D’var Torah: Rabbi Ed Gelb (Behar)

In parshat Behar, the concept of shmitah (one year in 7 of letting the land lay fallow) and Yovel (return of property to original owners) is introduced.  The broad theme is that both nature and things do not really belong to us but rather to God.  This concept helps us to remember that our mission in life is not to acquire but to work in partnership with God to perfect our world.  Although the economic structure that these laws envision may not be in force or practical today, the broader concept still retains meaning.

“Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield.  But in the seventh year the land shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, a Sabbath of the Lord”.  This may make agricultural sense, but the deeper lesson is that we are stewards of our land and not just using the land for ourselves.   When we remember that, we receive the double blessing of the long-term benefit of letting the land refresh and giving our offspring a sustained natural world.

In regard to the “Yovel”, the Torah states: “But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me.”  Our tradition understands that wealth and the pursuit of wealth is beneficial.   However, by remembering that ultimately the wealth we acquire is a means and not an ends, we can impact our communities in big ways.  The Torah uses strong language in saying we are “strangers resident”.  It means that we are not permanent.  It is a way to remind us of our mortality and that you cannot take it with you.  Also, our heritage is that we were once landless slaves and we need to always keep faith with those who are poor.    The “Yovel” reminds us of our relationship to God and this world.

Judaism is a practical religion.  We are encouraged to be successful and strive for material success.  However, as in all things, we are commanded to do this in a holy way.  A way that enhances God’s presence in the world.  Both “Shmitah” and “Yovel” are ideas that still resonate today..

Rabbi Ed Gelb, Camp Ramah

D’var Torah: Amy Newman (Emor)

In Parashat Emor, the Torah teaches about “moadei hashem”, the “appointed seasons of God”:  the festivals that fall throughout the year, and the weekly Shabbat. The text mentions Shabbat and festivals side by side, but there are differences between these two types of sacred time.

Long before there was a people of Israel, God declared Shabbat holy. Humans don’t set the date of Shabbat; it has been fixed on the calendar since the time of creation. In the Friday night kiddush blessing, we describe God as “mekadesh hashabbat”, God sanctifies the Shabbat; the holiness of Shabbat originates with God.

Regarding the festivals – Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot – the Torah says “These are the appointed seasons of God, which you shall proclaim as sacred occasions.” They don’t just happen; the people must announce them. The Torah specifies dates for most holidays, but it was the task of the court to determine the beginning of a new month based on the appearance of the moon. Only after the month had begun did the people know when the holiday would fall. Without human participation, there could be no festival. In the kiddush blessing on festivals, we describe God differently than we do on Shabbat; we say that God is “mekadesh yisrael v’hazmanim”, God sanctifies Israel and the seasons. God has entrusted people with the holy work of managing the calendar.

God created Shabbat long before God had a covenantal relationship with Israel, and God did (and does) the work of making Shabbat holy. In the early days of our nation – the childhood of the Jewish people – we weren’t ready to partner with God in proclaiming the festival dates. It was fitting that God took care of us like children, and didn’t ask too much. And it seems appropriate that centuries later, once the relationship between God and the people was more sophisticated, and we were bound to each other by covenant, God entrusted us with the high-stakes tasks of determining dates of festivals.

Our Jewish lives are punctuated by both types of sacred time: the Shabbat that God gave us, and the festivals that we create in partnership with God. When I think about work of raising and teaching Jewish children, I find guidance in these models. I hope we are blessed with opportunities to work in partnership with our children and students to create holy space, time, and ideas.

Amy Newman, Grade 7 and 8 Tanach, Schechter Parent

D’var Torah: Rabbi Marcia Plumb (Kedoshim)

Parashat Kedoshim is one of my favorite parshiot.  Its first verse led to major change in my life:  קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ כִּ֣י קָד֔וֹשׁ אֲנִ֖י יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃

You shall be holy, for I, the Eternal your God, am holy.   This verse is the root of Mussar, a genre of Jewish literature from the 11th century that tries to answer the question of how to fulfill the commandment from the verse. Studying and following Mussar has helped me change the way I behave toward others and toward myself.  I am a better parent, child, partner and rabbi because of what I have learned from Mussar.

