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D’var Torah: Shira Fischer ’92 (Sukkot)

On Sukkot we take up the four species: the Etrog (citron) and the lulav (palm), which is accompanied by the hadas (myrtle) and the arava (willow). Prescribed Biblically (Leviticus 23:40) and explicated rabbinically, what do these symbols mean?

One interpretation is from Vayikra Rabbah, a collection of midrash based on the book of Leviticus. This text (30:9) points out verses in which each of these words refer to God and thus these species represent dimensions of the divine:

  • The Etrog, based on Pslams 104:1: הוד והדר לבשת
  • The palm, based on Psalms 92:13: צדיק כתמר יפרח
  • The myrtle, based on Zecharia 1:8: והוא עומד בין ההדסים
  • And the willow, based on Psalms 68:5: סולו לרוכב בערבות ביה שמו

But Vayikra Rabbah goes on to offer other possibilities. In section 14 of the same chapter, it connects each of the species to a different part of the body, with the lulav representing the spine, the myrtle the eye, the willow the mouth, and the Etrog the heart.

And in one more interpretation (Vayikra Rabbah 30:12), the four species represent four types of Jews:

The lulav, which has taste but no smell, symbolizes those who study Torah but do not do good deeds.

The myrtle has a good smell but no taste, symbolizing those who do good deeds but do not study Torah.

The willow, which has neither taste nor smell, symbolizes those who lack both Torah and good deeds.

And lastly, the etrog has both a good taste and a good smell, symbolizing those who have both Torah and do good deeds.

These are quite varied ways to interpret a set of four plants. The similarity among these interpretations is the diversity and yet the interrelationship. Maimonides teaches in his laws of Sukkot (Hilchot Lulav 7:5) that the four species is a single mitzvah, and the absence of any of them renders the whole mitzvah undone (מעכב). If you just had a spine, but no heart, you wouldn’t have a working body. And if you just had one kind of person in the Jewish community, but not another, our variety would not be complete. We need all diverse kinds—bound together—to have a compelling understanding of the divine, to have healthy body, and most importantly, to have a healthy community. Each person contributes something and without any one—not despite their differences, but because of their differences—the mitzvah is not fulfilled.

As the midrash puts it, the lulav is Israel. And the myrtle is Israel. And the willow is Israel. And the Etrog is Israel. What does God do? Ties them all together into a single bunch and they atone for each other.

Wishing the whole community chag sameach as we enter this time of happiness (זמן שמחתנו) together.

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D’var Torah: Dan Savitt (Ha’azinu)

Impermanent Things (Parashat Ha’azinu)

All these impermanent things

Well, they all add up to zero they make believe that they’re my hero

Then they fill my mind with doubt and false desires

Why keep hangin’ on to things that never stay,

Things that just keep stringin’ us along from day to day?

“Impermanent Things” (song) (1991)

Singer-songwriter Peter Himmelman vividly captures the transient nature of life itself in his song Impermanent Things. And despite life’s transiency, it can be difficult to always bear in mind what is truly important. In Parashat Ha’azinu (Deuteronomy 32:4) we catch a glimpse of permanence when we read that God is referred to as The Rock (ha-tzur). The image of God as a Rock symbolizes the Eternal as a “sure source of strength” and highlights that “[God] endures throughout every generation.” Moreover, God is depicted as a “strong refuge in which God’s people may take shelter from any difficulty.”1

God described as a Rock (tzur) is also found in traditional Jewish hymns. One of the Shabbat zemirot, Tzur Mishelo (The Rock from whom), is traditionally sung on Friday nights. Also, the well-known song Ma’oz Tzur (Refuge, Rock of my salvation) commonly sung each night after lighting the Hanukkah candles bears the title of God as the “Rock of my salvation.”

We are now in the midst of the Aseret Y’mei Teshuvah (Ten Days of Repentance), and with the metaphor of life hanging in the balance this is an opportune time for soul-searching and self-reflection. “These are days of reflection and introspection when we stand in the conscious presence of Infinity, knowing how short and vulnerable life really is, and how little time we have here on earth.”2 Because of life’s ephemeral nature it can be steadying to have something permanent to grasp hold of. Whether we find stability through God’s sheltering presence or some other mode of support, may we all find some sense of permanence and consistency in the year ahead.

