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D’var Torah: Rabbi Ravid Tilles (Lech Lecha)

I still remember the first verse I was ever expected to memorize in my 3rd grade Tanach class at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, MD:

וַיֹּאמֶר ה אֶל-אַבְרָם, לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ.

“And God said to Avram, go out from your land, the place that you were born, from your father’s house to a Land that I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1)

These are the opening words of Parshat Lech Lecha, the first portion that focuses on the life and times of Abraham and his family. This verse marks the beginning of the relationship between Abraham and God, a relationship that we consider to be the catalyst for the creation of the Jewish people. When read at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, this verse highlights the great sacrifice that Abraham (still Avram here) had to make in order to establish a Great Nation. But when we broaden the scope of the Abraham story, to include the end of last week’s portion (Parshat Noach), we understand this verse differently.

Verse 1 of Genesis Chapter 12 relays God’s command to Avram to leave his land and the place that he was born, but many of our Ancient Sages note that Avram had already left his birthplace. Avram was born in Ur Kasdim, and we learn in verse 31 of chapter 11 that Avram’s father, Terach, had already brought Avram and Sarai and their family out of Ur Kasdim on their way to Canaan but that they stopped in Haran and never left. So the command from God to Avram to leave his birthplace and to leave his father’s home are actually different commands since his homeland was Ur Kasdim and his father’s home was newly settled in Haran. The Ramban posits that Avram actually received two separate prophecies that were combined into one in Lech Lecha’s opening verse. That Avram was told to leave his birthplace and his land while he was in Ur Kasdim and that he was then told to leave his father’s house while they were settled in Canaan. The Ramban explains that God is commanding Avram that he has more work to do and that he needs to continue to go further. That the Promised Land of Canaan awaits and that Avram has more work to do.

During this time of year, with the High Holy Day season still very fresh in our minds, we find ourselves on the never-ending journey toward self-improvement and discovery. We can envision our Promised Land of self-actualization, or if we struggle to articulate our goals then we go forward with the faith that our vision will be shown to us along the way (Asher Ar’eka). Throughout the course of our journeys we need encouragement or reminders that will motivate us to go further. We made resolutions and set goals while we were in Ur Kasdim, our origin at the start of the year, and it will inevitably be a long journey that will require patience and commitment. So we may find ourselves stopping our journey, like in a Haran. Ramban’s message to us and the lesson of the first verse of Parshat Lech Lecha is that we need to go further. That we should not be so complaisant to say, Haran is good enough. We must resist the temptation to say that less than my goal was good enough because at least it is closer than I had been. Instead we need to continue to find motivation from within and from our family and friends. We must continuously go forward, on our journey toward self-improvement to turn the vision for this coming year into a reality. Shanah Tovah and Shabbat Shalom.     

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D’var Torah: Rabbi Sara Meirowitz (Noach)

I still remember the day when I had to face the fact that I was imperfect. I was in fifth grade, a dutiful student in David Wolf’s Language Arts class, memorizing spelling words for weekly quizzes. I was an anxious child and a perfectionist, dreading every possible mistake. And then the unthinkable happened: I misspelled a word. I dug my nails into my hand in self-blame.

Even to recall this level of drama seems absurd now, but I remember so clearly the feeling of frustration and panic which led me to unconsciously scratch at my hand. But more important were the gentle yet firm words of my teacher (who thankfully still instructs Schechter students today!):

Everyone makes mistakes. Be kind to yourself.

                  You will have another chance.

                  I will support you.

I think of this story this week with Parashat Noach, which tells of a world so steeped in imperfection. We see a world in turmoil, sin-ravaged, with just one simple man and his family standing out from the pack. Human wickedness causes God to regret all of creation — the world is too spoiled, too imperfect. Let’s try again with just Noah, God says. Perhaps perfection can then be possible.

And yet, after the flood, the world is no more utopian than before. God utters perhaps the most pessimistic line in the Torah: “Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth” (Gen. 8:21). Imperfection – even evil – is part of human nature. And in truth, when I look at the many terrors and troubles in the world around us, it’s hard for me to disagree.

So how do those of us engaged in tikkun olam, perfectionists in our hearts, continue to have courage among this imperfection? I look to the next part of our parashah for inspiration, where God plays the role of teacher and coach to humanity.

Let’s make a covenant together, God says.

                  I’ll support you, and you do your part

                  There will be consequences for mistakes – but I will stand by you, no matter what.

