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D’var Torah: Rabbi Ravid Tilles (Tazria/Metora)

This week we read the double portion of Tazria and Metzora, both of which further 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: These portions 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 Associate Rabbi at the Merrick Jewish Centre and Incoming Director of Jewish Life and Learning at Schechter

D’var Torah: Dr. Joseph Reimer (Sh’mini)

The Strange Case of the Strange Fire: Parshat Sh’mini

Leviticus, the third book of the Torah, is well-known as the priestly code. In its early chapter we read about the animal sacrifices that the priests- Aaron and sons- were to bring before the Lord in the sanctuary built by the people to serve their God. These sacrifices were the main avenue of Israelite approach to God and the priests played the crucial role as mediators between the people and God. So it is shocking in chapter 10 to read what happened to Aaron’s two oldest sons.

Now Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, each took his fire pan, put fire in it and laid incense on it; and they offered before the Lord alien fire, which He had not enjoined them. And  fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Lord (verses 1-2.).

Much is not clear in this terse narrative. Were Nadab and Abihu asked to take their fire pans and bring in fire? If so, what is an alien fire? How did this alien or strange fire defy God’s orders? And why was this offense so grievous that God consumed them on the spot?

As happens often in Jewish tradition, when the Torah fails to supply the many details we need to understand what happened, the commentators jump in with many differing interpretations. To them there is an absolute need to know what happened and why. This is a potentially highly destabilizing story. We are, after all, reading about Aaron, Moses’ older brother who co-lead the Exodus from Egypt and was subsequently honored with becoming the first High Priest. Aaron has been told that the priesthood was to be hereditary and that his sons would succeed him in this role. And here, two of his four sons are struck dead, the two oldest who might well have been his immediate successors. Were these sons evil? Or had they made a terrible error of judgment for which they paid with their lives? And is this God so fraught that He can, without explaining, strike dead two of the highest priests?

I leave you to explore the many possible responses to these questions. What strikes me, writing during Passover week, is that ours is a tradition that honors questions more than responses. We know that the commentators will work their way out of this terrible dilemma, but that the ways out are less lasting than the dilemma itself. Answers fade with time. Questions last a life time, indeed many life times. In my view the very beauty of a Jewish education is not that our developing children are armed with responses, but that they realize they come from a people who pursue lasting questions and expect of them the same: a life time of studying and posing questions.

D’var Torah: Rabbi Mendy Uminer (Vayikra)

When one thinks of Passover, images of the traditional Passover meal, the Seder, immediately enter the mind. A seder is truly the time of togetherness for the Jewish family. Together, we recount the miraculous birth of the Jewish people. We revisit G‑d redeeming His people from the depths of despair and His transforming a nation of slaves into the beneficiaries of the Sinai experience and the recipients of His Torah.

During the Seder we discuss the “Four Sons” and the questions they pose, from the “Wise Son” who wants to know all of the particulars of Passover observances, to the “Wicked Son” who challenges and mocks them. There is a “Simple Son” who simply asks “What’s this?” There is even a son whose only form of participation is simply being there. With everything happening around him, not a single question occupies his mind.

My teacher and spiritual mentor the Lubavitcher Rebbe teaches us that today we have yet another son, “the fifth son”. The son who does not even attend a seder.

Just as we address the challenges and questions of the Four Sons, we must address the challenges of this fifth son as well. We must reach out and include those who have no place to be at the Seder, and for those who don’t feel the need or relevance to be there, we need to inspire them to its’ relevance to their lives.

In the early seventies, the Jewish Federation of North America decided to launch a campaign. They sought to institute that at every Seder table there should be an empty chair to bring into the Jewish consciousness the awareness that – if not for the holocaust and the loss of our 6 million – there would have been another Jew sitting in that seat.

They asked the Rebbe’s input, The Rebbe’s answer stunned the leaders of the federation: “Your idea of adding a chair is very important, and I’m ready to join the call. But, there is one condition…the extra chair should not be empty, but filled.”

We are lucky enough to have a school that inspires us to be engaged in Jewish life and we need to spread the light.

I want to take this opportunity to thank Schechter for being the home of our summer camp- Camp Gan Israel, thanks for the hospitality!

A Kosher & Happy Passover to you all.

Rabbi_William_Hamilton

D’var Torah: Rabbi William Hamilton (Vayikra)

Priest and Prophet

The sensibilities of the prophet and the priest are quite different in the Bible. Prophets espouse values, champion integrity, and liberate dreams.  Primarily concerned with social morality and faith, biblical prophets view situations through the lens of history.  Alternatively, priestly systems care about boundaries, categories, and distinctions.  Priests have a strong moral sense, but their institutions leave no place for spontaneity.  Prophets are not opposed to ritual, but they become outraged when it is misused in effort to avert one’s gaze from hypocrisy or injustice.

