Do you ever get anxious before going on a long trip? What do you have to organize and prepare before you feel ready to pile into the car and get going?
For the third week in a row, we have been reading in meticulous detail about the Israelites’ planned departure from Sinai, in order to begin their journey to the Promised Land.
It is supposed to be a triumphant journey for the former slaves. Over the last two weeks, we read about the precise census taking of all men of military age, and a choreographed staging of the tribes, each under its own flag, forming a vast army of God, with the Tabernacle at its very center.
Finally, the Levites complete the Tabernacle and light the Menorah for the first time. With the blasts of trumpets, the Israelites are ready to set forth! Moses bids farewell to his dear father-in-law, who will not be joining them on their journey, and the people are ready to march: “Advance, O Lord! May Your enemies be scattered, and may Your foes flee before You!”
We, however, who have read this book before, know that the triumphant beginning is only a false start: No sooner do the Israelites actually leave Mount Sinai then all hell breaks loose. The people complain bitterly that they are hungry, rebel against Moses, and even talk about returning to Egypt! Thus begins a much longer journey, about fear, rebellion and disappointment, which will last nearly 40 years, until a new generation of Israelites will arise.
This book will be a guide for future generations as it poses its basic questions: How do we carry God’s Comforting Presence with us, when we are no longer camped at Mount Sinai? How do we maintain our faith when the ground seems to shift under our feet, and we don’t really know where we are? Can we maintain our trust and equanimity, and stand up to our fears, when the world seems so dangerous and unpredictable?
In a time of pandemic and social disarray, we recognize the Israelites’ fear as our own. But we resist giving in to it: we take a deep breath and realize that this is only part of a constantly changing story. We will learn, like the Israelites, to discover meaning in the journey, to find strength, comfort and faith, even when we don’t know what the next chapter may bring.
Rabbi Dan Liben, Temple Israel of Natick, Schechter Alumni Parent
Ever since we were blessed to become parents a little over eight years ago, my wife and I have sat down to Shabbat dinner with our children, placed our hands gently on their heads, closed our eyes, and blessed them with the Priestly Blessing – likely the oldest of all ancient Jewish blessings, and possibly the oldest Bible text, as well. And yet even though we are drawing from a source that is thousands of years old and hasn’t changed since, ours sound just a little bit different every single week, as we add our own blessings for each child based on what they tell us they need most in that moment.
The text – from Number 6:24 – 26 – reads as follows (and admittedly is much more beautiful in its original Hebrew): “May God bless you and protect you; May God deal kindly and graciously with you; May God look favorably upon you and grant you peace.”
With such a perfect piece of prose, why should we feel emboldened to add anything at all? After all, we are instructed very clearly in Deuteronomy 4:2: “Do not add to that which I command you, and you shall not subtract from it…” Here’s why: Because as powerful as this ancient blessing is, it is designed to be an umbrella blessing – one that encompasses all the ways that God has and might continue to lift us up in our lives. But it’s very universality – which invites its use at every life cycle event imaginable – can also prevent those being blessed by it to fully appreciate the intimacy with which the blesser might be offering it.
This is precisely why there are dozens of rabbinic commentaries from each generation – ancient and modern alike – that attempt to unpack the meaning of each part of the blessing. Recognizing this, the Kli Yakar (17th century rabbi) notes that “there are many opinions as to the meaning of each individual blessing, and everyone interprets according to their own illuminations.”
Another commentary, Haemek Davar (19th century rabbi), interprets the first part of the blessing (“May God bless you”) to include “whatever is appropriate for each person to be blessed with…Thus included in this general blessing is an additional blessing for each person.” The Priestly Blessing is a starting point, but it is also an invitation to delve deeper into the intimacy of the moment and offer your loved ones the blessings they most yearn for in their lives.
