Rabbi Danielle Eskow

D’var Torah: Rabbi Dani Eskow (Nitzavim)

Being a parent during the High Holy Day season is not exactly a walk in the park. We survived the beginning of the school year and we are getting ready to host meals, lead services, or just survive the holidays in general. As a parent of a newly minted Kindergartner at Schechter, these past few weeks have been hectic and amazing at the same time. Our experience at Schechter so far has filled our hearts with joy as we begin this exciting learning journey with our daughter in this remarkable community.

This week’s parashah is Nitzavim. Moses continues his speech preparing the Israelites for the trip of a lifetime-their entry into the Promised Land. While Moses is not going to join them on this journey due to his past transgressions, he still fulfills his responsibility as the leader of the people and does all he can to instill the values, lessons, and guidance that the Israelites need to be successful in this next phase of their individual and communal lives.

Moses teaches, “See I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity […] I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life-if you and your offspring would live-by loving the Eternal your God, heeding God’s commands, and holding fast [to God]. For thereby you shall have life and shall long endure upon the soil that the Eternal swore to your fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to give to them.” [Deuteronomy 30:15, 30:19-20]

What this text teaches us is that we have a choice-it is up to us to decide how our lives and experiences are going to pan out. If we choose life, we will yield a life of blessings. If we do not choose life, we will have a more difficult road ahead. Moses teaches us that the most powerful gift God has given us is the power to choose. God is not mandating what our lives are going to be like, God has given us the ability to choose our own path, make our own decisions, and as a result yield the (hopefully) positive consequences. It is up to us to choose our intention, our hopes, and our attitude towards new experiences ahead. I remember growing up my father would look at me every year as school started and say, “You can be whoever you want to be this year. It is a new year. Be you,” or in the words of the Torah, “choose life,” choose to live, choose to make good decisions, choose to be the best you!

I remember two weeks ago standing with my now seasoned Kindergartner as we were about to get into the car for the first day of school. I, like Moses (probably our only similarity) felt nervous as I was not going to be physically going on this journey with her. She, like the Israelites, was on the edge of a major life transition-a completely new experience that she had never experienced before, in a place she had heard a lot about but never been. I looked at those big excited and nervous eyes and told her that she was ready for this next step. I did not cry (which I was shocked about, and for anyone who knows me this is quite the accomplishment) because I knew as her mom and her guide that I have done everything I could to prepare her for the unknown of what lies ahead. Suffice it to say she is a walking Schechter advertisement as all she talks about is how awesome school is and does not understand why anyone would go anywhere else.

As we begin preparing for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (which is also featured in this week’s parashah) let us remember the significance of having the right to choose our path. Will we choose a year of blessing and hope? Will we do all we can to ensure this year is a great year? The power is ours, as the parashah teaches. I continue each and every day to learn from the lessons of Nitzavim when I drop my Kindergartner at the bus and worry “will someone sit with her?” “Will she feel left out at recess?” “What if she is bullied?” Like the Israelites, she has been taught all of the tools she needs to embark on this exciting new journey in a new place. She has been given the tools and is ready to embrace whatever Kindergarten brings. Like the Israelites, she is surrounded by a community of people (the Schechter community) that is there to support her along the journey. 

Wishing you and your family Shanah Tova u’Metukah, a Happy and Sweet New Year!  


D’var Torah: Eli Williams (Ki Tavo)

In Ki Tavo, God instructs Moses to speak to all of the Israelites about laws, curses and blessings that could affect one person or a group of people. This is the second time these laws are written in the Torah. The instructions also appear in Leviticus. At that point in the Torah they are presented by God but in this parsha, Moses is saying them.

When reading through the parsha, one of the main things that I noticed was that when a person does good, even the smallest things will benefit others.

Consequences always seem to be the specific reverse of the reward. An example in the parsha is that if a person follows the rules that God commands, “blessed is your household, family, and your kneading bowl. But if you don’t follow these rules, cursed is your household, family, and your kneading bowl”

Others will benefit or be punished depending on your actions.

Which means that an entire community has to do well for everyone in it to flourish.

