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D’var Torah: Ari Gordon – Grade 7 (Bo)

In this Parsha, Parashat Bo, the Egyptians and the Israelites are dealing with the last three plagues: locusts, darkness, and the killing of the firstborn. God spares the people of Israel’s first born, but kills off the Egyptians’ firstborn. These awful deaths cause Pharaoh to break down, and he tells the Israelites to go. Fast. The Israelites had to rush, so there was no time to let their dough rise. You know that whole tradition of eating matzah on Pesach? It all begins with Bo.

While reading the Parsha, I thought, “Why did God kill all the Egyptians’ first born? He must have known that some of them were innocent!” It also made me think about what God really is, and how God functions in the world.

All my life I felt that I could personally talk to God, but no one else could. I could always send him a message. I’ve never really thought about how other people felt about God, so while preparing this I kept an open mind.

While talking to David Wolf, my tutor, about my dvar, he told me about an idea that I thought explained a lot. He suggested that each person has their perception of  “God.” I thought this was an amazing idea, so I looked a bit more into it. While studying Mr Savitt’s “Yak List,” a list of words that appear the most in the Bible, one word I kept coming across was ELOHEIM, which is used as a name for God, but being the plural form, it directly translates to “Gods.” I thought it was weird that the word I have used my whole life to refer to “God,” really meant “multiple Gods.” In the beginning of the Amidah, it says “Elohey Sarah Elohey Rivkah, etc.” This means the God of Sarah, and the God of Rivkah, etc. It supports my opinion that everyone has their own perception of God, which makes everyone’s God seem different. Since God is abstract and cannot be seen or touched, everyone has their own opinion of God’s role and image. God is all about faith: if you believe your God can only watch, then your God can only watch. If you believe your God can only influence situations, then your God can only influence, and so on and so on.

As for me: I believe God does not directly make things happen. Believing in God is learning from God’s stories. God as a character is less important than the meaning of the Torah’s stories. When we read the stories, we become better people–that’s God at work. That’s Judaism. There’s no point in arguing about whether or not God really did free the Jews from Egypt. It’s more important that we use those stories to learn from our mistakes and our successes. My dvar is a prime example of a story with a lesson.

The second question I want to answer is: why does God find it necessary to kill all of the Egyptians’ firstborns?

At first, I thought what God did was terrible and unnecessary. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that God made the correct decision. Why? I understood that in order to really teach a lesson, you must take something, the recipient must feel loss. This applies today too. For example, if a kid is doing something wrong and a parent says, “Stop it,” the kid may not listen. But if the parent takes away the kid’s phone–not a murder exactly, but pretty horrible–99% of the time the kid will stop the bad behavior. God did not kill the Egyptian firstborns for fun. God did it to teach them a lesson.

So what about me? I’ve read, over and over again the same Torah stories every year–and each time I learn new skills that allow me to become a nicer and better person. Well, a somewhat better person. Before studying my portion, I never would thought that in order for me to change I, Ari Gordon, might have to suffer. Now I do.

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D’var Torah: Professor Joseph Reimer (Shemot)

The Fascinating Daughter of Pharaoh

Of all the intriguing characters we are introduced to in the early chapters of ExodusI find the daughter of Pharaoh the most fascinating. Who is this woman? Why does she save the Hebrew infant? Is she aware of her father’s decree and does she purposely undermine that decree? Let’s read Exodus, Chapter 2 for clues to answering our questions.

We first meet Pharaoh’s daughter as she is going down to bathe in the river. She is accompanied by her girl attendants who help her bathe. While there, Pharaoh’s daughter spies the basket and sends an attendant to retrieve it. When she opens the basket, she sees the child and hears his crying. The crying arouses her mercy and she says, “This must be a Hebrew child.”

Let’s assume that bathing in the river is a regular feature of this princess’ life and the attendants shield her from the rough edges of life. And yet her eye is drawn to this basket floating down the water. She cannot know, as we readers do, that there is a baby inside and that baby’s family has sent him floating to where she regularly bathes. But she needs to be curious enough to explore this basket for our story to unfold.

