D’var Torah: Rabbi William Hamilton (Vayikra)

Priest and Prophet

The sensibilities of the prophet and the priest are quite different in the Bible. Prophets espouse values, champion integrity, and liberate dreams.  Primarily concerned with social morality and faith, biblical prophets view situations through the lens of history.  Alternatively, priestly systems care about boundaries, categories, and distinctions.  Priests have a strong moral sense, but their institutions leave no place for spontaneity.  Prophets are not opposed to ritual, but they become outraged when it is misused in effort to avert one’s gaze from hypocrisy or injustice.

This week’s Torah and Haftorah portions offer an up-close and personal view the divergent leadership models of priest and prophet.  We glimpse their different vocabulary, reflective of differing agendas.  Nearness to God is the aspiration of Leviticus’ world of offerings.  Atonement seeks the realigning of a disjointed relationship with God.  Isaiah’s voice encourages redemption, repentance, and societal renewal.  The word atonement, kapara (for which Yom Kippur is named) appears a dozen times in this week’s portion.  While the words for repentance and redemption (shuv, and go-ail) appear in the prophetic reading’s penultimate verse: “I have blotted out, as a thick cloud, your transgressions and your sins; return (shuva) unto Me, for I have redeemed you (ga’altecha)” (Is. 44:22). When these twin hemispheres coexist compatibly, creativity and vitality flourish.

Priests seek order.  Prophets seed hope.  An additional setting where their voices harmonize elegantly is at the Passover Seder.  The identity of the Seder itself means ‘order’, given how baked into its origins the priestly Pascal Sacrifice has always been.  Yet the prophetic voice which vectors toward Elijah holds sway by Seder’s end.

Often we feel called by prophetic expectations.  Sometimes we feel nourished by priestly habits and familiar rituals.  May we draw inspiration from a sacred blend of both.

A sweet Shabbat to you.

Rabbi William Hamilton, Congregation Kehillath Israel, Schechter alumni parent

D’var Torah: Rabbi Dan Liben (Vayakhel-Pekudei)

Lord prepare me, to be a sanctuary, pure and holy, tried and true 
and with thanksgiving, I’ll be a living, sanctuary, oh for you. (Scruggs and Thompson)

The final chapters of Exodus and the opening pages of Genesis are like matching bookends. “In the beginning,” God made a world in which people could dwell. Now, the Israelites return the favor by building the Mishkan (Tabernacle), a space within that world where the presence of God can dwell.

The Israelites donate so much material for the project, that Moses, surprisingly, has to tell them to stop. Their gifts have been more than sufficient. For, how else can God’s dwelling place be built if not through a spirit of generosity, unity of purpose, and love?

It is unlike other Temples, ancient or modern, in one key respect: It is temporary and portable, meant to wander in the midst of the people as they themselves wander. Its holy ark is built with horizontal poles, ready to be lifted, carried, and set down again. Its walls and outer tent are constructed for easy disassembly, ready to travel and to be reassembled, as the people likewise break and reconstitute their camp.

This moveable Mishkan conveyed the comforting message that the God of Sinai is not static. Although the mountain is immovable, the experience of Sinai is portable. By carrying it with us, we continually create the conditions for God to be with us, across time and space. So we ask ourselves: What are the planks of our Mishkan? What are the daily kindnesses, the rituals, the freely given gifts of time and energy, with which we create space for God’s Presence?

The Mishkan’s design also testifies to the essentially impermanent nature of experience. It is made to move, because we are perpetually on the move. Emotions and mind states come and go, thoughts arise and pass, living things grow and die. We are perpetually forgetting, wandering, remembering and returning. Tellingly, the final word of the book of Exodus is “journeys.” Yet, we need never travel the journey alone.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Dan Liben, Temple Israel of Natick; Schechter alumni parent

D’var Torah: Rabbi Michael Fel (Ki Tisa)

What do you do when you see someone with food stuck in their teeth?  Do you ignore it for fear of offending them or do you see it as an opportunity to help a friend?  Personally, if I see something, I say something.  I admit that it can be a little awkward, so I preface my observations by saying: I am telling you this because I would want someone to tell me, and then I tell them the embarrassing fact that everyone else is ignoring.  Most people express gratitude at my candor.