What I also noticed is that there seems to be no margin for error. One mistake is all it takes for you, and all the people around you to be cursed, or punished. In earlier parts of the Torah, we were allowed to make mistakes and learn from them– but in this parsha, we are told that if you make the smallest mistake, you could have a big punishment.

A famous mistake that we learned from is when Moshe hit the rock. We learned from that incident that anger isn’t productive, but also that actions have consequences. Back then, the consequences were not laid out like they are in this parsha, but Moshe still got punished by not being able to go to the promised land. 

Now, as they are about to enter the promised land, they are given a set of rules to help encourage a sense of community– because a community knows that they are not just dependent on themselves, but also dependent on each other. 

I wondered if this system was fair? This means that a good person related to a bad person could have a negative effect on the good person– but also vice versa. But I still liked the idea that we are all responsible for each other.

I think it’s a good idea today if we take responsibility for each other’s behavior.  If one person doesn’t follow the rules about pollution everyone can suffer. In my own life, at school and at camp, it works better if we share responsibility for our community. Everybody suffers if someone gets something taken away.  In sports, if one player on your team gets a penalty, your entire team will not be able to play as well as it did. When I was in third grade, our class had a system where to determine the amount of free time we had, we had letters written out that spelled F R E E T I M E. Each letter was 2 minutes. Every time we did something good, we got an extra letter. Every time we did something bad, we got a letter taken away. A couple kids including me complained that this system was unfair; the teacher responded that in order to have a good time, everyone must also be good. 

That doesn’t mean that everything is always fair.  It seems like some people don’t follow rules and still have lots of good things happen to them, and the reverse.  There are people who do good and have bad things happen to them.

But maybe we don’t understand the rewards and punishments right away. In the mishna it says: “against the loss that fulfilling a mitzvah may entail, reckon it’s reward.” This means that when doing a mitzvah, it may seem as a loss or waste of time. But later, you will see that it is worth it, not just because of the blessings that may follow, but also that you will feel good about yourselves. But it continues: “and against the benefit a transgression or a sin may bring, reckon the loss it involves.” This means that when sinning, you get a short glimpse of joy, but then feel bad or get cursed. But it seems today that wrong doers only care about the glimpse of joy and not the punishment — if there is one.

But the blessings for mitzvot and the curses for sinning are not supposed to be the only thing making you do the right thing. The feeling of doing good and the feeling of doing bad is also there to encourage it.

This is what I learned from parshat Ki Tavo.  If we had no free will, we would have no need to have laws. We would just do as we were told, which would be really bad and our lives have to have meaning. So having free will gives our life meaning. And clearly, after wandering in the desert for 40 years, we needed a lot more than just the 10 commandments.  This parsha showed just how many. rules we needed. And laws are important, not just because they make you do the correct things but because they guide you in your interactions with others. Since we are all part of a global community, we must do good. 

Rebecca Luire

D’var Torah: Rebecca Lurie (Ki Titzei)

Throughout parashat Ki Tetzei, this week’s Torah portion, the final laws of the Torah are given to the Jewish people. These final laws address matters regarding individuals, their families and their neighbors. After reviewing all of these laws in detail, the parasha abruptly transitions and commands us to “Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey….Do not forget!” Two questions arise for me: Why is Amalek mentioned after a litany of laws? Why does it say both, “Remember” and then “Do not forget”?

As we think about the laws that are explained in this parasha, they all center around communal norms and what it means to live in an ethical community. For example, one law states that if a slave comes to you for refuge from his master, you must not send him back to his master. Rather, he must live with you and you must protect him. Amalek represents a people without communal norms. Amalek are identified as a recurrent enemy of the Israelites, fighting by attacking from the rear when their enemies were in a state of weakness. Including this mention of Amalek at the end of all of the communal norms ensures that we understand the ramifications of what happens when we, as a people, live a life without ethical morals.

In addition to the contrast of Amalek to an ethical society, this parasha places a heightened importance to remembering Amalek by saying “Remember” and “Do not Forget.” These two phrases are mentioned together another time in the Torah, at the end of parashat Vayeishev. After Joseph accurately interprets the dream of the chief cupbearer, Joseph asked him to “remember me” and to mention him to Pharaoh so he can be freed. The final line of the parasha states “Yet the chief cupbearer did not remember him. He forgot him.” Rashi’s interpretation of this repetition is that “remember” means immediately or at this time; “do not forget” means in the future, in a sustained way. Applied to this week’s parasha, we should remember what Amalek did today and always.