She first sends an attendant to fetch the basket. I imagine even mild curiosity could motivate her to send that attendant. But significantly, it is she who opens the basket and first sees the baby within.  Many social psychological experiments have taught us this: there is no comparison between directly encountering another human versus being told by an intermediary that there is a human there. The direct encounter moves us in ways that mediated encounters do not.

Then there is the cry. It is the baby’s cry that most immediately moves this princess. She hears something in that cry that evokes her protective feelings. And then for the first time we hear her speak, “This must be a Hebrew child.”

Given her father’s decree to destroy all the male Israelite children, what are we to make of her first words? Is she distancing herself from the child by calling him “a Hebrew child?” Or is she moved to be more protective precisely because he is so endangered? The story indicates the latter. When the child’s older sister offers her a way to preserve this infant, Pharaoh’s daughter leaps at the opportunity and adopts this baby as her own. It is she who will name him Moses, saying, “I drew him from the water.”

How remarkable that Torah would assign Pharaoh’s daughter the role of naming baby Moses. That honor would indicate that Torah holds this foreign woman in high esteem. But it is not, I would claim, because she is directly defying her father’s rule. How could she be if she then brings Moses up in the Pharaoh’s palace? Rather what is remarkable is that she remains human in the face of such overwhelming dehumanization, that she sees this child as “Hebrew” and yet is moved to act by his human cry.

Is Pharaoh’s daughter not a signal to us, her contemporary readers?

Looking back at Pharaoh’s daughter, I pray that we too may be moved by the cries of children, separated by decree from their parents, and remember that at every border lies a baby Moses waiting to be heard.    

Joseph Reimer has been teaching at Brandeis University since 1986 in the Hornstein and Education Programs

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D’var Torah: Rabbi Mendy Uminer (Vayigash/Chanukah)

Flames have a special place in Judaism.

Consider the Shabbat candles which we light every Friday evening.

They represent a powerful dynamic:

On Shabbat, we stand back from the grindstone, disengaging from life’s tasks to focus on life’s context, meaning and goals.

On Shabbat, we take an aerial view of our lives, rising above our splintered weekday-persona to consider our more wholesome potential.

In this sense, the Shabbat lights grant us illumination and perspective; they allow us to see where we’ve been stumbling and which paths we need to pursue.

So this coming Friday evening, we’ll try to rise above our personal stress and struggles; we’ll guide the Shabbat lights’ glow inward, searching for a part of ourself that isn’t defined by the pain, a piece of us that is whole, an internal place of faith and confidence in the future.

That’s the Shabbat experience.

But tonight as the past six nights, we’ll be lighting a different type of flame: The Chanukah Flame.

Whereas the Shabbat candles foster personal/familial balance and peace, the Chanukah candles are outwardly focused.

The Talmud describes the Chanukah candles as tools to ‘illuminate the outside’. The flames need to transform the external darkness, bringing warmth and illumination to an otherwise dark place.
Finding our personal sense of wholeness, faith and confidence, isn’t enough. Chanukah instructs us to share it with others, to illuminate the ‘night’ outside our four walls and beyond our respective driveways.

At this moment, the world is experiencing a ‘perfect storm’ of terror threats and political turmoil that is accompanied by fear and uncertainty which casts a paralyzing shadow.

It’s dark. And the future isn’t yet looking brighter.

The world needs a candle, a stabilizing beacon of light.

That candle is us. Especially the children and especially those children learning at Schechter!

If we can share hope for the future, we will have brightened lives. 

If we can lend mental clarity to distinguish between rational and irrational concerns, we will have illuminated hearts.