And God gives the rainbow as a sign of the covenant.

May we all be blessed to have teachers and mentors who help us make mistakes, forgive ourselves, and live perfectly well in our imperfect world.

 

Rabbi Sara Meirowitz ’91 is Assistant Chair of Jewish Studies at Gann Academy in Waltham, MA.

 

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D’var Torah: Abraham Wyett (Bereshit)

Today, the Jewish people start over when we read Bereshit, the Hebrew word for “in the beginning”. But what I have come to realize during my yearlong study of my parasha is that many people are not so fortunate as to be able to start over and have a new beginning. Some people make moral choices that change their lives forever. Why do we make the choices we do? How do we resist temptation and make good moral choices?

These questions arise from the beginning of time, in Bereshit, when G-D creates the world and Adam and Eve. G-D warns Adam, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.” Adam does not heed God’s warning and eats the apple from the tree of knowledge after the serpent convinces Eve that she could eat the forbidden fruit. G-D banishes Adam and Eve from the garden of good and evil and punishes all their descendants. From here on, humans no longer get a free pass – when we make moral choices, we must live with the outcomes of our decisions. Today, I would like to share with you three examples of people who made moral choices that greatly affected their lives in serious ways and tell you what I have learned from their collective stories.

“That’s when I began to pray/ Lord show me how to say no to this/ I don’t know how to say no to this”

These words could easily have been uttered by Adam before he took a bite of the forbidden fruit. But if they sound familiar, you probably recognize them as the lyrics from the Broadway musical, Hamilton. The lyrics are part of a song when Alexander Hamilton thinks about having an affair with a stranger. One regretful night, Hamilton comes across a helpless woman, Maria Reynolds, who claims to be in an abusive marriage, begs Hamilton for help and ultimately invites Hamilton into her house starting a lengthy affair. Although Hamilton begs for G-D’s help in “saying no to this”, G-D obviously does not prevent his mistake. Similarly, when Eve reaches for the apple from the tree of knowledge, G-D does not slap Eve’s hand away but rather lets Eve make the mistake of taking the apple. This decision nearly ruins Hamilton’s marriage and political career, but Hamilton’s worst decision came many years later when he agreed to a duel with Aaron Burr. While Burr fired his pistol, Hamilton held up his gun as a sign of respect. Hamilton died, leaving his kids fatherless and his wife a widow for nearly another 50 years.

Amar’e Stoudemire said he was “the best player I’ve played with at any level.” Carmelo Anthony said he had “skills that evoke comparisons to Allen Iverson.” He might have been the first guard ever drafted directly out of high school. He might have been…except you have probably never heard of him. He is Jonathan Hargett, a high school basketball sensation, and top ten recruit in the class of 2001, who just a couple years ago was released from a five-year prison sentence for dealing drugs. Hargett began smoking marijuana in 7th grade and selling small amounts of drugs; by high school, he was smoking whenever he could. Hargett began bouncing around high schools and suffering academically. He committed to West Virginia and after a good start to their season the team lost 18 of their last 19 games with Hargett playing selfishly and shooting arbitrarily. He stopped listening to his coaches. His draft stock plummeted. He returned to Richmond, began selling drugs and was arrested with 40 grams of cocaine hidden in the ashtray of his car. His story shows the domino effect of making poor decisions.

Likewise, Len Bias was the second overall pick by the Boston Celtics in the 1986 NBA draft. Known as “the successor of Larry Bird” and considered “the next NBA superstar,” Bias already had a Reebok contract worth $1.6 million and a promising career. But 2 days after the draft. Bias collapsed to the ground and had a seizure. He was pronounced dead at 8:55 am of a cardiac arrhythmia, due to his use of cocaine. Bias was only 22 years old. His story connects to Bereshit because all of them – Len Bias, Adam and Eve – gave in to temptation and made a decision which, in a split second, changed their lives forever. Len’s decision to use cocaine was partly influenced by his friends, just as Adam was convinced by Eve to eat the forbidden fruit. All of their lives were changed drastically by one brief moment of time where the thoughts of others trumped their own thoughts.

