D’var Torah: Dr. Dalia Hochman ’92 (Sh’mot)

Parashat Sh’mot: How Should Leaders Listen?

 

Pick up any leadership manual, and you’ll find the same suggestion for new leaders: spend your first several months listening and learning. As Gann Academy’s new Head of School, I have taken this advice to heart, and have spent the past year meeting with dozens of current students, parents, alumni, alumni parents, teachers, staff, community members, and colleagues from Schechter and other partner schools. 

As with any type of listening, the hardest part is remaining quiet. It is so easy to jump in, to interrupt, and to interject—especially in an effort to build rapport and deepen relationships. But there is such a power in hearing the entire arc of the story unfold, without intervening to shape the narrative. Our Western, post-Enlightenment brains have been wired to solve problems and to fix challenges. It requires tremendous discipline to let the words settle in without jumping to resolution. If we don’t listen fully, we risk not understanding deeply.  At the same time, a leader who does not act decisively may lose his or her constituents in the process. 

This dilemma of leadership plays out in our parasha this week as we begin the second book of the Torah, Sh’mot (Exodus). In the famous scene at the burning bush, G-d says to Moshe: “I have heard the cries of the Israelites.” The Hebrew word used is שמעתי, Shamati, coming from the verb לשמוע, L’shmoah, to hear. This is the same verb that we use to start the Sh’ma, the central prayer in our Tefilot. 

Thus begins, with this critical act of hearing and listening to the cries of the Israelites, one of the most significant moments in Jewish history—G-d’s intervention in freeing the slaves from Egypt. In this case, the cries of the Israelites were so poignant, so painful, that G-d heard and did try to fix and to act. We read the Torah and almost hear the cries ourselves. 

As Gann students beautifully leyn the parasha this coming week in our Z’man Kodesh (many of whom learned to chant the Torah at Schechter and at other wonderful Jewish Day Schools), the words of Sh’mot resonate deeply for me in a new way. How do we teach our students to listen deeply, and to balance listening with action?

Dalia Hochman ’92, Gann Academy Head of School, Schechter Parent

D’var Torah: Amy Newman (Vayechi)

In Parshat Vayechi, we read about the end of Yaakov’s life. Yaakov blesses each of his sons (and two of his grandsons) with a personalized blessing, and then he dies at age 147. Years later, Yosef dies as well.

The death of Yosef is the end of Bereishit. Next week we’ll start reading Shemot. Its opening verses describe the rapid growth of the Israelite nation, and its second chapter describes the birth of Moshe and his early life. 

The Torah tells us a lot about Yaakov and sons, and it tells us a lot about Moshe (who was Yaakov’s great-great-grandson). It doesn’t tell us much about the generations that came between them. And these were important generations! It was during their lifetimes that Bnei Yisrael transformed from a family – the literal sons of Israel – into a nation large enough that the new Pharaoh, who didn’t know Yosef, felt threatened by their numbers. 

There is one detail of Jewish tradition that focuses on this in-between generation: the Shabbat blessing parents give their sons. On Friday nights, we bless our sons with the hope that God will make them like Yosef’s sons, Efraim and Menashe: “yesimecha elohim ke’efraim v’chi’menashe.” This bracha originates in our parsha; Yaakov says that the people of Israel should bless their children this way.

This blessing is one of the few details we have about the people who came between Yosef and Moshe, and invites us to consider its significance. The Torah is full of blessings, but this one is unusual. We often read about fathers blessing sons; here – in the Torah’s first depiction of a grandparent interacting with a grandchild – Yaakov blesses his son’s sons, and says that future generations should invoke this same bracha

Why does our traditional blessing invoke a grandparent and grandchildren, and not a parent and child? I am told that grandchildren can bring even greater joy than children. The relationship has the benefit of maturity and wisdom, and is unburdened by the challenges of parenthood. Through the grandchild, the grandparent might imagine a peek of the future beyond their own lifetime. It would bring Yaakov joy to see Yosef living by the values he taught him, but perhaps an even greater joy to see Efraim and Menashe continue in this path; it might reassure Yaakov that his legacy is likely to endure in the way he would hope. 