If we can inspire faith and trust in the Divine Parent who loves us all, we will have provided warmth to a cold spirit.
We will have touched the flame of our souls to ignite another’s wick.We will have lived the Chanukah message. Happy Chanukah!
Rabbi Mendy Uminer, Chabad Center at Chestnut Hill
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D’var Torah: Carolyn Bernstein (Vayeshev)

Dreams are fascinating. Our dream work is a composite of little pieces of information that form in the mind while the dreamer may sleep or do almost any other boring things in daily life. So it’s strange that we should refer something we aspire to do in the future as a “dream” because dreams are so random. But we also refer to goals as dreams because the dreams in the Torah are not as random as our dreams may seem in the world today.

The stories about Joseph begin and end with dreams. There are three sets of dreams in the Joseph narrative. However, if we stretch the definition of a dream as we do today in how we use the word, we can probably find more. Each set of dreams consist of two dreams. In the first and third set, the two dreams are really one and the same:  אֶחָד הוּא חֲלוֹם. In the second set, the two dreams are quite different.

The first set appears in Parshat Vayeshev. These dreams belong to Joseph. In the first dream, Joseph and his brothers were binding sheaves of wheat in the field, when the 11 sheaves of wheat of the brothers bow down to Joseph’s one sheaf of wheat.

וְהִנֵּה אֲנַחְנוּ מְאַלְּמִים אֲלֻמִּים בְּתוֹךְ הַשָּׂדֶה וְהִנֵּה קָמָה אֲלֻמָּתִי וְגַם־נִצָּבָה וְהִנֵּה תְסֻבֶּינָה
אֲלֻמֹּתֵיכֶם וַתִּֽשְׁתַּֽחֲוֶיןָ לַֽאֲלֻמָּתִֽי

The second dream that Joseph dreamt envisioned the Sun, the Moon and 11 stars, all bowing down to one star.

וְהִנֵּה הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ וְהַיָּרֵחַ וְאַחַד עָשָׂר כּֽוֹכָבִים מִֽשְׁתַּֽחֲוִים לִֽי:

I am not sure what it would look like for stars, the sun and moon to bow down, but the brothers understood its apparent meaning: Joseph’s family, including his 11 brothers, will bow down to him. Joseph’s mother Rachel had died at his brother Benjamin’s birth, so it is unclear whom the moon represents. The Talmud actually learns from this stray dream-fact that every dream always includes some nonsense. Even so, the two dreams were enough to make the brothers angry and jealous.

The second set of dreams come when Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery. He arrives in Egypt and gets locked away in the prison of a rich man named Potiphar. In prison he meets Pharaoh’s baker and butler and interprets their dreams for them. In the baker’s dream, the baker is carrying a huge basket of bread when a flock of hungry birds swoop down from the heavens and take it. The other dream in this second set of dreams includes the butler, who is peacefully squeezing grapes into wine. Joseph predicts that these two dreams mean that the butler will live and that the baker will die. And indeed it was so.

The third set of dreams happens when people hear of Joseph predicting the butler’s and the baker’s dreams and Pharaoh wants Joseph to come and be his dream interpreter. Pharaoh has two dreams. The first is about two herds of cattle. The skinny cows eat the fatter cows but didn’t get any fatter. And in the second dream the same thing happens to two fields of wheat. The thin sheaves consume the thick sheaves without growing.  Joseph explains that these two dreams are really one –

חֲלוֹם פַּרְעֹה אֶחָד הוּא

אֵת אֲשֶׁר הָֽאֱלֹהִים עֹשֶׂה הִגִּיד לְפַרְעֹֽה

Joseph explains that the dreams mean Egypt will experience seven plentiful years followed by seven years of famine, during which the dynasty’s stores of meat and wheat will be consumed. Joseph then recommends to Pharaoh that he should build storehouses to stockpile food during the years of plenty in order to sustain the people of Egypt during the years of famine.  Pharaoh recognizes the truth of Joseph’s interpretation and the wisdom of his suggestion and appoints him as viceroy in charge of the food bank project.

Joseph gets fancy new Egyptian clothes, an Egyptian wife who is none other than the daughter of Potiphar, his old master, and a new name. He would doubtless have gotten a new iPhone too, but it had yet to be invented.

