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D’var Torah: Rabbi Dov Bard (Naso)

AN ASTONISHING THING!

Within our contemporary Jewish community, we put enormous emphasis on the group and on the needs of the community.  We are investing deeply in day school educations as we invest deeply in our synagogues, our community and our State of Israel.  There are times, however, when that communal orientation can be stifling for the individual.  There are Jews, actually many Jews, who yearn for a personal and a deep spiritual connectivity and find themselves baffled and slightly alienated by the communal and even tribal agenda in modern Jewish life.

Such individuals can find their voice in this week’s parasha.  Although there are many examples of individuals who step aside from the pressures of community in their singular pursuit of closeness with God, the example of the “nazir” ( Nu 6:1-21) is an inspiration for the hungry soul.  “If anyone, man or woman explicitly utters a nazarite’s vow, to set himself apart for the Lord….”  We note that the expression “yaf’li” is translated as “explicitly” yet, here, it is better rendered “wondrously.” In fact Ibn Ezra comments on this act of self-discipline which goes beyond the letter of the law:  “He separates himself, he does an astonishing thing – for most human beings are slaves of their desires.”  Seforno goes even further:  The wondrous thing that the Nazarite does is to “…separate himself from all the vanities that divert men from their true goal – he holds himself aloof from these ordinary pleasures, in order to devote himself in his entirety to God, to study the Torah, to walk in His ways, and to cleave to Him.”  (6:2)

This obviously cannot be the basis of the curriculum for our schools.  We must use a broader, more inclusive and more communally oriented language and approach.  But we must also protect the student who “gets it.”  We must provide space, freedom, and encouragement for any Jew who hungers for deeper personal meaning in Jewish life.  As Heschel reminds us, our task is not to survive.  Our task is to be worthy of survival.

Rabbi Dov Bard, Former Head of School, Schechter Alumni Parent

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D’var Torah: Rabbi Ron Fish (Behar-Bechukotai)

If/Then is the (now closed) Broadway musical by Brian Yorkey that tells the story of a woman named Elizabeth.  It tracks her choices and follows two possible futures for the heroine as she moves back to New York City for a fresh start.  When she arrives she meets friends, one of whom suggest as part of her remaking herself she should go by a new name: ‘Liz.’ Another friend suggests she readopt her college nickname, ‘Beth.’  The play then follows Beth or Liz into their different futures.

The idea of the play, and of Parashat Bechukotai, is that we make our world.  IF we are faithful to our promises, IF we heed the voice of God and the commandments, IF we are committed to being fair and honest and selfless and decent…THEN we will be blessed and treasured and have the kind of just and holy society that God wants for us. The kind we want for ourselves.

And IF not…THEN.

On one level this message is very empowering. There is no one else who is responsible.  If we want a good and righteous world, then we can make it happen. If we don’t want to tolerate the opposite, the future is within our power to control.  

But the danger of this simple message is twofold.  One danger lies in the fact that things don’t always turn out as we hope, no matter how hard we try.  Bending the arc of justice from oppression to freedom is not as simple as changing your name. The other danger in this answer is that believing that people always get what they deserve can make us hard-hearted in the face of suffering.  If ‘they’ are not smart, healthy, or rich enough- then ‘they’ are obviously at fault. IF/THEN can be a convenient cover for not caring.

Perhaps the best lesson of the Parasha is a reminder of the wisdom of Rabbi Akiva in Pirkei Avot.  There are so many things in the world which we cannot control. Our goodness or wickedness is no guarantee of perfect rewards or punishments from God or the universe.  We are not able to predict or understand the world in such a simple and direct way. But the one crucial thing we can control, we can have perfect understanding of, is our own inner spiritual life.  “All is in the hands of Heaven except for Fear of Heaven.” (Ethics 3:11)

The truest IF/THEN of Jewish belief is that if you work to be the kind of person whom you admire…if you make decisions which are based on the truest values you hold dear…then you will be blessed to become the person you hope to be.  You will be the embodiment of all you seek. The power you hold in your hand, no matter what comes, is to ensure that your name be a blessing.

As Anne Frank put it, “Our very lives are fashioned by choice.  First we make choices.  Then our choices make us.”

 

Rabbi Ron Fish, Temple Israel, Sharon
Schechter Parent

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D’var Torah: Rabbi Carl Perkins (Emor)

What’s Stopping Us? 

Parashat Emor (Leviticus 21-24)

What does a holiday celebration evoke in your mind?  Great food? Sitting and eating and talking and celebrating with family and friends?

