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Stephanie Maron: What Does “Being There” Mean?

As we approach Thanksgiving and the holidays that follow, there is a natural association between the fullness of the season and giving back. Volunteer opportunities abound and the demand is enormous as food drives, shifts at shelters and requests for cold weather clothing mount. This is a time when we often feel a heightened sense of action both as Jews and citizens of the world. We work to engage our children in worthy charitable causes and to teach them to see tzedakah as an integral part of their lives both now and when they are old enough to make independent choices.

Jewish tradition holds charity to be one of the utmost expressions of spirituality, defining it as a moral obligation. We learn that the benefit we reap by giving to the poor is so great that the beggar who receives our charity is, in fact, giving us the gift of being able to perform tzedakah. It is an astonishing, counter-intuitive reversal of fortune. Judaism also gives us clear instruction to listen. After all, we recite the shema to remind us to listen to G-d’s words and obey the commandments. Truly, this is the essence of active listening for the hearing implies the doing.

Now we draw a powerful parallel: active listening extends beyond our connection to G-d and mirrors our relationship to fellow human beings. Alongside the undeniable, critical importance of being physically there at a pantry, protest march or nursing home – the doing — we must task ourselves with being mentally there at intangible, less obvious, completely unorganized moments – the listening. When we observe that the unfriendly person might simply be shy or that the angry person is full of hurt, we lay the ground in our minds and hearts for approaching them and understanding who they are and what they need from us. Is it not a gift to grant someone the opportunity to be heard and to be seen without judgment or hasty conclusions or superficial advice?

Listening is not a donation, though, and can create in the listener an undefinable sense of risk or discomfort. It can be more challenging to answer someone’s cry for the warmth of friendship than it is to heed the call for a warm coat. Just as the recipient of the coat will now wear it continually throughout the winter, the person who needs to talk to someone will need to do so continually. Listening is not a shift that ends and neither should it be an act of charity. When we train ourselves and our children to develop extra perception and a keen eye and ear for the individual who is lonely or overwhelmed, misunderstood or in crisis, we become transcendent in our giving.

So, we ask, “If I sit beside someone who is alone or reach out to someone whose actions I question, when will I be done?” The answer is, well, you might not be. Just listen deeply and hear what the other is saying. And it is you who will be the real recipient.

 

Stephanie Fine Maroun has a B.A. and M.A. in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University. She also studied at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and the Yiddish Studies Program at Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies in Oxford, England. She currently works as an Admission Officer at Schechter.
Talia Greenberg

D’var Torah: Talia Greenberg ’07 (Lech Lecha)

This week’s פרשת השבוע (weekly Torah portion) begins with God’s commandment to Abram to “lech lecha,” often translated as “go forth.”  The ensuing verses describe how Abram and his family follow God on a journey from Haran to Canaan. However, a deeper understanding of the text translates “lech lecha” metaphorically, referring to a spiritual journey rather than a physical one. In this interpretation, the phrase “lech lecha” means “Go forth to find your authentic self, to learn who you are meant to be” (Mei Ha-Shiloach).

The lesson of being your true self continues beyond this opening narrative to one of the lesser known stories in the פרשה (Torah portion). When there is a famine in the land of Canaan, Abram and his wife Sarai go down to Egypt, but Abram fears that when the Egyptians see Sarai’s beauty, they will kill him. He therefore instructs Sarai to say that she is Abram’s sister rather than his wife in order to save him. Sure enough, the Egyptians are struck by Sarai, and Pharaoh takes her as his own wife. God in turn afflicts Pharaoh with plagues, which makes Pharaoh angry with Abram for hiding his true identity and causing him such strife. According to Nachmanides, Abram “inadvertently committed a great sin by placing his virtuous wife in a compromising situation” in order to conceal his identity.

A year ago, when I was living halfway around the world teaching English in Taiwan, Abram’s physical journey from his birthplace to a faraway land where he didn’t know anyone resonated with me. Being back at Schechter 9 years after graduating has shifted my focus to Abram’s spiritual journey and to the lesson of being yourself. Whereas in Taiwan’s countryside, being true to my Jewish identity wasn’t so easy, at Schechter I find that being my true self is effortless.

