rabbi-dov-bard

D’var Torah: Rabbi Dov Bard (Netzavim)

The Sensation of Freshness / Parashat Netzavim  5776 / Deuteronomy 29:9 -30:20

When I first read the following paragraph in the opening of God in Search of Man (Heschel), I was stunned.  Absolutely stunned!  Allow me to share these words, add a few comments, get back to our Torah reading and check in with Rebbe Nachman.

It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society.  It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats.  Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid.  When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion-its message becomes meaningless. 

I had been at the crossroads of my Jewishness.  So much in Jewish life seemed irrelevant, dull, oppressive, (and) insipid.  Fortunately my mother saw my perplexity and put Heschel’s work into my hands.  I opened this book with its focus on the decline of Judaism due to a creed, habit, the past, heirlooms etc.  Judaism had become stale.  And Heschel breathed freshness into Jewish life!

And Heschel was only being true to the text.  When you read the Bible and you’ll notice the word הַיּוֹם֙ (today) occurs 458 times in the entire Tanach, 135 times in the Torah, and 13 times in our parasha.  אַתֶּ֨ם נִצָּבִ֤ים הַיּוֹם֙ כֻּלְּכֶ֔ם לִפְנֵ֖י יְקֹוָ֣ק אֱלֹהֵיכֶ֑ם – You stand this day, all of you, before the LORD your God . . .  The religious life is to be alive, vital and spontaneous.  It’s to feel something magnificent, every moment of our lives, about being alive.  It’s about being called upon in love and devotion and responding with love, delight and devotion.  The Bible is not about history or the past, as it is a command to wake up – today!   

And Rebbe Nachman (Sichot HaRan #51) writes that getting old is a betrayal of our identity. It is actually forbidden to get old and we are commanded to practice hitchadshut – to live with freshness and spiritual vitality every day of our lives.

Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah!

Rabbi Dov Bar is a Schechter Alumni Parent and Former Head of School

 

bil-zarch

D’var Torah: Bil Zarch (Ki Tavo)

 

How do we show our children what it means to be gracious? A central theme of  כי-תבוא / Ki Tavo is graciousness. This week, we will be reminded over and over again that the land is a gift and that we must show reverence for this offering.

This started me thinking. What are the ways that we as parents model graciousness for our children? When we receive answers that may not be as favorable as we would like, how do we react? Do we let them slide off our back, or do we make a big deal? Our children are always watching to see how we behave in each situation. There are times that test our graciousness more than others.

My family just lived through an experience that totally tested our stamina – a move. The many details of moving can be daunting in the best of circumstances. Transplanting children to a new community evokes many emotions – leaving their home, “tearing” them apart from their friends, and being the “new guy” in almost every situation.  After many tears (mostly from the adults) and sweat, we arrive ready to enter new communities.

In this week’s פרשה / parsha, we are told to acknowledge how much has been given to us. This can be challenging sometimes. Showing constant appreciation might appear disingenuous. Both of my children have had to begin to build new relationships. For my son, who is in second grade, this means summoning up the confidence to assert himself with children who have spent the past two years together.

The first two days of school were tough. For a kid who is socially skilled, he was by his own admission, “fine,” playing by himself. I, on the other hand, was not convinced. I asked myself, “How will the school integrate him into the group?” Thankfully, I didn’t have to worry for very long. On Thursday, Raviv bounced into the car to tell me how he had played wall ball with a new friend.

At that moment, my suspicions were confirmed. Schechter was indeed the right place for our family. The school has already shown us the graciousness and hospitality embodied in כי-תבוא / Ki Tavo.

 

Bil Zarch is a Schechter parent and the Director of Camp Yavneh

Rebecca Lurie

D’var Torah: Rebecca Lurie (Ki Tetzei)

As we embark on the new school year, we have established five cultural norms that will serve as the underlying values that will anchor our community:

Respect & Kindness / כבוד

Collaboration & Partnership /שיתוף פעולה

Spirit & Enthusiasm / רוח

Passion for Learning & Growth /  למידה וצמיחה

Personal Excellence /מצוינות אישית .

The purpose of establishing cultural norms is for each member of our קהילה (community) to have a shared agreement of how we treat one another and our surroundings.  My goal is for these cultural norms to become synonymous with our school.

This week’s פרשת השבוע (Torah portion), Ki Tetze /  כי תצא , outlines a situation that helps us understand the cultural norm of Respect & Kindness / כבוד. If a person stumbles upon a mother bird and her nest of eggs, the תורה (Torah) commands us to send away the mother bird before taking the eggs, to spare the mother grief in her loss. While this is a complex מצוה (commandment), the simplest lesson here is to be kinder than is necessary.