This week’s Torah and Haftorah portions offer an up-close and personal view the divergent leadership models of priest and prophet.  We glimpse their different vocabulary, reflective of differing agendas.  Nearness to God is the aspiration of Leviticus’ world of offerings.  Atonement seeks the realigning of a disjointed relationship with God.  Isaiah’s voice encourages redemption, repentance, and societal renewal.  The word atonement, kapara (for which Yom Kippur is named) appears a dozen times in this week’s portion.  While the words for repentance and redemption (shuv, and go-ail) appear in the prophetic reading’s penultimate verse: “I have blotted out, as a thick cloud, your transgressions and your sins; return (shuva) unto Me, for I have redeemed you (ga’altecha)” (Is. 44:22). When these twin hemispheres coexist compatibly, creativity and vitality flourish.

Priests seek order.  Prophets seed hope.  An additional setting where their voices harmonize elegantly is at the Passover Seder.  The identity of the Seder itself means ‘order’, given how baked into its origins the priestly Pascal Sacrifice has always been.  Yet the prophetic voice which vectors toward Elijah holds sway by Seder’s end.

Often we feel called by prophetic expectations.  Sometimes we feel nourished by priestly habits and familiar rituals.  May we draw inspiration from a sacred blend of both.

A sweet Shabbat to you.

Rabbi William Hamilton, Congregation Kehillath Israel, Schechter alumni parent

D’var Torah: Rabbi Dan Liben (Vayakhel-Pekudei)

Lord prepare me, to be a sanctuary, pure and holy, tried and true 
and with thanksgiving, I’ll be a living, sanctuary, oh for you. (Scruggs and Thompson)

The final chapters of Exodus and the opening pages of Genesis are like matching bookends. “In the beginning,” God made a world in which people could dwell. Now, the Israelites return the favor by building the Mishkan (Tabernacle), a space within that world where the presence of God can dwell.

The Israelites donate so much material for the project, that Moses, surprisingly, has to tell them to stop. Their gifts have been more than sufficient. For, how else can God’s dwelling place be built if not through a spirit of generosity, unity of purpose, and love?

It is unlike other Temples, ancient or modern, in one key respect: It is temporary and portable, meant to wander in the midst of the people as they themselves wander. Its holy ark is built with horizontal poles, ready to be lifted, carried, and set down again. Its walls and outer tent are constructed for easy disassembly, ready to travel and to be reassembled, as the people likewise break and reconstitute their camp.

This moveable Mishkan conveyed the comforting message that the God of Sinai is not static. Although the mountain is immovable, the experience of Sinai is portable. By carrying it with us, we continually create the conditions for God to be with us, across time and space. So we ask ourselves: What are the planks of our Mishkan? What are the daily kindnesses, the rituals, the freely given gifts of time and energy, with which we create space for God’s Presence?

The Mishkan’s design also testifies to the essentially impermanent nature of experience. It is made to move, because we are perpetually on the move. Emotions and mind states come and go, thoughts arise and pass, living things grow and die. We are perpetually forgetting, wandering, remembering and returning. Tellingly, the final word of the book of Exodus is “journeys.” Yet, we need never travel the journey alone.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Dan Liben, Temple Israel of Natick; Schechter alumni parent

D’var Torah: Rabbi Michael Fel (Ki Tisa)

What do you do when you see someone with food stuck in their teeth?  Do you ignore it for fear of offending them or do you see it as an opportunity to help a friend?  Personally, if I see something, I say something.  I admit that it can be a little awkward, so I preface my observations by saying: I am telling you this because I would want someone to tell me, and then I tell them the embarrassing fact that everyone else is ignoring.  Most people express gratitude at my candor.

A potentially uncomfortable moment appears in this week’s Torah reading. After receiving the second set of tablets, Moses descended from the mountain, however…  “Aaron and all the Israelites saw that the skin of Moses’ face was radiant/shining/aglow; and they shrank from coming near him.30  But Moses called to them, and Aaron and all the chieftains in the assembly returned to him, and Moses spoke to them.31  And when Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil over his face.”33  “Moses was not aware that the skin of his face was radiant/shining/aglow, since he had spoken with God.” 29 (Exodus 34

Poor Moses!  You can imagine his excitement at coming down with the tablets only to be disappointed that his friends were scared of him and didn’t want to learn from him.  According to Ramban, a 13th century Spanish Rabbi, Moses only learned he looked different and was able to continue teaching because someone had the courage to tell him,“Hey Moses, you’ve got a little something on your face.”  Rather than get angry or upset, in an act of true compassion and humility, Moses puts on a veil so he would seem less scary and be able to connect with others.

There will be times in our lives that require us to provide difficult information to a friend and others when we will be the recipient of that unflattering or challenging feedback.  May we have the wisdom to navigate those moments with kindness, love, and honesty so that we can truly help our friends, and ourselves, be our best versions and let our true brilliance shine forth.

