D’var Torah: Rabbi Ed Gelb (Beshalach)

In this week’s Torah portion, Beshalach, the Israelites escape from Egypt across the sea. After the escape, the Torah says, “And Israel saw the great work which the Lord did upon the Egyptians; and the people feared the Lord, and believed in the Lord, and His servant Moses.” Then, the Torah immediately recounts, the Israelites burst into song. There were many miracles the Israelites experienced both before and after this moment. Why did they burst into song then? According to Rabbi Yisrael of Rizhin, “It was not for the miracle of the splitting of the sea that they sang praise of God, but because the splitting of the sea brought them to perfect faith in God – ‘they believed in God’ – and that is why they sang.” Song as a by-product of faith is a fascinating take on the situation. The joy of knowing you have faith leads to artistic expression and celebration.

At Ramah, we believe that the arts are a compelling entry point into Jewish expression. That is, we can engage kids with Judaism through art which leads to deeper exploration and growth. However, the idea that music is the result of the Jewish experience also holds true. One of the amazing things about camp is how much spontaneous singing and dancing happens. Similarly, Schechter also provides access to Judaism beyond the academic. The focus on the whole child and opportunities to shine in many different ways is critical to development. Perhaps, song is on the lips of campers and students alike so readily because at both camp and Schechter we have created a community that is so connected to God and Judaism. Our heightened spiritual involvement prompts us to burst out singing.  Now that’s joyous Jewish living at its best!

Rabbi Ed Gelb, Director Camp Ramah In New England

January 2015

D’var Torah: Rabbi Beth Naditch (Bo)

When one of my children was in kindergarten, learning from the wonderful Sondra Kaminsky, I visited his class around this time of year to do some Torah study with the kids. I sat down on the floor with the class, took out a case of props with which to tell the story, and told the children that we were right in the middle of the amazing story of the exodus from Egypt. A young boy raised his hand to ask a simple, but ultimately profound question. “Why are we reading this story now, in January, if it isn’t Pesach?” One of the learnings that emerged from our ensuing discussion was the concept that the Torah is our story – that the story of the Jewish people is our story even today, and it is ours to return to, just like the favorite books which all of them eagerly shared that they read at home every night. (Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus and Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse were particular favorites, if I remember correctly.) As anyone who has a young child, has had young child, or has been a young child, knows, children want the same books over and over and over. They seem to rejoice in the familiarity, the structure, while at the same time locating themselves in a new time and place at each reading.

The rabbis were wise when they instituted the cycle of Torah readings – we need to revisit the bedrock of our story over and over again. We are not the same people in January as we are in April. Not the same this year as we were ten years ago when we read the same words. Not the same people we will be the next time we encounter these words. For me, the opening chapters of Shmot have particular resonance this year, as we read about the new Pharaoh who arose, declaring in the parasha two weeks ago, “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise, in the event of war, they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.” (Ex. 1:10) I have taken both solace and strength from the actions of the Hebrew midwives Shifrah and Puah, who resisted the unethical orders to kill all baby boys who were born.

In the summer of 2001, modern research caught up to the rabbis’ reasoning. At that time, Marshall Duke and Robyn Fivush, two researchers from Emory University, did a study on children’s resilience. Using a scale they developed called the “Do You Know” scale, they asked students twenty questions, such as: “Do you know where your parents grew up?” “Do you know what went on when you were being born?” “Do you know who in the family you act most like?” They discovered that higher scores on this scale were associated with a host of things we all hope for for our children, among them, higher levels of self-esteem and better chances for good outcomes when facing adversity.* A family culture – and dare I say a religious one – where stories are central is a family culture which gives our children tools for uncertain times, whether they be individual, local, or global. In our parasha, we hear for the first time the exhortion to re-enact the Exodus story throughout time, and to be diligent about telling the story to our children.  God weaves the future retelling of the story into the very fabric of our process of liberation from slavery.

Now, I might be more explicit in the answer I would give to the 6 year old who asked the question with which I began.   I would tell him that stories give us strength. We’ve been telling the same stories for thousands of years, and they help us get through hard times and joyful ones. The more our stories become a part of us, the more connected we are to ourselves, to each other, and to our history.

Rabbi Beth Naditch is teaches spiritual care at Hebrew SeniorLife and Hebrew College. She is a parent of three boys, at Schechter, Metrowest Jewish Day School, and Meridian Academy.