For most of us, the essence of a holiday is a feast at which we can relax and enjoy ourselves.

In the middle of this week’s parashah (Leviticus chapter 23), there’s a calendar of Jewish feasts.  The seasonal holidays start with Passover (which falls in the first month of the year, according to the Biblical calendar).  The list continues with the period of the Omer and the holiday of Shavuot, and concludes with Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Shmini Atzeret. Just about every verse in this chapter describes one or another of these holy days and how we are supposed to observe them.  

Except for one.  There’s one verse that really sticks out:

“And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the migrant: I the LORD am your God.” (Lev. 23:22)

This verse just doesn’t belong here, for at least two reasons.  First, unlike the rest of the chapter, it describes practices that we’re supposed to do on days that are NOT holidays.  (We are specifically charged to refrain from reaping and gathering gleanings and performing other kinds of agricultural work on festivals.)  Second — and this is what really makes this verse stand out — it teaches what the Torah has already taught in a verse that appeared only four chapters earlier (in Leviticus 19:9-10)!

So why is it here?

Different explanations are offered by different commentators.

My favorite explanation is this:  We should never — ever — forget the poor and the other marginal members of society, even on the holidays, even on those days when we understandably focus on ourselves and our families and our friends.

Rambam (Maimonides) makes this point eloquently.  In the Mishneh Torah, he says the following:

When a person eats and drinks [on the festival], he is obliged to feed the migrant, the orphan, the widow and other poor, despondent people as well. People who lock the doors of their courtyard and eat and drink with their spouse and children without giving anything to eat or drink to the poor and the desperate –- such people do not experience the joy of  fulfilling a mitzvah; rather, they experience only the joy of filling their own bellies ….

We are just past the midpoint in the Omer period. Shavuot will be here before we know it.  Let’s celebrate the holiday: by refraining from work, by going to synagogue, and by celebrating with family and friends.  But, then as now, let’s not forget Rambam’s charge to include the poor and the other marginal members of our society in our thinking, our planning, and our actions.  

We may not be harvesting sheaves of grain; we may not be harvesting crops, but:  Is there a soup kitchen we can support? Have we contributed to Family Table or Yad Chessed or Mazon lately?  If not, what’s stopping us?

 

Rabbi Carl M. Perkins, Temple Aliyah, Schechter alumni parent

D’var Torah: Rabbi Daniel Berman (Acharei Mot)

 

The opening verses of our Torah reading this week, Acharei Mot, make up the same text we read on the morning of Yom Kippur.  Why would our ancient rabbis elevate this particular text in such a dramatic way?

First, this is a story of atonement: the High Priest enters the most inner space in the Tabernacle and seeks forgiveness for the entire people.

But the beauty of the story is how that forgiveness is attained. The story is actually about ritual as a tool for change, healing and renewal.

One of the more mysterious rituals of the ancient Yom Kippur service of atonement is the sending of the goat, burdened with the transgressions of Israel, to “Azazel” – a barren, lifeless world. In the ancient collection of rabbinic texts known as the mishna, the rabbis envision and recreate this Biblical ritual:

First, the priests and the people made a ramp for the person leading the goat so he would be able to travel safely. They then set up ten booths on route to the wilderness. Prominent members of the community would accompany the person leading the goat from booth to booth and at every booth they gave the person food and water until the very last station, the peak of the cliff, when those accompanying would stand at a distance and watch what the leader was doing. He carefully threaded the goat to a rock on the cliff and threw it backwards, and the goat rolled down.

The process of leading the goat with such care teaches us how seriously and how sensitively our ancient rabbis took this ritual. That goat carried with it the sins of the community; it needed to be guided out with great care to affect true healing. The only way to do that was through careful and caring ritual action.

Many generations later, ritual remains religiously and spiritually significant.  We continue to fill our lives with imagery and sounds and smells, helping us become aware of God’s presence. These rituals are empty, however, if not embedded in a loving, caring spirit of generosity towards one another. These are the qualities that endow ritual with their apparent magic to help uplift our spirits and restore our sense of hope and purpose whenever we need them the most.