Rabbi Michael Fel, Temple Emunah

 

D’var Torah: Rabbi Daniel Berman (Te​tzaveh​)

Despite my admittedly pitiful tool kit, which sits in my basement beneath boxes of legos, and which contains about 7 tools, all of which are hammers, I actually love to build.  As you might imagine, I am not a particularly sophisticated craftsman. I have more of a minimalist approach: wood, hammer, nail; sometimes different length nails, or kinds of wood. But, truly, I love to build.

A friend asked me recently how I came to love building so much given my dearth of talent. He was being playful and funny, not critical, which was a wonderful opening for me to reflect on this interesting question.

I think of this question every fall as I hammer nails into wood to build the frame of our sukkah. Building even a simple frame is an amazing human act. It reminds us of our ability to create spaces that will contain so much of what we love. In our family sukkah we have sat with our closest family and friends and shared meals and blessing, while reflecting on meaningful parts of our lives.

This week we continue reading the extraordinary detail of the “mishkan,” the portable sanctuary that the Israelites built and carried through the desert. Now we add instructions regarding the menorah and the priestly vestments, and most critically, the consecration of that space, meaning how to “activate” the space and make it holy.

What might this mean, to activate the holiness of a space? While I am confident that the ancient Israelites were far better and more experienced builders, artists and decorators than me, our hopes are the same. With these hands, and with theirs, we have aspired to build frames to bring meaning, memory, blessing, learning and loving more deeply into our lives. That is, to let God dwell among us, that we may be uplifted into the holy.

Rabbi Daniel Berman, Temple Reyim, Newton

D’var Torah: Rabbi Michael Swarttz (Terumah)

Terumah: The Second Creation Story

Parashat Terumah begins the Torah’s lengthy preoccupation of the construction of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary that was situated at the center of the Israelites’ encampment on their journey through the wilderness. The Mishkan was where God’s presence, or Shechinah, dwelled among the people.

Numerous commentators have noted the connection between the building of the Mishkan and the creation narrative at the very beginning of the Torah. God instructs the Israelites to make the Mishkan just as God made the universe. The construction of the Mishkan, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes, is “their first great constructive and collaborative act after crossing the Red Sea…Just as the universe began with an act of creation, so Jewish history (the history of a redeemed people) begins with an act of creation.” A series of verbal parallels underscores this connection:

The universe (Bereshit) The Mishkan (Shemot)
“And G-d made the sky” “They shall make Me a sanctuary”
“And G-d made the two large lights” “They shall make an ark”
“And G-d made the beasts of the earth” (1: 7, 16, 25) “Make a table”(25: 8, 9, 23)
“And G-d saw all that He had made, and behold it was very good.” (1: 31) “Moses saw all the skilled work and behold they had done it; as G-d commanded it, they had done it.” (39:43)
“The heavens and earth and all of their array were completed.” (2:1) “All the work of the tabernacle of the tent of meeting was completed” (39:32)
“And G-d completed all the work that He had done” (2:2) “And Moses completed the work” (40:33)
“And G-d blessed” (2:3) “And Moses blessed” (39:43)
“And sanctified it” (2:3) “And you shall sanctify it and all its vessels (40:9)

The use of the same verbs in both narratives suggests that making the Mishkan was for the Israelites what creating the universe was for God. And yet the contrast between these two creation stories is notable. God’s creation of the universe takes 34 verses in Genesis (chapter one plus the first three verses of chapter two), while the making of the Mishkan takes hundreds of verses and spans five Torah portions. The lengths of the narratives are in inverse proportion to the size of the project–our vast universe compared to a small and modest portable sanctuary! The answer, of course, is that “it is not difficult for an infinite, omnipotent creator to make a home for humanity. What is difficult is for human beings, in their finitude and vulnerability, to make a home for God.” (Sacks)

The Mishkan is our first holy space. It is kadosh, holy, set apart. It serves as the prototype for the Temple in Jerusalem, as well as for the synagogue. We are enjoined to treat it and to behave in it with respect, and to care for it.

In these days, perhaps more so than ever before, we must consider our entire universe as kadosh, as holy space, as well. Our world is a precious gift. The natural order is what enables us to live and sustains us. We have to treat it with care and respect, as we do our Mishkans, our sanctuaries. Sadly this has not been the case, and we are beginning to see the costs of our neglect and failure to live up to our obligations. And alarmingly, our new president and administration speak and act as if they are oblivious to the consequences of our neglect.

Two creation stories. Two sacred spaces. One divinely created and vast. The other a human product and quite small. Both worthy of and dependent on our respect and care. All of us, and especially those with the power to decide whether our country will be part of the solution or part of the problem, would do well to heed the message of a powerful midrashic warning based on the first creation story: As the Holy One takes Adam through the Garden of Eden God tells him, “I created all My beautiful works for your sake. Take heed not to corrupt and destroy it. For if you do, there is no one to make it right after you.” (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13)

Michael Swarttz, Schechter alumni parent, is the rabbi of Beth Tikvah Synagogue in Westborough and the Jewish Chaplain at the Phillips Academy in Andover.

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