A potentially uncomfortable moment appears in this week’s Torah reading. After receiving the second set of tablets, Moses descended from the mountain, however…  “Aaron and all the Israelites saw that the skin of Moses’ face was radiant/shining/aglow; and they shrank from coming near him.30  But Moses called to them, and Aaron and all the chieftains in the assembly returned to him, and Moses spoke to them.31  And when Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil over his face.”33  “Moses was not aware that the skin of his face was radiant/shining/aglow, since he had spoken with God.” 29 (Exodus 34

Poor Moses!  You can imagine his excitement at coming down with the tablets only to be disappointed that his friends were scared of him and didn’t want to learn from him.  According to Ramban, a 13th century Spanish Rabbi, Moses only learned he looked different and was able to continue teaching because someone had the courage to tell him,“Hey Moses, you’ve got a little something on your face.”  Rather than get angry or upset, in an act of true compassion and humility, Moses puts on a veil so he would seem less scary and be able to connect with others.

There will be times in our lives that require us to provide difficult information to a friend and others when we will be the recipient of that unflattering or challenging feedback.  May we have the wisdom to navigate those moments with kindness, love, and honesty so that we can truly help our friends, and ourselves, be our best versions and let our true brilliance shine forth.

Rabbi Michael Fel, Temple Emunah


D’var Torah: Rabbi Daniel Berman (Te​tzaveh​)

Despite my admittedly pitiful tool kit, which sits in my basement beneath boxes of legos, and which contains about 7 tools, all of which are hammers, I actually love to build.  As you might imagine, I am not a particularly sophisticated craftsman. I have more of a minimalist approach: wood, hammer, nail; sometimes different length nails, or kinds of wood. But, truly, I love to build.

A friend asked me recently how I came to love building so much given my dearth of talent. He was being playful and funny, not critical, which was a wonderful opening for me to reflect on this interesting question.

I think of this question every fall as I hammer nails into wood to build the frame of our sukkah. Building even a simple frame is an amazing human act. It reminds us of our ability to create spaces that will contain so much of what we love. In our family sukkah we have sat with our closest family and friends and shared meals and blessing, while reflecting on meaningful parts of our lives.

This week we continue reading the extraordinary detail of the “mishkan,” the portable sanctuary that the Israelites built and carried through the desert. Now we add instructions regarding the menorah and the priestly vestments, and most critically, the consecration of that space, meaning how to “activate” the space and make it holy.

What might this mean, to activate the holiness of a space? While I am confident that the ancient Israelites were far better and more experienced builders, artists and decorators than me, our hopes are the same. With these hands, and with theirs, we have aspired to build frames to bring meaning, memory, blessing, learning and loving more deeply into our lives. That is, to let God dwell among us, that we may be uplifted into the holy.

Rabbi Daniel Berman, Temple Reyim, Newton

D’var Torah: Rabbi Michael Swarttz (Terumah)

Terumah: The Second Creation Story

Parashat Terumah begins the Torah’s lengthy preoccupation of the construction of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary that was situated at the center of the Israelites’ encampment on their journey through the wilderness. The Mishkan was where God’s presence, or Shechinah, dwelled among the people.

Numerous commentators have noted the connection between the building of the Mishkan and the creation narrative at the very beginning of the Torah. God instructs the Israelites to make the Mishkan just as God made the universe. The construction of the Mishkan, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes, is “their first great constructive and collaborative act after crossing the Red Sea…Just as the universe began with an act of creation, so Jewish history (the history of a redeemed people) begins with an act of creation.” A series of verbal parallels underscores this connection:

The universe (Bereshit) The Mishkan (Shemot)
“And G-d made the sky” “They shall make Me a sanctuary”
“And G-d made the two large lights” “They shall make an ark”
“And G-d made the beasts of the earth” (1: 7, 16, 25) “Make a table”(25: 8, 9, 23)
“And G-d saw all that He had made, and behold it was very good.” (1: 31) “Moses saw all the skilled work and behold they had done it; as G-d commanded it, they had done it.” (39:43)
“The heavens and earth and all of their array were completed.” (2:1) “All the work of the tabernacle of the tent of meeting was completed” (39:32)
“And G-d completed all the work that He had done” (2:2) “And Moses completed the work” (40:33)
“And G-d blessed” (2:3) “And Moses blessed” (39:43)
“And sanctified it” (2:3) “And you shall sanctify it and all its vessels (40:9)