Yaakov created a standard blessing for Jewish families to bestow on their children, and this blessing can remind us of the chut hameshulash, the threefold cord that is not easily broken, of grandparent, parent, and child, and can help us raise our children and students and communities with the values that are dearest to us. Shabbat Shalom. 
Amy Newman, Grade 7 Tanach, Judaic Studies Coach, Schechter Parent

D’var Torah: Rabbi William Hamilton (Vayigash)

What to tell our kids

All around the streets of Tel Aviv this past weekend, people expressed concern for the safety and well-being of American Jewry.  The Hanukkah attack on a Monsey Rabbi’s home sent ripples of apprehension throughout the Jewish world. As we enter 2020, we look for guidance from our tradition to help us face our uncertain times.

What should we say to our kids?  Of course we first seek to reassure them.  It’s important that they trust that those invested with responsibility are doing all they can to keep them safe and healthy and happy. 

At the same time, they’ll sense it if we begin to feel uneasy about things.  It’s important to be able to talk about matters in ways that are developmentally sound, emotionally safe, and spiritually helpful.  

One of the most gifted leaders at doing this was Fred Rogers.  It’s no accident that our emotionally needy times have seen a rebirth of appreciation for the body of his work.  Mr. Rogers knew how to speak to young children about fear and anger and even death. Consider how his program – which began airing shortly after the assassination of Robert Kennedy and ended following September 11, 2001 – dealt with frightful times.

This week’s portion of Torah specializes in emotions.  Shock. Fear. Relief. Each of these heartfelt sensations finds a prominent place in the reunification of Joseph and his family.  When Joseph sends his brothers to retrieve their father Jacob, he is worried about the emotional upheaval their father will experience.  This is why he sends wagons. “And when Jacob saw the wagons that Joseph had sent to carry him, his heart was soothed” (Gen. 45:27).

Why did seeing wagons help Jacob emotionally?   Traditionally the wagons (agalot) allude to a Deuteronomy law (egla arufa) pertaining to ‘shared responsibility’.  Jacob finds this allusion calming because it evokes a spirit of ‘reassuring accountability’.

Facing those who seek our People harm is, alas, not a new challenge for us.  But the vast number of well-meaning allies of our People that we today enjoy is historically new.  Landing back in Boston on New Year’s Eve, I was moved to read of one proposal that is a natural outgrowth of so many good people who seek to generate faith-warming responses to our chilling challenges.  

May we too find allusions to a spirit of shared responsibility and reassuring accountability from fellow-travelers of all faiths to prove helpful and inspiring. 

A safe and sweet 2020 and Shabbat to you.

 

Rabbi William Hamilton

Congregation Kehillath Israel, Schechter Alumni Parent

D’var Torah: Reb Moshe Waldoks (Vayeshev)

A great joke about dreams is the one where Joe dreams the same dream for five consecutive nights. Each dream is filled with five manifestations of five. He is both pleased and perplexed. So to satisfy himself, he goes to the local race track and bets $5,000 on the fifth horse in the fifth race. To his alarm the horse came in fifth.

The Talmud tells us that dreams are 1/60 prophecy. One should interpret dreams (“a dream received and not interpreted is like a letter received and left unopened”) with caution. So much of our interpretations are, of course, projections of our own ego needs. So it was with the brash and undiplomatic Yosef we encounter at the beginning of this week’s parsha. The parsha begins and ends with dreams. Through dreams Yosef falls, and through dreams he ascends. This up and down process is reminiscent of the dream that his father had as he departed from the home of Isaac and Rebecca. There angels ascend and descend; here Yosef descends and ascends. There the dream speaks of Yaakov’s need to mature; so, too, here are the dreams gauges of Yosef’s process of becoming a man.

Elie Wiesel comments that Yosef’s immaturity was exacerbated by both the favoritism shown him by his father and the lack of empathy from his older brothers, sons of different mothers, expressed for their younger orphaned sibling.

