D’var Torah: Rabbi Michael Swarttz (Vayerah)

Vayerah:  There All Along, Here All Along

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rabbi Michael Swarttz is the parent of Schechter alumnus Nadav Swarttz

D’var Torah: Lech Lecha (Shoshi Jalfin)

It was for the love of the Hebrew language and Jewish texts that already at age 15, I decided to be a teacher. It was a special call, an inner voice telling me, “Lechi Lach – Go to yourself.” From that moment on, I followed the path leading to fulfill my dream, and after so many years, “Hineni, – Here I am,” still teaching with passion.

In parashat Lech Lecha, both Abram and Sarai hear a special call. Together they leave their country, their homeland and their family behind in Haran to go to a land they do not know because they feel, at that precise moment, that following that voice is what they have to do. Quoted in Pirkei Avot, Hilel says, “Im ein ani li, mi li… Ve Im lo achsav ei matai – If I am not for myself, then who will be for me?… And if not now when?” This is what I interpret that Abram and Sarai do upon leaving their comfort zone and when going toward the unknown. Sometimes too, we just hear that voice, the specific urgent call we must follow, knowing that although uncertain, it is a good one; a journey that is going to impact both our own life and the life of others. This, I believe, is what leadership is all about.

Recently, after many years of teaching, a new voice has called me forth. For a second year now, I have been involved in a Teacher Leadership Fellowship program at Brandeis University.  When I first heard about this program, I felt that this was my second Lechi Lach call. My initiative is to support the school vision of teaching Judaic Studies in depth, with purpose and joy. I can fulfill this mission by helping other teachers and myself perfect our instruction, by having discussions around what good teaching is, by deepening our knowledge and expertise, and by making the topics of what we teach more relevant to our students. While experiencing joy, students can understand the purpose of what we, the Jewish people, do and why we do it. 

Abram and Sarai who’s names in this parasha are changed to Abraham and Sarah, begin their own leadership journey and are promised to have as many children as the stars in the sky and the dust on earth so to carry on the legacy of their values and their belief in God to their offspring, Isaac and Rebecca; Jacob, Leah and Rachel. Like Rabbi Tarfon says, “Lo Alecha Hamelacha Ligmor…”. “It is not just up to you to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” We must be role models to others to continue what we have started. So following Abraham and Sarah’s foot steps, may we too hear that call, our inner voice, and pass it on “Mi dor  le dor”, “From generation to generation”. In our Schechter community, whether we are parents or teachers, we are partners in teaching our children keep our Jewish values and traditions alive and by living them to the fullest.

D’var Torah: Rabbi Gilbert S. Rosenthal

I always loved Parshat B’reshit. It is the first chapter of the Torah and it says it all: The creation of the universe, the birth of living creatures, the fashioning of the first humans—Adam and Eve—love, marriage, jealousy, birth of children, sibling rivalry and fratricide, the formation of various tribes and nations, the insidious appearance of evil, etc. Perhaps the greatest verse is chapter 5:1: “And God created humans in His image.” Rabbi Akiva stressed the importance of this passage when he stated (Mishnah Avot 3:8), “Precious is humanity for having been created in the image of the Divine.” We are not merely animals; were are sentient, intelligent humans with the unique ability of choosing good versus evil and of developing our intellect and creating a better world.

What can one say as we scan the world and witness such brutality and cruelty among the nations? Is this the way God planned things? And what shall our reaction be when our own nation—the land that welcomed the poor and persecuted and homeless masses to its shores of freedom and opportunity would wall-off millions and designate them as “criminals, rapists, murderers, drug dealers,” etc.? Had this attitude prevailed, my ancestors never would have made it to America in the 1880s, fleeing Czarist pogroms.

We need to study B’reshit carefully, once again. We need the religious leaders of all faiths to reemphasize its great teachings and value-system. We need politicians who are not just fixed on getting reelected but who stand for the principles that made America great and a beacon to all the other nations on earth, inspiring them to copy our example. Rabbi Tanhuma said it best in this wonderful passage (Genesis Rabbah 24:7): “

Whoever curses, deprecates or degrades another human being it is as if he cursed, deprecated or degraded God, because the human being is created in His image.”