So, what is Mussar?  It is a Jewish method to help us become holier people.   What does it mean to be holy and how do we achieve it? Bahya Ibn Pakuda, a Spanish theologian, the original Mussar thinker, said that holiness starts in our souls.   How do we build holy souls, you ask? Mussar says that we work on character traits to help us feel and behave better. Let’s take an example from the Torah: ‘You shall look after the poor and needy’.  According to Mussar, giving to the poor is part of the trait of hesed, loving kindness. We all have the ability to show loving kindness, but sometimes we give it more than at other times. According to Mussar, in order to be holy, we should show hesed as often as we can to others, and to ourselves.  Hesed toward ourselves is as important as doing acts of kindness for others. Mussar says that if we feel badly about ourselves, and berate ourselves again and again, that is not holiness. At the same time, if we hide our sins from ourselves and deny our faults, then we are not holy either. Holiness is finding a balance between our strengths and our weaknesses. We also need to find a balance with hesed. Of course, it is good to give tzedakah but the Talmud tells us that we shouldn’t give so much money away that we can’t pay the dentist bill. In other words, we can’t give so much away that we go broke ourselves.

Holiness comes from finding the right balance between giving and receiving, between looking after others and looking after ourselves.  This Shabbat, I hope you find holiness, peace and joy.

Rabbi Marcia Plumb, Congregation Mishkan Tefila

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D’var Torah: Rabbi Elan Babchuck ’96 (Pesach)

One of my favorite memories of Passover as a child is of bedikat chametz – the search for any remaining morsels of bread after the house had been thoroughly cleaned for Passover. My father would turn off all the lights in the house, my mother would hold a brass candleholder and light the sole candle that would aid us in our search. My siblings and I would each hold feathers and take turns finding the piece of bread in each room and gently sweeping it onto a paper plate, making certain not to leave even one crumb behind.

It always struck me that the Aramaic prayer (Kol Chamira) we would say that night, and the slightly different one we would say the next morning as we burned the bread, sounded so similar to Kol Nidre. The Aramaic language is comparable and the framework is the same: First we name the thing(s) we want to disavow, then we declare them disavowed, and then they are considered to be like the dust of the earth, as if they’ve never existed. Unfulfilled vows and undiscovered bread are one and the same.

What a powerful gift to ourselves! To know that there are limits to our vision, to our steadfastness. But as generous as this gift is, it comes with a catch: we may only avail ourselves of these Aramaic incantations once we’ve done the work of searching as thoroughly as we can.

So whether we’re searching for forgiveness during Elul or chametz during Nisan, we must first do everything in our power to find what we’re searching for.

While the similarities between the holidays are interesting and the Aramaic word-play is intriguing, the more profound takeaway is what this connection implies. During these next couple of days we’re not just searching for loose crumbs and broken crackers. We’re tasked to search within for anything that – like leavened foods – has expanded to take up more emotional, mental, and spiritual space than we may have intended.

We’re invited to put down our smartphones for long enough to consider how many unintended minutes (or hours?) a day we bow prostrate to it, checking and re-checking our emails, the news, and any other feeds we’re apt to overconsume. We’re called to consider the residual feeling of resentment toward a loved one that – left unresolved – has swelled over time to overwhelm our love for them. We’re encouraged to consider our own feelings of guilt, shame, and self-doubt that have expanded far beyond their usefulness and become blocks to our ability to flourish.

Over the next couple of days as you find yourselves at the car wash with vacuum in hand, or in your home aggressively wiping down countertops in search of microscopic crumbs, take a moment to close your eyes and ask yourself: What’s taking up more space in my life than I want it to? And whether it’s an emotion, an activity, a piece of technology, or maybe even the hectic (over)-preparations for Pesach, my blessing for us all is that we can commit ourselves to letting go, and finding new spaciousness in our homes, our families, and our lives.

Chag Kasher V’Sameach!