*A blog post on the study can be found here:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/marshall-p-duke/the-stories-that-bind-us-_b_2918975.html

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D’var Torah: Rabbi Marc Baker (Va’era)

Every time we say the Amidah, the central prayer of Jewish liturgy, we read the phrase familiar to many of us: “Elokeinu v’Elokei Avoteinu – Our God and the God of our Fathers (or, Ancestors).” Implicit in this simple phrase is one of the great beauties of the Jewish spiritual tradition and one of the great challenges of Jewish education.

The phrase “our God” implies that each of us has a relationship with God that is personal and relevant to us in our time. And this same God is the God with whom our ancestors had a relationship, relevant to them in their time. At its best, this juxtaposition connects us in a deep and meaningful way with those who have come before us by virtue of our shared relationship with something transcendent, timeless, larger than ourselves. At its most challenging, this juxtaposition explains why a belief in God is so challenging for so many of us. When we feel obligated simply to continue or replicate the experiences of those who came before us, we can encounter a very real gap that exists between them and us, their time and ours. When the only language or framework for Jewish theology or spirituality is that of our ancestors, God can become inaccessible to us. For many, this causes us to check out of the very possibility of “Elokeinu” – of making their God my God.

The opening of this week’s Torah portion, Va’era, and, in particular, one of Rashi’s commentaries, offers a beautiful insight into Jewish spirituality that helps to address this challenge. “And God spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am the Lord. And I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as El Shaddai, but in My name “the Lord” I was not known to them.” (Exodus 6:1-3) Rashi explains this last line as follows: (God says:) “My quality of trustworthiness, which the name ‘the Lord’ represents, was not known to them (your ancestors) because while I promised them (to bring them to the Land of Israel), I did not fulfill my promise (during their lifetime).”

This is radical. According to this, God had unfinished business with our ancestors, who never knew God in all of God’s fullness because they never experienced the playing out of history. To put it differently, we who are living out the unfolding story of Jewish history are also living out the unfolding relationship between God and the Jewish people. This is the opposite of trying to replicate or sustain their relationship with God. On the contrary, when we make the relationship our own, we contribute to God’s evolving relationship with the Jewish People and the world as they are today.

When we make God Elokeinu, our God, we keep alive Elokei Avoteinu, their God. This is a great spiritual opportunity, an invitation to write new chapters in the literal and spiritual story of our people.

Rabbi Marc Baker, Head of School, Gann Academy

D’var Torah: Rabbi Leslie Gordon (Shmot)

We might expect the birth of Moses to be heralded with great fanfare. Instead, immediately following Pharaoh’s decree to kill all Hebrew boys we read: A certain man of the house of Levi stion married a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw how beautiful he was, she hid him for three months (Exodus 2:1-2).

“Beautiful” as the JPS translation is rendered, is not entirely accurate. And “beautiful” confuses the narrative: After all, what mother does not think her baby is beautiful? Are we to suppose that if this baby were not pleasing to look at his mother would not have sought to save him from Pharaoh’s decree?

We do better to translate literally: the mother saw that he was good: Tov. When we read the verse, טוב כי אתו ותרא “She saw that he was good,” we can’t help but hear echoes of Creation, when day after day, G. saw that what had just been created was good טוב כי אלוהים וירא.

This nameless boy born to an anonymous mother is our greatest teacher, the leader who would shepherd us to freedom. As Nahum Sarna comments, “this parallel (“saw that it/he was good”) suggests that the birth of Moses is intended to be understood as the dawn of a new creative era.”

Yocheved saw in her newborn, not yet named Moses something more than beauty: she saw the goodness in his creation, his potential to change the world. There is no fanfare or proclamation of greatness or even noble lineage at his birth. Like countless babies born to generations of parents, this humble, nameless child is good because even in a time of terror and suffering, a new life means the potential for salvation. This baby is not distinguished by miraculous powers. His mother sees that he is good, he is part of creation, he evinces a spark of the divine. It is no more and no less than what we all see in the birth of our children. Famous or the product of a certain man and his wife—all our children bring the goodness of hope for a better tomorrow.

Rebecca Luire

D’var Torah: Rebecca Lurie (Vayechi)

A key theme in this week’s Torah parasha, Vayechi, is forgiveness. We all know the famous Joseph story – of his brothers selling him into slavery and lo and behold, Joseph becomes a key leader among the Egyptians. When their father Jacob dies, the brothers are asking for forgiveness from Joseph. “Please, forgive now your brothers’ transgression and their sin, for they did evil to you. Now please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.”  

