D’var Torah: Stephanie Fine Maroun (Beshalach)

Humans are creatures of habit and instinct, both good and bad. There is profound freedom in knowing what to expect, having dependable food and shelter, being able to plan and rely on order. It is hardly original to say that 2020 offered few of those cherished comforts. It was of a year of unknown territory, unthinkable losses and unforgiving realities.

The question upon us in 2021 and beyond is whether we can make our way out of this wilderness with a fresh understanding of ourselves. Can we rethink what matters and what we need and do not need? Can we adapt and improve our norms and behavior? 

In Parashat Beshelach, we read of Israel’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt and the crossing of the Red Sea. “Now when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines although it was nearer. God led the people roundabout, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds.” Moses instructs the people to “stand firm” and to realize a different and better future. Following their escape, the Israelites are soon troubled and unsure, calling out for food and water. They are instructed to gather just what they need for their household and not excess. Some obey while others collect more than they require, leaving it to waste only to be covered with maggots by morning. The fear and lack of choice while in bondage had been replaced with free will and communal accountability.

Over the coming year, let us hope that we emerge from the claws of the pandemic with lessons learned. We have seen that many do not have access to sustenance, let alone manna, while others have created personal stockpiles. Can we reevaluate what we are taking with us as we eventually return to a familiar order? If we leave this wilderness with our families, health, homes and jobs, let us be grateful and remember that others will not. While 2020 constricted our lives logistically, financially and socially at a minimum, it expanded our choices morally and collectively. It is time to recognize that caring for ourselves does not preclude a commitment to mutual responsibility and the larger good.

Stephanie Fine Maroun, Schechter alumni parent, Assistant Director of Admission

D’var Torah: Anna and Matya Schachter (Bo)

In his 2015, 2018, and 2020 Divrei Torah on Parashat Bo, Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z’l highlighted the uniquely Jewish nature of the Exodus story. The Jewish People had been in exile for between 210-430 years, toiling in slavery for much of that time. Suddenly, their prospects turn with Hashem unleashing nine plagues upon Egypt, and Moses warning of the final plague. At this point, all but Pharaoh realize that it is time to “send out the men that they may serve Hashem, their G!d! Do you not yet know that Egypt is lost?” (Exodus 10:7) Moses was known as “very great in the land of Egypt, in the eyes of the servants of Pharaoh and in the eyes of the people.” (Exodus 11:3) When he gathers the Jewish People to give one last speech before they leave Egypt, Moses does not speak about freedom, or leaving for a Land flowing with milk and honey, or about nursing grievances against the Egyptians. Instead, he looks to the future, speaking to the necessity of educating our children, a central theme of Judaism and for Jewish continuity.

One of the highlights of our family Seders has always been the story of the Four Children. The text for three of the four children come from the speeches that Moses delivers immediately before and after the Exodus in Parashat Bo: “And it shall be that when your [wicked] children say to you ‘What is this service to you?’ You shall say, ‘It is a Pesach feast-offering to Hashem, Who passed over the houses of the Children of Israel in Egypt when Hashem smote the Egyptians, but Hashem saved our households.’” (Exodus 12:26-27) “And you shall tell your child [who doesn’t know how to ask] on that day, saying, ‘It is because of this that Hashem acted on my behalf when I left Egypt.’” (Exodus 13:8) “And it shall be when your [simple] child will ask you at some future time, ‘What is this?’ You shall say to him, ‘With a strong hand, Hashem removed us from Egypt from the house of bondage.’” (Exodus 13:14) Families have recounted these instructions around the Seder table for generations, a sign of the importance of children asking questions, being answered, and learning to tell their people’s story. 