As we embark on the school year ahead, which is off to a wonderful start, may we, as a community, work diligently every day to create an ethical community and to understand what could happen if we stray, personally or as a community. As the school year continues, we must work hard throughout the year to ensure we are living up to the expectations set for us by God in order to be our best selves for the sake of our community.

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D’var Torah: Rabbi Ravid Tilles (Shoftim)

This week’s parsha, Shoftim, begins with one of the most referenced phrases of the entire Tanach (Bible) “Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof – Justice, Justice, you shall pursue” (Deut. 16:20). This seminal phrase is only three words long…and two of the words are the same! The simplicity of the verse makes it more forceful. The brevity makes it more powerful. There may be no more important Jewish value than to live “Justly.” As the Torah explains, we must treat all people, no matter their status or stature, fairly and kindly. The single middah (core tenet) of “Justice” contains within it the whole of Jewish ethics. Of all of the things that scholars argue about from the Torah text, there is no doubt that a Just World mirrors a Divine World. But what do we do when the explicit and clear command to pursue Justice becomes unclear or complicated?

There is a concept in Jewish life called “Lifnim Mishurat Ha’Din” which is often translated as, “beyond the letter of the law.” Our ancient Rabbis knew that real life situations and matters of worldly judgement are often complicated – that the “Just” choice is not always obvious or explicit. There are numerous case laws in the Talmud when a judgement is made “Lifnim Mishurat Ha’din” beyond the letter of other Torah or Rabbinic Law, in the name of true Justice or Righteousness. The concept of “Lifnim Mishurat Ha’Din” takes a straight-forward commandment to pursue Justice and makes it much more complicated. At best, Justice becomes more nuanced and, at worst, it becomes more subjective.    

While the summer was a relaxing, uneventful, low-stress time for many of us at school, the world news was anything but quiet. It seemed like every day was a new story that brought up a question of Justice or Righteousness. A wide range of real-life, complicated, issues are being argued every day, usually along partisan lines, with each side citing their position as truly “Just.” Sometimes one side will cite the established law while the other side cites the spirit of the law, or vice versa, all in the name of furthering their perspectives. The news this summer offered a daily reminder that life is complicated, and while the iconic verse of “Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof” calls for us to create a simpler, more “Just World”, we know that we must all be prepared to live with a reality that is often messy. 

So how do we approach challenging topics to our students? How do we prepare our students to navigate the messiness of “real life”? At every grade level we are developing critical thinking skills that will prepare our students to engage with the complexities and nuances of the world – in age appropriate ways. Critical Thinking includes challenging assumptions, asking “good” questions, grappling with complexity, developing a point of view that is supported by evidence and finding value in multiple opinions. We don’t proactively engage in discourse about politics to develop these skills, instead we analyze complicated texts from the Tanach, use Investigations as our Math curriculum and use design thinking in our STEAM program. We try to understand what life is like in Israel and we analyze sophisticated poetry. Every discipline at every grade level is somehow guiding our students toward higher order thinking.

The school’s focus on critical thinking skills is inspired by the nuance and richness of our ancient tradition. Our ancient Rabbis grappled with complexity and messiness, guided by the simple words of “Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof.” What exactly a “Just World” looks like is unclear and the promise of such a beautiful reality seems ever-fleeting. Yet it is our responsibility to educate and raise pursuers of justice (rodfei tzedek), raising them to wade through the messiness in order to one day heal this world. On behalf of the entire faculty and staff, we look forward to another wonderful year with our eager students – with a special welcome to all of our new students!

Grade 4 Students Win Brookline Children’s Book Shop Poetry Contest!

Mazal tov to Moshe Sherman-Kadish (Grade 4) who won first place in the Brookline Children’s Book Shop Poetry Contest in the third and fourth grade category for his poem, “When Winter Hits the Woods.” Mazal tov to Sonya Finkel (Grade 4) who won an honorable mention for her poem, “A Fall Walk.”