And Joseph’s reaction to this plea was to weep. And he said “Indeed, you intended evil against me, [but] God designed it for good, in order to bring about what is at present to keep a great populace alive. So now do not fear. I will sustain you and your small children.” וְעַתָּה אַל תִּירָאוּ אָנֹכִי אֲכַלְכֵּל אֶתְכֶם וְאֶת טַפְּכֶם

So, why was he able to forgive his brothers after betraying him? Rabbi Jonathan Sacks sees Joseph’s relationships with his brothers as the full cycle of repentance. The first stage of repentance is when they admit they did wrong (when the brothers first encountered Joseph in Egypt). The second stage of repentance is when they confess and take responsibility for their actions (when they confess to having sold Joseph into slavery). And the third is when they are presented with the same situation as the first time and they choose not to make the same mistake again (they offer to be Joseph’s slaves). The three phases of repentance presented here are 1) admission of guilt, 2) confession and 3) behavioral change.

The story of Joseph is a beautiful representation of humanity and our ability and obligation to forgive our fellow man and woman. For when we forgive one another, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes that we are no longer prisoners of our past but are able to find new purpose and meaning in our relationships with one another. As the new secular year has become, I wish you a year filled with opportunities to model this lesson of repentance and accept forgiveness into your hearts.

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D’var Torah: Rabbi Carl Perkins (Vayigash)

 

As we all know, siblings (brothers and sisters) don’t always get along. This has been going on for a long, long time – indeed, since the first brothers and sisters were born.
Let’s see: the first two human brothers were Cain and Abel. They certainly didn’t get along very well. (See Genesis 4)
The first two Hebrew brothers were Abraham’s sons, Ishmael and Isaac. They too did not get along very well. (See Genesis 21)
Isaac’s sons, Esau and Jacob, were twins. They also didn’t get along very well, even before they were born. (See Genesis 25) After buying Esau’s birthright (for a mere bowl of porridge) and cheating Esau out of his special blessing, Jacob was forced to flee for 20 years, with no contact with his family, before finally returning home. Fortunately, Jacob and Esau eventually reconciled. Their relationship was uneasy, but it never again flared up into outright conflict.
Jacob had married two sisters, Leah and Rachel. They too, you won’t be surprised to learn, did not get along very well (see Genesis 29-30), and that hostility continued on into the next generation.
Jacob’s children REALLY didn’t get along very well. Joseph’s older brothers hated him, and treated him badly. When they got the chance, they threw him into a pit and sold him to slave traders heading down to Egypt. He suffered for a long time until finally, as unlikely as it must have seemed, events turned his way and he was appointed second-in-command to Pharoah.
Then, even more unbelievably, Joseph’s older brothers-the ones who’d mocked, scorned, tortured and humiliated him – came before him begging for grain. How he must have longed to do to them what they had done to him.
And indeed, he almost does. He certainly does trick them and plays with their feelings. But he does this not purely out of vindictiveness. Instead, he has a different motive: he wants to see if they have changed. Are they who they always were? If so, well, then they deserve to suffer. But perhaps they have changed ….
In the climactic scene that begins toward the end of last week’s parasha, Joseph tempts his brothers to do exactly what they had done many years before: to abandon a younger brother (this time, Benjamin). As the parasha concludes, he leaves it up to them, and we really don’t know what they will do: Will they abandon Benjamin, demonstrating that they’re as bad as they were years earlier, or have they changed?
We find out at the very beginning of this week’s parasha: “And Judah approached.” Seemingly miraculously, Judah, the older brother who had played a key role in selling Joseph into slavery years before, steps forward and breaks the pattern that has been going on for generations.
“No!” he tells Joseph: “I won’t abandon Benjamin. Take me instead!”
Hearing these words, Joseph is so struck by Judah’s uncharacteristically kind behavior that he can hardly control himself. He bursts into tears, and after shooing the Egyptians out of the room, he reveals himself to his brothers, and they weep together.
What a wonderful testimony to the power of teshuvah/repentance! By abandoning his destructive, competitive behavior with his sibling-by changing, and demonstrating that he had changed-Judah allowed a loving relationship to grow in place of the mistrust and hatred that had previously existed.
We can do the same. If we have brothers or sisters, let’s strive to treat them as Judah came to treat his all of his brothers, including Joseph: with self-sacrifice, love and caring.
Rabbi Carl Perkins is the Rabbi at Temple Aliyah, Needham and Schechter alumni parent
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D’var Torah: Rabbi Victor Reinstein (Vayeshev)

Making Peace in all the Places where we Dwell

In a world in which violence is so ubiquitous, in a time of bigotry and bluster, of hate and division, one of the most radically hopeful things we can do is to be a wellspring of nonviolence from which ripples flow out into the spheres of our lives and into the great world beyond. Against a backdrop of violence, whether it is the violence of war, of poverty, of greed, of hurting the earth and people in so many ways, the way that each of us lives our own lives is the way of response that is most in our control. So too in our way of reading Torah, choosing to open our eyes and hearts to see more clearly her paths of peace and then to make them our own. On the surface of Torah there is often violence and strife, as in life. Sometimes on the surface itself, shimmering as a crystal fount, and sometimes beneath the surface, there is a river of peace that runs through Torah into whose flow we enter by engaging and wrestling with what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel calls the “harsh passages.”