Perhaps we might send a copy of this quote to all of our religious leaders, politicians, and school principals. Maybe, then, the hopes and dreams of the Creation tale might be realized?

elan-babchuck

D’var Torah: Rabbi Elan Babchuck ’96 (Chol Hamoed Sukkot)

The Medizbozer Rebbe used to say: During the High Holidays, we find ourselves serving God with the entirety of our being. On Rosh Hashanah, we serve with our head, as memory enwreathes our mind. On Yom Kippur, we serve with the heart, as fasting strains the heart to its fullest capacity, and we open our hearts to our loved ones in seeking and granting forgiveness. And on Sukkot, we serve with our hands, as we grasp the lulav and etrog and build our sukkot from the ground up.

Indeed, the head-work and heart-work of the High Holidays can be engrossing, engaging, and exhausting to the mind and the spirit, respectively. When we truly give ourselves over to the task of searching our heads and scanning our hearts for all that ails us, inspires us, and moves us, we often find ourselves collapsed in a heap after the rush of bagels and orange juice at break-fast. And yet – tired as we may be – our work is just beginning.

As soon as the break-fast is cleaned up and we’re once again properly caffeinated, our task moves from the head and heart to the hands; it’s time to build the sukkah, grasp the lulav and etrog, and get to work.

On its own, the metaphor of our High Holiday time as a full-bodied experience is profound. But it’s the progression – head to heart to hands – that I find most compelling. What is the work of our hands if not a reflection on the passion of the spirit, the conviction of the mind? How could we possibly put our hands to work before we intellectually and instinctually understand what it is we’re trying to build?

Whether your handiwork involves building a sukkah, extending outreach to someone in need, or simply embracing a loved one, my blessing for us all is that the work of our hands flows authentically from the newly-minted memories of our minds and the deeply-rooted hopes of our hearts. Chag Sameach!

Rabbi Elan Babchuck ’96 is the Director of Innovation of Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

 

D’var Torah: Ami Joseph (Haazinu)

Did you know there was a can of tuna in the Ark of the Covenant alongside the two tablets that Moses brought from Mount Sinai?

Well, maybe it wasn’t exactly tuna. It was a measure of the Manna that we ate each day in the desert, when Hashem was our miraculous sheltering sky in the daylight and a burning cloud protecting us in the night. Could you imagine opening the famous Ark of the Covenant, excited to peer inside at the writings of Moses, our teacher, with foundational words of the Torah written on stone, only to also see a small measure of food?

In the desert Moses instructed us to take as much Manna as we needed for a single day. If we took more, the extra Manna would rot. We had to have faith in Hashem that there would be food for us and for our families on the next day, without which we might not survive. Hashem was using the Manna to teach a slave people how to have faith in tomorrow, and how to behave in a community by leaving extra food for others rather than hoarding it for ourselves.

The Torah has a different word for hoarders, called ‘Asafsuf’ in BaMidbar chapter 11, when the people rebelled against Hashem’s system of Manna, and instead wanted to gorge themselves on meat and fish and poultry. The people protested to Moses, who for the first time seems to lose patience, and asks Hashem for help getting the job done. After a series of such episodes, Moses’ may have lost some measure of control when he used his staff to beat a rock for water rather than speak to it, as Hashem had commanded.

This week’s parsha of Haazinu ends with Hashem commanding Moses to climb to the top of Mount Nebo, to retire from serving the people of Israel, and to pass on from this world before the people enter the land of Israel. But the measure of Manna remained in the Ark of the Covenant and with the people of Israel as they entered their new home, intended to be an eternal reminder to have faith in tomorrow no matter the events of today.

I learned a lot of this from listening to classes of Rabbi Menachem Leibtag via the app Soundcloud. 

D’var Torah: Rabbi Ed Gelb (Vayelech)

Not everyone experiences religious practice the same way. We all sometimes feel that it is hard to access God, spiritual connectedness and meaning. That is why it is very interesting that God instructs Moshe to teach a poem to the people right before he dies so they can sing it when they need comfort when they feel despair in the future. Additionally, this poem is to serve as a way back when the Israelites have sinned and feel that God has abandoned them.

At first this feels strange. The singing of a poem when you most feel like crying in pain. However, this poem is only sung when the Israelites have exhausted their usual means of worship and prayer. The traditional avenues are closed to them. They need a different access point back to their faith and God.