Which brings us to today, to this tumultuous, surreal and frightening time. To a pandemic that has exacerbated so many of our anxieties, underscored our individual and communal weaknesses, and deepened our growing sense of isolation and loneliness. In other words, this is a moment in which we should all be offering blessings in abundance – with heartfelt abandon – to as many people in our lives as possible.
So before the sun sets this Friday night, or maybe before you even finish reading this newsletter, think of some dear people in your life and try to intuit the kinds of blessings they most need in this moment. Maybe it’s a blessing of continued safety. Maybe it’s a blessing of prosperity in the midst of a financial drought. Maybe it’s a blessing of companionship, of being reminded that they are known and they are loved. And maybe it’s simply the blessing of being asked what blessing they need most, and then hearing their cherished friend mirror it back to them.
And if you’re anything like me, you might find yourself – the one giving the blessing – feeling just as blessed by the experience as your friend.
Rabbi Elan Babchuck ’96, Founding Director, Glean Network, Director of Innovation, Clal
Before working on my Dvar Torah I always thought of G-d as a being that watches over everybody and listens to their prayers. I believed Hashem guided us in the right way of life, but let us make decisions.
On Shavuot we read the ten commandments. I noticed that there seemed to be a repetition at the very beginning. I was perplexed at this apparent redundancy.
The Ten Commandments start with God introducing God’s self. And then God immediately says, לֹא יִהְיֶה־לְךָ אֱלֹקים אֲחֵרִים עַל־פָּנָיַ ‘don’t have any other gods before me’ and לֹא תַעֲשֶׂה־לְךָ פֶסֶל ‘don’t make any other gods for yourself’. This sounds repetitive. Since the Torah does not use extra words, and God must have put a lot of thought into what was going to be included in this most dramatic moment, why was it written three times?
Rashi, the 11th Century, French Biblical commentator, stated that לא יהיה לך, you should not have other gods, means that you should not think in your head that there is more than one god, not to even have the idea. He says that לא תעשה לך means that you should not make for yourself another god, for example an idol. Nowadays having only one G-d, and not praying and bowing down to other ones has been tradition for years and years, and there are not many cultures around us that bow down to idols.
Following this commandment, must have been really hard for the Jewish people back then because they were used to idols. They had just come out of a kingdom where the king, Pharaoh, was thought to be a god among many other gods. You can tell that not bowing down to idols was hard for Bnei Israel, because when Moshe stayed up on Har Sinai longer than they expected, they were so nervous that they made the golden calf and prayed to it. Even though it was exactly what ה׳ had said not to do!
As you can see Hashem’s request to be the one and only God of the Jewish people was a big deal and the people clearly had a lot of trouble. Today fewer people worship idols so it doesn’t seem like such a big deal. But there are things that we idolize – like sports, heroes, or stars. Sometimes these could seem like they are more important than anything else, and this is when we have to remember that Hashem is more important than any human creation.
If Hashem being one is so important then maybe we should be reciting the Ten Commandments every day. As I studied more I realized that we do remind ourselves of the 10 commandments everyday but not in the way that I might have expected. Jewish practice is to say the tefillah that we call the Shema three times a day. The first line of of this most important prayer is שמע ישראל ה׳ אלוקינו ה׳ אחד. Usually translated as Listen Israel the Lord is our God, the Lord is One. Is there something more to this then telling us that there is only one G-d considering it is said so often? The answer given in the Talmud Yerushalmi, quoting Rabbi Levi who said that the 10 commandments are written within the Shema. The Shema is a prayer that I say every day, but before I read this it had never occurred to me that the Aseret HaDibrot are hinted in them. Rabbi Levi does not tell us what he means by this, so I was curious and went looking. The first line covers the first three commandments about God being one. Then, the phrase
וְהָיוּ הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם עַל־לְבָבֶךָ׃
Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day,
uses the same word that we use for the commandments; Devarim is the same root as the word dibrot. Next,
וְשִׁנַּנְתָּ֣ם לְבָנֶ֔יךָ –
You will teach them to your children,
reminds us that if you teach your children then they will learn to respect you – which reminds us of the commandments to keep Shabbat and honor our parents.