The use of the same verbs in both narratives suggests that making the Mishkan was for the Israelites what creating the universe was for God. And yet the contrast between these two creation stories is notable. God’s creation of the universe takes 34 verses in Genesis (chapter one plus the first three verses of chapter two), while the making of the Mishkan takes hundreds of verses and spans five Torah portions. The lengths of the narratives are in inverse proportion to the size of the project–our vast universe compared to a small and modest portable sanctuary! The answer, of course, is that “it is not difficult for an infinite, omnipotent creator to make a home for humanity. What is difficult is for human beings, in their finitude and vulnerability, to make a home for God.” (Sacks)

The Mishkan is our first holy space. It is kadosh, holy, set apart. It serves as the prototype for the Temple in Jerusalem, as well as for the synagogue. We are enjoined to treat it and to behave in it with respect, and to care for it.

In these days, perhaps more so than ever before, we must consider our entire universe as kadosh, as holy space, as well. Our world is a precious gift. The natural order is what enables us to live and sustains us. We have to treat it with care and respect, as we do our Mishkans, our sanctuaries. Sadly this has not been the case, and we are beginning to see the costs of our neglect and failure to live up to our obligations. And alarmingly, our new president and administration speak and act as if they are oblivious to the consequences of our neglect.

Two creation stories. Two sacred spaces. One divinely created and vast. The other a human product and quite small. Both worthy of and dependent on our respect and care. All of us, and especially those with the power to decide whether our country will be part of the solution or part of the problem, would do well to heed the message of a powerful midrashic warning based on the first creation story: As the Holy One takes Adam through the Garden of Eden God tells him, “I created all My beautiful works for your sake. Take heed not to corrupt and destroy it. For if you do, there is no one to make it right after you.” (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13)

Michael Swarttz, Schechter alumni parent, is the rabbi of Beth Tikvah Synagogue in Westborough and the Jewish Chaplain at the Phillips Academy in Andover.

D’var Torah: Rabbi Ed Gelb (Beshalach)

In this week’s Torah portion, Beshalach, the Israelites escape from Egypt across the sea. After the escape, the Torah says, “And Israel saw the great work which the Lord did upon the Egyptians; and the people feared the Lord, and believed in the Lord, and His servant Moses.” Then, the Torah immediately recounts, the Israelites burst into song. There were many miracles the Israelites experienced both before and after this moment. Why did they burst into song then? According to Rabbi Yisrael of Rizhin, “It was not for the miracle of the splitting of the sea that they sang praise of God, but because the splitting of the sea brought them to perfect faith in God – ‘they believed in God’ – and that is why they sang.” Song as a by-product of faith is a fascinating take on the situation. The joy of knowing you have faith leads to artistic expression and celebration.

At Ramah, we believe that the arts are a compelling entry point into Jewish expression. That is, we can engage kids with Judaism through art which leads to deeper exploration and growth. However, the idea that music is the result of the Jewish experience also holds true. One of the amazing things about camp is how much spontaneous singing and dancing happens. Similarly, Schechter also provides access to Judaism beyond the academic. The focus on the whole child and opportunities to shine in many different ways is critical to development. Perhaps, song is on the lips of campers and students alike so readily because at both camp and Schechter we have created a community that is so connected to God and Judaism. Our heightened spiritual involvement prompts us to burst out singing.  Now that’s joyous Jewish living at its best!

