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D’var Torah: Rabbi Ravid Tilles (Chukat)

In this week’s Parsha we learn about the famous story of Moses and the rock. Moses is told to speak to the rock in order to draw water for the community, but he strikes it with his rod instead. The water emerges, but Moses is told by God that since he did not listen (striking instead of speaking) that he will not be able to enter the Promised Land. In isolation, this story portrays Moses as someone unable to follow directions, a bad quality for a leader, and he is punished for his defiance. However, when we do a closer read we see that Moses has a legitimate reason to think he should strike the rock.

Earlier in the travels of the Israelites, soon after they crossed the Yam Suf, Moses is in a similar situation. The Israelites cry for water, Moses seeks guidance from God, and he is told to strike the rock to draw water. So in Exodus he is told to strike the rock (and it works), and then in this week’s Parsha he is told to speak but he strikes again. It is harder to fault Moses when we remember his history with rocks and water. He was not defiant, he was literally going back to the same “well” that had worked before.

All of a sudden Moses’ being kept out of The Promised Land feels less like a punishment for defiance and more like a natural consequence of not adapting to new instructions. Moses had proved that he knew how to be a leader during the Exodus from Egypt and he proved that he knew how to be a leader during the journey through the desert. Now this test from God, changing the rules about water-drawing, proved that Moses was not ready to adapt to a new circumstance in The Promised Land. Life will be different for the Israelites when they cross the Jordan River; this will be there first time back in Cana’an for hundreds of years, and their needs will be different than they ever have been. Moses’ inability to modify his strategy to meet God’s new demands at the rock, disqualifies his entrance into Israel as the leader. Thanks to his many years of extraordinary service, he merits seeing the Land but, as we learn in this week’s parsha, that is where his story will end.

The lesson here is that long term success comes from an ability to adapt and change as the times demand. This is a value underlies the work that we are doing at Schechter. We have guiding, core, principles that define our school, and they are articulated in our Strategic Plan. However, the strategies and systems that we develop to best service our goals have to be able to evolve as circumstances change. Jewish Life continues to evolve as generations of students pass through our hallways, which presents our school with new opportunities and new challenges. In order for Schechter to remain relevant and successful we must adapt to, and anticipate, the changes as they occur.  

 

On a personal level, I see this reflected in my own life as well. Less than a year ago I was a pulpit rabbi and I was preparing to make a major transition in my life to Boston and the Schechter community. I needed to adapt to a new career and I am grateful for all of the help that my colleagues, the students and our community provided to me. I am lucky to be a part of a community that understands the tremendous value of Jewish education and I am proud of the work that we are doing to foster future leaders of our community. The reason for our shared success this year has been growth, feedback, reflection and willingness to adapt, and I am looking forward to another great school year starting in the Fall.

 

  

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D’var Torah: Rabbi Gilbert S. Rosenthal (Korach)

REBELS WITHOUT A CAUSE

Korah goes down in history as a self-centered, egotistical rebel without a cause. For no apparent reason, except for his lust for power and fame, he gathers some 250 followers and attacks Moses and Aaron declaring: “Rav lakhem—you have gone too far! All of the community are holy and the Lord is in their midst, Why do you dare to raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” (Numbers 16:1-3).

And how does Moses respond to this baseless challenge? He falls on his face appalled and shocked saying, “Comes the morning and the Lord will make known who is the rightful leader of Israel.” The fateful morning came and the earth swallowed up Korah and his followers—lost forever.

Poor Moses: After all he had gone through; after all his personal sacrifices; after all the perils  and travails—and this was all Korah and his gang could say of him! Now Moses was not rejecting the right of others to disagree with him; he wasn’t challenging Korah’s ability to question his rulings or opinions. But he was declaring to Korah: “If your argument is just about power and glory then you have  no right to challenge me, God’s chosen leader!”

And indeed, that was all Korah’s rebellion was about: power and glory. He had every right to disagree with Moses about a law or a ruling or an interpretation or a political policy. But there was no legitimate basis for his rebellion: it was aimed at sheer power and glory (kavod). The rabbis taught (Mishnah Avot 5:17): “Any dispute for the sake of Heaven will succeed. But if it is not for the sake of Heaven, it is doomed to fail. What is a dispute that is not for the sake of Heaven? The rebellion of Korah and his gang. And what is a dispute for the sake of Heaven? The debates between the schools of Hillel and Shammai.” We know that those two schools of jurisprudence fought over hundreds of issues ranging from when the world was created to what foods are kosher to what marriages are legal. And despite it all, they remained respectful colleagues and loving opponents who associated with and married with one another. Their disagreements were  never  for power and glory, unlike Korah; rather, their disputes were always for the greater glory of God and for the growth and prosperous development of Jewish law and theology. That is why Korah and his gang were swallowed up and forgotten while Shammai and Hillel still live and are cited in all rabbinic sources and debates. Indeed, there is scarcely a page of the Talmud from which their names are absent.

