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D’var Torah: Rabbi Ron Fish (Yitro)

We have arrived.
We survived a midnight flight from Pharaoh and slavery.  Soon after the cries of Egypt began to fade into the distance. And we marched forward.

We faced sure death as their army pursued. Our group of ragged escaped slaves were trapped between chariots and lances or crashing waves and a sure end at the bottom of the sea.

Yet we charged ahead into the water. If we were not free from doubt, we were free of options. Now all that we could do was wade into the unknown.

Despite the panic and uncertainty we crossed the sea and were able to imagine, for the first time in centuries, what it could feel like to be on our own. Independent. With unbound creativity and hope. At the waters’ edge we sang and danced and rejoiced.

The next six weeks were met with some understandable cries of terror. There were also moments of childish complaints brought by a newly freed people, not yet ready to be on their own.

But we have finally arrived here at Sinai. We are as one people with one heart.* Ready to receive whatever God gives. Knowing that the future will be written in colors of anticipation and possibility when we are unified. Like we are today.

We have been through so much. The future seems bright for this singular people.

And yet, ‘one people with one heart’ isn’t easy to sustain. We know that in the past there have been differences. We have doubted ourselves, one another, even Moshe…even God. How will we return to this sense of the possible, becoming a single unified people, in the generations to come? We will surely face times of disagreement. Will all be lost if we do not succeed in becoming, and staying one?

In times to come, when future teachers of Israel disagree over the Torah/instruction we receive here at Sinai, it doesn’t have to lead to conflict or a loss of connection with God. If we recall what joins us together, this journey from slavery to freedom to whatever comes next, that sense of being on a shared quest is our path to survival. When we disagree we must recall that “these words and those can both be offered by the Living God.”**

Then, we will truly have arrived.

 

*Rashi describes the people of Israel as being “like one person with one heart” when they arrived at Sinai.

**The conflict between the houses of Hillel and Shammai 2,000 years ago was resolved when they both accepted that “these words and those are both the words of the living God.” Eruvin 13b

Rabbi Ron Fish, Temple Israel of Sharon, Schechter Parent

D’var Torah: Cantor Michael McCloskey (Beshalach)

The Passover Seder: The Holiness of Play

וְהִגַּדְתָּ֣ לְבִנְךָ֔ בַּיּ֥וֹם הַה֖וּא לֵאמֹ֑ר בַּעֲב֣וּר זֶ֗ה עָשָׂ֤ה יְהוָה֙ לִ֔י בְּצֵאתִ֖י מִמִּצְרָֽיִם:

And you shall tell your child on that day, “For the sake of this [celebrating Pesach] that Adonai did this for me, liberating me from Egypt. —Exodus 13:7

Pesach, the most widely observed and practiced Jewish holiday, is also the most democratic.  According to the Jewish philosopher Franz Rosensweig this equality is expressed in that “the youngest child is the one to speak, and what the father says at the table is adapted to this child’s personality and his degree of maturity…The one nearest the periphery of the circle gives the cue for the level on which the discussion must be conducted. For this conversation must include him.  No one who is there in the flesh shall be excluded in the spirit. The freedom of a society is always the freedom of everyone who belongs to it.”

Interestingly, the first description of the celebration of this holiday in this week’s portion of Beshallach creates some ambiguity in regard to its essential nature.  Is our observance of Passover a commemoration of the liberation from Egypt or was the celebration of Passover G-d’s first benchmark or spiritual goal for our people. According to this second understanding, to which Rashi and other commentators adhere, we were redeemed from Egypt so that we could engage with the commandments and serve the Holy One, most specifically with the observance of the Seder!  

Why is the seder such an important observance?  Why does it resonate so deeply with our people, regardless of their observance?  According to Maimonides, the great philosopher, rabbi, and physician, the essence of the seder is playful change, and that change in turn fosters personal, familial, and communal renewal.  According to him, those who conduct the seder “need to make a change on on this night in order that the children see and ask, “How is this night different from all other nights?” and he in turn replies “This-and-this happened and so-and-so occurred.” And how [specifically] does he change [the seder]? He distributes to them [the children] parched corn and nuts and uproots the table before they can eat and snatches matzah from hand to hand and the like…” In other words, there is a teasing sporting aspect to this meal of meals which invites questioning. “Whoa, why did you remove the table.  What’s going on? Hey, that’s my matzah? Why are you taking it? Wait, why are we having popcorn? This isn’t the movies, this is the Passover Seder!” Told another way, the most important facet of the Passover Seder is midrash, its creative, daring, and meaningful interpretation of the biblical accounts of the exodus from Egypt. In fact, the midrashim included in the Seder are believed by many scholars to be some of the first examples of this uniquely Jewish and highly playful form of interpretation!