Joseph’s new name was Tzafnat Paneach. Now, maybe this was the number-one popular name for boys that year in Egypt, but something tells me that it holds special meaning.  Even the name Joseph had importance.  The Torah tells us when Joseph is born that Rachel named him saying:

וַתִּקְרָא אֶת־שְׁמוֹ יוֹסֵף לֵאמֹר יֹסֵף ה’ לִי בֵּן אַחֵֽר:

[His name is] Yosef, which is to say: “May the Lord add another son for me.” In other words, Yosef’s name was a prayer that his arrival would continue to add blessings, like more children, in the couple’s life.” Joseph’s Egyptian name, Tzafnat Paneach, means “the hidden face” and we can relate a hidden face to many things in this parashah.  First, the obvious theme of God’s face being hidden while Joseph was in prison and going through hard times. Second, the name can also hold symbolic meaning, as if to say that in all the years of Joseph’s absence, his father Yaakov is grieving over the loss of his son. We could imagine Yaakov’s hands covering his sobbing face.  In other words, the name symbolically refers to Yaakov’s face that was hidden.  However, since it is Joseph’s name, I think that it probably has more to do with Joseph than with God or Yaakov. So, I think that he is called Tzafnat Paneach because all these years later Joseph is a different person. He is Egyptian, married to an Egyptian woman, with Egyptian children, working for Pharaoh. His true face as a Hebrew is hidden, not only to the Egyptians, but also to his brothers, who don’t recognize him. Maybe his true face was even hidden to himself. Finally, maybe his name, Tzafnat Paneach simply is a poetic way of describing him as an interpreter of dreams. If dreams contain secret meanings, Joseph uncovers the hidden face of dreams.

When Joseph decides to reveal himself as the son of Yaakov, and the brother of the other men of B’nei Yisrael, he too reveals his face.  God’s face, which had been hidden, also becomes visible in that Joseph can see how all of the events were really part of Hashem’s plan.  The realization that God has been involved can be described as God’s face being shown, which in turn serves as a sign of hope while in exile.  It is always important to look for a ray of hope when clouds are gray.  Maybe all it takes is a dreamer to uncover God’s hidden face amidst drought, famine and exile.

Carolyn Bernstein is a Grade 8 student at Solomon Schechter Day School.

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D’var Torah: Rabbi Beth Naditch (Vayishlach)

In Vayishlach, Jacob and Esau reunite for the first time after many years, having not seen each other since Jacob stole both Esau’s birthright and blessing, and fled. The night before this momentous meeting, Jacob wrestles with a being until morning, refusing to end the struggle until blessings are granted. Usually, when I write or speak about Vayishlach, I choose to focus on one of these events, which are but two of the happenings in a parasha rich with family drama, self-reflection, struggle, and reconciliation. Because there is so much homer l’drosh, or “material on which to drash,” one key event in this parasha is usually skipped over in favor of more “pleasant” subject matter. In today’s political climate, however, I find it increasingly problematic to navigate around the harder parts of the text, rather than wrestle with them. I refer to the story of the rape of Dina, which we also read this week.

Dina is the one daughter amidst the large family of Jacob’s sons. We read “va-tetze Dina,” Dinah the daughter of Leah, whom she had borne unto Jacob, went out to see the daughters of the land. Unlike Jacob, who, when he went out from his home (vayetze Yaakov), was rewarded with a communication from God and a dream that has captured the Jewish imagination throughout the ages, Dina meets a different fate. Upon her going out, she is seen by Shechem, a prince of the land, who forcibly “took her, and lay with her, and ‘humbled her,’”

There are multiple responses to what happens next in the text. We know of three: Shechem apparently spoke words of “comfort and love” to Dina, and asked to have her as his wife. Shimon and Levi, also sons of Leah, seem to use the rape as an opportunity to attack and plunder a whole city, using revenge as their justification. Jacob, upon hearing of the rape, neither says nor does anything until his sons come in from the fields. Rashi, commenting on the text, is less than helpful as he offers a 10th century version of blaming the victim, noting that Dina herself went out into the fields as a yatzanit – implying that a young woman who goes out alone could hardly expect any other result.