Rabbi David Wolpe of Los Angeles’s Sinai Temple teaches that Judaism’s focus on the importance of educating our children goes all the way back to Abraham. The Torah teaches that Abraham earned Hashem’s love and was chosen to be the first monotheist and father to many nations “because he commands his children and his household after him that they keep the way of Hashem.” (Genesis 18:19) The Shema emphasizes this, as well: “You shall teach them thoroughly to your children and you shall speak of them while you sit in your home, while you walk on the way, when you retire and when you arise.” (Deuteronomy 4:7) Where other societies might establish a courthouse, pub, or house of worship when they first establish a new outpost, Jews have always started by establishing a house of study. (Rashi on Genesis 46:28, Bereishit Rabba 95:3)

Without such a strong emphasis on childhood education, it is unlikely that the Jewish People could have survived almost 2,000 years in Diaspora, often as a very small minority of the population. As Rodger Kamenetz recounts in his book The Jew in the Lotus, documenting the 1990 visit with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala by a group of multi-denominational Rabbis, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z’l advised the Buddhist leaders to choreograph their own version of the Pesach Seder to prepare their children for life in Diaspora. Without intergenerational ritual surrounding education and storytelling, he saw assimilation as all but guaranteed.

May the teachers, staff, and parents at Schechter (and throughout the Jewish world) continue in this holy task of re-telling our story and preparing the next generation of Jewish leaders.

 

Anna and Matya Schachter, Schechter parents

D’var Torah: Eytan Luria ’21 (Va’era)

At the beginning of this week’s parsha, God tells Moses that God appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and established a covenant with them. God adds that God heard moaning from the Israelites, who were suffering at the hands of the Egyptians. God tells Moses that God will now lead the Israelites out of their bondage and that Moses should be their leader.

As I studied this parashah, I was immediately struck by the leaps of faith that are present in the text. First, why does God have faith in Moses to lead the people? What’s unique about Moses?

Second, why does Moses have faith in God? And third, how could Bnei Yisrael have faith in God or in Moses? They have been suffering for generations, and God had been absent. 

I want to begin by sharing my thoughts on the relationship of faith between Moses and God.

How did they come to trust each other? The story of Moses began in last week’s parashah, Shemot. Moses was a shepherd, and as he was tending to his sheep, he saw a bush that was burning but was not consumed. Moses felt compelled to look at the bush. When he did, God called out to Moses, and Moses responded, “hineni.”

Our rabbinic tradition teaches us that that word hineni means, “I’m ready.”

This language is not the language of greeting or location, but rather is the language of faith.

It is the same word that Avraham used when God asked him to take his son Yitzchak and offer him as a sacrifice.

When Moses answers this way, it tells God something important about Moses. God knows that he has that same intensity or quality of faith that Avraham had generations earlier.

There is a Midrash that there were many people who came to the burning bush and God called out to many of them. Some saw it and looked at it but couldn’t hear God. Some could hear God but didn’t respond. Only Moses saw it, heard God and declared his readiness to enter into a relationship of faith.

What was the core quality that God was looking for in order to establish a relationship with Moses? I think it’s about Moses staying true to himself. Moses was raised as royalty in an Egyptian palace with power and culture and luxury. After he was told he was born to an Israelite, I think he felt a connection and let go of all he had. God needed Moses to lead with a strong sense of purpose.

The story was different for Bnei Yisrael. They weren’t ready to be a people of faith. If God had appeared to them in a burning bush, I am not sure they would have even been able to say, “hinenu.” We are ready. They had no proof of God’s existence, and they probably thought that if God did exist, God would’ve helped them already. 

The text says their spirits were crushed by cruel bondage. In contrast to Moshe, Bnei Yisrael were not able to listen. Their slavery had oppressed their ability to have faith.

As I thought about these questions, I’ve wondered why certain people can easily have faith and that, for others, faith can take time. 

This topic of faith is really interesting because faith has no rules or boundaries. You could ask go on your phone and say, hey Siri, “define faith,” and she’d probably give you an answer, but the truth is that the qualities that we need to have faith are very different for all of us. There’s not just one way of being faithful.

I believe that there is so much to learn and understand about faith. 