Sources

  1. Harris, R. Laird, Gleason L. Archer, Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke, eds. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. Chicago: Moody, 1980. <BibleWorks, v.10.>.
  2. Sacks, Jonathan. The Koren Rosh HaShana Maḥzor. Jerusalem, Koren Publishers, 2013, pp. xiii-xiv.
Rebecca Luire

D’var Torah: Rebecca Lurie (Vayeilech)

What a wonderful first week of school! As I reflect on Rosh Hashanah and this week’s parasha, Vayeilech, I am mindful of beginnings and endings. Summer has ended and a new school year has begun. 5778 is ending and 5779 is about to begin. And we are about to finish reading the Torah and start anew with Breishit on Simchat Torah.

In this week’s parasha, Vayeilech, G-d instructs Bnei Yisrael (the children of Israel) to remind themselves of all of G-d’s commandments during the shmitta year (7th year of harvest) on the holiday of Sukkot through the mitzvah (commandment) of hakhel (mass learning initiative when everyone gathers together to hear the words of the Torah). While the mitzvot of shmitta, Sukkot and hakhel may not appear to have anything in common, they in fact are all about coming together as a community and helping one another. While shmitta is about sharing our physical resources with one another, hakhel is about sharing spiritual resources with others. And on Sukkot we are commanded to welcome guests into our sukkah.

While the end of the Torah (in Vayeilech) emphasizes the need for community and helping one another, this is in contrast to how the Torah began (in Breishit) with the creation of Adam and Eve and the message that each of us in created in the image of G-d (B’tzelem Elokim). The Torah begins with the uniqueness and holiness of each individual and ends with the beauty in community and helping one another. Moshe, the leader of Bnei Yisrael, fully realized how he was created in G-d image, and his final message to the Jewish people was that their ultimate task is to take care of each other and come together as a people.

This beginning and end may be the most powerful and beautiful of all. We must first understand ourselves as individuals (how we are made in G-d’s image) before we can contribute to the community and care for others. As we enter 5779, I wish for all of us to continue on this journey of both self discovery and taking care of one another. Shanah Tovah!

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D’var Torah: Rabbi Ravid Tilles (Nitzavim)

“לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם, הִוא”, the Torah is not in the Heavens” (Deuteronomy 30:12). This famous verse from the Torah, about the Torah, is often pointed to as the archetypal statement of our partnership with God in keeping our tradition as a living, breathing entity. This verse is made most famous in a well known story from the Talmud known as Tanur Shel Achnai, the Oven of Achnai. In the story, the Ancient Sages are arguing about the status of Achnai’s oven, and Rabbi Joshua uses this verse, “לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם, הִוא” to essentially win a debate with God about how the Torah would rule. The story ends with God acknowledging that the Torah now belongs to us, the Jewish people, and no longer resides in the Divine realm. As we begin the new school year, though, this verse has even more meaning to us, at Schechter, because it is actually a mandate to teachers.

It is our job, as teachers, to make the academic material feel relevant to our students. For many students, when they are confronted with new material, they have a hard time internalizing it. All the more so with material that could potentially feel ancient and foreign, particularly Torah and Talmudic texts, and it is our responsibility to make sure that the students do not feel like the curriculum is floating somewhere in the heavens. It must belong to them.

Our tradition is a great treasure that has sustained our people for thousands of years and education is the key to unlocking this trove. However, we don’t simply hand the key over to our students. The verse continues, “לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם, הִוא:  לֵאמֹר, מִי יַעֲלֶה-לָּנוּ הַשָּׁמַיְמָה וְיִקָּחֶהָ לָּנו, it is not in the Heavens, so you shouldn’t ask, ‘who is going to go up to the Heaven and get it for us?’” The end of the verse is a challenge against the need for an emissary. That those accessing the material do not need to send someone else to retrieve the Torah for them. This is a clear allusion to the fear that B’nai Yisrael must be feeling as they begin to imagine a world without Moshe, their teacher and their previous emissary to God. With our students it is the same way. They don’t need us to give them the Torah, they need the tools and the skills to uncover our tradition for themselves.

This thought continues in verse 14, “כִּי-קָרוֹב אֵלֶיךָ הַדָּבָר, מְאֹד:  בְּפִיךָ וּבִלְבָבְךָ, לַעֲשֹׂתוֹ, it is actually very close to you, in your mouth, in your heart, that you can do it.” Our students are the natural inheritors of our tradition, it is a part of who they are, and our sacred task, as teachers, is to help them to discover their inheritance. The Torah is a living, breathing entity that requires every new generation to care for and nurture her essence. We don’t give them Torah, we don’t even really teach them Torah, instead we support them in their journey to uncover their own Torah.

The Jewish guideposts of our school’s Strategic Plan are our guiding principles in this work. We believe that through immersing our students in a depth of knowledge, connected with the joy of discovery, and by including every student in the process, that they will find purpose & meaning and realize that the Torah is not far away, but deep within them.