Being yourself is a lesson that my colleagues and I also work on with our students. Be it through direct instruction in social-emotional learning with lessons on feeling confident, accepting others’ differences, and dealing with peer pressure or through more general exploration of what it means to be a Jew or an American, our students are constantly thinking about who they are and how to stay true to that identity. I am so glad to be a part of this school where each student is encouraged to follow the lesson of this פרשה (Torah portion) to bring their own true self- their passions, their talents, their ideas, and their experiences- to our קהילה (community).

Talia Greenberg is an assistant teacher at the Lower School and a Schechter alumna (Class of ’07).

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D’var Torah: Cantor Michael McCloskey (Noach)

Rabbi Yochanan opened [his teaching] in the name of Rabbi Simon, “After Adonai your G-d you
shall walk…” [Deuteronomy 13:5] And is it really possible for a person of flesh and blood to
walk after the Holy Blessed One?…Rather, from the beginning of the creation of the universe,
the Holy Blessed One occupied himself with nothing but planting. In one text [Genesis 2:8] it is
written that “Adonai Elohim planted a garden in Eden”. Likewise, when you enter the land,
from the beginning, you shall occupy yourselves with nothing but planting.
—Leviticus Rabba 25:3

This probing insight reveals to us one of the primary purposes of Adam, the human being and
of the Jewish people specifically, as the text goes on to speak about our role in cultivating the
land of Israel. What is our purpose universally and particularly? According to Genesis our role
is to “till the earth and and to preserve it” [Genesis 2:15]. In fact, even the name attributed to the
human being, Adam, shares a root with the words adamah (soil) and adom (red, alluding perhaps
to red clay), reminding us of our commitment to the earth, its quality control, and its renewal.
We are taught in this week’s Torah portion that we are made in the “image and the likeness” of
Elohim, the Divine. Many commentators have labored over the daring and the meaning of this
assertion. According to the author of this midrash, we mirror the Divine by planting, by caring,
and by preserving.

In fact, the 16th century Italian commentator Ovadiah S’forno suggests that only through our
action in the “garden” [our world], do we reach our potential and reach toward something greater
than ourselves.

After Elohim had formed the human in a manner which befitted him being acknowledged
[among all creatures], Elohim placed him there [in the Garden of Eden], so that he would be in a
place which empowered him to acquire the Divine image, enabling him to fulfill the intellectual
tasks involving the air and food in the garden. — S’forno on Genesis 2:8
In other words, S’forno suggests that we actualize, reach our potential by connecting with our
natural world, which in turn cultivates our awareness, compassion, and higher qualities.
Practically speaking, what can we do to live the words of S’forno and of our Torah? What are
our gardens in Boston? What shall we seek to protect? We can…

  1. Get our hands dirty. Plant and cultivate a vegetable garden and share the bounty with others.
  2. Support our local Massachusetts farms. Find out where your local grocery stores, markets,
    and restaurants get their produce. Look for local products and encourage your family to buy
    them. Attend your local farmer’s market.
  3. Encourage your synagogue or classroom to create a community garden or purchase a
    farm-share. Ganei Beantown, a Boston Jewish organization was founded to help Jewish
    organizations with such projects.
  4. Volunteer and become involved in protecting your local park or green space. We are so lucky
    to be surrounded by so many in our city, including Cutler and Nahanton Parks so close in
    vicinity to Solomon Schechter.
    With many blessings,

Cantor Michael McCloskey is the Cantor-Educator at Temple Emeth, Chestnut Hill, MA

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

Over the centuries, commentators have continued to be intrigued by the opening line of the Torah, and – by extension – the book it introduces, B’reishit. Perhaps because the scope of the opening lines are so immense, scholars have asked about the purpose of the first line – what ‘in the beginning God created’ signifies, what we can take from that, and how those words not only presage all that follow, but what might be the deeper meaning – the hidden layers – in the words ‘B’reshit barah ha-shem’.

In a recent commentary, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes, “It is the most famous, majestic and influential opening of any book in literature: “In the beginning, G-d created the heavens and the earth.” What is surpassingly strange is the way Rashi – most beloved of all Jewish commentators – begins his commentary:

Rabbi Isaac said: The Torah should have begun with the verse (Ex. 12: 1): “This month shall be to you the first of the months”, which was the first commandment given to Israel.