 

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D’var Torah: Rabbi Ilana Garber ’91 (Tazria/Metzora)

It is so easy – and so tempting – to draw simple conclusions from our Torah text. For instance, the rabbis have always connected tzara’at, the scaly skin disease in this week’s Torah portion, with gossip. They have suggested that the consequence for speaking ill of someone else is to be isolated from the rest of the camp while healing. On the surface, this makes sense: say bad things, get a physical mark that shows you’ve been bad, and then have a “time out” so you will stop saying bad things. We see this happen later in our Torah when Miriam is stricken with a scaly-white skin disease after she speaks ill of her brother, Moses, and his wife. She heals outside the camp and returns only after she is physically, spiritually, and emotionally ready.

But I don’t think we can – or should – accept this concept as it is presented.

While we know that our actions can have consequences, the Torah is not so black and white as to suggest that illness is caused by poor behavior. As someone who, just three years ago, received a diagnosis of Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma (and thank God, everything is now OK!), I can attest to the fact that when illness befalls a person, the first thing we think is, “what did I do wrong?” This theology is flawed and certainly not the intention of the Torah.

The message of Tazria/Metzora is that it is not the illness we should focus on but the separation, the healing, and the return. When we live in community, we are bound to insult, offend, and worse. Our actions have consequences. But not the consequences of illness per se; our actions impact our community and our place within that community. Sometimes we need to separate ourselves from the community, to heal, and then to return when we are ready.

My Schechter Boston years were a long time ago, but I remember fondly how supportive the community was (and is: now I’m a Schechter Greater Hartford parent!) during times that I made poor choices or that my actions had consequences that impacted my friends. The gift of the holy community we create at Schechter is that we support those who need a “time out,” we encourage their healing, and we welcome them back. We are so privileged to share in this holy, nurturing, and supportive community!

D’var Torah: Cantor Michael McCloskey (Shemini)

Aaron the Peace-maker and the Spirit of Welcoming

At the beginning of S’hmini, this week’s Torah portion, the tent of meeting, the place where G-d reveals Godself to our ancestors has been dedicated, the kohanim/priests (Aaron and his sons) have been ordained to serve the Holy One and the people Israel, and at last, the Shechinah, the Divine Presence is ready to enter the new space fashioned for Her.

After drawing near with sacrificial offerings which represent the people’s desire for repentance, transcendance, and peace among themselves, Aaron steps down from the altar, lifts his hands toward the people Israel, and blesses them.  In fact, I think that this is not just an issue of order of events, but of intent. Aaron descends in order to bless the people. He needs to have proximity, nearness to them, in order to discover their needs, hopes, and prayers! In fact, one of our Torah commentators, Rabbeinu Bahya, suggests that this movement toward the people means working toward their needs and benefit!  Aaron, understood by our oral traditions as being the great peacemaker [Pirkey Avot and Avot D’Rabbi Natan], is one of the earliest practicers of keruv, drawing the members of the congregation nearer to one another and the Holy One. After his movement toward the people, Aaron, now joined by his brother Moses, enters the tent of meeting. Together they reemerge and offering another blessing to the people. It is very significant, I think, that the Shechinah, the Divine Presence only appears after two of the three principal leaders of Israel (Miriam is not mentioned here) affirm the people! In plain terms, the people of Israel can channel G-d only when their leaders have faith in them and they in turn have faith in their leaders and in one another! In fact, once their leaders have blessed them and G-d’s Glory appears, they break into spontaneous song.  Only a community in which the participants feel safe, welcome, and cherished, can make this kind of music!

Like Aaron, we need to step down or forward in order to really see and hear the needs of our friends, classmates, families, and communities.  Furthermore, in order to work toward their benefit, we like “Aaron” need to be able to “love all creatures” [Pirkey Avot 1:12]. In other words, we must not only step toward our fellow human beings, but also be able to love them, to see the good in them, to bless them!

The ohel mo-ed, the tent of meeting, is the perfect metaphor for this diverse and cohesive community.  The flaps of a tent are often open. A tent can be moved where the people are and air flows into it, ever refreshing its purpose and energy.  The shoresh, or root of mo-ed, yod-ayin-dalet, involves not only time, but also gathering and appointment. At the tent of meeting we gather together thoughtfully and inclusively, honoring our differences yet aware and bearing witness to common goals.  What are these goals? If we follow the model of Aaron they are “loving peace, chasing after peace, loving our fellow creatures [human and otherwise], and drawing human beings near to Torah (teaching, enlightened perspectives).”

Cantor Michael McCloskey, Hazzan-M’hanech (Cantor-Educator)

Temple Emeth of Chestnut Hill

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

This coming Friday night, every Jewish household will become a showcase for the special pedagogy that has enabled our people to persist and flourish.  The Seder itself reflects a central understanding of our people’s survival and triumph – that the home is the greatest Jewish educational institution, and places like Day Schools are but supports for this sacred work.

