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

EMERGING THROUGH CRISIS  

Jacob was terrified: he was on the eve of meeting, after many years of estrangement, his brother Esau. And now, after all these years, Esau was about to catch up with Jacob and accompanied with 400 of his men to boot (Gen. 32:7). It was a terrifying encounter because Jacob had “cheated” Esau out of his birthright for a bowl of stew (Gen.25:1ff.).

Jacob had good reason to be terrified. After all, Esau had a reputation as a man of violence whose life was stained with blood; who lived by the bow and arrow. Jacob prayed to God for salvation. Jacob was so terrified that he divided his family into two camps so that if Esau attacked one, at least that other would escape (Gen. 32:9).

But God did not forsake Jacob: Esau’s passion for vengeance abated and instead of killing Jacob they embraced and kissed. All was not forgotten—but all was now forgiven.

So Jacob returned shalem (Gen.33:18), “whole,complete, at peace.” The rabbis note the phrase and have a beautiful comment on it: “Shalem—ba-guf (whole in body); shalem be-mamon (whole in his wealth) and shalem be-Torato)—whole in his faith in God and commitment to the Jewish people (see Rashi at Gen. 33:18).

Here we have the key to Jewish survival. We endured the destruction of our two Temples; we suffered through the Crusades, expulsions, ghettos, religious persecutions and forced  conversions, martyrdom and all means of persecution. And we survived the Holocaust. How can Am Yisrael continue to march on its path to salvation? By returning to its roots, by reiterating its expectations as a Jewish people; by consecrating our wealth and possessions for good purposes—not just for levity and ostentatiousness, and by retaining, enriching and spreading our commitment to Torah (Jewish learning) and Jewish living by Jewish principles.

These three bases of Jewish civilization have enabled us to outlast our persecutors and survive as an Eternal People—Am Olam. Will we now abandon these saving, vital elements?

I pray not. In America and Israel we are blessed as no other Jewry in the past. May we always live up to the challenge!

Rabbi Gilbert Rosenthal, Schechter Grandparent

D’var Torah: Rabbi Daniel Berman (Vayetze)

My wife Sarah and I named our children Elie and Mica after members of our families whom we loved: Esther, Eileen, Meir and Max. When Elie and Mica were born, we threw festive parties and blessed them with their new names. We shared why we loved these names and how we hoped that they would bring the qualities and values of the people for whom they were named more deeply into the world. It often seems that our beloved family members whom we have lost are resting on our kids’ shoulders, guiding their way. Naming children is beautiful, full of hope and promise and love. But naming also has what we call a “shadow side.” A name can feel limiting of one’s identity. What if our Elie didn’t feel like an Elie? Or our Mica didn’t want to be Mica? It is our responsibility to help them live genuinely and truthfully.

This is a core tension in our Torah reading this week, parashat Va’yeitzeh, which includes stories of giving birth and giving names.  Torah tells us a story of the origin of the name of each of Jacob’s sons born to Rachel, Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah. The names express experiences and emotions like feeling unloved, hoping for love, gratitude, vindication, prevailing in a battle, and fortune. These are not easy emotions for a child to hold in his or her name. I read much of the rest of Sefer Bereshit, the Book of Genesis, though this lens. The stories of this family originate in these very emotional experiences of birth. The children are given an immediate identity and they struggle to both fulfill and separate themselves from their identities. Their struggle to live genuinely is at the heart of the painful, but finally redemptive and fulfilling, story of this family. In each of our lives, as parents and as children, we can join this struggle, looking to the past experiences and emotions of our families for guidance while charting out an authentic life of our own.

Rabbi Daniel Berman, Temple Reyim

Grade 7 Día de los muertos celebration

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Our Grade 7 Spanish class learned about el Día de los muertos (Day of the Dead), a multi-day Mexican holiday that focuses on gatherings of family and friends to pray for and remember friends and family members who have died, and help support their spiritual journey. As part of the lesson, they enjoyed el pan de muertos and Mexican hot chocolate!

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Social Inequity in Action

Submitted by Rabbi Rebecca Weinstein:

What is social inequity? How do we understand this concept? In our 6th grade Tanakh class, students played a modified version of Monopoly where players had an unequal distribution of wealth and privileges in order to simulate social inequity and better understand the concept. Some players started with twice as much money, while other players only started with half as much, some players went directly to jail if they rolled higher than a seven, other players got to move twice the amount they rolled! Following the game, we talked about how our experience playing Monopoly this way connected to social inequity and how we felt while playing the game. During our debrief, I brought up comments I heard students saying while playing the game such as, “Here let me donate some of my money to you. This is not fair!” to reflect on. By drawing upon their experiences playing Monopoly, students were better able to answer the questions: What is social inequity, how do we understand this concept, and begin to answer, how does our tradition require us to respond?