Rabbi Ed Gelb, Director Camp Ramah In New England

January 2015

D’var Torah: Rabbi Beth Naditch (Bo)

When one of my children was in kindergarten, learning from the wonderful Sondra Kaminsky, I visited his class around this time of year to do some Torah study with the kids. I sat down on the floor with the class, took out a case of props with which to tell the story, and told the children that we were right in the middle of the amazing story of the exodus from Egypt. A young boy raised his hand to ask a simple, but ultimately profound question. “Why are we reading this story now, in January, if it isn’t Pesach?” One of the learnings that emerged from our ensuing discussion was the concept that the Torah is our story – that the story of the Jewish people is our story even today, and it is ours to return to, just like the favorite books which all of them eagerly shared that they read at home every night. (Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus and Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse were particular favorites, if I remember correctly.) As anyone who has a young child, has had young child, or has been a young child, knows, children want the same books over and over and over. They seem to rejoice in the familiarity, the structure, while at the same time locating themselves in a new time and place at each reading.

The rabbis were wise when they instituted the cycle of Torah readings – we need to revisit the bedrock of our story over and over again. We are not the same people in January as we are in April. Not the same this year as we were ten years ago when we read the same words. Not the same people we will be the next time we encounter these words. For me, the opening chapters of Shmot have particular resonance this year, as we read about the new Pharaoh who arose, declaring in the parasha two weeks ago, “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise, in the event of war, they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.” (Ex. 1:10) I have taken both solace and strength from the actions of the Hebrew midwives Shifrah and Puah, who resisted the unethical orders to kill all baby boys who were born.

In the summer of 2001, modern research caught up to the rabbis’ reasoning. At that time, Marshall Duke and Robyn Fivush, two researchers from Emory University, did a study on children’s resilience. Using a scale they developed called the “Do You Know” scale, they asked students twenty questions, such as: “Do you know where your parents grew up?” “Do you know what went on when you were being born?” “Do you know who in the family you act most like?” They discovered that higher scores on this scale were associated with a host of things we all hope for for our children, among them, higher levels of self-esteem and better chances for good outcomes when facing adversity.* A family culture – and dare I say a religious one – where stories are central is a family culture which gives our children tools for uncertain times, whether they be individual, local, or global. In our parasha, we hear for the first time the exhortion to re-enact the Exodus story throughout time, and to be diligent about telling the story to our children.  God weaves the future retelling of the story into the very fabric of our process of liberation from slavery.

Now, I might be more explicit in the answer I would give to the 6 year old who asked the question with which I began.   I would tell him that stories give us strength. We’ve been telling the same stories for thousands of years, and they help us get through hard times and joyful ones. The more our stories become a part of us, the more connected we are to ourselves, to each other, and to our history.

Rabbi Beth Naditch is teaches spiritual care at Hebrew SeniorLife and Hebrew College. She is a parent of three boys, at Schechter, Metrowest Jewish Day School, and Meridian Academy.

*A blog post on the study can be found here:


marc baker

D’var Torah: Rabbi Marc Baker (Va’era)

Every time we say the Amidah, the central prayer of Jewish liturgy, we read the phrase familiar to many of us: “Elokeinu v’Elokei Avoteinu – Our God and the God of our Fathers (or, Ancestors).” Implicit in this simple phrase is one of the great beauties of the Jewish spiritual tradition and one of the great challenges of Jewish education.

The phrase “our God” implies that each of us has a relationship with God that is personal and relevant to us in our time. And this same God is the God with whom our ancestors had a relationship, relevant to them in their time. At its best, this juxtaposition connects us in a deep and meaningful way with those who have come before us by virtue of our shared relationship with something transcendent, timeless, larger than ourselves. At its most challenging, this juxtaposition explains why a belief in God is so challenging for so many of us. When we feel obligated simply to continue or replicate the experiences of those who came before us, we can encounter a very real gap that exists between them and us, their time and ours. When the only language or framework for Jewish theology or spirituality is that of our ancestors, God can become inaccessible to us. For many, this causes us to check out of the very possibility of “Elokeinu” – of making their God my God.

The opening of this week’s Torah portion, Va’era, and, in particular, one of Rashi’s commentaries, offers a beautiful insight into Jewish spirituality that helps to address this challenge. “And God spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am the Lord. And I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as El Shaddai, but in My name “the Lord” I was not known to them.” (Exodus 6:1-3) Rashi explains this last line as follows: (God says:) “My quality of trustworthiness, which the name ‘the Lord’ represents, was not known to them (your ancestors) because while I promised them (to bring them to the Land of Israel), I did not fulfill my promise (during their lifetime).”