When winter hits the woods

Moshe Sherman-Kadish

The snow is up to my knees

and the wind is stinging my cheeks.

I see abandoned birds’ nests in the trees, and

rabbit and deer feet are printed in the snow,

walking across a frozen pond.

In the ice, air bubbles try to escape, but they’re stuck.

Snowflakes fall and melt on my tongue,

and the wind pushes against the trees.

My toes, my tongue, my cheeks are all cold, and

I see my breath swimming in the air.


All of this happens

when winter hits the woods.



A fall walk

Sonya Finkel

Feel the cool wind upon your face.

Listen to the golden leaves on the trees shake.

Look up at the geese overhead,

Migrating to somewhere warm instead.

Leaving behind all the rocks, logs and dust,

Leaving behind all the trash made by us.

Soaring up over the river, grass and trees.

Up over the sky and across the seas.

As they fly up over the trees ,

all the fourth graders cease.

On top of a hill,

They feel the chill,

And the start of fall begins.

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D’var Torah: Rabbi Ravid Tilles (B’halotcha)

I would like to title this, the final D’var Torah of the 2018-2019 school year, “The student has become the teacher and the teacher has become the student.” Two of the most central elements of this week’s Parsha, B’halotcha, come by way of unexpected reversals. The first relates to the lighting of the Menorah in the Mishkan and the very name of the Parsha itself, “B’halotcha.” At the beginning of the Parsha we learn about the Menorah – We learn about what the Menorah looked like in its dimensions and form and the Parsha opens with the expectation that Aaron and the other Kohanim will be responsible for lighting the Menorah.


The word used for “lighting” the Menorah is unexpected, B’halotcha, which comes from the root עלה to elevate or raise up as opposed to the typical root used for lighting, דלק (as in להדליק נר של שבת). The most obvious reason for this word, B’halotcha, is because the flames raise up and there is an association with flame and height. The Midrash Tanhuma takes a reverse approach, however, for why the Torah uses this unexpected verb. It is explained that the lighting of the Menorah served to elevate the holiness and the merit of the Kohanim who were lighting the candles, not the other way around. So while the Kohanim were lighting the candles of the Menorah, the Menorah was elevating the Kohanim.

Following that, the Levites are all elevated when they are appointed to service in the Mishkan. However, again, this ritual seems to be reversed from the expected. While you might expect that the ritual process of elevating the Levitical status would come from Aaron, Moses or even God, part of the ritual of appointing the Levites involved the Israelites placing their hands on the Levites. We often think of placing hands on someone, ritualistically, as a top-down model of conferring status but in this case the power came from below. The followers conferred the power to their leaders in an ultimate sign of equality and respect.

So both of these elements of the Parsha describe unexpected reversals of hierarchy. We would think that the Menorah is lit by the Kohen, but the word B’halotcha implies that the Kohen’s motivation is sparked by the Menorah. And we would think that the Levites would transmit holiness to the other members of B’nai Yisrael, but we learn that the Israelites are charged with transmitting the holiness upwards. And I must say, on behalf of the faculty and staff,  as I look back on this school year, the students were very much our teachers. They motivated us as much, or even more, than we motivated them.

Student leadership and student centered initiatives were a major focus of our entire school program. Creating more opportunities for students to shine was a priority for us. Our teachers worked hard to facilitate moments when students could learn from one another, both inside and outside of the classroom. Each student grew, matured, and changed in remarkable ways that are much easier to notice as we look back on the scope of the entire year. I know that we as a faculty and staff are motivated to do our work because of these moments of growth and advancement. Though we may have mastered our disciplines over the course of more years of study, there is no doubt that the most effective teachers and motivators this year were our students.

We are grateful to our teachers. We are grateful to our students. We are elevated in holiness because of our profound work of education, a work that we all partner in during the course of the year. We are leaving the 2018-2019 school year on a high of accomplishment and pride, and we will only get higher when we come back from the summer for another wonderful year. Have a restful, enjoyable, and well deserved summer vacation everyone! L’hitraot and Shabbat Shalom!