 

Rabbi Elan Babchuck ’96, Director of Innovation, Clal; Founding Director, Glean Network

D’var Torah: Rabbi Rebecca Weinstein (Metzora)

This past fall, my husband Dan and I moved into our first home. When we bought our home we knew that it was definitely in need of some TLC. In the past 6th months we have painted, plastered, and removed countless spider webs. After months of never ending home repairs, our house is finally starting to feel like our home.

This week in parsha Metzora, we learn that not only is it possible for people to contract tzaraas—a leporous like infection on the skin—but a house, can contract tzaraas as well! You can imagine my panic when I learned that there is yet another thing we might need to repair in our house! Luckily, our Rabbis are all in agreement that tzaraas-type afflictions of houses are clearly supernatural occurrences, and therefore few and far between.

Two very different reasons are given by our Sages for why a home could become contaminated with tzaraas. Midrash explains that when the Canaanite inhabitants of Eretz Israel saw that the Israelites were about to conquer the land and inhabit their homes, they hid their valuables in the walls of their homes.

In order to enable the new Israelite owners of those houses to acquire this wealth, God infected the part of the wall where the treasure was concealed with tzaraas, so that the Israelites could remove the infected stones and obtain the treasure.

The walls of our homes, too, hold our most valuable possessions and memories.  Almost every time I go home, I spend the first few moments unpacking, looking around at the walls of my childhood bedroom. I see the places that I slathered glitter glue on the wall, displayed my graduation diploma, had my friends sign their names in permanent marker and hung up loved ones’ photos. I notice all the sticky glue left over on the walls from removing glow in the dark stars and all the indents clearly visible from thumbtacks that held up posters.

Our text suggests that in order to access the treasure of the home, we first need to remove all the tzaraas. But I think that focusing on creating a solely beautiful home is doing us a disservice. Instead of our impulse being to remove anything unsightly or that causes us heartache, we should allow our homes to be filled with the the fullness of life.

There will be moments when our homes are filled with laughter and simchas and a fresh, new shiny coat of paint, and there will be times that we drop dinner on the floor and it splatters and stains our walls, or we find ourselves surrounded by our loved ones during a period of grief.

We have to work to create a home that can hold both. Because life is about learning how to work through the comfortable and uncomfortable. And we can only do this when we feel grounded, held, and safe.

The second interpretation for why a home could become contaminated with tzaraas is as Divine punishment for selfish behavior.

A house becomes contaminated with tzaraas when the owner of the house arrogantly believes that the house, and all of the belongings within it, are his or hers alone, acquired solely through his own efforts and that no one else is entitled to enjoy the benefits of his personal success.

A house becomes a home when we open our doors to others. Whether that is sharing challah around a Shabbat table, providing a box of tissues and a comforting place to sit for a friend who has a had a hard day, or inviting people over to watch Netflix. These are the truly valuable moments that make a house a home.

I invite you to discuss with your loved ones:

  1. What are the things that are critical for you in making where you live a home?
  1. Were there times that were especially meaningful to you when someone opened their home to you?
  1. Why do you think that Judaism emphasizes the importance of hospitality and welcoming the stranger?

 

Rabbi Rebecca Weinstein, Grade 6 Tanach and Grade 8 Torah She’b’al Peh

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D’var Torah: Rabbi Ravid Tilles (Tazria)

This week we read the portion of Tazria, which furthers 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: This week’s portion and next week’s 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 Director of Jewish Life and Learning at Schechter

D’var Torah: Esther Rosi-Kessel (Shemini)

My parsha, Parshat Shemini, in the book of Leviticus, begins with the inauguration of the Mishkan, the traveling Tabernacle. During the ceremony, Aaron’s sons, the priests Nadav and Avihu approach the altar and bring their own “alien fire” before God, not waiting for the Heavenly fire to consume the offerings. They are punished by death. Moshe asks the Kohanim, the priests, to remove the bodies and Moshe tells his brother Aaron that in order for the people not to become very upset and doubt the purpose of the mishkan, they must stay silent. There are very different opinions over the generations about what was Nadav and Avihu’s sin.