As Rabbi Kushner explained, we live in a world of good and bad, and our moral decisions decide our outcomes. We don’t always have a guiding hand to help us make good moral choices. God did not stop Eve from picking the forbidden fruit. God did not stop Jonathan Hargett from doing drugs. God did not stop Len Bias from ingesting cocaine. If we want to make unwise choices that hurt us and the ones we love, God will not stop us either. How do we say no to this? By realizing that if we say yes to this, we can ruin our lives, and the lives of those we love. That insight, not God’s intervention, can help us make the right choice. 

Abraham Wyett, Grade 8 Student at Schechter

D’var Torah: Rabbi David Splansky (Sukkot)

The festival of Sukkot comes all too soon after Yom Kippur, but provides a much needed contrast to the solemnity of the High Holidays. We make the adjustment.

Leviticus 23:40 instructs: “On the first day you shall take the product of the ‘hadar’ trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days.” The Torah, however, never includes a commandment to put those items together and wave them by hand. In fact, two verses later, Lev. 23:42, tells us to live in booths (“sukkot”), so perhaps these items from trees were actually to be used in the building of the sukkot! That seems to be precisely what a later book of the Bible confirms. “Go out to the mountains and bring leafy branches of olive trees, pine trees, myrtles, palms, and (other) leafy trees to make sukkot….So the people went out and brought them, and made themselves sukkot.” (Nehemiah 8:15-16)

The Biblical tradition, therefore, was to use these items for constructing sukkot. The post-Biblical tradition, especially the rabbinic one, was to grasp these items by hand and wave them in all directions, as we still do today.

This development-change of tradition is only one of many examples in which the ancient rabbis interpreted Biblical commandments to yield new meanings. Is that “kosher”? Of course it is. The real question is “How well do we respond to change, especially if we liked “the old way”? For that matter, how well do we respond to the new realities of how our children and grandchildren are changing as they grow?

The late Israeli poet Yehudah Amichai gave voice to this idea in part of his poem, “Open, Closed, Open”. He said his father passed on

“The Ten Commandments, not in thunder and not in fury, not in fire, and not in a cloud

But gently and with love…

…And he said: I want to add

Two to the Ten Commandments:

The eleventh commandment, ‘You shall not change,’

And the twelfth commandment, ‘Surely you shall change…’”

 

Rabbi Donald Splansky

 

D’var Torah: Rabbi Ed Gelb (Yom Kippur)

 

As we approach Yom Kippur I was thinking of the daily blessing, “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, for giving sight to the blind.”  It is a troubling blessing.  On the most literal level, this is obviously not true.  Additionally, what a strange blessing to say, as the vast majority of us are not blind and can see fine.  So we are saying a blessing that isn’t true and isn’t relevant to the vast majority of us.  Since I think the rabbis were actually pretty intelligent, there must be deeper reasons for including this blessing.

Every year we could be overcome by all the terrible things that happen in our world.  Globally, the terrible waste of life, the hurricanes, and the utter evil that some people inflict on others areis downright depressing.  On a personal scale, there are too many tragedies.  Whether within our families or within our community, there are too many who are struggling with illness and death, betrayal, and pain.  Sometimes it is hard to see the good in the world.  At Yom Kippur I think it is important to look for the good.  There are so many people who do good things for others every day.  People who drive a homebound person to the store, campers who volunteer to work with children with disabilities, and families that volunteer at soup kitchens.  Look around your synagogue, I bet you find tons of people who are doing good things for others.  By seeing the good in the world we can strengthen our resolve to also do good.

Even with good people, sometimes I believe that we are still blind to thosepeople in need.  Again, I’m thinking personally, in our families and in our communities.  We have such power to influence others.  Yet, in our busy lives do we take the time to truly see?  Time to see our children who are wantingdying to be noticed and to hear one compliment about something they have accomplished.  Time to see our parents and all that they have done for us and to say thank you.  Time to see someone lonely or hurt that we can help simply by listening to them.  Again, look around at your community, there are so many people to see that we can help.

All of us are blind at some point in our lives.  It is natural to be turned inward and to focus on ourselves.  Sometimes we simply do not see the world around us, the good, and also the needy.  This year, may we be blessed with sight so that we can take action to do even more good for each other and our world.

G’mar Chatimah Tova.

Rabbi Ed Gelb is the director of Camp Ramah – New England. 

