well how, in third grade, we staged a Pesach play all in Hebrew and delved deep into a plot line that easily captured our childish imaginations. 

Today, over thirty years later, after living through a year of mass suffering and senseless death, I read the story of Exodus in a new light. 

Shemot in Hebrew means “Names.” The parasha opens with the recitation of the names of Jacob’s sons. The Rabbis note how the text vacillates between nameless characters, such as Pharaoh, and very specific names attributed to more minor characters, such as the midwives Shifra and Puah. The suffering of the Hebrew slaves is both specific and named, and, at the same time, vast and anonymous.

I think about this past year, and how, at some point I decided to stop watching CNN because the constant ticker on the screen listing the number of COVID-19 deaths felt too anonymous and too vast. There is something particularly senseless and tragic about anonymous suffering. As a counterpoint to a year filled with vast and unnamed deaths, I think of the compelling memorial on the Boston Common entitled “Say Their Names,” which honors 300 lives lost to racial injustice. I understand now, that “saying their names,” helps the human spirit feel comfort in times of deep suffering. This year, I read the opening lines of Exodus as a moment of redemption and hope. 

Once I start seeing Shemot through the lens of redemption, I see it everywhere in the text; in Yocheved’s defiance of Pharaoh’s edict, in Moses’ striking down of the oppressive Egyptian overseer, and in Aaron’s role as his brother’s ambassador. This year, I am less impressed by the big, heroic miracles, such as the crossing of the Red Sea, and find more hope in these small moments of human free will. The human actions remind me of the times over the past year when I have felt so free despite the restrictions of our everyday life. I think about a particularly exhilarating hike or an outdoor playdate or how hard we have worked to keep our schools open and safe in the midst of a pandemic. While I do pray that our modern day crossing of the Red Sea comes soon, this year, when I reread the sacred text of Exodus, I take comfort in the fact that the human spirit can still feel free and alive while awaiting a miracle. 

Dr. Dalia Hochman ’92, Current Parent, Head of School at Gann Academy