I really love situations where events can turn either way. There’s no set formula for faith. Our experiences can lead us down different paths. We can’t predict the moment we will become aware of faith.

This feels important to me because trust and faith feel mysterious. In some ways, they are  similar but in other ways very different. With faith, you don’t necessarily have experience with a situation or person. You can take what we call a leap of faith.  Trust, on the other hand, is a concept that grows over time, and is not necessarily established right away.    

Personally, I have trouble giving and accepting getting others to have faith in me.

I have done some things in my life that have affected other’s faith and trust in me.

At times I have acted in a way that has strengthened others’ trust in me. Especially when I am caring for my siblings and taking my school work seriously and being accountable. I’ve also had times when there was a breakdown in trust. For example, there have been times I haven’t shared the whole story of what needed to be told.  Earning trust takes a long time to rebuild after breaking it. 

Knowing how important this concept of faith is to our ancestors, I think our question now becomes how we can become people of faith in God, and be trusting of others and ourselves.

Shabbat Shalom!

Eytan Luria ’21

D’var Torah: Dr. Dalia Hochman (Shemot)

Naming and Anonymity, Suffering and Redemption in Parashat Shemot (Exodus)

What I love most about Jewish learning is that I am able to return to even the most familiar of texts and derive new meaning from each encounter. 

I first learned the Exodus story right at our very own Stein Circle at some point in the mid-1980s. I remember well how, in third grade, we staged a Pesach play all in Hebrew and delved deep into a plot line that easily captured our childish imaginations. 

Today, over thirty years later, after living through a year of mass suffering and senseless death, I read the story of Exodus in a new light. 

Shemot in Hebrew means “Names.” The parasha opens with the recitation of the names of Jacob’s sons. The Rabbis note how the text vacillates between nameless characters, such as Pharaoh, and very specific names attributed to more minor characters, such as the midwives Shifra and Puah. The suffering of the Hebrew slaves is both specific and named, and, at the same time, vast and anonymous.

I think about this past year, and how, at some point I decided to stop watching CNN because the constant ticker on the screen listing the number of COVID-19 deaths felt too anonymous and too vast. There is something particularly senseless and tragic about anonymous suffering. As a counterpoint to a year filled with vast and unnamed deaths, I think of the compelling memorial on the Boston Common entitled “Say Their Names,” which honors 300 lives lost to racial injustice. I understand now, that “saying their names,” helps the human spirit feel comfort in times of deep suffering. This year, I read the opening lines of Exodus as a moment of redemption and hope. 

Once I start seeing Shemot through the lens of redemption, I see it everywhere in the text; in Yocheved’s defiance of Pharaoh’s edict, in Moses’ striking down of the oppressive Egyptian overseer, and in Aaron’s role as his brother’s ambassador. This year, I am less impressed by the big, heroic miracles, such as the crossing of the Red Sea, and find more hope in these small moments of human free will. The human actions remind me of the times over the past year when I have felt so free despite the restrictions of our everyday life. I think about a particularly exhilarating hike or an outdoor playdate or how hard we have worked to keep our schools open and safe in the midst of a pandemic. While I do pray that our modern day crossing of the Red Sea comes soon, this year, when I reread the sacred text of Exodus, I take comfort in the fact that the human spirit can still feel free and alive while awaiting a miracle. 

Dr. Dalia Hochman ’92, Current Parent, Head of School at Gann Academy

D’var Torah: Arnold Zar-Kessler (Vayeshev)

Rabbi Elie Munk notes that the “Joseph story”, which beings in this week’s portion, parashat Va-ye-shev, “…is of incomparable pedagogical value.  It deals with the profound thoughts in a way so simple and direct that they are accessible to every child.  And so this episode is of prime importance for the religious and moral education of the child.”

As a school – and as a community – so fully invested in the religious and moral education of children, we might want to ponder what there is about this narrative within Torah that makes it more special, more significant for our work than others.