Can we really take this at face value? Did Rabbi Isaac, or for that matter Rashi, seriously suggest that the Book of books might have begun in the middle – a third of the way into Exodus? That it might have passed by in silence the creation of the universe – which is, after all, one of the fundamentals of Jewish faith?.”

Sacks goes on to suggest that the book of Genesis is unique, defying characterization as an instruction book, or a history book, or even a proto-scientific book describing the natural world. Rather is all that and more. Sacks goes on to say that these opening few words are the beginning of an invitation for humans to ‘ becom(e) G-d’s partner in the work of creation.’

Other scholars have added their own insights to the meaning of the first words of our first book,. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch has another take on the opening words; that B’reishit proclaims that nothing exited prior to god’s act of creation, and thus…”if matter had antedated creation, then the Creator of the world would have not been able to form a world that was absolutely ‘good, and then ‘man could be as little master of his body (and actions) as could be over the matter from which the world was made (and) freedom would vanish from the world.”

Just under a hundred years ago, German scholar, Rabbi Benno Jacob wrote that the opening words introduces ‘the subject of all history, (where) the earth is prepared for man that he may live, work and rest upon it… constructing the universe as a meaningful cosmos (and) to assign man his place on earth…. (a place where) there is Divine creation, and human enterprise as its complement. ….The word ‘to create’ is said only of God. The word implies the conception of something totally new.’

Perhaps it is the idea of something totally new that has transfixed the commentators over the centuries, and – at the very least – compels us.

We seek new beginnings – they speak to us. The profound return to the start that occurs each fall is renewing to us. Even our common enterprise, our beloved school is the embodiment of the hope found in that which is new – a new school year, children at the start of their journeys, our wonderful new Head of School; all renewing our sense of promise, our sense that we can find the pure and the good where we once found other, renewing our sense that the world is a hopeful place. This regular return to the very essence of new-ness fills us with the promise that there is order to be achieved in our world, and that our faith in our tradition and each other cannot be made empty.

Perhaps in these difficult, times, returning the beginning is indeed, ‘Like the missing words to some prayer that we could never make’.

As in the words of the modern poet:
“…in a world so hard and dirty, so fouled and confused
Searching for a little bit of God’s mercy
I found living proof”

May we this year, and for many years to come, find that living proof in each other, in our work together, in the faces of our beautiful children, and especially in each new beginning of our Torah.

Arnold Zar-Kessler is the Executive Director of Inspiring Educators, former Head of School, Schechter alumni parent and Schechter grandparent

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D’var Torah: Rabbi Elan Babchuck ’96 (Chol Hamoed Sukkot)

The Medizbozer Rebbe used to say: During the High Holidays, we find ourselves serving God with the entirety of our being. On Rosh Hashanah, we serve with our head, as memory enwreathes our mind. On Yom Kippur, we serve with the heart, as fasting strains the heart to its fullest capacity, and we open our hearts to our loved ones in seeking and granting forgiveness. And on Sukkot, we serve with our hands, as we grasp the lulav and etrog and build our sukkot from the ground up.

Indeed, the head-work and heart-work of the High Holidays can be engrossing, engaging, and exhausting to the mind and the spirit, respectively. When we truly give ourselves over to the task of searching our heads and scanning our hearts for all that ails us, inspires us, and moves us, we often find ourselves collapsed in a heap after the rush of bagels and orange juice at break-fast. And yet – tired as we may be – our work is just beginning.

As soon as the break-fast is cleaned up and we’re once again properly caffeinated, our task moves from the head and heart to the hands; it’s time to build the sukkah, grasp the lulav and etrog, and get to work.

On its own, the metaphor of our High Holiday time as a full-bodied experience is profound. But it’s the progression – head to heart to hands – that I find most compelling. What is the work of our hands if not a reflection on the passion of the spirit, the conviction of the mind? How could we possibly put our hands to work before we intellectually and instinctually understand what it is we’re trying to build?

Whether your handiwork involves building a sukkah, extending outreach to someone in need, or simply embracing a loved one, my blessing for us all is that the work of our hands flows authentically from the newly-minted memories of our minds and the deeply-rooted hopes of our hearts. Chag Sameach!