On behalf of the entire faculty, staff and administration, we are excited to embark on the coming year of discovery, growth and connection with you and your students. We all wish you and your families a Shanah Tovah: a Happy 5779 and an enriching new school year!

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D’var Torah: Rabbi Ravid Tilles (Chukat)

In this week’s Parsha we learn about the famous story of Moses and the rock. Moses is told to speak to the rock in order to draw water for the community, but he strikes it with his rod instead. The water emerges, but Moses is told by God that since he did not listen (striking instead of speaking) that he will not be able to enter the Promised Land. In isolation, this story portrays Moses as someone unable to follow directions, a bad quality for a leader, and he is punished for his defiance. However, when we do a closer read we see that Moses has a legitimate reason to think he should strike the rock.

Earlier in the travels of the Israelites, soon after they crossed the Yam Suf, Moses is in a similar situation. The Israelites cry for water, Moses seeks guidance from God, and he is told to strike the rock to draw water. So in Exodus he is told to strike the rock (and it works), and then in this week’s Parsha he is told to speak but he strikes again. It is harder to fault Moses when we remember his history with rocks and water. He was not defiant, he was literally going back to the same “well” that had worked before.

All of a sudden Moses’ being kept out of The Promised Land feels less like a punishment for defiance and more like a natural consequence of not adapting to new instructions. Moses had proved that he knew how to be a leader during the Exodus from Egypt and he proved that he knew how to be a leader during the journey through the desert. Now this test from God, changing the rules about water-drawing, proved that Moses was not ready to adapt to a new circumstance in The Promised Land. Life will be different for the Israelites when they cross the Jordan River; this will be there first time back in Cana’an for hundreds of years, and their needs will be different than they ever have been. Moses’ inability to modify his strategy to meet God’s new demands at the rock, disqualifies his entrance into Israel as the leader. Thanks to his many years of extraordinary service, he merits seeing the Land but, as we learn in this week’s parsha, that is where his story will end.

The lesson here is that long term success comes from an ability to adapt and change as the times demand. This is a value underlies the work that we are doing at Schechter. We have guiding, core, principles that define our school, and they are articulated in our Strategic Plan. However, the strategies and systems that we develop to best service our goals have to be able to evolve as circumstances change. Jewish Life continues to evolve as generations of students pass through our hallways, which presents our school with new opportunities and new challenges. In order for Schechter to remain relevant and successful we must adapt to, and anticipate, the changes as they occur.  

 

On a personal level, I see this reflected in my own life as well. Less than a year ago I was a pulpit rabbi and I was preparing to make a major transition in my life to Boston and the Schechter community. I needed to adapt to a new career and I am grateful for all of the help that my colleagues, the students and our community provided to me. I am lucky to be a part of a community that understands the tremendous value of Jewish education and I am proud of the work that we are doing to foster future leaders of our community. The reason for our shared success this year has been growth, feedback, reflection and willingness to adapt, and I am looking forward to another great school year starting in the Fall.

 

  

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D’var Torah: Rabbi Gilbert S. Rosenthal (Korach)

REBELS WITHOUT A CAUSE

Korah goes down in history as a self-centered, egotistical rebel without a cause. For no apparent reason, except for his lust for power and fame, he gathers some 250 followers and attacks Moses and Aaron declaring: “Rav lakhem—you have gone too far! All of the community are holy and the Lord is in their midst, Why do you dare to raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” (Numbers 16:1-3).

And how does Moses respond to this baseless challenge? He falls on his face appalled and shocked saying, “Comes the morning and the Lord will make known who is the rightful leader of Israel.” The fateful morning came and the earth swallowed up Korah and his followers—lost forever.

Poor Moses: After all he had gone through; after all his personal sacrifices; after all the perils  and travails—and this was all Korah and his gang could say of him! Now Moses was not rejecting the right of others to disagree with him; he wasn’t challenging Korah’s ability to question his rulings or opinions. But he was declaring to Korah: “If your argument is just about power and glory then you have  no right to challenge me, God’s chosen leader!”