“They should have felt sorry for their small orphaned brother, whose mother had died tragically; instead they pounded on him, harassed him. They should have tried to console him; instead they made him feel unwanted, an outsider. Their father favored him above others, and why not? Jacob loved him best because he was unhappy. But they refused to understand and treated him as an intruder. He spoke to them, but they did not answer, says the Midrash. They turned their backs on him. They ignored him; they denied him. To them he was stranger to be driven away.” (Messengers of God, p.153)

Yosef’s dreams are a necessary projection that despite his “favored” status he was an outcast. Dreaming grandiose dreams was the only way he could express his deep sense of powerlessness. His dreams were much more a cry for acceptance that it was a condemnation of his bothers.

These dreams offered Yosef a way to transform himself, and as we will see in next week’s parsha, the immature boy’s dreams of power will be fulfilled.

Reb Moshe Waldoks, Founding Rabbi at Temple Beth Zion, Schechter alumni parent

D’var Torah: Sarah Burd (Miketz)

In Miketz, Pharaoh dreams of 7 large cows standing along the Nile. Soon 7 smaller cows come along and eat the 7 large cows. Pharaoh then wakes up but he fell right back asleep and had a second dream.  In that dream, he saw 7 big ears of corn and 7 small ears of corn.The 7 small ears of corn ate the 7 big ears. Then Pharaoh woke again. He called his interpreters but none of them could tell him what his dreams meant. Then the butler remembered a man in jail (Joseph) who can interpret dreams. 

Joseph, who was still in jail, was prepped and dressed to meet Pharaoh.  Pharaoh tells Joseph about his dreams and then Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dreams and says: “there will be a long famine in 7 years and he should start collecting crops now for the 7  long years of famine.” After hearing this interpretation, Pharaoh makes Joseph his head chief and they starts collecting and saving crops for all of Egypt and for people from other lands. 

One important theme I have learned from this Torah portion is always to be mindful to save. My grandparents have often said it is important to save for a rainy day. To me this means you should save for when you need it the most and that is what Joseph and Pharaoh were doing. 

It’s not just money that you can save, but you can save time too. Like after getting a homework assignment, it makes sense not to wait until the last minute to complete it so you have more time to review and fix mistakes you might have made. During the time of Pharaoh’s dream there was plenty of food and things were going well in Egypt. He shared the wealth of his community with the people outside. And that is another important theme: to give to people in need. 

Just as Pharaoh did, we must give back to the community. But what happens when you have no more food and clothing to give? You can still be compassionate in other ways. For example, this year my family and I adopted a dog from an animal shelter who was desperate for a good home. Like Joseph, who gave of himself by providing and interpreting the dreams of others while in jail, doing something for someone is another example of tzedakah. Whatever it is we save – money, time or energy – it is important to share it with those in need.

Often times when I am caught up in stress, homework, and very busy with activities I forget that there are those who are not lucky enough to attend a good school and to have the opportunities that I have. This relates to Miketz because the people who did not live in Egypt had to come from far away to get help from Pharaoh in order to survive.  I cannot imagine what they had to go through to get that food from Pharaoh. In Miketz the people who came to Egypt had to pay Pharaoh for the food. But there is no mention that the Egyptians had to pay for the food. Perhaps this is an example of separating in an undignified way those who have from those who need. The shelters that I have donated  to provide food and other materials to people anonymously. 

When Pharaoh required that people from outside Egypt pay for the food they needed, this could be interpreted as people going to a grocery store and paying for their food, but the difference is that Egypt was the only available grocery store. Pharaoh wanted to donate and provide for the people but he also wanted to make a profit.  This made me think what, would I do in Pharaoh’s shoes? Although tzedakah is important it, is also important to take care of your own family, friends, and community. 