In my first week at Schechter, I have witnessed beautiful moments where our children are kinder than is necessary. In Mrs. Y’s 2nd and 3rd grade classes, a child who is helped by a friend publicly expresses thanks by writing her friend’s name on the class board. In the middle school, one of our students broke her ankle the day before school started and her friends have established a rotation to push her wheelchair from one class to the next and help her with her backpack. On Friday, a 7th grader blew the shofar at afternoon תפילה (prayer) as is customary to do in the month of Elul leading up to Rosh Hashanah, and her friends cheered her on with great applause.  And in Gan Shelanu, our Tukim and Yonim classes learned about “bucket filling” where the children fill up their invisible buckets with acts of positivity, kindness, gratitude and compassion.

I hope that in the new year, each of us will seek out ways to role model respect and kindness, and the other cultural norms, to create a stronger Schechter that we are all proud to call our קהילה (community).

rabbi samuels

D’var Torah: Rabbi Benjamin J. Samuels

Mazal Tov on the start of a new school year at Solomon Schechter!  What a zechut (meritorious opportunity) to invest in your child or children’s Jewish future by equipping and empowering them with a day school education!  Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe of blessed memory identified two primary modalities of Jewish education: planting and building.  When we build for our children a Jewish education, we marvel how brick is layered upon brick, developing into a well-constructed whole: Hebrew language acquisition, knowledge of the Bible and Oral Torah, a grasp of Jewish history, etc.  When Shabbat and the holidays come, our children know what to do, what blessings to recite, what songs to sing, and what rituals to enact.  But, a Jewish education is also like planting.  We plant within our children the seeds of the love of God, Israel, and Torah, of the Jewish people and humanity.  We sow deep in the soil of our children’s soul Jewish pride and an ethical responsibility to stand up for the right and the good.  We plant within them a profound sense of Jewish purpose, and a desire to join in, if not lead, the effort to redeem our world.  Just as our parents and grandparents planted for us, so we plant for future generations.

For the most part, building takes place in school.  Planting, however, is a full partnership between parents, teachers, and community.  Our plantings must be constantly watered at school, at home, at shul, and everywhere else.  And while the building results are immediately visible, the fruits of planting are more variable, given that seeds germinate, sprout and flower on their own schedule.

Here are three things parents can do to partner in Jewish educational building and planting.

  1. Pursue adult Jewish education for yourself. Show your child how important a Jewish education is to you.
  2. Let your child become your family’s teacher. Create a weekly opportunity for your child to share his or her Jewish education with you.
  3. Family chavruta. Study Torah together as a family, either all together, or one on one.

May this New Year be one of beautiful construction and fertile planting!

Benjamin J. Samuels is the rabbi of Congregation Shaarei Tefillah, a modern Orthodox synagogue in Newton Centre.

dvar_Rabbi-Ron-Fish

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 suggests 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.”

Elliot-Goldberg

Behar

Freedom is something that we value as Americans and as Jews. As Americans, we take pride that we live in a country that is “the home of the free.” As Jews, we recognize the spiritual, historical and national importance of our journey from slavery to freedom. This week’s parasha, Behar, introduces the concept of the jubilee year. The Torah commands us to “make the fiftieth year holy [and…] proclaim freedom (dror) throughout the land for all of its inhabitants” (Lev. 25:10). During the 50th year, slaves are set free and land rights that have been sold return to their original owners. Through the Jubilee, people return to a state of being that is unencumbered by the debts of the past.

Ibn Ezra, the 11th century biblical commentator notes that the word the Torah uses for freedom, dror, is also the word for swallow, a bird species. He suggests that the freedom of the jubilee year is not only about economics, but also about the ideal state of freedom that we learn from the swallow. The swallow, he teaches, sings beautifully in its own natural environment, but when caged inside a home it refrains from singing and eating, eventually dying from starvation. The Torah’s call for us to proclaim freedom, according to Ibn Ezra, includes the moral imperative to ensure that everyone be able to live in a natural state of freedom that is not limited by cages imposed upon them by others.

As Americans and as Jews, the call for freedom continues to ring. We are still working to realize the vision shared by the Torah and the founders of our democracy through which cages of oppression will be replaced by songs of freedom. The choices we make about how we live our day to day lives, how we give of our time and resources to help others, and to whom we give authority to govern our society all influence how far freedom will spread. The week’s parasha reminds us that we have an obligation to pursue this goal.  For the sake of humanity and the world in which we live, I pray that we achieve it soon.

a silver "yad" pointer on a page from the torah, the first five books of the hebrew bible.  selective focus, shallow depth of field.