בְּשִׁבְתְּךָ֤ בְּבֵיתֶ֙ךָ֙ וּבְלֶכְתְּךָ֣ בַדֶּ֔רֶךְ –
When you are in your house or out on your way
Reminds us of the commandments not be jealous of your neighbor’s and to be happy with what you have and what Hashem granted you. As well as behaving well in society. Not murdering your neighbor is a pretty good idea!
Shema reminds us that we have a covenant, a brit, with God when we say
וּקְשַׁרְתָּ֥ם לְא֖וֹת עַל־יָדֶ֑ךָ
Bind them as a sign on your hand
The word א֖וֹת or sign is understood by the rabbis to mean an agreement. This agreement that we made at Har Sinai נעשה ונשמע we will follow and we will do. Our promise to do what Hashem asks from us and Hashem will take care of us.
The last paragraph of this prayer reminds us to wear tzitzit or ritual fringes like the ones on the talitot that some of you are wearing. Tzitzit are worn to remind us of the mitzvot. There is a story in the Babylonian Talmud, Masechet Menachot that describes this very literally. Once there was a man who wanted to do something bad. Just as he was about to do it, his tzitzit hit him in the face! This sudden action embarrassed and surprised him, which made him not do the naughty act that he meant to do. By saying the Shema every day we are reminding ourselves of the promises we made to Hashem at Har Sinai to keep Hashem as our one God.
By starting the Ten commandments with “I am your God” God sends us the direct message that this is the most important concept of the Ten. And if you did not get that message, God repeats it two more times. God is the source of the mitzvot, the directions for how to live a Jewish life. I think reminding us that G-d is one, reminds us to do the mitzvot.
You might think it funny that we don’t say the ten commandments everyday. Instead, the Shema is our daily reminder of the 10 commandments, but they are only hinted at in the Shema. The idea of one G-d is the main one in the Shema, just as it seems to be in the 10 commandments.
Hashem speaks to each person differently. We can interpret this oneness as a one-on-one relationship between Hashem and each one of us. This relationship started with Hashem blowing Ruach Elokim, the spirit of God, into Adam at creation. As the descendants of Adam, we share the connection of having Ruach Elokim in us. At the same time, each of our relationships with Hashem is unique. We work on our relationship by doing mitzvot and recognizing the aspect of Hashem in each person. That way we give everyone the respect they deserve.
Shiraz Sage ’21
“Are We There Yet?”
“Are we there yet?” That was one of the many pleas that my wife’s cousin would often present to his parents. In response to this and similar pleas, they would sometimes simply say, “DP.” “DP” was their family’s shorthand for a simple message: “Develop patience.”
Patience — savlaNOOT, in Hebrew — is, I think we would all agree, a virtue. But if it is a virtue, how do we pursue it? How do we achieve it?
This is not an idle question at this time. Most of us are spending most of our time, morning, noon and night, in our homes. Most of our kids are doing the same. We’re interacting in close quarters. There’s a lot of uncertainty in the air. When will things be different? What will the summer be like? Will we go back to school in the fall? When?
We can learn something from the experience of our ancestors during their journey through the Wilderness (the midBAR, in Hebrew). Just a month or so after crossing the Sea of Reeds, they arrived at the foot of Mount Sinai. Moses left them to go up the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments. “I’ll be back after 40 days!” he said, according to a midrash. (Note the exact language.) On the morning of the fortieth day, they looked up the mountain expectantly. “Where is he?” When’s he coming down?” All morning long they waited. No Moses.
Finally, their murmurings took a turn: “He’s not coming back. He’s not coming back at all!” In desperation, they turned to Aaron to build for them a Golden Calf, and then, as they were worshipping it, Moses appeared. He was angry. “I said I was coming back after 40 days!” They had assumed that he was coming back on the morning of the 40th day, whereas he had meant that he would only return after 40 complete days. If only they had waited that extra half-day!!!