So  by all means, let us differ and debate, dispute and disagree. But let us not disagree disagreeably. And let our political, religious and social disputes aways remain l’shem Shamayim—for the sake of Heaven. That is the true spirit of legitimate disagreements  in Judaism. And that is, in my opinion, our source of greatness and eternity.

Rabbi Gilbert S. Rosenthal, Schechter grandparent

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D’var Torah: Shelach (Rabbi Ira Korinow)

The Challenge of Leadership

 

This week’s parasha, Sh’lach L’cha, begins with God commanding Moses, “Sh’lach L’cha anashim…”, to send men to scout/spy out the land.  The command, “Sh’lach L’cha” reminds us of another parasha that begins similarly: Lech L’cha.  In the latter, Abraham is commanded to “Go forth” from his land, the place of his birth, from his father’s house to the land which God will show him.

Both parashiot could have begun without the second word, “L’cha.”  In both parashiot the word “l’cha” is meant to show that the person being commanded has to make the decision to actually go.  Abraham is told, “Go forth (for yourself) from your land, etc…”  Moses is being told, “(You yourself) send men….”  The commentary in the Etz Hayim chumash notes that God removed God’s-self from taking an active role in the mission.  Moses must decide for himself to take this important step as a leader and send spies into the Land that God had promised them.  He appoints a representative from each of the 12 tribes to scout out the Land.  Moses, however, learns that the decision to send the spies did not get the consensus that he had hoped for.

Ten spies came back with a report that the inhabitants of the Land were giants who completely dwarfed them.  “There we saw the sons of Anak (giants); we saw ourselves as grasshoppers, and so they saw us as such.”  What an incredible psychological insight of their low self esteem!

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein tells a story about Mickey Mantle, the famous New York Yankees baseball player and member of the Baseball Hall of Fame.  As a teenager playing in the minor leagues, Mantle wasn’t much of a star.  In fact, due to his poor performance, the young Mantle became discouraged.  Feeling sorry for himself, he decided that he had had enough and called his father to come and take him home. When his father arrived, Mickey didn’t get the expected sympathy and reassurance.  Instead, the father looked his son in the eyes and said, “Okay, if that’s all the guts you’ve got, you might as well come home with me right now and work in the mines.”  His father’s rebuke was like a slap in the face.  Mantle decided to stick it out and went on to make baseball history.

After the pessimistic report of ten of the spies, their low self-esteem was felt by the Israelite community and they, too, became discouraged and lost all hope.  The fate of the community had been sealed by God… the generation that left Egypt would not be permitted to enter the Promised Land, with the exception of the two spies, Joshua and Caleb, who returned from their mission with a positive and encouraging report.

Rabbi Eckstein reminds us that sometimes the greatest gifts come disguised as something less than pretty and appealing.  It doesn’t feel good to be rebuked, but good advice or sound criticism can improve our lives infinitely.  It’s up to us to be brave enough to seek out advice for self-improvement from those we trust and who love us.  Those of us who support Jewish Day Schools know that they provide the kind of environment for our children’s self-esteem to grow strong and for them to become confident and positive thinking adults.

Rabbi Ira Korinow, Schechter Alumni Parent, Rabbi Emeritus, Temple Emanu-El • Haverhill, MA, Interim Rabbi, Temple Israel • Portsmouth, NH

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D’var Torah: Bil Zarch (Beha’alotcha)

In this week’s parsha, we learn about the importance of Dan who is the “rearguard”, the me’asef (from the root א.ס.ף “to gather”). The rearguard is a vital role in almost every situation and this is no exception. I find it especially meaningful of the word choice me’asef as without this position we often fail to see the fringes, the outsiders.

Our Schechter community is no exception. What role do we all take in being the me’asef? Are we the ones opening our doors to new families? Are we the ones who make sure that everyone is included? Or are we the ones who step up and do the work that it takes to partner with our leadership team and staff to ensure that Schechter stays vibrant for many years to come?

You see, maybe Dan knew that he had to take this role on as many others weren’t necessarily jumping to do it and he saw it as the necessary thing to do to protect the community. As a Jewish communal professional who has chosen to passionately work with the Jewish future, I believe that it is our duty to create opportunities for as many people as possible no matter where they believe they are in their beliefs. All too often, we take for granted that the Jewish community will survive no matter the choices that we make when it comes to passing on this knowledge to the next generation. Is Judaism meant to just meet the needs of those who are in the front or are we going to create a community that opens our doors wide? If so, have we succeeded with our community? I would say we have a lot of work to do on both questions.

As a parent of two children at Schechter, I remain in awe as to the dedication of the faculty and staff to make every child feel like a leader. They navigate tricky waters with our children because they are just that, tricky. I have come to understand that no school is perfect and thankfully Schechter is no exception, yet we want our children immersed in a community that embraces them foibles and all. Sometimes that is just enough to make it a perfect place. It’s our call to action to accept that.

Bil Zarch, Director Camp Yavneh, Schechter Parent

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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