Whose voice is missing from this entire episode? Dina’s. We don’t know what plans she had that day, as she “went out to see the daughters of the land.” We don’t know how or where she encountered Shechem, or what her experience was. We don’t know what it was like for her to be in his home after the rape. We don’t know what it was like for her to have her father stay silent, and we don’t know what it was like for her to have her brothers deceive a whole city, and then kill all of the men of the city, purportedly on her behalf. Leah is not even mentioned as an actor in the story. What we do know is that Dina’s silence has reverberated across the generations, and that her silence is usually reinforced in favor of the “easier” parts of the story to digest. Particularly in this political climate, it is incumbent upon us to address both active and passive messages that our children are receiving about how to behave in the world. We do not want even one more emerging adolescent or adult to believe that he or she is a prince of the land, entitled to take forcibly whatever strikes his or her fancy. Additionally, we should be trying to create communities and spaces where survivors do not have to remain silent. Our wrestling is teaching our own children how to navigate our world, how to respond to challenging and troubling events that are all too common, how to stand up for those whose voices are not heard. As we do this, perhaps we can demand a blessing for our work as well.

Rabbi Beth Naditch, ACPE Supervisor/Spiritual Care Educator at Hebrew SeniorLife, Schechter Parent

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D’var Torah: Stephanie Maroun (Vayetze)

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.” Shakespeare’s quip asserts that monikers are superficial window dressing, detached from the very thing or person they identify. In contrast, Biblical names unquestionably signify traits and even responsibility.

Parashat Vayetze recounts the stirring story of Jacob and Laban’s daughters, Leah and Rachel, Jacob’s beloved. A tug of war for attention is naturally produced by this triangle, fraught with open favoritism. In a reversal of fortune, Leah and handmaids Bilhah and Zilpah bear the majority of Jacob’s children and only finally does Rachel deliver two sons. Examining the veritable roll call of names in Parashat Vayetze offers a fascinating, unexpected glimpse into the sisters’ jockeying.

The theory of nominative determinism contends that people gravitate towards areas of work that fit their names. Leah must have believed this instinctively. Her offsprings’ names are deliberately engineered to do the work of elevating her standing in Jacob’s eyes as she brandishes a series of auspicious choices: Reuben (“behold, a son”), Simeon (“obedient”), Levi (“joined”), Judah (“praised”), Issachar (“there is reward”), Zebulun (“to dwell or gift”), Dinah (“justice”) and through Zilpah, Gad (“good fortune”) and Asher (“happiness”).

In Rachel’s barren stead, Bilhah produces Dan (“God is my judge”) and Naftali (“my struggle”). Rachel bestows names that reveal the sharp surprise that she cannot best Leah’s fruitfulness. Perhaps these soul-baring names are ploys to provoke sympathy in Jacob. The names of Rachel’s eventual sons, Joseph (“God increases”) and Benjamin (“son of my right hand”), clearly reveal Jacob’s immutable preference for Rachel and her sons despite Leah’s efforts.

Our names represent an amalgam of desirous traits, family history and our parents’ wishes for us. Do our names predispose us to careers or personalities? Can another’s emotional response to us be affected or influenced subliminally by how we are called? Leah must have harbored hope in this idea. Yet, if we look at Rachel’s enduring predominance, birth names did not take root and establish a new landscape for this family. They were just roses, full of passion, but powerless.

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D’var Torah: Rabbi Hamilton (Toldot)

Influence can be more forceful than power

How can we tell the difference between a leader who is self-promoting and one who stands for something larger than her or himself? The former pursues power, the latter generates influence. The former self-inflates, the latter stirs others by example.