Lack of patience led to a catastrophe.
It is clear: the stakes of impatience are high.
So, what do we do? How do we “stay the course”? How do we keep doing what we are doing — maintaining physical isolation, washing our hands, wearing masks — when the time-line is so unclear? What can provide us with the confidence, the commitment, the perseverance?
It’s not easy, of course. The Hebrew word “savlanut” is related to the word, “lisBOL,” “to bear a burden.” Waiting — without knowing how long we need to wait — is a burden. It’s a challenge — for our children and for ourselves — that we shouldn’t underestimate.
The answer, though, is straightforward: Let’s remember where we’re going. Let’s keep our goal before us. Knowing our goal, and knowing that it lies ahead; knowing that we can, eventually, as a society, achieve it, can lighten our load, and lighten our step.
Let’s remember how lucky we are. Many of us are sheltering in place with our families; we have homes in which to live; we have means of communication that were unthinkable even 20 years ago. We can do this. All we need to do is to remind ourselves of what lies ahead — and then, together with one another, day after day, put one foot ahead of the other.
Rabbi Carl Perkins, Temple Aliyah, Schechter alumni parent
Shemitah and the Small Moments
The Sabbatical year, or shemitah is the quintessence of Sabbath. Whether for a year or for one day in a week, we cease being consumers and producers, and devote our energy to being contemplatives, appreciators, celebrants, and relational beings. During the shemitah year our ancestors were commanded to let the land lie fallow. What grew naturally was permitted to be consumed by the landowner, servant, day-laborer, and domestic and wild animal alike.
According to a deep and meaningful rabbinic teaching, there is none mightier than the one who observes this mitzvah. Promulgated in the name of Rabbi Isaac, the text acknowledges that many people desire to do good and engage in a particular act of devotion or loving-kindness for a day, a week, even a month. However, our nature is to eventually become distracted. The “mighty one” who observes the shemitah, sees that which is his, which he has worked for, given freely and equally to any who are hungry, sees his field uncultivated, and the fruition of his work put on hold.
We, in Greater Boston and around the world, are currently living with many of these challenges, as we are forced to reconsider the ways in which we work, measure productivity, and structure our time. As many more people currently work from home, our earth seems to bloom more brightly than ever without so much pollution of fossil fuels. Animals are more easily observable in our parks and surroundings due to the reduced human impact.
Some of our commentators point out that though the purpose of both Shabbat and Shemitah is partially for the land’s benefit, it is also for us, as we are drawn into closer relationships with our fellow beings and the Ultimate. Now unable to hug our friend, visit a grandparent, or physically get together with a classmate, we have become innovative, mindful, and aware in a more significant way of the power of relationship and of small moments shared with others.
My hope is that we will carry some of the lessons of quarantine and shemitah as we very carefully begin to reopen and renew our homes, communities, and world in the coming months.
Cantor Michael McCloskey, Hazzan M’hanekh/Cantor-Educator, Temple Emeth of Chestnut Hill
אֵ֚לֶּה מוֹעֲדֵ֣י ה’ מִקְרָאֵ֖י קֹ֑דֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר־תִּקְרְא֥וּ אֹתָ֖ם בְּמוֹעֲדָֽם׃ … וַיְדַבֵּ֣ר מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֶת־מֹעֲדֵ֖י ה’ אֶל־בְּנֵ֖י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃
“These are the appointed seasons of the L!rd, sacred assemblies, which you shall announce in their due season. … Thus Moses announced the L!rd’s appointed seasons to the children of Israel.”