Pesach

Pesach

by Rabbi Yoel Lax
Teacher, Camp Yavneh

The very mention of the name of the festival elicits different reactions from the entire family; from the displeasure of having to do all that Pesach cleaning to the joy of vacation from school and all those fun activities. However, this very name of the festival teaches us the fundamentals essence of these days. We call the festival Pesach – which literally means “Passed Over” to offer our gratitude to G-d for doing just that – passing over the Jewish homes during the plague of the firstborn and only affecting the Egyptian homes. However, the Torah uses a different name for Pesach – Chag HaMatzot – the festival of the Matzot (unleavened bread). What is the reason for this?

When we left Egypt, we became united as a people – the children of Israel. It was this unity that enabled us to stand at Mount Sinai and receive the Torah “like one person with one heart.” Chag HaMatzot is G-d’s way of expressing his love to the Jewish people, as alluded to in the Song of Songs (“Shir hashirim” – which we read on Pesach) by the way of comparing our relationship with G-d to the relationship between husband and wife. It is a way of thanking us for the faith we had in G-d to hurry up and bake these Matzotand enter the desert without any provisions and place our trust solely in G-d.

These two names of the festival – Pesach and Chag HaMatzot show us the importance of appreciating and valuing others for who they are.

R’ Yisrael of Salant, a leading 19th century Lithuanian Rabbi, was known for his exceptional observance of the Mitzvot and as such used to personally supervise the baking of his Matzot every year. One year, he was in poor health and couldn’t do this himself. His students, who were to do this on his behalf, asked him if there were any stringencies they should take upon themselves during the baking of the Matzot to make them Kosher for Pesach. Rabbi Yisrael responded in the affirmative, “the woman who kneads the dough is a widow. Please treat her especially well and be very careful not to hurt her feelings”.

From the very names of the festival which shows the value of fully appreciating what others do for us; to the episode of the four sons all coming together for the Seder night; we learn a very important message. On this night, when we attained freedom and as a nation became one; we must do our best to retain this unity; to welcome others and appreciate the different components of the Jewish nation that comes together as one unit. When we truly internalize this and learn to value and appreciate others who may be very different to us, can we truly merit to see the fulfillment of the epitome of theHaggadah we read on Seder night – Leshana Haba’ah BiYerushalayim Habenuyah – Next year in the rebuilt Jerusalem.

Chag Pesach Kasher VeSameach!

Rabbi-Micah-Liben

Metzora

Metzora – Shabbat Hagadol –
Maintaining Modest Machloket (debate)

by Rabbi Micah Liben ’95,
Director of Jewish Life and Learning, Kellman Brown Academy, New Jersey

Pesach preparations are often accompanied by machloket (debate): Horseradish or romaine lettuce? Haroset with walnuts or without? White Moscato or red Manischewitz?

They say that with two Jews come three opinions. Indeed, a little machloket can do a lot of good, as long as it is l’shem shamayim, for the sake of Heaven. When we debate for the right reasons—striving for truth, empathy, new perspectives—then machloket yields positive outcomes. It is when we engage in machloket for selfish motives that debate becomes corrosive.

The paradigm for machloket l’shem shamayim is represented by Hillel and Shammai. Their schools disagreed about everything from candle-lighting to conversion, but they argued for the right reasons. My own favorite is their disagreement over Kiddush at the Seder: Shammai declared that the blessing over the day be recited first, while Hillel insisted on starting with the blessing over wine.

This argument may appear silly; who cares which blessing comes first? However, the underlying issue is deeper. For Shammai, the day is blessed first because if it weren’t a holiday, there would be no reason for a special cup of wine. But Hillel argues the holiday is not inherently special. Rather it is what we bring—through family and ritual—that imbues the day with holiness. Thus, the wine ritual comes first.

As usual, our practice is to follow Hillel. I am moved by Hilllel’s position, but I am also aware that Shammai—both here and elsewhere—is not “wrong.” On the contrary, the Talmud declares both parties’ positions valid. Moreover, the Talmud states that in the messianic era, unresolved disagreements will be settled by Eliyahu HaNavi (Elijah the Prophet), and strikingly, we will then follow Shammai.

On this Shabbat before Pesach, known as “Shabbat Hagadol,” Eliyahu appears in the Haftarah portion (Malachi 3). According to this passage, the prophet will come before the “Day of the Lord” to restore relationships. Just as Pesach looks toward a future redemption, the Haftarah reading points to a redemptive period when conflict will be resolved.

Maintaining hope in a peaceful future, free of discord, is laudable. But until Eliyahu rings in the messianic era, feel free to engage in some modest machloket at your Seder table!  It’s a healthy part of Jewish life which, if done right, can truly imbue the day with significance and holiness. Just be careful not to spill the red wine.