And the story we have to tell, the lessons we have to share are every bit worthy of this task.  While parents (and grandparents) might be busying themselves this week assembling ‘learning aids’, games and tzchochkes to keep the youngsters around the table engaged, it’s worth remembering what lies at the core of what we have to teach at our Sederim.  To that end, I’d like to suggest two important ideas – possibly directions – to keep in mind as we again take on the sacred roles of our children’s’ primary religious and moral teachers and guides.

First, this is more a night about answers than questions, and we adults should operate from a sense of conviction, as well as we can.  There is a tendency in contemporary parlance to think of Judaism as fundamentally a tradition of questions.   To some degree, this is appropriate, Leon Wieseltier notes, “…for the night of the Four Questions; but those questions, remember, are for the children to ask. The adults are supposed to be less interrogative than instructive—to be unembarrassed by the claim that they are in possession of answers.”

In his 2012 article in the Jewish Review of Books, he goes on to say that “….Contrary to its contemporary reputation, the Haggadah is more about the prestige of answers than the prestige of questions. There is nothing tentative about its account of God, history, and freedom. The tradition that it describes does not shrink from certainties. It is an argumentative tradition, to be sure, but not because certainty is impossible or illegitimate…. The grandeur of the Seder is owed not least to the intellectual confidence of its text. “

For many of us, that level of confidence may require some work in our preparation, and we may make some accommodations to our own ambivalences and antipathies, but it’s worth remembering that children really do look to adults to see what it is they care about, what matters to them and what they feel is important, indeed sacred.  In the years to come, they will remember the joy, the community, and the family of our Sederim. But in their kishkes, they will remember –  above all – what we stood for.

Speaking of that (and my second point),  I am reminded of some remarkable text from Rabbi Irving ‘Yitz’ Greenberg, in his timeless book, The Jewish Way.  He gives an overview of the ‘why’ of Passover’ for our times, and each year when I read it, it strikes me anew.  Maybe it will do likewise for you:

“The overwhelming majority of earth’s human beings have always lived in poverty and under oppression, their lives punctuated by sickness and suffering,  …Statistically speaking, human life is of little value.  The downtrodden and the poor accept their fate as destined;  the powerful and successful accept their good fortune as they’re due.  Power, rather than justice, seems to rule.

Jewish religion affirms otherwise.  Judaism insists that history.. will eventually be perfected.

How do we know this?  From an actual event in history – the Exodus…. The freeing of the slaves testified that human beings are meant to be free.  History will not be finished until all are free.  The Exodus shows that God is independent of human control.  Once this is understood by tyrants and their victims then all human power is made relative.

The Exodus further proves that God is concerned.  No, the Exodus did not destroy evil in the world.  What it did was set up an alternate conception of life;  it re-establishes the dream of perfection.”

It is from this framework of Rabbi Greenberg, that we can deliver a message of not only understanding the challenges we confront in our world, and still make the case for a distinctly Jewish purpose in helping heal the fissures that divide us.  As such, it provides every participant in the Seder with a place for hope, which, after all, is perhaps the greatest gift we adults can offer our children.

May you and your loved ones be blessed with a happy – and Kosher – Pesach.

Arnold Zar-Kessler, Executive Director Inspiring Educators, Former Schechter Head of School, Schechter Alumni Parent and Grandparent

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D’var Torah: Rabbi Benjamin Samuels (Tzav)

The Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 7:3) asserts that when we begin to teach our children Torah, we should begin with Sefer Vayikra, the Book of Leviticus. This is surprising. The first half of Leviticus presents the sacrificial order of worship and concentrates on purity; the second half introduces many ritual and moral laws and focuses on holiness. This material brings to our awareness sublime, but difficult theological ideas, and legally complex religious and ethical imperatives.  Surely, the stories of Bereshit – Genesis will capture the attention and imagination of children better than the arcana of Leviticus. Furthermore, shouldn’t children’s Jewish education commence with the beginning of the Torah? The aforementioned Midrash explains: “Let those who are pure come and occupy themselves with the acts of the pure.”

I believe we can learn three important pedagogic principles from the approach of the Midrash. One, environment matters. As parents and teachers, we all aim to find the right balance between protecting our children from the brokenness of our world, and exposing them to said brokenness so that we can all become partners in its repair. The Midrash says begin with wholeness, purity, holiness, and goodness, i.e., Leviticus, with its orders and sacred aspirations. Once a baseline is established, our children can better recognize brokenness when it appears, such as in the stories of Bereishit.