In my home, for one of the two sedarim, we host families of many different faith traditions, utilizing the bare bones of the seder arranged by our sages, but each year adding new commentaries, new discussions, new activities, new songs, and new rituals.  Moreover, now that our children Leonardo (4.5) and Ramona (1.5) have joined our life, we are exploring even more modalities. Our seder features not only story-telling, discussion, and songs, but theatre, legos, and responding to the narrative with play-dough and painting, which we enjoy as much as our kids!

Cantor Michael McCloskey is the Cantor-Educator at Temple Emeth, Chestnut Hill, MA. He serves as adjunct faculty at Hebrew College and is currently working toward rabbinic ordination.   

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D’var Torah: Rabbi Ilana Garber ’91 (Bo)

Where is God? This is a question we’ve all likely asked on more than one occasion. Where was God during the Shoah? Where was God in Parkland, in Pittsburgh, and in all of the other places where tragedy has struck?

In difficult times we so often worry that God is absent. Indeed, it can feel that way. But I’d like to suggest that in this week’s Torah portion, Bo, we learn of a very different way to understand God’s presence in difficult times. When God tells Moshe to go to Pharaoh and to ask Pharaoh to let the people go, the words we read are, “bo el Par’o” – literally, come to Pharaoh. How can this be? What does “bo” (come) mean in this context? And note, most translate this phrase as “go to Pharaoh” because it makes more sense!

Let’s learn from this literal translation that when God says “bo” – come to Pharaoh – it is because God is there in Pharaoh’s palace – and in all of our dark times. We cannot see God, we cannot understand God, and we cannot appreciate God’s presence and impact in difficult situations. And yet, what this text teaches us is that we need to understand God is there in the difficult times, even if it doesn’t seem logical. That’s what faith is all about: trusting, believing, hoping, and assuming (yes, a bold word choice!) that God’s presence might impact our lives in ways we cannot know.

We’ve all been there – our own personal version of Mitzrayim, Egypt, the narrow place between despair and hopelessness. And we’ve all likely had moments when we have needed to confront our own personal Pharaoh. Like Moshe, we might stutter, tremble, and wish it was someone else in our sandals. But like Moshe, let us seek God’s presence. We cannot understand God’s ways, but as we confront challenging situations, let us try to recognize God’s impact on our lives.

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

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D’var Torah: Rabbi Ira Korinow (Va’era)

Parashat Va-era – Exodus from Egypt: Fact or Fiction?

by Rabbi Ira Korinow

Last week when we began reading the Book of Sh’mot, the Book of Exodus, we read of Moses’s birth and God’s choosing him to free the Israelites from Egyptian bondage.   This week in Parashat Va-era we read of the first seven of the ten plagues brought upon Egypt.  The stage is set for the saga of Y’tzi-at Mitzrayim, the Exodus from Egypt.  This story has generated several epic Hollywood films and is unquestionably our preeminent narrative marking the birth of the Jewish nation.  It is mentioned each day in our liturgy and is the raison d’être of our Jewish existence.

When the Etz Hayim Humash was published in 2001 by the Rabbinical Assembly, the umbrella organization of Conservative rabbis, it was strenuously criticized around the world for suggesting that the Exodus may never have occurred.  Professor Lee Levine, a Conservative rabbi and professor in the Department of History and the Institute of Archeology of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, wrote that there was no archeological evidence of Jews having been in Egypt or the Sinai and what little evidence does exist in Egyptian writings is negligible and indirect (see Etz Hayim Humash, page 1341).  Imagine… the quintessential story of the Exodus from Egypt might never have occurred!

Since then biblical scholars have continued to debate this issue.  Some feel that one cannot come to a conclusion based upon what is not found.  Others feel that more likely there was a small Semitic group known as Levites that left Egypt.   This band of Levites grew into the Jewish people and subsequently wrote their origin story which became what we now call the Exodus narrative.  This is, of course, supported by the fact that Moses (a Levite) had an Egyptian name as did other Levites mentioned in the Torah.

Was the Exodus fact or fiction?  Arguments exist on both sides of the question.  Even if one believes that Jews were never slaves in Egypt and that the Exodus may never have occurred, why did this story gain such prominence in Judaism and why should we continue to read it today?  Let me suggest that the lack of archeological, historical evidence does not mean that there are not important lessons to learn from this epic story.  The lack of historical truth does not imply a lack of what I like to call Truth with a capital “T.”  The Truth that the Torah contains is Truth which may be emotional, spiritual or psychological Truth.  It is Truth to guide us to live a more meaningful life.  Just because the Torah may not be a historically accurate account of our origins, that does not diminish the Truth of its insights.