D’var Torah: Rabbi Benjamin Samuels (Naso)

No matter where in the world my children find themselves, they know that if they will not be spending Shabbat or Yom Tov with us in person, they need to call us the day before to receive their berakhah (blessing). There is a precious Jewish custom for parents to bless their child(ren) at the beginning of Shabbat or on a Jewish festival right before Kiddush.

What exactly, though, is a berakhah, a blessing? What is its nature? How do we define it? We say blessings every day. We bless God. We bless a bride and groom on their wedding day. We bless America and the State of Israel. What is the essence of a blessing – especially one we give to other people? A berakhah, I believe, can best be described as an essentialist proposal. It is an earnest attempt to reduce into a few words or sentences all those things, which, for us, make life worth living. And when we give someone else a blessing, in effect, we are saying that we would like to share these principles of life with that person in order to create for all of us a life of blessing.

This traditional blessing of children takes as its model the birkat kohanim – the priestly blessing, presented in this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Naso.  Parents, in fact, recite the same blessings formulated with love so long ago: “May the Lord bless you and protect you. May the Lord deal kindly and graciously with you.  May the Lord bestow Divine favor upon you and grant you peace” (Numbers 6:24-26). For a boy we preface these words with, “May the Lord make you like Ephraim and Menashe;” and for a girl with, “May the Lord make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.” The early modern, rabbinic encyclopedist, Rabbi Yitzchak Lampronti (Italy, 1679-1756), in his monumental Pachad Yitzchak (Letter 2:54b), recommends that parents should follow up the standard priestly blessing with a customized personal blessing. Parents should focus into a few words or sentences all that the child needs to hear to transform the past and next week’s experiences into experiences of blessing.

I once had the opportunity to serve as a scholar on a CJP VIP week-long mission to Israel. During our travels, we met with high level politicians, military leaders, business gurus, crackerjack journalists, and social justice warriors. At the end of our journey, we had a concluding dinner and went around the room asking our participants to share the most transformative moment for them on the trip. I will never forget how one wise soul said that in his life he has met plenty of important and accomplished personages, and although he learned much from our mission, for him it wasn’t new information as much as added depth and complexity. However, on Friday night, he witnessed some of our Shabbat dinner guests bless their children. He had not been aware of this custom. For him, learning of the custom of the weekly blessing of children was the highlight of his trip. Taking the time each week for one generation to bless the next with the Torah’s words of power empowers the individual child, affirms our place in the chain of tradition, and clarifies the ultimate purpose of our week’s activities: to create for all a world of blessing, of prosperity and of peace.

If you do not do so already, please consider adding the Jewish custom of blessing your children into your Shabbat and Jewish holiday routine.

Benjamin J. Samuels, PhD, is the rabbi of Congregation Shaarei Tefillah, a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Newton Centre.


D’var Torah: Rabbi Michael Fel (Bamidbar-Shavuot)

On Passover we eat matzah.

On Sukkot we dwell in the Sukkah.

On Hanukkah we light the Hanukkiah.

But how do we celebrate Shavuot which begins on Saturday night?

For being one of the three pilgrimage festivals, the Torah is somewhat tight-lipped about the holiday’s rituals.  Even the Shulhan Arukh, arguably the definitive code of Jewish law published in 1565, gives very few details about how the holiday is to be observed.  Whereas for the other holidays, the Shulhan Arukh lists hundreds of details and customs, for Shavuot, it lists the Torah and Haftarah readings and specifies that full Hallel is recited.  It also mentions, somewhat casually, that some have the practice of decorating their homes and shuls with flowers (there is teaching that Mount Sinai bloomed at revelation) and that some have the practice of eating a dairy meal.  

So what are we to do?

Recognizing the void, for generation after generation, the Jewish people have added several layers of meaning and customs to the holiday.  For many Jewish communities, Shavuot has become a time to honor students, graduates, and teachers. Some communities stay up all night learning to make up for our ancestors who fell asleep before they received the Torah, and of course others have transformed the custom of eating dairy into a full-fledged religious obligation eating cheesecake, blintzes, and ice cream.

While some might see each generation’s creativity as a departure from the holiday’s original intent, I see it as an empowering mandate to make each holiday meaningful and personal.  I am sure many of us have added our own communal and familial marks on many Jewish events and holidays. For example, many families have modified the seder plate to include an orange or added Miriam’s Cup next to Elijah’s cup.  Others always make sure to eat bubbe’s matzah ball soup or brisket at Rosh Hashanah or use a specific melody while lighting the hannukiah.  

