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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.

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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

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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

D’var Torah: Amy Newman (Emor)

In Parashat Emor, the Torah teaches about “moadei hashem”, the “appointed seasons of God”:  the festivals that fall throughout the year, and the weekly Shabbat. The text mentions Shabbat and festivals side by side, but there are differences between these two types of sacred time.

Long before there was a people of Israel, God declared Shabbat holy. Humans don’t set the date of Shabbat; it has been fixed on the calendar since the time of creation. In the Friday night kiddush blessing, we describe God as “mekadesh hashabbat”, God sanctifies the Shabbat; the holiness of Shabbat originates with God.

Regarding the festivals – Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot – the Torah says “These are the appointed seasons of God, which you shall proclaim as sacred occasions.” They don’t just happen; the people must announce them. The Torah specifies dates for most holidays, but it was the task of the court to determine the beginning of a new month based on the appearance of the moon. Only after the month had begun did the people know when the holiday would fall. Without human participation, there could be no festival. In the kiddush blessing on festivals, we describe God differently than we do on Shabbat; we say that God is “mekadesh yisrael v’hazmanim”, God sanctifies Israel and the seasons. God has entrusted people with the holy work of managing the calendar.

God created Shabbat long before God had a covenantal relationship with Israel, and God did (and does) the work of making Shabbat holy. In the early days of our nation – the childhood of the Jewish people – we weren’t ready to partner with God in proclaiming the festival dates. It was fitting that God took care of us like children, and didn’t ask too much. And it seems appropriate that centuries later, once the relationship between God and the people was more sophisticated, and we were bound to each other by covenant, God entrusted us with the high-stakes tasks of determining dates of festivals.

Our Jewish lives are punctuated by both types of sacred time: the Shabbat that God gave us, and the festivals that we create in partnership with God. When I think about work of raising and teaching Jewish children, I find guidance in these models. I hope we are blessed with opportunities to work in partnership with our children and students to create holy space, time, and ideas.

Amy Newman, Grade 7 and 8 Tanach, Schechter Parent

D’var Torah: Rabbi Marcia Plumb (Kedoshim)

Parashat Kedoshim is one of my favorite parshiot.  Its first verse led to major change in my life:  קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ כִּ֣י קָד֔וֹשׁ אֲנִ֖י יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃

You shall be holy, for I, the Eternal your God, am holy.   This verse is the root of Mussar, a genre of Jewish literature from the 11th century that tries to answer the question of how to fulfill the commandment from the verse. Studying and following Mussar has helped me change the way I behave toward others and toward myself.  I am a better parent, child, partner and rabbi because of what I have learned from Mussar.

So, what is Mussar?  It is a Jewish method to help us become holier people.   What does it mean to be holy and how do we achieve it? Bahya Ibn Pakuda, a Spanish theologian, the original Mussar thinker, said that holiness starts in our souls.   How do we build holy souls, you ask? Mussar says that we work on character traits to help us feel and behave better. Let’s take an example from the Torah: ‘You shall look after the poor and needy’.  According to Mussar, giving to the poor is part of the trait of hesed, loving kindness. We all have the ability to show loving kindness, but sometimes we give it more than at other times. According to Mussar, in order to be holy, we should show hesed as often as we can to others, and to ourselves.  Hesed toward ourselves is as important as doing acts of kindness for others. Mussar says that if we feel badly about ourselves, and berate ourselves again and again, that is not holiness. At the same time, if we hide our sins from ourselves and deny our faults, then we are not holy either. Holiness is finding a balance between our strengths and our weaknesses. We also need to find a balance with hesed. Of course, it is good to give tzedakah but the Talmud tells us that we shouldn’t give so much money away that we can’t pay the dentist bill. In other words, we can’t give so much away that we go broke ourselves.

Holiness comes from finding the right balance between giving and receiving, between looking after others and looking after ourselves.  This Shabbat, I hope you find holiness, peace and joy.

Rabbi Marcia Plumb, Congregation Mishkan Tefila

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D’var Torah: Rabbi Elan Babchuck ’96 (Pesach)

One of my favorite memories of Passover as a child is of bedikat chametz – the search for any remaining morsels of bread after the house had been thoroughly cleaned for Passover. My father would turn off all the lights in the house, my mother would hold a brass candleholder and light the sole candle that would aid us in our search. My siblings and I would each hold feathers and take turns finding the piece of bread in each room and gently sweeping it onto a paper plate, making certain not to leave even one crumb behind.

It always struck me that the Aramaic prayer (Kol Chamira) we would say that night, and the slightly different one we would say the next morning as we burned the bread, sounded so similar to Kol Nidre. The Aramaic language is comparable and the framework is the same: First we name the thing(s) we want to disavow, then we declare them disavowed, and then they are considered to be like the dust of the earth, as if they’ve never existed. Unfulfilled vows and undiscovered bread are one and the same.

What a powerful gift to ourselves! To know that there are limits to our vision, to our steadfastness. But as generous as this gift is, it comes with a catch: we may only avail ourselves of these Aramaic incantations once we’ve done the work of searching as thoroughly as we can.

So whether we’re searching for forgiveness during Elul or chametz during Nisan, we must first do everything in our power to find what we’re searching for.

While the similarities between the holidays are interesting and the Aramaic word-play is intriguing, the more profound takeaway is what this connection implies. During these next couple of days we’re not just searching for loose crumbs and broken crackers. We’re tasked to search within for anything that – like leavened foods – has expanded to take up more emotional, mental, and spiritual space than we may have intended.