In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Vayeshev, we encounter family violence and strife. Through the extreme dynamics of the text the Torah opens a window into the more ordinary dynamics that give rise to inadvertent strife. Unlike portions of Torah in which we encounter violence among peoples and nations, here we encounter violence that is closer to home. Jealousy, anger, misunderstanding, hurt are all inevitable realities of life lived with people. Tragically, strife is too often spawned by a lack of awareness of how one’s actions will affect others.

The first word of the Torah portion, from which its name comes, sets the stage. Vayeshev, meaning “and he dwelled,” referring to Ya’akov, in another verbal form becomes va’y’yashev, meaning “and he made peace.” We can simply dwell, or, aware of our actions and their consequences, we can dwell more deeply, making peace in the place where we dwell. Showing favoritism to Yosef, Ya’akov sowed seeds of jealousy and discord between Yosef and his brothers. Simmering over time, unholy sparks of jealousy were fanned into flames of hatred and violence. Thrown into a pit and reported to his father as dead, Yosef is eventually sold into slavery and comes down into Egypt in chains.

In a fascinating commentary to the Torah in a volume called Chochmat HaMatzpun/The Wisdom of Conscience, we are guided to look honestly at the lives of our ancestors and to learn from negative example as well as positive. Of the brothers’ behavior we are told, “it is a matter both ancient and new.” It is about our world, as well as theirs. Condemning their deed as “horrible, such a sin, such cruelty,” the writer then condemns Ya’akov for fostering such insensitivity in his sons through the favoritism of one. Helping us to see “the Torah of nonviolence,” the commentator bids us look beneath the surface and see Torah as a guide for living in the world beyond the text: A Torah of truth that does not whitewash the deeds of the great and beloved ones…, the Torah of life teaches us that we are to learn from our holy ancestors – even from their perversions and shortcomings. Engaging Torah as a guide for life lived with people, may we learn to make peace in all of the places where we dwell.

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

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D’var Torah: Rabbi Ilana Garber ’91 (Vayishlach)

Two weeks ago my family ate lentil soup for Shabbat dinner. Then we played games as a family, and in particular, we encouraged our two boys to play together, in order to foster their sibling bond. As the Shabbat candles flickered, my husband and I shared highlights and challenges from our respective weeks, celebrating each other’s achievements and supporting the growing edges. It was a typical Friday night in our home, and yet, everything was done with great intention.

Last Shabbat, we visited the two playgrounds that are within walking distance of our home, and we raced up the ladders and down the slides. We showed the kids our wedding photos (once again), reviewing the names of our family members and friends and recalling the incredibly special moments of that day. And, as always, we encouraged our boys to love each other, to play nicely, and to be truthful.

And this week, as we read Parashat Vayishlach, we will talk about our personal relationships with God, wrestling just like Jacob did with who we are and what we believe. And we will discuss our Hebrew names, crafting each Hebrew letter, sharing the stories of my sons’ namesakes.

We are living Torah.

It’s easy in these months of Beresheet, where the stories of Genesis shape who we are as husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, children, and siblings, and then as a community, a nation, and ultimately a people. But it’s possible with just about every Torah portion: to live the lessons, to impart the wisdom, and to experience and engage in the meaning.

Consider just the past few weeks. Parashat Toldot: lentil soup that cost Esau his birthright, a lack of sibling bond between Jacob and Esau that led one brother to deceive the other, and poor spousal communication between Isaac and Rebecca. Parashat Vayetzei: Jacob’s dream with angels going up and down the ladder, the weddings of Leah (deceptively) and then Rachel to Jacob, the births of Jacob’s children, and so much more.

And now Parashat Vayishlach: Jacob wrestling with an unknown being (an angel? God? Or maybe his own conscience?), then being renamed Israel, because he has wrestled and prevailed.

In our food, our play, and our interactions, we model and experience what we read in the Torah. In this way, we are living through Torah and the Torah is living through us.