I know in my family, it doesn’t quite feel like Passover unless we are clinking our glasses to the beat during the 4 questions on Passover or eating home-baked honey filled challah on Rosh Hashanah.

May each of us merit to celebrate the holiday of Shavuot this year by bringing in the traditions of our ancestors while also ensuring the holiday is meaningful and delicious for future generations.

Rabbi Michael Fel, Temple Emunah, Schechter Parent


D’var Torah: Rabbi Rachel Silverman (Bechukotai)

“If you don’t come downstairs by the time I count to three, you’re not watching TV!” I know I’m not the only parent who resorts to bribes and threats more often than I care to admit. Despite overwhelming evidence that bribes and threats aren’t an effective motivator, we continue to rely on them.
So at first glance, Behukkotai sets up a familiar trope of reward and punishment, where God is the parent and we are the children. If we behave (follow God’s laws), we’ll be rewarded (with rain, a good crop, and peace in our land). And if we do not behave as expected, punishments will abound.
In that frame, it would be easy for to write off this parsha, as science tells us that keeping kosher doesn’t cause the rain to fall, and not coveting our neighbor’s wife doesn’t produce a good crop. Although, not coveting, plus a good fence, might actually keep the peace between your neighbors…
And that’s the point. It would be a mistake to read Behukkotai as a list of rewards and punishments. Behukkotai is about natural consequences, and the beautiful possibilities that result from making the right choices that God is steering us towards.
If we stop abusing our planet, then perhaps the rain will fall when it is supposed to, the sea levels won’t rise, and the polar ice caps won’t melt. All of which would certainly lead to the land yielding produce and the trees bearing fruit (Leviticus 26:4).
If we take care of the vulnerable in our society, more people will be able to sleep without fear and eat until they are satisfied (Leviticus 26:5). If we remember that everyone is created b’tzelem Elohim, we’ll have fewer wars and more peace in the land (Leviticus 26:6).
And perhaps, if we cease from work (put the technology away and encounter one another) on Shabbat, we’ll be fruitful and multiply – yes, literally, but also figuratively (Leviticus 26:9). If we spent more time finding the humanity in one another, we’d spend less time making policies that destroy lives.
In other words, if we follow God’s laws, we might have a chance at the kind of world Behukkotai holds out as a beautiful reward. And I, for one, would love the chance to experience that.
Rabbi Rachel Silverman, Temple Israel of Sharon

D’var Torah: Rabbi Ed Gelb (Behar)

In parshat Behar, the concept of shmitah (one year in 7 of letting the land lay fallow) and Yovel (return of property to original owners) is introduced.  The broad theme is that both nature and things do not really belong to us but rather to God.  This concept helps us to remember that our mission in life is not to acquire but to work in partnership with God to perfect our world.  Although the economic structure that these laws envision may not be in force or practical today, the broader concept still retains meaning.

“Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield.  But in the seventh year the land shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, a Sabbath of the Lord”.  This may make agricultural sense, but the deeper lesson is that we are stewards of our land and not just using the land for ourselves.   When we remember that, we receive the double blessing of the long-term benefit of letting the land refresh and giving our offspring a sustained natural world.

In regard to the “Yovel”, the Torah states: “But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me.”  Our tradition understands that wealth and the pursuit of wealth is beneficial.   However, by remembering that ultimately the wealth we acquire is a means and not an ends, we can impact our communities in big ways.  The Torah uses strong language in saying we are “strangers resident”.  It means that we are not permanent.  It is a way to remind us of our mortality and that you cannot take it with you.  Also, our heritage is that we were once landless slaves and we need to always keep faith with those who are poor.    The “Yovel” reminds us of our relationship to God and this world.

Judaism is a practical religion.  We are encouraged to be successful and strive for material success.  However, as in all things, we are commanded to do this in a holy way.  A way that enhances God’s presence in the world.  Both “Shmitah” and “Yovel” are ideas that still resonate today..

Rabbi Ed Gelb, Camp Ramah