We’re invited to put down our smartphones for long enough to consider how many unintended minutes (or hours?) a day we bow prostrate to it, checking and re-checking our emails, the news, and any other feeds we’re apt to overconsume. We’re called to consider the residual feeling of resentment toward a loved one that – left unresolved – has swelled over time to overwhelm our love for them. We’re encouraged to consider our own feelings of guilt, shame, and self-doubt that have expanded far beyond their usefulness and become blocks to our ability to flourish.

Over the next couple of days as you find yourselves at the car wash with vacuum in hand, or in your home aggressively wiping down countertops in search of microscopic crumbs, take a moment to close your eyes and ask yourself: What’s taking up more space in my life than I want it to? And whether it’s an emotion, an activity, a piece of technology, or maybe even the hectic (over)-preparations for Pesach, my blessing for us all is that we can commit ourselves to letting go, and finding new spaciousness in our homes, our families, and our lives.

Chag Kasher V’Sameach!

 

Rabbi Elan Babchuck ’96, Director of Innovation, Clal; Founding Director, Glean Network

D’var Torah: Rabbi Rebecca Weinstein (Metzora)

This past fall, my husband Dan and I moved into our first home. When we bought our home we knew that it was definitely in need of some TLC. In the past 6th months we have painted, plastered, and removed countless spider webs. After months of never ending home repairs, our house is finally starting to feel like our home.

This week in parsha Metzora, we learn that not only is it possible for people to contract tzaraas—a leporous like infection on the skin—but a house, can contract tzaraas as well! You can imagine my panic when I learned that there is yet another thing we might need to repair in our house! Luckily, our Rabbis are all in agreement that tzaraas-type afflictions of houses are clearly supernatural occurrences, and therefore few and far between.

Two very different reasons are given by our Sages for why a home could become contaminated with tzaraas. Midrash explains that when the Canaanite inhabitants of Eretz Israel saw that the Israelites were about to conquer the land and inhabit their homes, they hid their valuables in the walls of their homes.

In order to enable the new Israelite owners of those houses to acquire this wealth, God infected the part of the wall where the treasure was concealed with tzaraas, so that the Israelites could remove the infected stones and obtain the treasure.

The walls of our homes, too, hold our most valuable possessions and memories.  Almost every time I go home, I spend the first few moments unpacking, looking around at the walls of my childhood bedroom. I see the places that I slathered glitter glue on the wall, displayed my graduation diploma, had my friends sign their names in permanent marker and hung up loved ones’ photos. I notice all the sticky glue left over on the walls from removing glow in the dark stars and all the indents clearly visible from thumbtacks that held up posters.

Our text suggests that in order to access the treasure of the home, we first need to remove all the tzaraas. But I think that focusing on creating a solely beautiful home is doing us a disservice. Instead of our impulse being to remove anything unsightly or that causes us heartache, we should allow our homes to be filled with the the fullness of life.

There will be moments when our homes are filled with laughter and simchas and a fresh, new shiny coat of paint, and there will be times that we drop dinner on the floor and it splatters and stains our walls, or we find ourselves surrounded by our loved ones during a period of grief.

We have to work to create a home that can hold both. Because life is about learning how to work through the comfortable and uncomfortable. And we can only do this when we feel grounded, held, and safe.

The second interpretation for why a home could become contaminated with tzaraas is as Divine punishment for selfish behavior.

A house becomes contaminated with tzaraas when the owner of the house arrogantly believes that the house, and all of the belongings within it, are his or hers alone, acquired solely through his own efforts and that no one else is entitled to enjoy the benefits of his personal success.

A house becomes a home when we open our doors to others. Whether that is sharing challah around a Shabbat table, providing a box of tissues and a comforting place to sit for a friend who has a had a hard day, or inviting people over to watch Netflix. These are the truly valuable moments that make a house a home.

I invite you to discuss with your loved ones:

  1. What are the things that are critical for you in making where you live a home?
  1. Were there times that were especially meaningful to you when someone opened their home to you?
  1. Why do you think that Judaism emphasizes the importance of hospitality and welcoming the stranger?

 

Rabbi Rebecca Weinstein, Grade 6 Tanach and Grade 8 Torah She’b’al Peh

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D’var Torah: Rabbi Ravid Tilles (Tazria)

This week we read the portion of Tazria, which furthers the themes of the preceding chapters of Leviticus: purity and impurity. We learn about the ways that a person can become impure (ta’may), and therefore unfit to bring sacrifices to the Tabernacle. We also learn the process by which a person can be purified (tahor) and reintroduced into the ritual society. These two portions deal primarily with anatomical issues such as skin disease or bodily fluids and how these medical conditions can cause impurity (WARNING: This week’s portion and next week’s are rated PG-13 – though parental guidance is ALWAYS encouraged).

On the surface, the words ta’may and tahor (impure and pure) seem charged with judgment.  It is good to be tahor and it is bad to be ta’may. After all, one who is in a state of ritual impurity must not service God in the Tabernacle. Someone who is impure longs for purity, so impurity must be bad. The question arises, however, about the issue of childbirth, which is discussed at the beginning of Parshat Tazria. A woman who has just given birth is given the classification of “impure.” How can that be? How can such a beautiful, joyous, positive moment, such as childbirth, be associated with impurity or negativity?

From this we learn that ritual impurity is not a negative classification, rather it is a state of reality. Ta’may is not good or bad it just is. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of England, expounds, “Though we have immortal longings, mortality is the condition of human existence, as it is of all embodied life.” Meaning, even though we wish we were always perfect and even strive for perfection, the reality is that we will never be perfect. There will always be times that we are ta’may, and we should give ourselves permission to live with our challenges and accept them as a part of our whole being. Our goal should not be perfection, since that is impossible. Instead our goal should be to accept ourselves, 100% fully and purely, as we are.

Rabbi Ravid Tilles is the Director of Jewish Life and Learning at Schechter