In this week’s portion of Torah we learn that Isaac specializes in digging wells. After restoring Abraham’s wells, he sets out to dig his own. Initially he runs into trouble with the local population and aptly names the first two wells esek (argumentation) and sitna (hatred). Each of these wells is dug by Isaac’s servants vayachp’ru (they dug). The third time, however, when Isaac takes personal responsibility by digging himself vayachpor (he dug) (Gen. 26:19, 21, 22), the outcome is dramatically different. And he moved on from there and dug another well, and they did not quarrel over it, and he called its name rehovot (spacious) and said, Because now God has widened for us, and we’ve been fruitful in the land (Gen. 26:22). Isaac’s personal involvement and perseverance engendered spaciousness.

But if the story were simply about not delegating or living vicariously we might miss the point. This is especially true in today’s world that champions self-reliance, the individual, and independence. Isaac’s personal involvement is understood not as an isolated act but rather as leading by example whereby others followed and dug in a similar manner (Netziv). His ever-widening influence was generative and replenishing.

“Empowerment” – despite the word’s etymology – is not optimized in a power-framework as much as in an influence-framework. May we seek and meet influential leaders who stir and liberate blessed potential in others for good.

A sweet Shabbat to you.

Rabbi William Hamilton is the rabbi at Congregation Kehillath Israel, Brookline, and a Schechter alumni parent.

D’var Torah: Dan Brosgol (Chayeh Sarah)

Chayyei Sarah- Love is in the Water

In this week’s parasha (Chayei Sarah), Abraham’s servant is sent on a very important errand – to go back to the Land of Haran to find a suitable wife for Isaac. After some clarifying questions, his (nameless) servant leaves, and find his way back to Abraham’s ancestral homeland. Stopping at a well at the outskirts of Nahor, he prays to God that the wife-to-be reveal herself to him in a very specific way:

“Here I stand by the spring as the daughters of the townsmen come out to draw water; let the maiden to whom I say ‘Please, lower your jar that I may drink,’ and who replies, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels’- let her be the one whom You have decreed for your servant Isaac” (Genesis, 24:13-14)

As luck, or divine intervention would have it, Rebekah shows up immediately and that precise conversation happens. In the language of Staples…. that was easy. Isaac marries Rebekah, and the rest is (Jewish) history.

This story of a meeting at a well preceding an important marriage occurs, famously, two other times early in the Torah: when Jacob meets Rachel, and when Moses meets Tzipporah. That the Tanakh repeats familiar scenes, words, or language, is not a new idea. Neither is the idea that ancient wells, where commerce took place, where people gathered, or where travelers exchanged news, were a hub of activity and Biblical matchmaking.

Fast forward 3900 or so years from the events of this story, though and you might be asking yourself what the modern-day equivalent of a well would be. Where might you go after a long journey to feel refreshed, or to perk up a little bit? If you’re like me, the first thing I do is get coffee.

Imagine sending your friend to help find you a husband or wife at not a well, but at Starbucks, and praying to God saying “Here I stand in line at Starbucks, waiting for my app to load, and the next person who orders a Pumpkin Spice Latte and offers to buy my drink – let her/him be the one You have decreed for my best friend.”

In truth, stranger things have happened. My parents met over the last bagel at a Hillel breakfast, I met my wife in line at a party at Brandeis, so it’s not rare at all, actually, to have food, or beverages, involved in love stories, both Biblical and modern.

Shabbat Shalom, and for those of you looking for love, keep your eyes open at Starbucks or Whole Foods this week. You never know who you might meet.

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D’var Torah: Rabbi Ravid Tilles (Lech Lecha)

I still remember the first verse I was ever expected to memorize in my 3rd grade Tanach class at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, MD:

וַיֹּאמֶר ה אֶל-אַבְרָם, לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ.

“And God said to Avram, go out from your land, the place that you were born, from your father’s house to a Land that I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1)

These are the opening words of Parshat Lech Lecha, the first portion that focuses on the life and times of Abraham and his family. This verse marks the beginning of the relationship between Abraham and God, a relationship that we consider to be the catalyst for the creation of the Jewish people. When read at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, this verse highlights the great sacrifice that Abraham (still Avram here) had to make in order to establish a Great Nation. But when we broaden the scope of the Abraham story, to include the end of last week’s portion (Parshat Noach), we understand this verse differently.