When Pharaoh allowed food to be sold  to others, this was not truly tzedaka.  It appears that Pharaoh’s true intention was to only make money for himself and his future heirs.  In fact, in Miketz, the focus is greater on Joseph’s actions than Pharoah’s. Joseph was able to help others through tzedaka and his ability  to forgive his brothers for selling into slavery. Joseph’s actions may be considered as “True Tzedaka.”

Sarah Burd ’20

D’var Torah: Rabbi Marcia R. Plumb (Vayishlach)

 

This week’s parasha, Vayishlach, presents us with a challenge.  The parasha is all about forgiveness.  Even though Jacob tricked his brother, Esau, twice (by cheating him of his birthright and his father’s blessing) and they didn’t speak for many years, in Vayishlach, Jacob seeks forgiveness, and Esau forgives.  It is the first big introduction to the powerful Jewish idea of teshuvah.   When I find forgiveness hard to do, I think of the moment when Jacob and Esau kiss and hug each other in this week’s parasha.  If they can do it, then maybe so can I.

The challenge for me is this:  How did they do it?  How do we forgive someone who has hurt us badly?  What does forgiveness mean anyway?

When I think of forgiveness, I am often reminded of the secular adage, ‘Forgive and Forget.’  But that is very hard to do.  Some hurts don’t go away, and we can’t forget them.  The idea of forgive and forget also seems to imply that we let the person who hurt us ‘off the hook.’   In Judaism, when someone hurts us badly, we may choose to ignore it, and ‘forget.’  But teshuvah means something different.  It is not about forgetting—it is about remembering, and changing.

The word teshuvah can help us understand the Jewish idea of forgiveness.  Teshuvah literally means to turn, or return to our best selves.  It means to let go of that which keeps us from being our best selves.  For example, we are our best selves when we let go of anger and resentment.  There is a wonderful Mussar text which says that ‘Anger is like acid; it destroys the container it is in before it can be poured out.’  In other words, our anger at someone can damage us because it can cause us to be less compassionate, curious and caring.  Anger can make us knotted up inside, stressed, and sad.

Teshuvah is about letting go of the anger that knots us up.  Teshuvah requires us to tell the person who hurt us what they did, and teshuvah asks us to give that person a chance to change and become better.  And it challenges us to let go of anger that may be causing us more harm than good.

This week, take a look at the anger we may hold within us toward someone else.  Can we follow the path of Jacob and Esau, and let it go?  What would it feel like to do that? Can releasing the anger, even briefly, give us some precious moments of peace and freedom?

May we find the blessing of teshuvah this week.

Rabbi Marcia R. Plumb, Congregation Mishkan Tefila, Brookline

D’var Torah: Shira Fischer ’92 (Vayeitzei)

In the first part of this parasha, Ya’akov is running away from his parents and brother. As he heads toward Charan, he stops in a place where he sees angels and God appears to him. He takes a stone to mark the place and gives the place a name—Beit El, or house of God—and then makes a vow to God.

When Ya’akov sees the angels, they are noted to be “olim v’yordim” on the famous ladder. Ascending and descending: up and then down. You might ask, as Rashi does (RAbbi SHlomo Itzhaki, 11th century France), why are the words in this order? If they’re angels, from heaven, shouldn’t they be going DOWN first and only then UP?

According to the midrash in Genesis Rabbah (68:12) on which Rashi bases his answer, angels from the land of Israel aren’t allowed to leave—so the ones from Israel had to go back up, and different ones came down to accompany him out of the land.

That same section of midrash has many other explanations of what this up and down is. It suggests a connection to the sacrifices in the Temple and the priests going up and down the ramp to the altar. It connects to Mount Sinai with Moshe himself going up and down, using the same verbs. It even brings a proof from gematria: SuLaM (60+30+40) has the same value as SINaI (60+10+50+10), meaning the ladder represents Mount Sinai. Interestingly, the Rashbam, Rashi’s grandson who is known for his literal read of the text, wants nothing to do with the midrashic interpretation. He writes, “According to the plain meaning of the text, there is no need to read any special message into the word ‘climbing’ appearing before the word ‘descending,’” directly disagreeing with his grandfather.