When we live Torah, the text of our tradition, and bring its stories and lessons into our contemporary lives, we encounter the holy sparks of the divine. We encounter God.

So, live Torah this week. From the playground to the kitchen and everywhere in between, experience a life blessed with Torah. It will be a life that is blessed. Shabbat Shalom!

 

Rabbi llana Garber ’91 is the Rabbinic Director of Lifelong Learning & Community Engagement at Beth El Temple in West Hartford, CT.

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D’var Torah: Rabbi Ron Fish (Vayetzei)

Human beings naturally seek home. The place where you know where to hang your coat; the place where you can fall asleep and feel safe; the place where familiar voices and smells can fill each of us with the quiet confidence that our world is secure.

For centuries the Jewish people did not have a national home.  We came to know well the dangers that went along with our national homelessness, even as we dreamed of Zion.

But for the most part, we did have individual homes.  Certainly over the course of those centuries there were awful times of expulsion and personal homelessness, but we were not always driven out- without a place to call our own.  Whether in Morocco or Mainz, in Venice or Vienna, in Baghdad or Bialystok, we Jews did lay down roots and we made our homes into sacred spaces.  The riches of our cultures through the generations are a testament to the homes that we constructed and the sense of rootedness we gained throughout the lands of the diaspora.

But we never forgot what it means to be a stranger in a strange land.  What it feels like to be truly afraid. To be on the run from Pharaoh and Emperor; to be a simple parent or child fleeing from armies intent on taking our very lives. Fleeing to survive.

During the nighttime flight of our patriarch Jacob, fleeing from his brother Esau’s intent to murder him, we can imagine the panicked short breaths. We can almost hear the thump-thump of his heartbeat as it races to carry him to safety. We can see the beads of sweat on his brow as Jacob lies down on a vacant hilltop, placing his weary head on a pile of rocks, trying to catch a moment of home in the midst of his homelessness.  And when he wakes, Jacob realizes that this very place, this very sense of vulnerability, is the gateway to heaven.  It is from here that he-and we, his descendants- are to be dedicated to the task of caring for the vulnerable and exposed. To remember the feeling of the outsider. And bring them in from the cold.

I ask all of us to remember this lesson as millions of children and innocents of all ages flee the violence and destruction unfolding in Syria and Iraq. In 2016, the United Nations identified 13.5 million Syrians requiring humanitarian assistance, of which more than 6 million are internally displaced within Syria, and over 4.8 million are refugees outside of Syria. While these people are citizens of states still technically at war with Israel, the children of historic enemies, they are also human beings in danger. They are homeless. And vulnerable. The gates of heaven are open and see their plight.

Do we?

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D’var Torah: Rabbi Jordan Braunig (Toldot)

In the chapter that comes between Esau’s birthright being swapped out for a bowl of lentil soup and Jacob’s wooly trickery to swipe his farsighted father’s brachah, there is some deep and nourishing Torah in the middle of Parashat Toldot.

We read in these verses, (Bereishit 26:18-19), “Isaac returned and dug the wells of water…The servants of Isaac, digging in the valley, found wells of living water.”

Our forefathers were well-diggers, it seems. Again and again, facing heavens that failed to produce they chose not to give up on this outlandish promise of a people or to flee South to greener pastures, but, instead, they made the bold decision to dig deep. They believed that beneath the dry and arid surface there was something nourishing, something life-giving. What level of surety did it take? What faith?

It says in the verse “Isaac returned,” for these were wells that had been dug by his father, Abraham. He learned from his parents, Abraham and Sara, that there were living waters if we go deep enough. This is Isaac’s inheritance; the knowledge that even when wells have been plugged, we have the power to access the richness of our tradition. This is an understanding that must be transmitted from one generation to the next. For those of us who are parents, educators, grandparents our task is to model this mining of our tradition and to search for the fissures where meaning comes bubbling out.

Yet, lest we think that our lack of learning makes us unfit to pass on a heritage of digging for wells, the great Chasidic master, R’ Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl, taught in reference to these lines that our mythic ancestors “opened up channels of the mind and awareness, teaching all who were going to come into this world how to dig within themselves a spring of living water…” Like so many great Chasidic teaching, he internalizes the metaphor transforming the external digging to a digging within. To model mindfulness and a searching within ourselves, to believe that within each of us is our own unique Torah, this is within all of our grasp.

Our tradition is not just some great cistern full of still, gathered waters. What we all know and what we dare to teach our children is that we have access to the wisdom of generations, that by digging into our tradition and into ourselves we can tap in to a wellspring of hope and love and resilience.  There is no better time to dig this message than now. Shabbat shalom!