Rabbi Elan Babchuck ’96 is the Director of Innovation of Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

 

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D’var Torah: Rabbi Micah Liben ’95 (Ha’azinu)

Parashat Haazinu – The Power of Harmony

 

There is something powerful in song.  The hypnotic rhythm of the music; the tune that stirs the soul; the words that, delivered any other way, wouldn’t mean as much.  On Rosh Hashanah I found myself lost in such a song.  The evocative melody led by the Hazzan coupled with the synchronous chanting of the congregation made for a spiritual high, elevated by the soaring poetry of the Machzor.

Parashat Haazinu begins this way.  As Moshe nears the end of his final address to the Israelites, he couches his words in majestic rhetoric, set to the structure of poetry and the cadence of song.  With stunning imagery, Moshe invokes no less than Heaven and Earth as witnesses to his elaborate oration.

I was struck, therefore, that this grand passage leads to a rather mundane law.  The Talmud quotes this passage as the source for a mezuman, calling others to recite Birkat Hamazon when at least three people have eaten. While I concede bentching as a group is lovely, I must admit to feeling deflated that the splendor of Moshe’s song became a springboard for the minutia and legalistic details regarding the number of diners around a table.  But maybe I should not have been surprised; after all . . .

. . . there is something powerful in the details.  The hypnotic rhythm of a ritual; the catharsis which comes with completing each part; the focus through which an everyday act becomes something profound.   It’s why I’ll take pains this Fall to make sure the sukkah dimensions are just right, and why I’ll likely be disappointed in the Spring when I inevitably lose track of the daily omer count.

Which speaks to you more?  The ecstatic experience of song and spirit?  Or that of technical text-study coupled with meticulous mitzvot?  This dichotomy represents one example of Judaism’s “polarities.”  According to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, our task is to maintain harmony between the polarities that lie at the heart of Jewish living—between halacha and aggada, uniformity and individuality, regularity and spontaneity.  Only by harmonizing these poles can we ensure that Jewish observance entails both “discipline and inspiration.”

There is something truly powerful in that.

Rabbi Micah Liben ’95 is the Director of Jewish Life and Learning at Kellman Brown Academy.

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

As we approach the High Holidays, I reflect on their rich liturgy. One prayer that never fails to move me is the one recited just after the Mussaf Kedushah service on both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and shortly after Yizkor on Yom Kippur. It speaks of the fragility of humans (Adam) and ends by describing life as a “dream that flies away so quickly—ke-halom yauf” A very apt simile, in my opinion.

Dreams are certainly important aspects of human psychology and development. The Bible is full of dream episodes (e.g., Joseph’s various dreams and his skill as an interpreter of dreams). The Talmud, too, has much to say about dreams and their symbolism. “A dream is 1/60th of prophecy,” declared the sages (Berakhot 57b). There are all kinds of dreams, as we well know. There are pleasant dreams and nightmares; painful ones and hopeful dreams; dreams that are recollections of past events and auguries of things to come. And we parents generally wish our children, as we put them to bed, “sweet dreams.”

Dreams have assumed even greater significance these days. Sigmund Freud studied dreams which he considered to be a revelation of the unconscious, and he meticulously interpreted the dreams of his patients. We all love the song, “To dream the impossible dream,” which Don Quixote sing in that memorable musical. I can never forget Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s extraordinary, “I have a dream” sermon which I was privileged to hear personally in Washington DC on that memorable August day in 1963—a life-changing event for many of us. And I am fond of the favorite saying of the late Senator Robert Kennedy: “Some people dream dreams and wonder, ‘Why?’ I dream dreams and wonder, ‘Why not?’”

My late mother-in-law, Nehama Teller, spoke a richly idiomatic Yiddish. She loved to teach me Yiddish proverbs and aphorisms. There is one about dreams I invariably quote: “Der ganze leben is a holem. Nur zul er zein a zissen holem—all of life is a dream. May it only be a sweet dream!”

So as we prepare spiritually for the High Holidays, what better prayer can I offer on your behalf? May the dream of life for 5777 be a sweet one for you and your dear ones, for America and for Israel.

Rabbi Gilbert Rosenthal is a Schechter Grandparent
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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

 

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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).