Indeed, whether we believe the Torah is historically true, given by God or words written by humans, we should turn to the Torah, knowing we can derive much needed guidance as we confront difficult issues in our families, in our communities and in our world.

Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Emanu-El in Haverhill, currently the Interim Rabbi at Temple Israel in Portsmouth, New Hampshire and Schechter Alumni Parent

D’var Torah: Rabbi Michael Swarttz (Vayehi)

What’s So Special about Ephraim and Manesseh?

Parashat Vayechi brings the book of Genesis, as well as the Patriarchal/Matriarchal period, to a close. Jacob is coming to the end of his long life, and he offers closing remarks, sometime in the form of blessing, other times as rebuke, to his sons.

Interestingly, he blesses his grandsons, Ephraim and Manasseh, as well: “By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying: God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.” (48:20)

And those are the words we invoke to our sons on erev Shabbat before offering them the Bircat Kohanim, the priestly blessing.  To our daughters we say “May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.” There seems to be quite a disparity in status here.  Do not Ephraim and Manasseh pale in comparison to the four Matriarchs?  Are we men getting shortchanged?

The teaching of Yalkut Yehudah (Yehudah Leib Ginsberg, an early 20th century Denver rabbi) provides an insight into this choice of Ephraim and Manasseh:

“Why specifically this blessing for the children? Because Ephraim and Manasseh grew and were educated in Egypt, without a Jewish environment.  And despite this they maintained their Jewishness and were not defiled among the Egyptians. And because Jacob knew that Israel was fated to be dispersed among the nations, he gave this blessing to the future generations who would be raised in the Diaspora.

“And therefore with the entrance of the Shabbat queen, which guards over the people of Israel, we bless the children, who will preserve the spirit of Israel.”

Ephraim and Manasseh faced a unique challenge.  They did not grow up in a Jewish environment, yet somehow retained a sense of who they were.  Perhaps their father Joseph, who also maintained his Jewish identity in Egypt, despite outward appearances, instilled that in them.

We face the same challenge:  to preserve the spirit of Israel, the Torah and traditions of Israel while we are confronted with the allure and temptations of the surrounding culture.  It is easy to get caught up and lost and forget who we are. So we want our children to be like Ephraim and Mannaseh, to maintain their Jewishness in the face of compelling centrifugal forces that can easily pull them away from Torah and Jewish life.  So we provide them with a Jewish home and Jewish education, and bless them on Shabbat. Ultimately we have to let them go out into the world, hopefully with the tools, knowledge and commitment to enable them to withstand the enticements that that world poses to them.

May all of our children be like Ephraim, Sarah, Rebecca, Manasseh, Leah and Rachel!

 

Rabbi Michael Swarttz is a parent of a Schechter alumnus, Nadav, the rabbi of Beth Tikvah Synagogue in Westborough, the Jewish Chaplain at the Phillips Academy in Andover, and the Director of the Cotton Leadership Institute of the Jewish Federation of Central Massachusetts.

D’var Torah: Rabbi Dan Liben (Vayigash)

All of us have done things we regret.  People apologize; they promise never to act that way again.  Yet, how do we know if they have really changed?

Maimonides, in Hilchot Teshuva, teaches that if a person who has sinned is presented with the same circumstances and opportunity to commit that sin a second time, but doesn’t, then you know that his repentance was complete.   However, unless that opportunity presents itself, how do you know?

Joseph was desperate to know regarding his brothers.  He couldn’t risk revealing his true identity to the scoundrels who betrayed him in his youth, unless he really believed that they had changed.

So, in last week’s parsha, Joseph created an elaborate set of circumstances that provided them with the perfect opportunity to repeat the crime: to rid themselves, this time, of Joseph’s little brother, Benjamin, the remaining child of Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel.  It would be so easy: let Benjamin take the fall for the theft for which he had been framed, and they can all go home, scot-free!

This week’s parsha opens with Judah speaking to Joseph on behalf of his other brothers.  In a dramatic speech of breathtaking honesty, compassion and courage, the longest oration in the book of Genesis,  Judah refuses to take the bait.  Instead, he offers up his own freedom in return for Benjamin’s.  Where once, he had taunted his father Jacob with Joseph’s bloodied coat, leading the poor man to believe his favorite son was dead, now he has only compassion for his father, and for the special love that Jacob reserved for Rachel’s children.  Jealousy and anger have been replaced by acceptance and compassion.  It is this scene that explains most clearly why Judah supersedes his older brother Reuven in family leadership, and why the Jewish people as a whole carry Judah’s name.  In this climactic scene, the often murderous strife between brothers that has characterized every generation in the book of Genesis, is put to rest and a familial loyalty takes root that makes possible the birth of the Jews as a people.