Then it says, “And Aaron was silent.” Many people think his silence was a bad thing, like he wasn’t allowed to mourn his son’s deaths, but I think it could have actually been his way of mourning. Not everyone cries or talks or is loud about their sadness. Many people deal with feelings silently, in their heads. Maybe the Torah was trying to tell us that there are different kinds of people, and everyone has their own way of dealing with things.

Then the portion continues with Kosher laws, such as: only eat land animals which have split hooves and chew their cud, and only fish with scales and fins can be eaten. It also gives the list of which birds can be eaten, and says that you can’t eat birds of prey.

According to some interpretations of Torah, humans were never really supposed to eat meat. In the Garden of Eden, God said: Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree that has seed-yielding fruit — to you it shall be for food.” God only says that plants can be eaten. Fast-forward to the time of Noah: after the flood, people really wanted to eat animals. God gives Noah and his descendants permission to eat meat, but God also says: “But flesh, with its soul, its blood, you shall not eat.” God prohibits eating blood, or the life of the animal. Much later, when the Israelites are stranded in the desert, God gives them Manna. Many people believe this was a second chance at a vegetarian diet. But they weren’t satisfied, the people wanted meat. So God gave them quail, but it was the ONLY thing they could eat. Think about it: only eating one food for about a month, wouldn’t you get sick of it, even if you liked it at first? This could be saying, maybe eating meat isn’t really the best option. The Kosher laws could be saying that if you have to eat meat, you still need to be mindful of what you’re eating.

The kosher laws tell people what they can and can’t eat. There are many things I can’t eat. I’m vegetarian, and I have never  eaten meat. My whole family is also vegetarian. I also have celiac disease, so I can’t eat gluten. I think this makes me much more aware of what I’m eating. When I go to a restaurant, I can’t just pick any item and say, “Oh, this looks good. I’ll get it.” I need to make sure it’s something I can eat. When many people eat food, they don’t really think much about what they’re eating. They don’t think about what’s in their food, because they don’t need to, but they also don’t think about where their food is coming from. Many people don’t realize that they might be eating an animal that had a really bad life while it was alive. Because I have to be more mindful about what I’m eating, I’m more sensitive to what it feels like to have restrictions on what I’m eating, so when there’s someone with a food allergy, I know what it feels like not to be able to eat anything at a party or event or restaurant. Even though the meat laws for kosher don’t really apply to me, because I don’t eat meat, I still think they’re important in helping people be more mindful about food. According to kosher laws, meat is only kosher if the animal was killed painlessly. People who keep kosher are often more mindful about their food. Whether or not you have food allergies, are vegan or vegetarian, or keep kosher, you can still be mindful about your food.

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D’var Torah: Jacob Pinnolis (Tzav)

There is a striking repetition near the opening of Tsav, this week’s parashah, as the work of the priests is described:

“The fire on the altar shall be kept burning, not to go out:  every morning the priest shall feed wood to it…A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out.”  (Vayikra 6:5-6, NJPS)

In two short verses the same basic idea is expressed five times—namely, that the fire on the altar, once set, should never be allowed to go out.  Twice it says the priest should keep it burning (תוקד); twice, not to quench it (לא תכבה); and once the fire is described as perpetual (אש תמיד).

The Rabbis of the Talmud (Yoma 45b) argue that the repetition is merely apparent.  These repeated words tell us how many piles of wood were involved and what other flames were lit from the fire on the altar (נר תמיד).

Yet, I want to think about these verses more symbolically by holding on both to the rabbinic reading AND to the repetition.

Consider the sacred work done by the teachers and staff of Schechter and other Jewish schools.  The task of a Jewish education involves lighting a fire in all our children, just as the priests light each and every pile of wood. It isn’t enough to engage and excite only some Jewish children about learning—it must be all our children.