Certainly, we know Joseph narrative – the favored son, rejected and abandoned by his brothers only to rise to be a great leader in Egypt.  Through a remarkable set of events, Joseph comes to hold the fate of his brothers in his hands without them knowing his true identity.  Upon hearing their regret for the way they treated him, Joseph reveals himself, forgives them, and the family is reunited.  It is a story that takes up more space  in the Torah – nine chapters – than other episode, or story about a single character.

Besides being the stuff of  “culture” (symphonies, contemporary Broadways musicals, early 20th century literature, such as Thomas Mann and even Disney) the Joseph story has been embraced by the other Abrahamic religions.  For many centuries, in Christian theology, the Joseph story was seen as something of a precursor to the story of Christ – rejected and abandoned only to rise and ultimately forgive.

In Islamic tradition, an entire chapter of the Koran is devoted to Joseph (Yusuf); the only instance in which an entire chapter is devoted to a complete story of a prophet.

Yet for us, we can get caught up in the dynamics of the relationships, the nuances of the language, and – perhaps because of our close connection to the Torah being divided into weekly installments – might miss the larger picture this story is teaching us.

Munk teaches that the unique character of the Joseph story results from the fact  that it is dominated by the certainty of  God, the omnipresent Divine Providence, Whose purposes are achieved in the midst of the interplay of human interests.  Indeed, we commonly teach children that they cannot find the direct intervention of God in this story, as we can with literally every other story in prior generations in Genesis.  It is only through Joseph’s realization of God’s hand in his life is the story placed in that religious context

Bound up in the story – but seldom directly alluded to – are the essential themes of duty, sin and expiation, the conflict between our desires and our conscience, and family strife.  It is these everyday, common – human – components that make the ultimate triumph of moral and spiritual values so profoundly rewarding and so much of what we hope our children will recognize and embrace.

While the Joseph episode that begins here is situated in Genesis, its lessons are every bit as valid for Biblical history as a whole, reminding us that the Divine message and the great lessons of duty are taught to people (and perhaps especially to children) not by means of abstract formulae, but with the help of living examples of human beings who, like ourselves, feel and give in and sin, and yet even when they do stray they remain aware of the unique path of truth and rise up again.  So may it be with us.

The story of Joseph, his brothers, their conflict and reconciliation remind us that people really and truly can change, that families that were torn asunder can be made whole, that even our most profound losses can be remedied, and that God – while invisible – can be the force for that change, for that good if only we let Him in and recognize Him.

And, thus, Rabbi Munk is right – Joseph is not only a story that we want every Jewish child to learn, it is worth repeating every year – perhaps especially this one.  We are blessed to be reminded of this story of real-life hope that we can learn from, for our children and God willing, for ourselves, as well.

 

Arnold Zar-Kessler, Interim Head of School Adelson Education Campus, Former Head of School, Schechter Alumni Parent and Grandparent

D’var Torah: Rabbi Dan Liben (Vayishlach)

After twenty years, Jacob is coming home, and it is time to pay the piper.

So much has changed for him since he left home: Then, Jacob was young and on his own.  Now, he is middle aged, and the head of a large family. Then, he was penniless. Now, he is returning with flocks and servants.

But most important, he left as a fugitive, running from the mess that he had left behind: He had deceived his father Isaac, stolen the blessing that rightfully belonged to Esau, and fled in fear of his life.  Now, he returns home to own-up to what he did, not knowing what awaits him or what price he will have to pay.  After twenty years, will Esau welcome him as a brother or seek vengeance long deferred?

Just as he did on the night that he left home, Jacob turns to God in prayer. The difference between those two prayers, however, is huge.  That first prayer had a conditional feel to it.  It is the immature prayer of a kid who thinks he can strike a bargain with God:  IF you, protect me, if you provide for my needs during this journey; if you bring me back home in safety, then You will be my God.