This is radical. According to this, God had unfinished business with our ancestors, who never knew God in all of God’s fullness because they never experienced the playing out of history. To put it differently, we who are living out the unfolding story of Jewish history are also living out the unfolding relationship between God and the Jewish people. This is the opposite of trying to replicate or sustain their relationship with God. On the contrary, when we make the relationship our own, we contribute to God’s evolving relationship with the Jewish People and the world as they are today.

When we make God Elokeinu, our God, we keep alive Elokei Avoteinu, their God. This is a great spiritual opportunity, an invitation to write new chapters in the literal and spiritual story of our people.

Rabbi Marc Baker, Head of School, Gann Academy

D’var Torah: Rabbi Leslie Gordon (Shmot)

We might expect the birth of Moses to be heralded with great fanfare. Instead, immediately following Pharaoh’s decree to kill all Hebrew boys we read: A certain man of the house of Levi stion married a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw how beautiful he was, she hid him for three months (Exodus 2:1-2).

“Beautiful” as the JPS translation is rendered, is not entirely accurate. And “beautiful” confuses the narrative: After all, what mother does not think her baby is beautiful? Are we to suppose that if this baby were not pleasing to look at his mother would not have sought to save him from Pharaoh’s decree?

We do better to translate literally: the mother saw that he was good: Tov. When we read the verse, טוב כי אתו ותרא “She saw that he was good,” we can’t help but hear echoes of Creation, when day after day, G. saw that what had just been created was good טוב כי אלוהים וירא.

This nameless boy born to an anonymous mother is our greatest teacher, the leader who would shepherd us to freedom. As Nahum Sarna comments, “this parallel (“saw that it/he was good”) suggests that the birth of Moses is intended to be understood as the dawn of a new creative era.”

Yocheved saw in her newborn, not yet named Moses something more than beauty: she saw the goodness in his creation, his potential to change the world. There is no fanfare or proclamation of greatness or even noble lineage at his birth. Like countless babies born to generations of parents, this humble, nameless child is good because even in a time of terror and suffering, a new life means the potential for salvation. This baby is not distinguished by miraculous powers. His mother sees that he is good, he is part of creation, he evinces a spark of the divine. It is no more and no less than what we all see in the birth of our children. Famous or the product of a certain man and his wife—all our children bring the goodness of hope for a better tomorrow.

Rebecca Luire

D’var Torah: Rebecca Lurie (Vayechi)

A key theme in this week’s Torah parasha, Vayechi, is forgiveness. We all know the famous Joseph story – of his brothers selling him into slavery and lo and behold, Joseph becomes a key leader among the Egyptians. When their father Jacob dies, the brothers are asking for forgiveness from Joseph. “Please, forgive now your brothers’ transgression and their sin, for they did evil to you. Now please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.”  

And Joseph’s reaction to this plea was to weep. And he said “Indeed, you intended evil against me, [but] God designed it for good, in order to bring about what is at present to keep a great populace alive. So now do not fear. I will sustain you and your small children.” וְעַתָּה אַל תִּירָאוּ אָנֹכִי אֲכַלְכֵּל אֶתְכֶם וְאֶת טַפְּכֶם

So, why was he able to forgive his brothers after betraying him? Rabbi Jonathan Sacks sees Joseph’s relationships with his brothers as the full cycle of repentance. The first stage of repentance is when they admit they did wrong (when the brothers first encountered Joseph in Egypt). The second stage of repentance is when they confess and take responsibility for their actions (when they confess to having sold Joseph into slavery). And the third is when they are presented with the same situation as the first time and they choose not to make the same mistake again (they offer to be Joseph’s slaves). The three phases of repentance presented here are 1) admission of guilt, 2) confession and 3) behavioral change.

The story of Joseph is a beautiful representation of humanity and our ability and obligation to forgive our fellow man and woman. For when we forgive one another, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes that we are no longer prisoners of our past but are able to find new purpose and meaning in our relationships with one another. As the new secular year has become, I wish you a year filled with opportunities to model this lesson of repentance and accept forgiveness into your hearts.