D’var Torah: David Bernat (Haazinu)

 

God can be scary… At least the God portrayed in our High Holiday services, coming just around the corner.  God, the King, sits on an exalted throne and we approach, with fear and trembling, awaiting the Shofar’s blast and God’s Judgement “Who shall live and who shall die… who by water and who by fire… who by famine and who by thirst… who by earthquake and who by plague…” It is no wonder that this period is called, Yamim Noraim, “Days of Awe.”  The frightening God is also front and center in our weekly portion.  Haazinu, “Listen-up,” is a dramatic poem that is part of Moses’ final words to the Israelites before he dies and they enter the Promised Land.  The Torah here seems to promote the principles of “tough love,” and middah kenegetd middah, “measure for measure.” If the people are loyal and follow the correct path, they will be rewarded. If not, God declares, “I will pile hardship on them…wasting famine, devouring plague…and fanged beasts I will send against them…” (Deuteronomy 32:23-24).

As we engage in spiritual and ethical reflection, appropriate to the season, can we not ask; “Is this the Divine role model we wish for?”  “Are we meant to believe that the people of Houston, Haiti, Florida and other victims of natural devastation deserve their Judgement?” Is this the kind of Parent/Teacher/Manager we want?” “Is this the kind of Parent/Teacher/Manager we want to be?” I am not suggesting that we stop reading Haazinu and stop reciting Unetaneh Tokef. Rather, I believe that we can, and should, wrestle with our core traditions, even at our most sacred moments.

Fortunately, our Parasha also contains a metaphor for God that is like a ray of sunshine amidst the bleak clouds. Kenesher yair kino, al gozalav yerachef (Deut 32:11). God is compared to a raptor, hovering over its nest, ready to protect and feed its hatchlings. Here is the image of a nurturing God who loves unconditionally.  With such a heart-warming model in mind, I hope that, as we near the days of awe, and undertake a rigorous moral inventory, we can also learn how to give and receive love unconditionally, and nurture those in our community rather than rendering judgement.

Shanah Tovah

 

David Bernat PhD, Executive Director, Synagogue Council of MA, Lecturer in Judaic Studies, UMass Amherst, SSDS Alumnus and Alumni parent.

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D’var Torah: Rebecca Lurie (Nitzavim-Vayelech)

This week’s parashiyot, Nitzavim-Vayelech, describes Moshe, at 120 years old, passing along his role of leading B’nei Yisrael to Joshua. As his days were nearing the end, Moshe is told by God to relate the Shira, the portion of Ha’azinu that is the Song of Moses, to B’nei Ysrael. The last verse in Vayelech reads: “Moses spoke the words of this song into the ears of the entire congregation of Israel,” עַד תֻּמָּם, “until their conclusion” (Deut. 31,30).

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, a Lithuanian Rabbi from the late 19th century asks, why does the Torah say “until their conclusion?” Wouldn’t everyone assume Moshe would recite the entire song? Rabbi Feinstein answers that Moshe was not just reciting the words, but also providing in-depth meaning to these words “Until their conclusion”  implies Moshe provided the deepest understanding of the true meaning of the Song.

Every day, my colleagues and I seek to create authentic Jewish experiences for our students that will ignite in them a spark to form their own Jewish identities. And I am thrilled to see so many moments in the Schechter program that grapple with text – through Tefillah, Talmud and Tanach – in order to find purpose, meaning and deep understanding. Just this week, I sat in on the 6th-grade Tanach class where Lianne Gross emphasized to students that “every translation is an interpretation.” There is so much beauty in the concept of the p’shat (literal translation) and the drash (deeper meaning/interpretation) of the Tanach. That is why I personally love studying Tanach – because it is a place to think deeply about the possibilities of what specific words and texts mean. And it is up to us to find personal connections.

Just as Moshe acted as a facilitator to B’nei Yisrael to help them form a deep understanding in the scripture, so too are the faculty at Schechter facilitating a community of purpose and meaning seekers. And I am truly grateful for the work they do every day with our students.

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D’var Torah: Rabbi Ravid Tilles (Ki Tavo)

The new school year has finally arrived! We are concluding an invigorating summer of reflection, strategic work and planning as we eagerly await the arrival of our students. But in some ways it has also been a summer of heartbreak and sadness while we watched, like all of you,  news reports from Charlottesville and Houston. Though vastly different in many ways, both events have deeply shaken our national consciousness and have shown us the worst and then the best of American character and capability. These events remind us that our hearts have the potential to travel many hundreds or thousands of miles, across state lines, and connect with people we have never met.