Rabbi-Ira-Korinow

Tazria

Parashat Tazria (and next week’s parasha, Metzora, which more often than not is combined with Tazria) contains laws that describe conditions of impurity which arise from the fact that we are physical, living beings. Specifically in Tazria, childbirth creates a state of impurity; it is an impurity which is associated with bringing a new life into the world.

After giving birth, a woman is teme’ah usually translated as “ritually impure,” but should be better understood as “a condition which impedes or exempts her from a direct encounter with the holy.” (During the period of being teme’ah, she was not permitted to touch anything holy or to enter the sanctuary.)  In our modern world, it is difficult to understand these laws.

Maimonides teaches that the first principle essential to understanding the laws of ritual purity and impurity is that God not only is the source of life, but God IS life. This principle marks a clear distinction between Judaism and other religions and cultures, both ancient and modern. The great pyramids of Egypt were sacred tombs. Hungarian born Jewish British author Arthur Koestler noted that without death “the cathedrals collapse, the pyramids vanish into the sand, the great organs become silent.” Freud coined the term “thenatos” from Greek mythology to describe the “natural drive toward death in human life.”

From Biblical days, Judaism has always stood apart from death-centered cultures. As we will recite in Hallel this Shabbat (this Shabbat is also Rosh Chodesh Nisan), “The dead cannot praise Adonai, nor can those who go down into silence.” (Psalm 115:17)  In synagogue, when we are about to read from the Torah scroll, the reader recites and the congregation repeats, “You who cleave unto Adonai your God are alive every one of you this day.” (Deuteronomy 4:4)

As we grapple with the laws of what makes a person impure, we should remember that often impurity is associated not only with death but also is associated with life as in Parashat Tazria, bringing a new life into the world. Let us remember, then, what might be considered the motto of the Jewish people – what Moses said succinctly in two words later in the Torah (Deuteronomy 30:19), “U-vacharta ba-chayim” – “Choose life!”

Naomi-Zaslow

Shemini

This week’s parsha finds us still in the desert, with tragedy marring an otherwise joyous scene. In Vayikra Chapter Nine, Aaron brings a Shalamim offering to God. The Shalamin, from the same shoresh (root word) as our Modern Hebrew Shalom, was a friendship and goodwill offering. It was given voluntarily, unattached to a sin, as a mode of connection with the divine. After Aaron brings the offering, the nation feels blessed.

The text then brings us two perplexing pasukim (verses) at the start of Chapter Ten:

  1. וַיִּקְח֣וּבְנֵֽי־אַ֠הֲרֹן נָדָ֨ב וַאֲבִיה֜וּא אִ֣ישׁ מַחְתָּת֗וֹ וַיִּתְּנ֤וּבָהֵן֙ אֵ֔שׁ וַיָּשִׂ֥ימוּ עָלֶ֖יהָ קְטֹ֑רֶת וַיַּקְרִ֜בוּ לִפְנֵ֤ייְהוָה֙ אֵ֣שׁ זָרָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֧ר לֹ֦א צִוָּ֖ה אֹתָֽם׃ And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the LORD, which God had not commanded them.
  2. וַתֵּ֥צֵא אֵ֛שׁ מִלִּפְנֵ֥י יְהוָ֖ה וַתֹּ֣אכַל אוֹתָ֑ם וַיָּמֻ֖תוּ לִפְנֵ֥י יְהוָֽה׃ And there came forth fire from before the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD.

In a fast slew of verbs, Aaron’s sons hastily bring an additional voluntary offering to God that is rejected with dire consequences. No words of comfort are offered by Moses, only the acknowledgement that God has acted.

Much ink has been spilled by classical and modern commentaries on the nature of Nadab and Abihu’s offering, but I have always been more mesmerized by Aarons’ reaction: “וַיִּדֹּ֖ם אַהֲרֹֽן” (And Aaron held his peace.) How could a father, after such a traumatic event, remain at peace? How could it be that those that Aaron is in community with also seem to not respond to his situation?

The shoresh (root word) of vayiddom means “to be still” or even “to be petrified”. This can change our understanding: Aaron is shocked, so shocked that he has no words for what has happened to his family. Those around him might have also have realized that in such a situation, words of comfort would be empty.

As a community today, we sometimes encounter tragedy that hits close to home. The lesson behind this parshah is that sometimes, there can be no words and no comfort, from both ourselves and others. As it says in Mishnah Perkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 4:18, “Do not assuage the anger of your friend at the time of his anger; do not console him at the time when his deceased lies before him.” May it be a bracha (blessing) to all of us to know when words are needed, and when presence alone will be the most healing.