This older Jacob is both wiser and more humble:

And Jacob said, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, the Lord, Who said to me, ‘Return to your land and to your birthplace, and I will do good to you.’
I am humbled from all the kindnesses and from all the truth that You have rendered Your servant, for with my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps.
Now deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him, lest he come and strike me, [and strike] a mother with children.
And You said, ‘I will surely do good with you, and I will make your seed [as numerous] as the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted because of multitude.'”

 

Notice the elements of this remarkable prayer: First, he establishes who he is: I am Jacob, the descendent of Abraham and Isaac, with whom you have a relationship.  Then he allows his heart to turn to God in gratitude, even at this perilous hour, for all that God has given him, and for which he had no right to expect. Only then, does Jacob pour out his heart and ask for help. Finally, Jacob concludes by reminding God once again of the covenantal promises that He had made.

There are many kinds of prayers. The Bible, however, does offer models for us, and none more beautiful than this.  May we bring to our prayers a grateful awareness of the ways in which we have been blessed, even during fearful times; an ability to ask for the help that we need, and a sense of intimacy and relationship with the Source of Life.  Such are the prayers that carry within them their own comfort, consolation and courage.

Shabbat Shalom!

 

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

D’var Torah: Rabbi William Hamilton (Vayetzei)

Living a wider life

Negative emotions have a ‘narrowing effect’ on our thinking.  Feelings of fear and anger put on blinders as they command our attention.  For example, police detectives are often frustrated by the testimony of those threatened with gun violence. Their description of the gun is precise.  But they can’t seem to recall the height of their assailant or whether he had a beard.

By contrast, positive emotions expand what we’re able to see.  Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson describes how they broaden and build our thoughts and deeds.  Joy makes us want to play.  Interest makes us more curious and creative.  And pride puts us in a broadening mood to want to take on new challenges.

It’s no surprise that these days people are seeing less.  Contempt and outrage tighten our lens.  We’re reluctant to want to see more because so much of that which we do see is deplorable.

This week’s portion of Torah specializes in surviving distrust.  It covers twenty years during which Jacob builds his family in the land of his manipulative, possessive father-in-law Laban.  Its setting is saturated with suspicion, resentment, and dejection.  And yet, Leah, Jacob’s first wife who longs for her husband’s love, is somehow able to pivot.  Having named her first three children (Reuben, Shimon, and Levi) to attract the love she yearned for but couldn’t receive, the birth of her fourth son signals a profound shift in her perspective.  Rather than remaining obsessed with what she lacked, she thanked God for what she had.  She named him Judah, proclaiming, “this time I will praise (Judah) God” (Gen. 29:35).  The Talmudic sages were very impressed.  “From the beginning of time, nobody ever praised God as profoundly as did Leah.”

Judaism itself is named after Judah.  Her pivot can be ours.  As frightful as our times are, our Jewish people has never had more resources at our disposal – our home and our freedom, our admirers and our allies.  Good people everywhere today thirst for more expansive, counter-voices.  They welcome fresh ideas that widen our ways forward.

“In tight times, you have widened my way” expresses the psalmist (4:2).  Praise is a positive emotion.  It has a vast reach.  May we embrace our responsibility to do all we can to make alarming and ominous times into awakening and opportune times.

Rabbi William Hamilton, Congregation Kehillath Israel, Schechter alumni parent

D’var Torah: Ilan Sherman-Kadish ‘ 20 (Chayeh Sarah)

My parsha is Chayei Sarah. Here is a summary of the parsha so that you can get a sense of the events.  In the beginning of the parsha Sarah dies, then Avraham comes to mourn for her and he buys Sarah a cave and some land to be buried on.  After that Avraham wants to find a wife for his son Isaac so he sends his servant Eliezer to the land of Abraham’s birth (Aram Naharayim). His servant devises a test, and whoever passes his test will become Isaac’s wife. Rebecca passes the servant’s test and is given the choice to either stay with her family for one more year or leave immediately. Rebecca decides to leave immediately with Avraham’s servant. Rebecca meets Isaac while he is meditating in a field. Avraham marries again, has children, and then dies at the age of 175. Isaac, and Avraham’s estranged son Ishmael comes to his funeral.