The Torah contains three extended presentations of the Jewish holidays. In Numbers 28-29, the focus is on the sacrificial services of the holidays. In Deuteronomy 16, the focus is on the social and societal aspect of the holidays, particularly the need to include the homeless, the widow, and the orphan in our celebrations. This week’s reading of Parashat Emor (Leviticus 21-24) focuses on the specific rituals performed during the biblical holidays: eating matza, counting the Omer, bringing the first fruit, blowing the shofar, fasting on Yom Kippur, dwelling in a sukkah, and waving the four species.
With this theme of the Jewish holidays in mind, I have three points of gratitude I would like to share as we prepare for Week 8 of the Coronavirus lockdown.
- I am grateful for the Schechter school and community, through which our children can learn about these holidays, how to observe their practices, and the joy involved in celebrating them. Last year, we read this parasha at Schechter’s first Shabbaton, a joyous Shabbat spent together as a community. I pray that that we will be able to resume this new tradition next year.
- I am grateful for interactions with the Divine on each Shabbat and holiday. In his 2016 Dvar Torah on this parasha, Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks drew the connection between two uses of the word moed. In the above quote from this parasha, moed traditionally translates to “appointed seasons,” while meaning “a tryst – an appointment made between lovers to meet at a certain time and place” in the last line of the Kabbalistic poem Yedid Nefesh, which is traditionally sung at the beginning and end of each Shabbat. Rabbi Sacks teaches that the holidays, as presented in this parasha, are indeed a tryst with the Divine – important, scheduled breaks from our daily routines that enable special encounters with G!d.
- I am grateful for the opportunity to spend more quality time with my family. When we approach the end of our lives and prepare to meet our Maker, this 24/7 time spent together with our families will likely be of much greater significance than anything else we would have achieved during these months, professionally or otherwise. The holidays listed in this parasha remind me of my priorities and the need to reallocate my time accordingly, perhaps more than ever this year.
Wishing everyone health and the ability to find happiness through these challenging times, and looking forward to celebrating together again soon.
 Festival morning kiddush; Leviticus 23:4,44
Matya Schachter, Schechter Parent
When I was 6, I wanted to play piano, so my parents found me a teacher whose name was Marco. Marco came to our house to give me lessons. He would teach and joke around with me, but he was a serious piano teacher, and he always expected my best. When the lessons were finished and he would go home, he expected me to practice. That’s when things got tricky… Sometimes I wanted to practice, and sometimes, I just wanted to do other things: play with my sisters, play video games, or just use my toys. The times that I did practice I chose to for a couple of reasons: first because I wanted to get better; second because I knew that if I didn’t, he would know and I would get in trouble. Finally, if I did a good job at the concert, I would get a prize.
I’m sharing this story, because when I read my Torah portion, parshat Kedoshim, it reminded me of Marco, and what motivated me to practice the piano. The Torah portion has two chapters, each filled with a collection of laws. As I read the two chapters, 19 and 20, I realized how similar they are, and how different. In many cases the laws in the two chapters are identical or very similar, but the reasons given for why someone might want to follow those rules, are very different. In Chapter 19, again and again, we see a positive reason for following the laws: to become Holy. In Chapter 20, again and again, we see a totally different side to why someone would want to follow the laws: because they would be severely punished if they did not. After reading the chapters, I wondered why is it that the Torah states the same rules more than once, but provides different reasons for following them?
As I looked for answers to my question, I found a Midrash or a story related to my Torah portion. The story is about a king who owned a very expensive wine cellar. It was so valuable that he worried that robbers were going to rob his vault. He hired some guards to take care of the vault, some of whom were alcoholics. The next day the king discovered that his barrels were still full and untouched so he paid his guards for their service. First he paid his non alcoholics one day’s worth of pay but then he went on to give his alcoholic guards double pay. The guards said that’s not fair but the king answered that although all of you guys did the same job, half of you put in much more effort than the other half.