One lesson of this week’s Torah portion, Vayelech, is that there are different entry points into Judaism and to access God and spirituality. Song tends to touch our souls and awaken us – much like the shofar we just heard on Rosh Hashanah. At Camp Ramah, where I work and places like Schechter Boston it is important to provide a variety of access points to Judaism. These can include Torah study and prayer as well as social action and community service. Additionally, we can access our spirituality through song, dance, art and physical activity. This High Holy Day season let’s all be open to trying new and different ways to bring meaning to our Jewish lives. Shana Tovah!

Rabbi Ed Gelb, Camp Ramah

Rabbi Danielle Eskow

D’var Torah: Rabbi Dani Eskow (Nitzavim)

Being a parent during the High Holy Day season is not exactly a walk in the park. We survived the beginning of the school year and we are getting ready to host meals, lead services, or just survive the holidays in general. As a parent of a newly minted Kindergartner at Schechter, these past few weeks have been hectic and amazing at the same time. Our experience at Schechter so far has filled our hearts with joy as we begin this exciting learning journey with our daughter in this remarkable community.

This week’s parashah is Nitzavim. Moses continues his speech preparing the Israelites for the trip of a lifetime-their entry into the Promised Land. While Moses is not going to join them on this journey due to his past transgressions, he still fulfills his responsibility as the leader of the people and does all he can to instill the values, lessons, and guidance that the Israelites need to be successful in this next phase of their individual and communal lives.

Moses teaches, “See I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity […] I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life-if you and your offspring would live-by loving the Eternal your God, heeding God’s commands, and holding fast [to God]. For thereby you shall have life and shall long endure upon the soil that the Eternal swore to your fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to give to them.” [Deuteronomy 30:15, 30:19-20]

What this text teaches us is that we have a choice-it is up to us to decide how our lives and experiences are going to pan out. If we choose life, we will yield a life of blessings. If we do not choose life, we will have a more difficult road ahead. Moses teaches us that the most powerful gift God has given us is the power to choose. God is not mandating what our lives are going to be like, God has given us the ability to choose our own path, make our own decisions, and as a result yield the (hopefully) positive consequences. It is up to us to choose our intention, our hopes, and our attitude towards new experiences ahead. I remember growing up my father would look at me every year as school started and say, “You can be whoever you want to be this year. It is a new year. Be you,” or in the words of the Torah, “choose life,” choose to live, choose to make good decisions, choose to be the best you!

I remember two weeks ago standing with my now seasoned Kindergartner as we were about to get into the car for the first day of school. I, like Moses (probably our only similarity) felt nervous as I was not going to be physically going on this journey with her. She, like the Israelites, was on the edge of a major life transition-a completely new experience that she had never experienced before, in a place she had heard a lot about but never been. I looked at those big excited and nervous eyes and told her that she was ready for this next step. I did not cry (which I was shocked about, and for anyone who knows me this is quite the accomplishment) because I knew as her mom and her guide that I have done everything I could to prepare her for the unknown of what lies ahead. Suffice it to say she is a walking Schechter advertisement as all she talks about is how awesome school is and does not understand why anyone would go anywhere else.

As we begin preparing for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (which is also featured in this week’s parashah) let us remember the significance of having the right to choose our path. Will we choose a year of blessing and hope? Will we do all we can to ensure this year is a great year? The power is ours, as the parashah teaches. I continue each and every day to learn from the lessons of Nitzavim when I drop my Kindergartner at the bus and worry “will someone sit with her?” “Will she feel left out at recess?” “What if she is bullied?” Like the Israelites, she has been taught all of the tools she needs to embark on this exciting new journey in a new place. She has been given the tools and is ready to embrace whatever Kindergarten brings. Like the Israelites, she is surrounded by a community of people (the Schechter community) that is there to support her along the journey. 

Wishing you and your family Shanah Tova u’Metukah, a Happy and Sweet New Year!  

 

D’var Torah: Eli Williams (Ki Tavo)

In Ki Tavo, God instructs Moses to speak to all of the Israelites about laws, curses and blessings that could affect one person or a group of people. This is the second time these laws are written in the Torah. The instructions also appear in Leviticus. At that point in the Torah they are presented by God but in this parsha, Moses is saying them.