Verse 1 of Genesis Chapter 12 relays God’s command to Avram to leave his land and the place that he was born, but many of our Ancient Sages note that Avram had already left his birthplace. Avram was born in Ur Kasdim, and we learn in verse 31 of chapter 11 that Avram’s father, Terach, had already brought Avram and Sarai and their family out of Ur Kasdim on their way to Canaan but that they stopped in Haran and never left. So the command from God to Avram to leave his birthplace and to leave his father’s home are actually different commands since his homeland was Ur Kasdim and his father’s home was newly settled in Haran. The Ramban posits that Avram actually received two separate prophecies that were combined into one in Lech Lecha’s opening verse. That Avram was told to leave his birthplace and his land while he was in Ur Kasdim and that he was then told to leave his father’s house while they were settled in Canaan. The Ramban explains that God is commanding Avram that he has more work to do and that he needs to continue to go further. That the Promised Land of Canaan awaits and that Avram has more work to do.

During this time of year, with the High Holy Day season still very fresh in our minds, we find ourselves on the never-ending journey toward self-improvement and discovery. We can envision our Promised Land of self-actualization, or if we struggle to articulate our goals then we go forward with the faith that our vision will be shown to us along the way (Asher Ar’eka). Throughout the course of our journeys we need encouragement or reminders that will motivate us to go further. We made resolutions and set goals while we were in Ur Kasdim, our origin at the start of the year, and it will inevitably be a long journey that will require patience and commitment. So we may find ourselves stopping our journey, like in a Haran. Ramban’s message to us and the lesson of the first verse of Parshat Lech Lecha is that we need to go further. That we should not be so complaisant to say, Haran is good enough. We must resist the temptation to say that less than my goal was good enough because at least it is closer than I had been. Instead we need to continue to find motivation from within and from our family and friends. We must continuously go forward, on our journey toward self-improvement to turn the vision for this coming year into a reality. Shanah Tovah and Shabbat Shalom.     

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D’var Torah: Rabbi Sara Meirowitz (Noach)

I still remember the day when I had to face the fact that I was imperfect. I was in fifth grade, a dutiful student in David Wolf’s Language Arts class, memorizing spelling words for weekly quizzes. I was an anxious child and a perfectionist, dreading every possible mistake. And then the unthinkable happened: I misspelled a word. I dug my nails into my hand in self-blame.

Even to recall this level of drama seems absurd now, but I remember so clearly the feeling of frustration and panic which led me to unconsciously scratch at my hand. But more important were the gentle yet firm words of my teacher (who thankfully still instructs Schechter students today!):

Everyone makes mistakes. Be kind to yourself.

                  You will have another chance.

                  I will support you.

I think of this story this week with Parashat Noach, which tells of a world so steeped in imperfection. We see a world in turmoil, sin-ravaged, with just one simple man and his family standing out from the pack. Human wickedness causes God to regret all of creation — the world is too spoiled, too imperfect. Let’s try again with just Noah, God says. Perhaps perfection can then be possible.

And yet, after the flood, the world is no more utopian than before. God utters perhaps the most pessimistic line in the Torah: “Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth” (Gen. 8:21). Imperfection – even evil – is part of human nature. And in truth, when I look at the many terrors and troubles in the world around us, it’s hard for me to disagree.

So how do those of us engaged in tikkun olam, perfectionists in our hearts, continue to have courage among this imperfection? I look to the next part of our parashah for inspiration, where God plays the role of teacher and coach to humanity.

Let’s make a covenant together, God says.

                  I’ll support you, and you do your part

                  There will be consequences for mistakes – but I will stand by you, no matter what.

And God gives the rainbow as a sign of the covenant.

May we all be blessed to have teachers and mentors who help us make mistakes, forgive ourselves, and live perfectly well in our imperfect world.

 

Rabbi Sara Meirowitz ’91 is Assistant Chair of Jewish Studies at Gann Academy in Waltham, MA.