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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Ed Gelb, Director, Camp Ramah in New England

D’var Torah: Rabbi Marcia Plumb (Emor)

פַרְתֶּ֤ם לָכֶם֙ מִמָּחֳרַ֣ת הַשַּׁבָּ֔ת מִיּוֹם֙ הֲבִ֣יאֲכֶ֔ם אֶת־עֹ֖מֶר הַתְּנוּפָ֑ה שֶׁ֥בַע שַׁבָּת֖וֹת תְּמִימֹ֥ת תִּהְיֶֽינָה׃

And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering—the day after the sabbath—you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete: (16)

עַ֣ד מִֽמָּחֳרַ֤ת הַשַּׁבָּת֙ הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔ת תִּסְפְּר֖וּ חֲמִשִּׁ֣ים י֑וֹם וְהִקְרַבְתֶּ֛ם מִנְחָ֥ה חֲדָשָׁ֖ה לַיהוָֽה׃

You must count until the day after the seventh week—fifty days; then you shall bring an offering of new grain to the LORD. (17)

This week we are in the midst of observing the biblical command from this week’s parasha to count the days of the Omer.   The Kabbalists added a trait from the Sefirot to each of the weeks. According to the Kabbalists, the Sefirot are the Emanations that reveal God’s presence.  In our home, each week of the Omer, I create a poster with a set of questions for the family to think about and discuss, related to each week, and trait.  I offer them here to you:

Week One of the Omer
Hesed: Lovingkindness
How have you shown hesed this week?
How have you said thank you for hesed shown to you this week?
 
Week Two of the Omer
Gevurah: Strength
What are your strengths and gifts?
When have you felt strong and confident this week?
How have you shown inner strength this week?
How have you shown strength of character this week?

Week Three of the Omer
Tifferet:  Beauty
What have you noticed that is beautiful this week?
When have you shown inner beauty this week?
How have you brought out the beauty in others this week?

Week Four of the Omer
Netzah:  Endurance, Determination, Victory
What helps you overcome obstacles?  How can the family help you succeed?
What keeps you going when you want to quit?
What do you feel victorious about this week?  What are your successes this week?

Week Five of the Omer
Hod:  Gratitude
What are you grateful for this week?
How have you shown gratitude to others this week?

Week Six of the Omer
Yesod: Bonding, Nurturing, Foundation
How have you shown love and nurturing to yourself this week?  How have you looked after yourself?
How have you shown love and nurturing to others this week?

Week Seven of the Omer
Malchut:  Majesty, Nobility
How have you shown nobility of character this week?
How have you risen to be your best self this week?
How have you brought out the best in others this week?
How have you seen the noble in others this week?

By Rabbi Marcia Plumb, Rabbi of Congregation Mishkan Tefila, and Chaplain at Orchard Cove, with Hebrew Senior Life 

D’var Torah: Rabbi Joshua Elkin (Acharei Mot/Kedoshim)

This Shabbat, we read a double parsha – Acharei Mot and Kedoshim. My focus is on Kedoshim because it is one of the parshiyot which is richest in specific mitzvot dealing with our relationships with other people. A quick examination of Chapter 19 of the Book of Vayikra reveals the details of a powerful system of ethical behavior which helps to create a humane society. Rather than delve into the specific mitzvot enumerated, I want to focus on the meaning of the word Kedoshim and the opening verse of the chapter – “You shall be holy because I the Lord thy God am holy.” What is the most authentic translation of kadosh?

The usual meaning ascribed to it is “separate” or “setting aside.” However, some years ago, a Schechter parent, Dr. Shim Berkovits, taught me a different meaning for kadosh which he learned from his father, Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits z”l, a distinguished modern Orthodox philosopher. That meaning is “to draw near” – ostensibly meaning that by being holy and doing these mitzvot, we bring ourselves nearer to God and to the transcendent realms of the universe. This meaning is unusual and quite original, and sheds new light on the meaning of kadosh and of the opening verse quoted above.

In addition to this perspective, I would like to probe our precious Hebrew language for words whose root is kadosh and to see what added light can be shed on this important concept. Here is a partial list:

  1. Kiddush – blessing the wine on Shabbat and festivals
  2. Kaddish – prayer said by mourners
  3. Kedushah – the part of the Amidah where we stand and repeat phrases of holiness and praise, after the hazzan
  4. Kiddushin – Hebrew word for betrothal
  5. Harey at MeKudeshet lee – (you are betrothed unto me), said by groom under the huppah as the ring is placed on the bride’s finger
  6.  Beit HaMikdash – the Temple in Jerusalem
  7. Ir HaKodesh – the traditional way to refer to Jerusalem 
This is an example of the beauty and richness of the Hebrew language. We have numerous words which share the same root and which shed light on each other. The meaning of to draw near is enriched and expanded through these seven Kadosh perspectives. By uncovering and sharing all of these various words and meanings associated with Kadosh, we are also recognizing that translating Kadosh as Holy misses the richness and multi-layered quality of this ancient word. May we continue to draw near to the transcendent through the saying of Kadosh, singing it and mining it for the different meanings which emerge.​
Rabbi Joshua Elkin, Executive and Leadership Coach at Joshua Elkin Consulting, Former Head of School, Schechter alumni parent
12155_10101034329068193_2109195832_n (1)

D’var Torah: Rabbi Ravid Tilles (Tazria/Metora)

This week we read the double portion of Tazria and Metzora, both of which further the themes of the preceding chapters of Leviticus: purity and impurity. We learn about the ways that a person can become impure (ta’may), and therefore unfit to bring sacrifices to the Tabernacle. We also learn the process by which a person can be purified (tahor) and reintroduced into the ritual society. These two portions deal primarily with anatomical issues such as skin disease or bodily fluids and how these medical conditions can cause impurity (WARNING: These portions are rated PG-13 – though parental guidance is ALWAYS encouraged).