And as for Joseph?  Having answered the question of his brothers’ repentance at last, Joseph is free to drop the heavy mask behind which he had been hiding, and to reclaim his identity as a son of Jacob.  May we find Joseph’s perseverance to seek out the truth, and Judah’s honesty and courage to face it.

Rabbi Dan Liben, Temple Israel of Natick, Schechter Alumni Parent

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D’var Torah: Rabbi Dov Bard (Miketz)

Rabbi Shim’on said, “Woe to the human being who says that Torah presents mere stories and ordinary words! If so, we could compose a Torah right now with ordinary words, and better than all of them. To present matters of the world? Even rulers of the world possess words more sublime. If so, let us follow them and make a Torah out of them. Ah, but all the words of Torah are sublime words, sublime secrets!”

This teaching from the Zohar (III:152a) is an urgent reminder that we need to rescue truth from obscurity. The Yosef stories which continue this week seem particularly profane in their sharing familial conflicts, suspicions, hatreds and divisions. Where is the light of God to inspire the readers? Who needs to read about more conflict? Are there not in world literature words more sublime?

The midrash is asking the same question about these stories. The tribes were busy with the selling of Yosef, Yosef was busy with his suffering and trials in Egypt, Reuven was busy with seducing his father’s concubine and failing to return Yosef to his father, Yaakov was busy mourning for Yosef, and Yehuda was busy finding a wife among the Canaanites. However, the midrash assures us that God was busy also, in the midst of all of this family intrigue, “creating the light of the King Messiah.(Bereishit Raba 85:1) God was working on redemption – the eternal hope of humanity.

In other words, the midrash seeks a truth hidden within the text of the Torah. There is a story within a story. There is a human story in the Yosef cycle yet, with a deeper reading, we can see a story of the workings of divine Providence. It is precisely in the mundane that we can perceive intimations of the divine. We can rescue truth from obscurity. Our lives, too, are often stories of struggle and conflict, but with the study of Torah, we can hopefully detect deeper meaning and significance. And are we not to live our lives in the presence of God and not just reacting to the relentless demands of day-to-day life?

Shabbat Shalom V’Hag Urim Sameach

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

D’var Torah: Rabbi David Bernat ’72 (Vayeshev)

Parshat Vayeshev contains the first installment of Joseph’s story. We might, therefore, expect the portion’s initial sentences to mention Joseph, Torah style – “Eleh toldot Yosef … These are the generations of Joseph; Joseph was 17 years old …” or “Vayehi achar hadvarim ha’eleh … And it happened after these things that Joseph was 17 years old …” Instead, the tale commences – “Vayeshev Yaakov beeretz megurei aviv, be’eretz Kenaan … Jacob settled in the land where his ancestors lived, in the land of Canaan … Eileh toldot Yaakov … These are the generations of Jacob … Yosef ben shva esrei shanah … Joseph was 17 years old …”

Why begin with a reference to Jacob and his ancestors? These opening verses present a compact but powerful message about tradition and continuity. According to a Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 40:6), God instructs Abraham:“Tsei uchvosh et haderech lifnei vanecha – Go out and pave the way for your children.” This imperative applies to us all. From Abraham until this day and after, every Jew has and will have the responsibility to pave the way for his or her descendants.

While each of us sets our own life’s course, we also carry our ancestral legacy. While we tell our own stories, we must carry the awareness that we are setting a tone and direction for our children and their children after. As a Schechter alum and a Schechter parent, I am cognizant of the way my parents’ choice influenced their grandchildren’s educational paths. As members of the Schechter community, we all experience the force of tradition and the key role a day school education can play in promoting Jewish commitment and continuity. Like Jacob, we’ve elected to occupy the same spiritual space as our parents and to carve out that space for our children. Tsei uchvosh et haderech … Go out and pave the way.

David Bernat ’72, Executive Director Synagogue Council of Massachusetts, UMass Amherst Lecturer in Judaic Studies and Schechter Alumni Parent

D’var Torah: Rabbi Daniel Berman (Vayetze)

My wife Sarah and I named our children Elie and Mica after members of our families whom we loved: Esther, Eileen, Meir and Max. When Elie and Mica were born, we threw festive parties and blessed them with their new names. We shared why we loved these names and how we hoped that they would bring the qualities and values of the people for whom they were named more deeply into the world. It often seems that our beloved family members whom we have lost are resting on our kids’ shoulders, guiding their way. Naming children is beautiful, full of hope and promise and love. But naming also has what we call a “shadow side.” A name can feel limiting of one’s identity. What if our Elie didn’t feel like an Elie? Or our Mica didn’t want to be Mica? It is our responsibility to help them live genuinely and truthfully.