I believe that the Torah and the Midrash are trying to remind us that people have or may need different motivations to follow the laws, and it is not the same for everyone; it varies from person to person based on individual’s backgrounds and believes. For me, I try to be nice to others because it is the right thing to do, not because I am going to get in trouble if I am mean. On the other hand, no matter how much I know it is the rule in my house to eat healthy food, I usually choose to eat junk food until my parents force me to eat healthy food before I can have dessert. Another example is my own Jewish observance. I would never consider eating non-Kosher meat, but I needed lots of reminders to learn Musaf for my Bar Mitzvah. Following one Jewish law is a regular part of my day-to-day life, and the other requires lots of encouragement and at times, the fear of punishment. I need different incentives and punishments to follow different rules. I think the Torah gets that, which is why it was written that way that it was.
Many of the laws of my Torah portion are about how people treat each other. I am so blessed to be surrounded by people who treat me with respect and have helped me to get ready for this day. With that, I return to Marco. I was 11 years old when Marco died. I learned from Marco and from the Torah portion that to have a sense of holiness, it is important to work hard, not because I need prizes or want to avoid punishment, but because I want to be the best person I can be. I wish that I had one more chance to practice for Marco, to give my best effort for him. Unfortunately, that is not possible. Luckily, I have my whole life ahead of me to strive for holiness, and to remember the lessons that I learned from Marco and from my Torah portion.
Evan Roffman, Grade 8
As we sit today, most of us hunkered down in our own homes, by definition ‘isolated’ from each other, we may seek some guidance beyond the compelling – and proper – directives from those helping us through this public health crisis. I’d like us to look for an extra moment at this week’s Torah portion, and what it can offer us.
To be a “wise-hearted person” a person “whose heart moves them” – isn’t that what we all aspire to be? And isn’t that what we want for our children, as well?
In this week’s portion, Va-yekhel, a sidra devoted to the gathering of all of Children of Israel – men and women together – where Moses addresses the entire nation, and charges them with the privilege of building the Tabernacle (the Mishkan), according to the instructions previously given, we see repeated use of the terms “for every one with a wise heart,” or “for everyone who hearts move them.”
Every person had some role to play in the building of the Mishkan – some to construct, some to donate, some to support, and yet Moses addressed all and every member of B’nei Yisrael. In other words, everyone had a role, and everyone thus had only to find that calling in their hearts. And while the detailed instructions that followed are about construction materials and techniques, little is directly said of instructions for growing a heart of wisdom, or a heart that moves us.
Perhaps we need to explore the text from a somewhat different angle to get some insight into that question.
Rabbi Benjamin Samuels (a great friend of Schechter) wrote recently about a teaching from the Sages on a related topic. The Sages encourage every Jew to see themselves as a single letter of the Torah. Since there is no Hebrew word of just a single letter (in distinction from English, where the first person singular is just one letter standing alone), every Hebrew word needs other letters to form words.
Then the words need other words in order form a sentence, or a page, or a poem, or a Torah. Similarly, every one of us has an important contribution to make, for without our heart-felt contributions, there would be no poetry, no Torah. Together, though, we compose something way beyond what we can each imagine for ourselves; we can compose something sacred.
Perhaps that is the lesson of a wise heart – to pursue the gift that is special to each of us, knowing that nothing sacred is ever achieved without the hearts and gifts of many, and that our goal is always focused on something higher, something greater.
Let this be a guide for us, and for our children: to keep “searching for that heart of gold,” and finding ways to build that center of sanctity with others on the journey, even when we might feel that we are isolated, alone.
For, indeed, the Torah teaches us, as Jews we are never alone. On days – and possibly weeks – like these, we are always “alone together;” always engaged, always part of something larger.
Rabbi Toba Spitzer (another Schechter friend) shared a poem by Lynn Ungar that might help frame this time for us:
…..Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)
Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly,
where we cannot touch.
Promise this world your love—
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live.
God willing, we will all emerge from this difficult period – together and stronger.
Arnold Zar-Kessler, Executive Director Inspiring Educators, Former Head of School, Schechter Alumni Parent and Grandparent