Our empathy and our concern for the stranger is a core Jewish value that we see reinforced in this week’s Torah portion Ki Tavo. In this portion we find the famous verses from our Passover Seder that begin “My Father was a wandering Aramean…” (Deut. 26:5-8). These verses recall how far the Israelite people had come during their 40 year-long journey. They had been strangers, oppressed in the Land of Egypt, and now they stood at the edge of the Promised Land, preparing for a life of prosperity. God reminds them that every year, when it is time to bring the first fruits, the Israelites must make note of their gratitude for their good fortune, AND they must share their wealth with the stranger and the oppressed.

One of the most important lessons we can teach our children, and a lesson that we constantly reinforce with every student in every grade level at our school, is that the world is bigger than ourselves and that we are responsible for one another. That kindness and love for others is essential to our nature as Jewish people and human beings. We teach our students the prayers of gratitude and thanksgiving, but we remind them that prayer is only the first step and that action must follow. Which is why we encourage our Gan Shelanu students to share, and find tzedakah projects for our Lower School students, and promote citizenship in our Intermediate Division and create social action projects with our 8th graders. All of these initiatives reinforce what our Torah treasures the most and therefore, our priority as a Jewish community. We must give thanks for what we have and then remember to share with those most in need. Our faculty, staff and administration all believe the work we are doing with our students, your children, is crucial toward repairing our shared society and communities.

May we all have a blessed year of learning, love, compassion and growth in which we see the world become a better place! Shanah Tovah!

D’var Torah: Rabbi Donald M. Splansky (Sh’lach L’kha)

I once enjoyed the privilege of attending the 50th anniversary weekend celebration of Kibbut Yahel in the southern Negev. During the musical presentation of the smallest children in the kibbutz’s school, they sang a song with such cuteness, verve, and joy that the audience clapped and clapped until the students came back to sing an encore of the same song. As they entered the stage again, one little boy said to another in Hebrew, “We better not sing it as well this time so they won’t insist we come back again!”

That thought stuck in my mind as one possible position to take: it is better to stay put and secure rather than excel and be expected to excel further. Surely the ten scouts of the twelve who reported to Moses about the land of Israel felt that way. They said, “We cannot attack that people for it is stronger than we.” (Nu. 13:31) Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the Lubavitcher rebbe, asked a good question: why did the ten scouts fear invading Israel when they had already seen what God had done for them already? God had worked the miracles of the ten plagues, the crossing the Sea of Reeds, the gift of manna every weekday in the wilderness, and ample water, so why did they become so defeatist? The rebbe’s answer was surprising. He said the scouts were not afraid of defeat, but rather they were afraid of success. Why leave “the security of wilderness”?

We ask a lot of our children and grandchildren to persevere through S.S.D.S. with its demanding curriculum in both Hebrew and general studies. And then we will ask for similar excellence in high school and college. Surely, there is nothing wrong with asking them to be all that they can be. (A ship can stay in harbor, but it is built to sail out to sea.)

Nevertheless, let us monitor our kids’ academic success very carefully, and judge their “bad stress” and their “good stress”, and distinguish their “excellence” from their “good enough.”

— Rabbi Donald Splansky, Rabbi Emeritus Temple Beth Am, Framingham, Schechter grandparent

D’var Torah: Rabbi Ed Gelb (B’halotcha)

In this week’s Torah portion, B’ha-alot’kha, Miriam and Aharon talk negatively about Moshe’s marriage and express jealousy over who was the greater prophet. God rebukes them and Miriam is left afflicted with leprosy. Aharon begs Moshe to intercede on her behalf, and in one of my favorite Torah moments Moshe prays to God: “אל נא רפא נא לה” – “O God, pray heal her.”

There are two reasons why I love this. First, there is the juxtaposition of evil and good speech. Most gossip revolves around lengthy conversations that tear someone down. Moshe’s prayer of healing is short and to the point. The more we talk about others the more likely we are to stray into negative talk. Second, Moshe’s prayer is instructive. It is passionate, short and from the heart. There are definite times that praying as a community from siddurim with elaborately constructed poetry is important and meaningful. Still, we should also know that we can pray anywhere, anytime and with words and feelings that come from our hearts. I find that empowering and comforting.

Using speech for good and constructive purposes while staying away from negative talk is very hard. Very few people have mastered this ability. As both talkers and listeners we have a responsibility to strive to elevate our speech and use it to build others up.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Ed Gelb, Director, Camp Ramah in New England