This is a core tension in our Torah reading this week, parashat Va’yeitzeh, which includes stories of giving birth and giving names.  Torah tells us a story of the origin of the name of each of Jacob’s sons born to Rachel, Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah. The names express experiences and emotions like feeling unloved, hoping for love, gratitude, vindication, prevailing in a battle, and fortune. These are not easy emotions for a child to hold in his or her name. I read much of the rest of Sefer Bereshit, the Book of Genesis, though this lens. The stories of this family originate in these very emotional experiences of birth. The children are given an immediate identity and they struggle to both fulfill and separate themselves from their identities. Their struggle to live genuinely is at the heart of the painful, but finally redemptive and fulfilling, story of this family. In each of our lives, as parents and as children, we can join this struggle, looking to the past experiences and emotions of our families for guidance while charting out an authentic life of our own.

Rabbi Daniel Berman, Temple Reyim

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D’var Torah: Rabbi Victor Reinstein (Toldot)

Each One’s Life a Sacred Telling

A thematic thread of barrenness weaves through the book of B’reishit, of women unable to conceive. It is so for three of our mothers, Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel. Children do not come easily, but for each of them only over time and through struggle. Barrenness can also become a metaphor in our reading of these narratives, emptiness in the womb of each of our lives. Particularly from Rebecca, we learn what it means to actively pursue meaning, not to passively wait, dwelling on what isn’t, but to go out and seek, to birth meaning into our lives.

Rebecca is feisty, acting in relation to reality, making her mark in the unfolding of events. She is asked of her readiness to leave home to marry Yitzchak, who himself had notably remained at home while a wife was sought for him. We are told that when she saw Yitzchak from afar, not waiting for him to reach her, she slipped down from the camel she was riding. Much later, whether for good or ill, it is she, not Yitzchak, who maneuvers to insure that Jacob will succeed his father in the continuity of Israel’s coming to be.

In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Toldot/Generations, poignant expression is given even to Rebecca’s initiative in relation to God. It is here that her activism, if you will, becomes a paradigm for each of us to draw from in our own active engagement with life. Of this ancestral couple yearning for children, we are told, And Yitzchak entreated God concerning his wife, for she was barren. Clearly underscoring this sense of Rivka as one not to stand to the side, the rabbis emphasize that it was not only Yitzchak who was praying in that moment, but both of them. In a touchingly sensitive midrash, the rabbis say, this one stood in this corner and prayed, and this one stood in this corner and prayed.

Their prayers indeed answered, Rivka endures a very difficult pregnancy. She cries out, lamah zeh anochi/why is this happening to me? In another midrash, the rabbis appear to smile on Rivka’s rich and earthy relationship with God, Rivka said before the Holy One, Master of the Universe, You have not created anything in a person vainly, eyes to see, ears to hear, a mouth to speak, a heart to understand, hands to touch, legs to walk; and these breasts/hadadin halalu, for what, if not to give suck surely they are in vain. The Torah then says, va’taylech lidrosh et Ha’shem/and she went to inquire of God.

Lidrosh, to inquire, to search, to seek, this is the key word on which everything else turns, for Rivka and for us. It is a word that bursts with meaning, more than a word, an invitation to engage life if we would find meaning. Its root, DaRaSh, forms the root of midrash, that weaving of tales that comes of searching out the blank spaces between the letters, the words, the lines of Torah. It is at the root of our sharing words of Torah that rise from our heart, as in a d’rasha. Blandly translated so often as sermon, a d’rasha is the sharing of one’s search for meaning through engagement with Torah, with life. One cannot give a d’rasha without engaging, without, seeking. A beit midrash, one of the terms for synagogue, is generally translated as a “house of study.” I prefer to think of it as a “house of seeking.” When Rebecca went to “inquire of God,” lidrosh et Hashem, the rabbis say that indeed she went to a beit midrash, and that was long before women were counted in their number.

We learn of engagement with life from Rivka imenu, Rebecca our mother. When life seems barren, meaning ephemeral and hard to grasp, she tells us to get up, to go out, search out the landscape, of soul and psyche, of people and place. The nature of our seeking shapes the path and the purpose of our lives. If we don’t seek, we will not find. Our task is to become the d’rasha, the search that is shared, each one’s life a sacred telling.

Rabbi Victor Reinstein is rabbi and founder of Nehar Shalom Community Synagogue in Jamaica Plain and is a Schechter alumni parent and former teacher and school rabbi.