When reading through the parsha, one of the main things that I noticed was that when a person does good, even the smallest things will benefit others.

Consequences always seem to be the specific reverse of the reward. An example in the parsha is that if a person follows the rules that God commands, “blessed is your household, family, and your kneading bowl. But if you don’t follow these rules, cursed is your household, family, and your kneading bowl”

Others will benefit or be punished depending on your actions.

Which means that an entire community has to do well for everyone in it to flourish.

What I also noticed is that there seems to be no margin for error. One mistake is all it takes for you, and all the people around you to be cursed, or punished. In earlier parts of the Torah, we were allowed to make mistakes and learn from them– but in this parsha, we are told that if you make the smallest mistake, you could have a big punishment.

A famous mistake that we learned from is when Moshe hit the rock. We learned from that incident that anger isn’t productive, but also that actions have consequences. Back then, the consequences were not laid out like they are in this parsha, but Moshe still got punished by not being able to go to the promised land. 

Now, as they are about to enter the promised land, they are given a set of rules to help encourage a sense of community– because a community knows that they are not just dependent on themselves, but also dependent on each other. 

I wondered if this system was fair? This means that a good person related to a bad person could have a negative effect on the good person– but also vice versa. But I still liked the idea that we are all responsible for each other.

I think it’s a good idea today if we take responsibility for each other’s behavior.  If one person doesn’t follow the rules about pollution everyone can suffer. In my own life, at school and at camp, it works better if we share responsibility for our community. Everybody suffers if someone gets something taken away.  In sports, if one player on your team gets a penalty, your entire team will not be able to play as well as it did. When I was in third grade, our class had a system where to determine the amount of free time we had, we had letters written out that spelled F R E E T I M E. Each letter was 2 minutes. Every time we did something good, we got an extra letter. Every time we did something bad, we got a letter taken away. A couple kids including me complained that this system was unfair; the teacher responded that in order to have a good time, everyone must also be good. 

That doesn’t mean that everything is always fair.  It seems like some people don’t follow rules and still have lots of good things happen to them, and the reverse.  There are people who do good and have bad things happen to them.

But maybe we don’t understand the rewards and punishments right away. In the mishna it says: “against the loss that fulfilling a mitzvah may entail, reckon it’s reward.” This means that when doing a mitzvah, it may seem as a loss or waste of time. But later, you will see that it is worth it, not just because of the blessings that may follow, but also that you will feel good about yourselves. But it continues: “and against the benefit a transgression or a sin may bring, reckon the loss it involves.” This means that when sinning, you get a short glimpse of joy, but then feel bad or get cursed. But it seems today that wrong doers only care about the glimpse of joy and not the punishment — if there is one.

But the blessings for mitzvot and the curses for sinning are not supposed to be the only thing making you do the right thing. The feeling of doing good and the feeling of doing bad is also there to encourage it.

This is what I learned from parshat Ki Tavo.  If we had no free will, we would have no need to have laws. We would just do as we were told, which would be really bad and our lives have to have meaning. So having free will gives our life meaning. And clearly, after wandering in the desert for 40 years, we needed a lot more than just the 10 commandments.  This parsha showed just how many. rules we needed. And laws are important, not just because they make you do the correct things but because they guide you in your interactions with others. Since we are all part of a global community, we must do good. 

Rebecca Luire

D’var Torah: Rebecca Lurie (Ki Titzei)

Throughout parashat Ki Tetzei, this week’s Torah portion, the final laws of the Torah are given to the Jewish people. These final laws address matters regarding individuals, their families and their neighbors. After reviewing all of these laws in detail, the parasha abruptly transitions and commands us to “Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey….Do not forget!” Two questions arise for me: Why is Amalek mentioned after a litany of laws? Why does it say both, “Remember” and then “Do not forget”?

As we think about the laws that are explained in this parasha, they all center around communal norms and what it means to live in an ethical community. For example, one law states that if a slave comes to you for refuge from his master, you must not send him back to his master. Rather, he must live with you and you must protect him. Amalek represents a people without communal norms. Amalek are identified as a recurrent enemy of the Israelites, fighting by attacking from the rear when their enemies were in a state of weakness. Including this mention of Amalek at the end of all of the communal norms ensures that we understand the ramifications of what happens when we, as a people, live a life without ethical morals.