And indeed, that was all Korah’s rebellion was about: power and glory. He had every right to disagree with Moses about a law or a ruling or an interpretation or a political policy. But there was no legitimate basis for his rebellion: it was aimed at sheer power and glory (kavod). The rabbis taught (Mishnah Avot 5:17): “Any dispute for the sake of Heaven will succeed. But if it is not for the sake of Heaven, it is doomed to fail. What is a dispute that is not for the sake of Heaven? The rebellion of Korah and his gang. And what is a dispute for the sake of Heaven? The debates between the schools of Hillel and Shammai.” We know that those two schools of jurisprudence fought over hundreds of issues ranging from when the world was created to what foods are kosher to what marriages are legal. And despite it all, they remained respectful colleagues and loving opponents who associated with and married with one another. Their disagreements were  never  for power and glory, unlike Korah; rather, their disputes were always for the greater glory of God and for the growth and prosperous development of Jewish law and theology. That is why Korah and his gang were swallowed up and forgotten while Shammai and Hillel still live and are cited in all rabbinic sources and debates. Indeed, there is scarcely a page of the Talmud from which their names are absent.

So  by all means, let us differ and debate, dispute and disagree. But let us not disagree disagreeably. And let our political, religious and social disputes aways remain l’shem Shamayim—for the sake of Heaven. That is the true spirit of legitimate disagreements  in Judaism. And that is, in my opinion, our source of greatness and eternity.

Rabbi Gilbert S. Rosenthal, Schechter grandparent

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D’var Torah: Shelach (Rabbi Ira Korinow)

The Challenge of Leadership

 

This week’s parasha, Sh’lach L’cha, begins with God commanding Moses, “Sh’lach L’cha anashim…”, to send men to scout/spy out the land.  The command, “Sh’lach L’cha” reminds us of another parasha that begins similarly: Lech L’cha.  In the latter, Abraham is commanded to “Go forth” from his land, the place of his birth, from his father’s house to the land which God will show him.

Both parashiot could have begun without the second word, “L’cha.”  In both parashiot the word “l’cha” is meant to show that the person being commanded has to make the decision to actually go.  Abraham is told, “Go forth (for yourself) from your land, etc…”  Moses is being told, “(You yourself) send men….”  The commentary in the Etz Hayim chumash notes that God removed God’s-self from taking an active role in the mission.  Moses must decide for himself to take this important step as a leader and send spies into the Land that God had promised them.  He appoints a representative from each of the 12 tribes to scout out the Land.  Moses, however, learns that the decision to send the spies did not get the consensus that he had hoped for.

Ten spies came back with a report that the inhabitants of the Land were giants who completely dwarfed them.  “There we saw the sons of Anak (giants); we saw ourselves as grasshoppers, and so they saw us as such.”  What an incredible psychological insight of their low self esteem!

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein tells a story about Mickey Mantle, the famous New York Yankees baseball player and member of the Baseball Hall of Fame.  As a teenager playing in the minor leagues, Mantle wasn’t much of a star.  In fact, due to his poor performance, the young Mantle became discouraged.  Feeling sorry for himself, he decided that he had had enough and called his father to come and take him home. When his father arrived, Mickey didn’t get the expected sympathy and reassurance.  Instead, the father looked his son in the eyes and said, “Okay, if that’s all the guts you’ve got, you might as well come home with me right now and work in the mines.”  His father’s rebuke was like a slap in the face.  Mantle decided to stick it out and went on to make baseball history.

After the pessimistic report of ten of the spies, their low self-esteem was felt by the Israelite community and they, too, became discouraged and lost all hope.  The fate of the community had been sealed by God… the generation that left Egypt would not be permitted to enter the Promised Land, with the exception of the two spies, Joshua and Caleb, who returned from their mission with a positive and encouraging report.

Rabbi Eckstein reminds us that sometimes the greatest gifts come disguised as something less than pretty and appealing.  It doesn’t feel good to be rebuked, but good advice or sound criticism can improve our lives infinitely.  It’s up to us to be brave enough to seek out advice for self-improvement from those we trust and who love us.  Those of us who support Jewish Day Schools know that they provide the kind of environment for our children’s self-esteem to grow strong and for them to become confident and positive thinking adults.

Rabbi Ira Korinow, Schechter Alumni Parent, Rabbi Emeritus, Temple Emanu-El • Haverhill, MA, Interim Rabbi, Temple Israel • Portsmouth, NH

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Student Reflections on Grandparents’ and Special Visitors’ Day 2018

Hi. I’m Isaac Klar, and through my nine years at Schechter, I’ve learned quite a lot. As my time here at Schechter comes to an end, I think about everything that has stuck with me throughout this whole time. My teachers, my friends, and my Jewish identity have been with me throughout my time here, and they will stay with me through my whole life.

My teachers have given me the best opportunities to learn and succeed, and have set me up so that I am ready for high school. They set me up to be accepted into my first choice for high school, where I will be attending next year, Gann Academy. In first grade, we learned basic math like addition and subtraction. In sixth grade, we started learning geometry and even some algebra. Now, in eighth grade, we have learned quadratic equations and have had a lesson on logarithms.