However you want to interpret this short phrase, the discussion among the commentators illustrates the importance and power of close reading. We ask, why is the text written the way it is? What can we learn from it? And also, how do we disagree, respectfully, with others who might read the text differently?

In the last part of this week’s Torah reading, Ya’akov, now with 4 wives and 11 children, is again running away from his family, this time his father-in-law and uncle Lavan. He takes a stone to mark the place, names the place (Gal’ed and Mitzpah), and makes a vow to Lavan. God’s angels then encounter him and he names that place Machanaim. A close read reveals many parallels to the beginning of the parasha. What do you think these parallels mean?

— Shira Fischer ’92, Schechter Parent

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D’var Torah: Rabbi Dov Bard (Toldot)

Peace and Tranquility – Really?

Although we regularly recite that the Torah “…is a tree of life to those who grasp it, and those who uphold it are happy.  Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace,” but is the Torah really about pleasantness and peace?   Happiness?  It would seem that a life focused on Torah would result in a deep sense of spirituality, tranquility and peace.  However did you ever stop to read Genesis?

As we progress in our study of Genesis we are amazed by some constant themes which focus on physical struggle, deception, confrontation and conflict.  Siblings are in conflict, barren wives are jealous, couples encounter profound tensions . . . and then this week Rebekah is “barren” and Isaac pleads with God for a child.  She gets pregnant however it is an agonizing pregnancy – וַיִּתְרֹֽצֲצ֤וּ הַבָּנִים֙ בְּקִרְבָּ֔הּ וַתֹּ֣אמֶר אִם־כֵּ֔ן לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֖ה אָנֹ֑כִי וַתֵּ֖לֶךְ לִדְרֹ֥שׁ אֶת־יְהוָֽה׃   “But the children struggled in her womb, and she said, “If so, why do I exist?”

Rabbi Steinsaltz focuses on this agonizing pregnancy and warns us that in general we shouldn’t fool ourselves.  He teaches that life is a permanent struggle without and within and we should understand the existence of conflict.  Hoping for peace and tranquility is not realistic

“With this knowledge, one is not disappointed about failing to attain peace, nor does one feel that one’s life has been wasted if one does not achieve a decisive victory in the battle of life. A person must realize that everything he does involves a struggle, that life is war in which “nation over nation shall strengthen itself.”  The pendulum swings from side to side, and the task of man is to make every effort to emerge from the struggle in a better state that he entered it. In the course of the struggles, in between battles, he should make sure to move forward. Ultimately, this is all a human being can achieve.”  (Opening the Tanya p. 229)

This is sobering but isn’t it good to be sober?

Rabbi Dov Bard, Former Head of School, Schechter Alumni Parent

 

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D’var Torah: Rabbi Ilana C. Garber ’91

Imagine if we could live forever. Ignore the problems with this idea, like serious overcrowding, scarcity of resources, and the technological developments that we can’t even fathom right now. Imagine what it would be like to know that we could live forever. 

When our matriarch Sarah dies this week in Chayei Sarah, the portion bearing her name tells us about her life. And, to be more literal, about her lives. Sarah lives to be 127 years old. And while she dies in the first sentence, the rest of the portion is about the influence of her life on those who loved her and who came after her. You could say that Sarah lives on forever in her descendants, even us.

Perhaps that is how we live forever. Our children carry on the values we share with them as our legacy. Their children inherit that legacy along with our names and our history. Chayei Sarah, the lives of Sarah, means that her life influences ours even to this day.

Peter Stark, zichrono livracha, is one such “ancestor” that continues to influence my life and the lives of our children. He was our beloved Tanakh teacher at Schechter in the 80s and 90s. I had the sad honor to officiate at his funeral several years ago.