In addition to the contrast of Amalek to an ethical society, this parasha places a heightened importance to remembering Amalek by saying “Remember” and “Do not Forget.” These two phrases are mentioned together another time in the Torah, at the end of parashat Vayeishev. After Joseph accurately interprets the dream of the chief cupbearer, Joseph asked him to “remember me” and to mention him to Pharaoh so he can be freed. The final line of the parasha states “Yet the chief cupbearer did not remember him. He forgot him.” Rashi’s interpretation of this repetition is that “remember” means immediately or at this time; “do not forget” means in the future, in a sustained way. Applied to this week’s parasha, we should remember what Amalek did today and always.

As we embark on the school year ahead, which is off to a wonderful start, may we, as a community, work diligently every day to create an ethical community and to understand what could happen if we stray, personally or as a community. As the school year continues, we must work hard throughout the year to ensure we are living up to the expectations set for us by God in order to be our best selves for the sake of our community.

12155_10101034329068193_2109195832_n (1)

D’var Torah: Rabbi Ravid Tilles (Shoftim)

This week’s parsha, Shoftim, begins with one of the most referenced phrases of the entire Tanach (Bible) “Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof – Justice, Justice, you shall pursue” (Deut. 16:20). This seminal phrase is only three words long…and two of the words are the same! The simplicity of the verse makes it more forceful. The brevity makes it more powerful. There may be no more important Jewish value than to live “Justly.” As the Torah explains, we must treat all people, no matter their status or stature, fairly and kindly. The single middah (core tenet) of “Justice” contains within it the whole of Jewish ethics. Of all of the things that scholars argue about from the Torah text, there is no doubt that a Just World mirrors a Divine World. But what do we do when the explicit and clear command to pursue Justice becomes unclear or complicated?

There is a concept in Jewish life called “Lifnim Mishurat Ha’Din” which is often translated as, “beyond the letter of the law.” Our ancient Rabbis knew that real life situations and matters of worldly judgement are often complicated – that the “Just” choice is not always obvious or explicit. There are numerous case laws in the Talmud when a judgement is made “Lifnim Mishurat Ha’din” beyond the letter of other Torah or Rabbinic Law, in the name of true Justice or Righteousness. The concept of “Lifnim Mishurat Ha’Din” takes a straight-forward commandment to pursue Justice and makes it much more complicated. At best, Justice becomes more nuanced and, at worst, it becomes more subjective.    

While the summer was a relaxing, uneventful, low-stress time for many of us at school, the world news was anything but quiet. It seemed like every day was a new story that brought up a question of Justice or Righteousness. A wide range of real-life, complicated, issues are being argued every day, usually along partisan lines, with each side citing their position as truly “Just.” Sometimes one side will cite the established law while the other side cites the spirit of the law, or vice versa, all in the name of furthering their perspectives. The news this summer offered a daily reminder that life is complicated, and while the iconic verse of “Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof” calls for us to create a simpler, more “Just World”, we know that we must all be prepared to live with a reality that is often messy. 

So how do we approach challenging topics to our students? How do we prepare our students to navigate the messiness of “real life”? At every grade level we are developing critical thinking skills that will prepare our students to engage with the complexities and nuances of the world – in age appropriate ways. Critical Thinking includes challenging assumptions, asking “good” questions, grappling with complexity, developing a point of view that is supported by evidence and finding value in multiple opinions. We don’t proactively engage in discourse about politics to develop these skills, instead we analyze complicated texts from the Tanach, use Investigations as our Math curriculum and use design thinking in our STEAM program. We try to understand what life is like in Israel and we analyze sophisticated poetry. Every discipline at every grade level is somehow guiding our students toward higher order thinking.

The school’s focus on critical thinking skills is inspired by the nuance and richness of our ancient tradition. Our ancient Rabbis grappled with complexity and messiness, guided by the simple words of “Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof.” What exactly a “Just World” looks like is unclear and the promise of such a beautiful reality seems ever-fleeting. Yet it is our responsibility to educate and raise pursuers of justice (rodfei tzedek), raising them to wade through the messiness in order to one day heal this world. On behalf of the entire faculty and staff, we look forward to another wonderful year with our eager students – with a special welcome to all of our new students!