My friends, who have stuck with me through thick and thin. We’ve celebrated together, laughed together, and done basically everything else together too. We blew up when the Patriots beat the Seahawks with Malcolm Butler’s unforgettable interception, and we’ll celebrate again soon at our graduation.

My Jewish identity will stay with me throughout my time at Gann, and will stick with me as an adult. I will raise a Jewish family, and hopefully send my children to a Jewish school. I’ve gained skills here that I wouldn’t have gained anywhere else, like being able to go to Israel and speak to the Israelis in Hebrew. I’ve learned how to code, manage my time, and I’ve become trilingual with Spanish, Hebrew, and English.

But the thing I will miss most about Schechter is the community. My friends, my teachers who have also become my friends, and even everybody here that I don’t know. When I see everybody getting up and singing and dancing when we pray as a school, I feel happy knowing that all the kids younger than me have the opportunity to have an experience similar to mine. I hope they all enjoy Schechter as much as I have, and I hope you all can see that today.

Thank you.

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D’var Torah: Bil Zarch (Beha’alotcha)

In this week’s parsha, we learn about the importance of Dan who is the “rearguard”, the me’asef (from the root א.ס.ף “to gather”). The rearguard is a vital role in almost every situation and this is no exception. I find it especially meaningful of the word choice me’asef as without this position we often fail to see the fringes, the outsiders.

Our Schechter community is no exception. What role do we all take in being the me’asef? Are we the ones opening our doors to new families? Are we the ones who make sure that everyone is included? Or are we the ones who step up and do the work that it takes to partner with our leadership team and staff to ensure that Schechter stays vibrant for many years to come?

You see, maybe Dan knew that he had to take this role on as many others weren’t necessarily jumping to do it and he saw it as the necessary thing to do to protect the community. As a Jewish communal professional who has chosen to passionately work with the Jewish future, I believe that it is our duty to create opportunities for as many people as possible no matter where they believe they are in their beliefs. All too often, we take for granted that the Jewish community will survive no matter the choices that we make when it comes to passing on this knowledge to the next generation. Is Judaism meant to just meet the needs of those who are in the front or are we going to create a community that opens our doors wide? If so, have we succeeded with our community? I would say we have a lot of work to do on both questions.

As a parent of two children at Schechter, I remain in awe as to the dedication of the faculty and staff to make every child feel like a leader. They navigate tricky waters with our children because they are just that, tricky. I have come to understand that no school is perfect and thankfully Schechter is no exception, yet we want our children immersed in a community that embraces them foibles and all. Sometimes that is just enough to make it a perfect place. It’s our call to action to accept that.

Bil Zarch, Director Camp Yavneh, Schechter Parent

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D’var Torah: Rabbi Dov Bard (Naso)

AN ASTONISHING THING!

Within our contemporary Jewish community, we put enormous emphasis on the group and on the needs of the community.  We are investing deeply in day school educations as we invest deeply in our synagogues, our community and our State of Israel.  There are times, however, when that communal orientation can be stifling for the individual.  There are Jews, actually many Jews, who yearn for a personal and a deep spiritual connectivity and find themselves baffled and slightly alienated by the communal and even tribal agenda in modern Jewish life.

Such individuals can find their voice in this week’s parasha.  Although there are many examples of individuals who step aside from the pressures of community in their singular pursuit of closeness with God, the example of the “nazir” ( Nu 6:1-21) is an inspiration for the hungry soul.  “If anyone, man or woman explicitly utters a nazarite’s vow, to set himself apart for the Lord….”  We note that the expression “yaf’li” is translated as “explicitly” yet, here, it is better rendered “wondrously.” In fact Ibn Ezra comments on this act of self-discipline which goes beyond the letter of the law:  “He separates himself, he does an astonishing thing – for most human beings are slaves of their desires.”  Seforno goes even further:  The wondrous thing that the Nazarite does is to “…separate himself from all the vanities that divert men from their true goal – he holds himself aloof from these ordinary pleasures, in order to devote himself in his entirety to God, to study the Torah, to walk in His ways, and to cleave to Him.”  (6:2)

This obviously cannot be the basis of the curriculum for our schools.  We must use a broader, more inclusive and more communally oriented language and approach.  But we must also protect the student who “gets it.”  We must provide space, freedom, and encouragement for any Jew who hungers for deeper personal meaning in Jewish life.  As Heschel reminds us, our task is not to survive.  Our task is to be worthy of survival.

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