I notice that many characters in this parsha and in other parts of the Torah have critical decisions to make, but they make these decisions in very different ways. Sometimes they make their choices–whether those choices are about following their instincts or obeying the word of God–without seeming to pause and think about anything other than what’s right in front of them. And at other times they seem to stop and think about what their choices might mean for the future.  I think about how to make choices a lot in my own life, and it’s also an interesting way to examine this parsha. The way you make choices and act in situations tells people a lot about you.  Sometimes snap decisions make sense… and sometimes they don’t.

When I look at the decision-makers in this parsha, I notice a few in particular. The first is Avraham. In this parsha Avraham makes some very deliberate decisions that seem to take a lot of thought.  First Avraham wants to find a place to bury Sarah. He starts by asking the sons of Het for the cave of machpela in Hevron.  They say that he can have it for free.  Some people would have stopped there. But Avraham is thinking ahead. He says he wants to pay full price for the land. 

The Medieval commentator Radak, says that the Hittites thought that Avraham was asking for a spot in one of their families’ burial caves, but Avraham was really asking for his own burial cave…and that is why he wanted to pay for it. When buying this burial plot, he’s thinking not just about Sarah but also about future generations. He wants to claim a spot of land that they will all be able to use for burials. I also think Avraham worried that there might be disagreements in the future about the ownership of the land, and he thought that if he never paid any money for it, then there would be no way to tell that it was his. Here we see that Avraham is thinking very long-term, and he’s choosing the more difficult path now (paying for the land), to make things easier in the future.

Later,  Avraham commands his servant to find a wife for Isaac from the land where Avraham was born.  He describes his wishes to his servant in great detail, and from this we can tell that he puts a lot of thought into his decision. Commentators have different ideas of why. Radak says that Avraham knew that Rebecca had been born, and he was hinting to his servant that he wanted him to find Rebecca. Bekhor Shor says you would have expected Avraham to want Isaac to marry one of the Caananites so that he could inherit the land, but Avraham knows that God would give him the land.  

To me, it almost feels like Avraham wanted to keep his kin mixed in with his original family so that they could all be connected.  I agree with Radak when he says that Avraham wanted Isaac to marry Rebecca, because Avraham’s instructions seemed very detailed, maybe making it so that Rebecca would be the only possible choice.

So in both of these cases, Avraham seems like someone who makes decisions carefully, keeping the long-term future in mind.

But this hasn’t always been the case for Avraham. Interestingly, in the previous parsha Avraham, with very little deliberation, listened to God’s command and came close to killing his own son, Isaac. In the story of the akedah, not only does Avraham agree to sacrifice his son, but he seems to do it without any hesitation.  

Avraham gets up early in the morning to do it–Vayashkaim avraham ba-boker–he doesn’t even stay in bed thinking about whether to do it. He acts right away—maybe to show that he’s devoted and obedient, maybe to do it quickly so he doesn’t have to think about it.  The question is, should a decision to kill  your son — even if you hear God’s voice –be made as a snap decision? Whatever the answer is, it seems that Avraham probably damaged his relationship with his son and wife by not stopping to think. 

Maybe Avraham wanted to think harder about his next decisions to make sure that he didn’t make any more mistakes, and this is why his decisions are more thought-out during Chayei Sarah.

But not all decisions in this parsha are made slowly and thoughtfully–quite the opposite.

Avraham’s servant picks Rebecca in an instant. He’s designed a test based on seeing who will volunteer to draw water for his camels. The moment Rebecca does this, and brings the servant water too, he knows she’s the one. This seems to work out all right, but maybe it would have been smart for him to wait and see if someone else had come along, and maybe learn a bit more about her, instead of just picking the first person who passed the test.  He probably was right in the end, but it’s the kind of decision that can go wrong as there could have been someone much better right around the corner.  