Two, cultivate within our children the capacity to hear the Torah’s call to purity and holiness. The book of Leviticus begins with “Vayikrah – And God called.” Children often enter early childhood with spiritual and ethical questions that are quite profound, even if stated simply. Nurture their natural attunement to such questions.

Three, the book of Leviticus taken as a whole emphasizes ritual and ethics, our relationship with God and with other people.  The book which details how to worship and come close to God, also teaches, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”  To be a Jew requires commitment to both law and spirit for Judaism staunchly believes that religious practice externalizes the internal and internalizes the external: we practice what we believe and we believe what we practice.

Whether or not we actually commence our children’s Torah studies with Sefer Vaykira, the Midrash challenges us to think more deeply about our educational goals and their implementation.

Rabbi Benjamin J. Samuels, PhD, is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Tefillah, a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Newton Center. 

D’var Torah: Rabbi Rachel Silverman (Terumah)

The very essence of Parshat Terumah holds an inherent contradiction. God instructs the Israelites to build the Tabernacle (and accoutrements) so that God may dwell among the people (ועשו לי מקדש ושכנתי בתוכם, make me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them). Yet we know that God doesn’t possibly fit inside the confined space of the Tabernacle. God is all around us. In fact, given the description of God’s presence as a cloud and as a pillar of fire as the Israelites were leaving Egypt, we know that God already was very physically present in the Israelite community.
What, then, could God mean when God requests a sanctuary to be built “ושכנתי בתוכם” so that “I will dwell among them”?
It is widely known that one of the best ways to built relationships among a community is to “get your hands dirty” – to work towards and accomplish a project together. Authentic connections are forged when former strangers dig deep (literally and figuratively) to build new institutions, revitalize communities, offer tangible help to those in need, and solve problems together.
The key to understanding what God is seeking here is the verb sh-kh-n, to dwell. Shakhen (שָׁכֵן), in modern Hebrew, means neighbor. From this same root we also have Mishkanmeaning sanctuary and the divine presence known as the Shekhinah. Through the project of building a home for God, it is God’s intention to create a community of neighbors, God’s self included among them.
By working together strangers become friends; and friends become family. When we work side-by-side, we begin to know one another – and ultimately, care for one another. For a budding community such as the Israelites, it is the act of caring for the other that creates a sense of togetherness.
Ultimately, when we can welcome God into our neighborhood, we elevate our lives and bring a sense of holiness to our homes. The relationship that we strive for with the Shekhinah is one of comfort, compassion, help, reassurance, and guidance. It is the same relationship that we strive for with one another.
Rabbi Rachel Silverman, Temple Israel of Sharon

D’var Torah: Rabbi Dan Liben (Mishpatim)

After the drama of parshat Yitro, in which we experienced the revelation of the Ten Commandments, the tone of parshat Mishpatim feels abruptly dry. Up until now, the book of Exodus has told the story of the Israelites’ slavery and redemption with a relentless energy and drama. Now, that narrative abruptly pauses to make place for a law code, a list of rules and regulations, both civil and criminal, that will give shape to Israelite society.

This code is not completely divorced from what preceded it; it begins with laws that the people could relate to from their immediate experience: laws concerning the treatment of Hebrew slaves. Yet, for the most part, this catalogue of rules, concerning issues as diverse as homicide, negligence, fairness in judgement, and holiday observances, has no connection to the dramatic story that preceded it.

But not quite. There is an occasional passion that flairs up out of the text, all the more remarkable for its suddenness and its rhetoric:

“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me, and My anger shall blaze forth and I will put you to the sword, and your wives shall become widows and orphans.

…If you take your neighbor’s garment in pledge, you must return it to him before the sun sets; it is his only clothing, the sole covering of his skin. In what else shall he sleep? Therefore, if he cries out to Me, I will pay heed, for I am compassionate.”

Parshat Mishpatim tells us that law codes do not exist in a vacuum, and that the rules and regulations that give order to a community ultimately derive from our deepest values and our formative experiences. The entire story of the Exodus from Egypt, of enslavement and hard-won liberation, leads to this: a code of law that demands that our past prepare us for a morally and ethically responsible future.

 

Rabbi Dan Liben, Schechter Alumni Parent, Temple Israel – Natick