On the surface, the words ta’may and tahor (impure and pure) seem charged with judgment.  It is good to be tahor and it is bad to be ta’may. After all, one who is in a state of ritual impurity must not service God in the Tabernacle. Someone who is impure longs for purity, so impurity must be bad. The question arises, however, about the issue of childbirth, which is discussed at the beginning of Parshat Tazria. A woman who has just given birth is given the classification of “impure.” How can that be? How can such a beautiful, joyous, positive moment, such as childbirth, be associated with impurity or negativity?

From this we learn that ritual impurity is not a negative classification, rather it is a state of reality. Ta’may is not good or bad it just is. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of England, expounds, “Though we have immortal longings, mortality is the condition of human existence, as it is of all embodied life.” Meaning, even though we wish we were always perfect and even strive for perfection, the reality is that we will never be perfect. There will always be times that we are ta’may, and we should give ourselves permission to live with our challenges and accept them as a part of our whole being. Our goal should not be perfection, since that is impossible. Instead our goal should be to accept ourselves, 100% fully and purely, as we are.

Rabbi Ravid Tilles is the Associate Rabbi at the Merrick Jewish Centre and Incoming Director of Jewish Life and Learning at Schechter

D’var Torah: Dr. Joseph Reimer (Sh’mini)

The Strange Case of the Strange Fire: Parshat Sh’mini

Leviticus, the third book of the Torah, is well-known as the priestly code. In its early chapter we read about the animal sacrifices that the priests- Aaron and sons- were to bring before the Lord in the sanctuary built by the people to serve their God. These sacrifices were the main avenue of Israelite approach to God and the priests played the crucial role as mediators between the people and God. So it is shocking in chapter 10 to read what happened to Aaron’s two oldest sons.

Now Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, each took his fire pan, put fire in it and laid incense on it; and they offered before the Lord alien fire, which He had not enjoined them. And  fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Lord (verses 1-2.).

Much is not clear in this terse narrative. Were Nadab and Abihu asked to take their fire pans and bring in fire? If so, what is an alien fire? How did this alien or strange fire defy God’s orders? And why was this offense so grievous that God consumed them on the spot?

As happens often in Jewish tradition, when the Torah fails to supply the many details we need to understand what happened, the commentators jump in with many differing interpretations. To them there is an absolute need to know what happened and why. This is a potentially highly destabilizing story. We are, after all, reading about Aaron, Moses’ older brother who co-lead the Exodus from Egypt and was subsequently honored with becoming the first High Priest. Aaron has been told that the priesthood was to be hereditary and that his sons would succeed him in this role. And here, two of his four sons are struck dead, the two oldest who might well have been his immediate successors. Were these sons evil? Or had they made a terrible error of judgment for which they paid with their lives? And is this God so fraught that He can, without explaining, strike dead two of the highest priests?

I leave you to explore the many possible responses to these questions. What strikes me, writing during Passover week, is that ours is a tradition that honors questions more than responses. We know that the commentators will work their way out of this terrible dilemma, but that the ways out are less lasting than the dilemma itself. Answers fade with time. Questions last a life time, indeed many life times. In my view the very beauty of a Jewish education is not that our developing children are armed with responses, but that they realize they come from a people who pursue lasting questions and expect of them the same: a life time of studying and posing questions.

D’var Torah: Rabbi Mendy Uminer (Vayikra)

When one thinks of Passover, images of the traditional Passover meal, the Seder, immediately enter the mind. A seder is truly the time of togetherness for the Jewish family. Together, we recount the miraculous birth of the Jewish people. We revisit G‑d redeeming His people from the depths of despair and His transforming a nation of slaves into the beneficiaries of the Sinai experience and the recipients of His Torah.

During the Seder we discuss the “Four Sons” and the questions they pose, from the “Wise Son” who wants to know all of the particulars of Passover observances, to the “Wicked Son” who challenges and mocks them. There is a “Simple Son” who simply asks “What’s this?” There is even a son whose only form of participation is simply being there. With everything happening around him, not a single question occupies his mind.

My teacher and spiritual mentor the Lubavitcher Rebbe teaches us that today we have yet another son, “the fifth son”. The son who does not even attend a seder.

Just as we address the challenges and questions of the Four Sons, we must address the challenges of this fifth son as well. We must reach out and include those who have no place to be at the Seder, and for those who don’t feel the need or relevance to be there, we need to inspire them to its’ relevance to their lives.

In the early seventies, the Jewish Federation of North America decided to launch a campaign. They sought to institute that at every Seder table there should be an empty chair to bring into the Jewish consciousness the awareness that – if not for the holocaust and the loss of our 6 million – there would have been another Jew sitting in that seat.

They asked the Rebbe’s input, The Rebbe’s answer stunned the leaders of the federation: “Your idea of adding a chair is very important, and I’m ready to join the call. But, there is one condition…the extra chair should not be empty, but filled.”

We are lucky enough to have a school that inspires us to be engaged in Jewish life and we need to spread the light.

I want to take this opportunity to thank Schechter for being the home of our summer camp- Camp Gan Israel, thanks for the hospitality!

A Kosher & Happy Passover to you all.

Rabbi_William_Hamilton

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