The servant isn’t the only one to make an instantaneous decision. Rebecca makes an on-the-spot decision to offer help to Avraham’s servant–the text says “Vatomer Shitay adoni vatmahair”, meaning she quickly went to help–  leading her to be chosen as a match for Isaac.  After she’s chosen to be Isaac’s wife, she is offered the chance to wait a year to go marry a stranger, but she decides  to marry Isaac right away rather than remaining with her family for another year.  It’s important to point out that Rebecca couldn’t choose if she wanted to marry Isaac or not but she could have considered staying with her family for another year but I understand that she may have wanted to get it over with.  Sometimes acting quickly can be a way of dealing with fear.  

Both of these fast decisions seem to be the right ones…but it also seems that the servant and Rebecca could have decided more slowly and it would still have worked out.

I wonder, what is the Torah saying about making on-the-spot decisions as opposed to debating and mulling what the impact of a decision will be in the future? I’ve always been told to take my time, that quick decisions can be foolish ones…but I know that’s not always the case. When I play baseball, I can’t stop to think about the spin on a pitch–I just have to swing or not swing. And a lot of the most important decisions in life–like speaking up for what you believe in, trying a challenging question on a math test, or standing up to a bully–can’t wait until you’ve had time to think.

The Torah seems to share those mixed feelings. One of the most famous quick decisions in the Torah–Moshe hitting the rock, without thinking about future consequences–has a terrible outcome. But Avraham’s abrupt decision to leave his family in lech lecha–is the very thing that gets the entire story of the Jewish people started… so presumably that quick decision is the right one.

It seems that according to the Torah, neither kind of decision is always right or always wrong. Some gut decisions–choices made without thinking about the future–are the right way to go and some end up with bad consequences.

I’m a person who feels more comfortable making quick decisions and as I grow up I hope to learn when going with my instinct is right and when it would be better to think it over.  I identify with Rebecca, who seemed to do her best work when being active and moving .  When I’m practicing reading Torah for my bar mitzvah and I come to a word that I don’t remember usually the first note I think of is the right one and it’s better to just sing it out.  When I play quarterback for my school team, one thing I know is that you can’t hold onto the ball or you’ll get sacked. Right or wrong, you have to choose. If you see a player open and you hesitate, or look for a better option, the player might not be open any more and you will lose your chance.  

When I am trying to assess a person’s character, like the servant who devised a test to find a wife for Isaac, I would also consider how someone acted when they didn’t have much time to think.  I could even imagine devising such a test: if I dropped a stack of books in a library, who would move to help the quickest? Or if I wandered by a game  in progress at recess, who would stop to invite me in?  The person who passed these tests would be someone I would respect.  The ability to recognize that someone was in need of help and take quick action is valuable in these situations.  But making these snap decisions can also risk missing out on something deeper.  Making a quick decision about someone’s character is like judging a book by its cover.   Some people I didn’t connect with at first, because I thought we had nothing in common, have become my closest friends because over time we’ve found there’s actually a lot we share.

Seeing the choices people make in Chayei Sarah, and  the consequences of those choices,  helps me understand that one kind of decision will never be flawless.  Maybe the secret is to balance the snap decisions and the well-thought-out plans one makes in life.

D’var Torah: Rabbi Ron Fish (Vayera)

Avraham and Sara had thoughtfully chosen the perfect spot to locate their tent.  Many local shepherds and farmers regularly passed by the main crossroads of the land of C’naan which was the couple’s new home address.  They spent much of their days offering passersby a drink or a meal. They hoped that through their generosity they could demonstrate what their faith was all about. With the intense heat of the day, the opening to their tent was raised open, and a barely perceptible breeze caused the doorway to flutter gently.