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Buddy Bench!

Ali Shwartz (Lower School Director of Support Services/School Psychologist) and Tally Gershfield (Counseling Intern) revealed the Lower School’s new Buddy Bench to Lower School students. The Buddy Bench is a place where students can sit to signal to others that they need a friend to play with during recess. Students are encouraged to pay attention to the buddy bench during recess. If someone is sitting on the bench, students know to approach them with an invitation to play. Special thank you to Steve Lechner (Lower Division Science) for building the buddy bench from scratch and our new students for lending their “hands” for the decorations!

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Ark Collage

Schechter Ark Builders

Thank you to members of the Class of 2018 (currently in 9th grade) who last year designed and created beautiful new doors (including 3D leaves!) for the aron (ark) in our Beit Tefilah. The doors were installed this fall and are accompanied by a plaque with the signatures of the participating students. Middle School students gathered to recite a bracha (blessing) to acknowledge the significance of this moment. This project was part of a chug (elective) led by Head of School Rebecca Lurie in partnership with Ben Greenberg of the Ark Builders group through Temple Israel in Natick.

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D’var Torah: Rabbi Victor Reinstein (Toldot)

Each One’s Life a Sacred Telling

A thematic thread of barrenness weaves through the book of B’reishit, of women unable to conceive. It is so for three of our mothers, Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel. Children do not come easily, but for each of them only over time and through struggle. Barrenness can also become a metaphor in our reading of these narratives, emptiness in the womb of each of our lives. Particularly from Rebecca, we learn what it means to actively pursue meaning, not to passively wait, dwelling on what isn’t, but to go out and seek, to birth meaning into our lives.

Rebecca is feisty, acting in relation to reality, making her mark in the unfolding of events. She is asked of her readiness to leave home to marry Yitzchak, who himself had notably remained at home while a wife was sought for him. We are told that when she saw Yitzchak from afar, not waiting for him to reach her, she slipped down from the camel she was riding. Much later, whether for good or ill, it is she, not Yitzchak, who maneuvers to insure that Jacob will succeed his father in the continuity of Israel’s coming to be.

In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Toldot/Generations, poignant expression is given even to Rebecca’s initiative in relation to God. It is here that her activism, if you will, becomes a paradigm for each of us to draw from in our own active engagement with life. Of this ancestral couple yearning for children, we are told, And Yitzchak entreated God concerning his wife, for she was barren. Clearly underscoring this sense of Rivka as one not to stand to the side, the rabbis emphasize that it was not only Yitzchak who was praying in that moment, but both of them. In a touchingly sensitive midrash, the rabbis say, this one stood in this corner and prayed, and this one stood in this corner and prayed.

Their prayers indeed answered, Rivka endures a very difficult pregnancy. She cries out, lamah zeh anochi/why is this happening to me? In another midrash, the rabbis appear to smile on Rivka’s rich and earthy relationship with God, Rivka said before the Holy One, Master of the Universe, You have not created anything in a person vainly, eyes to see, ears to hear, a mouth to speak, a heart to understand, hands to touch, legs to walk; and these breasts/hadadin halalu, for what, if not to give suck surely they are in vain. The Torah then says, va’taylech lidrosh et Ha’shem/and she went to inquire of God.

Lidrosh, to inquire, to search, to seek, this is the key word on which everything else turns, for Rivka and for us. It is a word that bursts with meaning, more than a word, an invitation to engage life if we would find meaning. Its root, DaRaSh, forms the root of midrash, that weaving of tales that comes of searching out the blank spaces between the letters, the words, the lines of Torah. It is at the root of our sharing words of Torah that rise from our heart, as in a d’rasha. Blandly translated so often as sermon, a d’rasha is the sharing of one’s search for meaning through engagement with Torah, with life. One cannot give a d’rasha without engaging, without, seeking. A beit midrash, one of the terms for synagogue, is generally translated as a “house of study.” I prefer to think of it as a “house of seeking.” When Rebecca went to “inquire of God,” lidrosh et Hashem, the rabbis say that indeed she went to a beit midrash, and that was long before women were counted in their number.

We learn of engagement with life from Rivka imenu, Rebecca our mother. When life seems barren, meaning ephemeral and hard to grasp, she tells us to get up, to go out, search out the landscape, of soul and psyche, of people and place. The nature of our seeking shapes the path and the purpose of our lives. If we don’t seek, we will not find. Our task is to become the d’rasha, the search that is shared, each one’s life a sacred telling.

Rabbi Victor Reinstein is rabbi and founder of Nehar Shalom Community Synagogue in Jamaica Plain and is a Schechter alumni parent and former teacher and school rabbi.