I am so proud to be part of a community that has come together to remember Peter and to ensure that his values and legacy live on in our Schechter students and in generations to come. Peter’s students and alumni parents, along with his family, are establishing an endowment in his name. This fund will provide professional development for Schechter’s teachers to bring innovative pedagogy to the classroom. It will also give each 8th grader a copy of the text of Kohelet/Ecclesiastes, the megilah that we just read on Sukkot that invites questions of life, death, value, and merit to be explored, that they will study and take with them on their Jewish journeys.

I recently had the privilege to share Kohelet and Peter’s legacy with this year’s 8th grade class. I stood in the library on Wells Ave, a space that should have been his classroom and would have been his creative learning lab, and I felt that my teacher was standing behind me. He would have loved that I taught the 8th graders to recite Kohelet 1:2 out loud in Hebrew (look it up and recite it dramatically, with an extra long haaaaaavel as the last word). Peter would have been so grateful to the Schechter community that his impact has a ripple effect on generations to come.

While we cannot live forever, we know that our teacher was taken from this earth too soon. As I challenged the 8th graders that morning, I’ll challenge you as well: think of someone who has influenced your life in a way that continues to live on in you and in others. Now, strive to be that person who impacts others’ lives. That way, your legacy will endure forever.

 

Rabbi Ilana C. Garber ’91, Rabbinic Director of Lifelong Learning & Community Engagement, Beth El Temple, West Hartford

D’var Torah: Rabbi Michael Swarttz (Vayerah)

Vayerah:  There All Along, Here All Along

We are quite familiar with the last two chapters of Vayerah, as they are read on Rosh Hashanah.  Hagar and Ishmael are expelled from Abraham and Sarah’s household in order to assure Isaac’s inheritance. Out in the wilderness and homeless, they are soon out of water, and Hagar assumes that they will die. She separates herself from Ishmael because she cannot bear to see her beloved son die, and she cries.  God hears her and sends an angel who assures her that they will not only survive, but that Ishmael will go on to become the father of a great nation.

And then “God opened her eyes and she saw a well with water. She went and filled the skin with water and let the boy drink.” A miracle!  But most commentators see the miracle not that God suddenly created the well for them, but that Hagar’s outlook and perspective changed so that she could see the well that was there all along.

I often think of this image in connection with the hundreds of thousands of young American Jews who abandon Jewish life and their connection to Jewish community after their Bar or Bat Mitzvah.  The well, or wellspring, of Torah is there, but they can’t see it, because they have gone through a minimal “supplementary” educational system that cannot possibly convey the beauty and depth of Jewish tradition in the limited time it has with its students. So they drift away, not having gained a love of Torah and Jewish life, maybe to come back later, maybe not.

Meet Sarah Hurwitz. Sarah is one of those young people who left and came back. In this limited space I can’t do justice to her story, so read her book, entitled Here All Along: Finding Meaning, Spirituality, and a Deeper Connection to Life—in Judaism (After Finally Choosing to Look There).

Sarah grew up in Wayland, became a Bat Mitzvah and “left the fold,” as it were. Professionally she became a lawyer, then a speechwriter for prominent Democratic candidates, including Barack Obama, and eventually the chief speechwriter for Michelle Obama. By chance Sarah signed up for an Introduction to Judaism class in D.C., which opened her eyes to Jewish teachings and wisdom.  This led to Jewish meditation retreats, immersion in Jewish study and ultimately to her writing the book she wished had been available to her as she engaged in her search and return.  In it she describes what she considers to be the important elements of Jewish thought and practice. While it is not a memoir, Sarah does describe her “Jewish journey” (an overused but apt expression here).

Hagar opened her eyes to see the well that was there all along.  Sarah Hurwitz opened her eyes to the beauty and depth of Torah and Judaism that she realized had been “Here All Along” but had alluded her.  The book is inspiring and informative, regardless of how strong a Jewish background you have. I have made it the focus of my adult education class in my shul this year, and I anticipate that many other rabbis and educators will as well. I encourage you to read it, and to give it anyone you know—young or not so young—who need to open their eyes to Jewish life and tradition.

Rabbi Michael Swarttz is the parent of Schechter alumnus Nadav Swarttz