On this day Avraham was deep in spiritual reflection. He had recently gone from test to test, from one divine challenge to the next, all in the hopes of doing God’s will.  And now, in the middle of the day, God had appeared to Avraham. A giant of faith, Avraham must have been focused like a laser on the power of this sacred moment.  Then, from a distance, out of the corner of his eye, Avraham saw 3 figures approaching the crossroads.  The elderly man suddenly apologized.  He took his leave from the God of all time and space; the God whom he had served by leaving his homeland and his family for an unknown foreign destination. He had even circumcised himself at the age of 99 at God’s command.  Yet, even in the midst of a direct revelation, Avraham left aside the spiritual and said- I have important work to do. I must welcome in guests.

From this moment in the Torah, our rabbis teach us a great lesson. In the Talmud (Tractate Shabbat), we learn:  “Rav Dimi teaches: Hachnasat Orchim– welcoming in guests- takes precedence over learning in the Bet Midrash. Rav Yehuda said in the name of Rav- Hosting guests is more important than even welcoming the Shechina, the Divine presence.”

This story points to the unique and powerful understanding of spirituality we Jews have always had.  Learning and prayer are the roots of our spiritual expression. We can only imagine what it must have felt like to have the connection of Avraham or Moshe in their moments of prayer. But all of our prayers and learning have an even deeper root- our human connections. We are the people of Shabbat dinner tables and sukkot filled with guests. We are the people of multi generation seders and synagogue kiddush tables for eating and kibbitzing. We are the people that believes that the greatest connection to God is our connection to one another.

It has been so deeply tragic that these past months have made our core spiritual exercise unsafe. We cannot come together. We cannot share a meal. Nothing feels less natural for us, the descendants of Avraham and Sara. With masks up, and our tent flaps down, we are separated from one another. During this time, we should redouble our commitment to connection and community. Whether through Zoom or at a safe (preferably outdoor) distance, our souls long for the power of connection.  I am grateful to Schechter for having provided a safe environment for our community’s children to gather together at our local crossroads on Stein Circle and at Wells Ave. This beautiful learning community has been a source of normalcy and strength in very difficult time. We are blessed to have a place where the Divine presence still can be found: as our children share lunch together around slightly distanced tables. Our tents are more empty than we are used to. But our hearts are filled with thanks.

 

Rabbi Ron Fish, Temple Israel of Sharon; Schechter parent

D’var Torah: David Preiss (Lech Lecha)

Lech Lecha is our introduction to the relationship between Avraham – then Avram – and God. The parsha opens with God instructing Avram to leave his home and move his family to Canaan, where God promises to give him great blessings. At this point, God doesn’t go into detail about those blessings. For now, Avram and Sarai are settling childless – and advanced in age – in a foreign land.

A bit later in the parsha, God leads Avram through a ritual known as Brit Bein Habetarim – the Covenant of the Pieces. Through this covenant, God describes the great nation that will descend from Avram, and the land that will be theirs. Genesis 15:5 describes a famous moment in this episode, when Avram is “brought out” to count the stars. “So shall be your seed”, God explains. 

I always imagined Avram gazing up at an ancient, smog-free, star-filled sky, in which the entire galaxy might have been visible. It would have been impossible to count those stars because there would have been far too many of them. 

Oddly though, only 3 verses later – in Genesis 15:12 – the Torah tells us that “the sun was going down”. This timeframe seems puzzling. If God had just shown Avram all the stars in the sky – presumably at night, when the sky was dark –  how could the sun be setting now? 

One interpretation understands the words “vayotzei oto hachutza” – “God brought him out”  – to mean that God didn’t just take Avram out of his tent (as I’d imagined), but rather God took him outside of the entire world, allowing him to see the whole Earth and all its stars. 

The interpretation I like best however, accepts that stars are invisible during the day. God took Avram out of his tent and told him to count the stars. Avram, looking up at the sky, found the task impossible. He could see only one star, the brilliant sun: “So shall be thy seed.” Maybe God was giving Avram a hint about the nation that would descend from him: the people of Israel, the light unto the nations. Our world needs more light; may we live up to this promise.

David Preiss, Schechter Parent