Let’s not lose the repetition, however, since telling us to keep the flame alive is a reminder of two other critical aspects of the work.  First, each day we must renew our commitment to fuel the passion of our children for learning, and the connection they feel to Judaism and their people.  Second, that we take care to prevent experiences that might quench that passion and connection.  Teachers do this by infusing Jewish education with care, intention, and love.

May our Torah reading be a reminder of the challenge and sacred work of keeping the flame within our children burning brightly.

Jacob Pinnolis, Director of Teaching and Learning & Jewish Education, Gann Academy

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D’var Torah: Rabbi Elan Babchuck (Vayikra)

As the book of Vayikra begins, we read that God calls out to Moses in order to give him instructions to share with the Israelites. In translated form, nothing appears out of the ordinary; God calls out to Moses countless times. Nothing new here.

But if you read the text in a Torah scroll you’ll notice that the aleph at the end of the word “Vayikra” appears much smaller than the rest of the word, thus pointing to an alternate reading of the word: “Vayikar.” The former means “and God called to Moses”, whereas the latter (which appears in Number 23:24 in reference to Bilaam the prophet) means “And God happened upon Moses.”

Midrash Yefeh Toar, a 16th century commentary on Midrash Rabbah, builds on the notion that Moses transcribed the words of the Bible as dictated by God, and while he stays true to the words themselves, he makes a statement by making the aleph much smaller. The Midrash posits that the act is one of deep humility; Moses hints that God didn’t really select him to lead the Israelites intentionally, but rather just chanced upon him. In that sense, Moses is no better than Bilaam the prophet.

While the midrashic interpretation is insightful and important, it only tells half the story. Yes, Moses has always been a humble leader – even from the outset, he deflected God’s attempts to recruit him into the leadership role, essentially saying “I’m not the one you’re looking for.” On the other hand, though, Moses was told to transcribe the words of Torahprecisely as God gave them to him, and he had the audacity to change how he wrote this one, in order to infuse his own perspective into the text.

Perhaps, then, the message is not just about humility, nor solely about audacity. Perhaps the takeaway is that we can take inspiration to be both humble and audacious, and the holy work ahead is about picking our spots and finding balance between those two poles. There are moments that call for the deepest humility your soul has to offer, and other times when the world needs nothing more than a dose of your holiest chutzpah.

As our eyes gaze out to the chaotic world around us, and our souls turn towards the Shabbat ahead, my hope is that each of us can embrace the Moses within, and share our humble and bold gifts with the world that so needs them both.

Rabbi Elan Babchuck ’96, Director of Innovation, Clal, Founding Director, Glean Network

D’var Torah: Rabbi William Hamilton (Pekudei)

Effort Counts

The book Difficult Conversations points out something fascinating about how we appraise effort. We are more interested in knowing that another person is trying to empathize with us – that they struggle to understand how we feel – than we are in their demonstrating actual empathy. Struggling to understand sends a positive message. After all, you wouldn’t invest that kind of energy in a relationship that you didn’t care about. Effort counts.

In the final chapter of the Book of Exodus Moses never speaks. Instead, his deeds depict the completion of the Tabernacle. “And Moses did it. According to everything that God commanded him, he did so” (Ex. 40:16). This particular verse takes us all the way back to a virtually identical verse in Noah’s construction of the ark (Gen.6:22). There are several parallels between Noah and Moses, the Bible’s only two figures identified with floating in arks (Gen. 6:14; Ex. 2:3).

Why the subtle comparison between Moses and Noah at the conclusion of the Torah’s second book? Perhaps the contrast between them enables us to measure biblical progress since the antediluvian, nonverbal obedience of Noah. Much has changed since then for God and for God’s representatives. There is a shift from God’s creating a world to make space for humans, to our making a Tabernacle to make space for God.

Even more nuanced is the shift in approach to deeds. Simplistic labor has given way to maasei hoshev designer’s work. Indeed, maasei hoshev may mean more than designer’s work. Perhaps it is also alludes to “thoughts as deeds” (literally maasei hoshev). The work of thinking hard, careful consideration, can be tantamount to a concrete deed.

Rabbi William Hamilton, Congregation Kehillath Israel, Schechter Alumni Parent