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.



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.”



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.



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!



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.



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!”



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.



Whenever I make pesto, the scent of the basil immediately transports me back to my grandfather’s abundant garden, which took up most of the yard in back of their house on Mountainview Avenue in Syracuse, New York. I am five, or six or seven, and secure in the embrace and love of my grandparents.

Neuroscientific research now can tell us the how and why behind what most of us have know instinctively from very young ages: smells can trigger powerful and vivid emotional memories. This Torah portion helps us to see that as with many things, what it has taken modern humans millennia to figure out was embedded into our system of ritual from the beginning by God.

Tzav contains a rather exhaustive description of the ritual of various kinds of sacrifices – the meal offering, the sin offering, the guilt offering, the sacrifice of well-being.  We read details that to many of us, especially this vegetarian writer, can feel like a bit too much information about slaughter and entrails of animals. There is a constant refrain, however, which should catch our attention. Several of the sacrifices, the burnt offerings, are left on the altar all night long. The offerings made of grain are prepared with oil on a griddle. These rituals are designed with an attention to the scent that will emerge – the reyach nikoach – pleasing scent for God. Think about the scent of grilling meat on a summer night, or fried dough at a street fair. As with my grandfather’s basil, I imagine that each of us has associations with the scents of places, people, and seasons. What the Israelites are commanded to do in the desert sets their olfactory systems to feel connected to God even when they emerge from the wilderness – every time there is grilling meat or cooking food, they will feel connected to God and community.

This same command is found in the instructions for the first Pesach ritual. In Exodus 12, the Israelites are told to roast this first Passover offering, all night long (not cooked in any way with water, or raw, but roasted), and eat it with sandals on their feet, hurriedly.  The scents of Pesach stay in our communal memories till this day. I imagine that the sacrifices in the wilderness, after God has taken the Israelites out of Egypt, and given the Torah, bring the Israelites back to that time of redemption. The rabbis recognized this as well, establishing no fewer than four brachot for different scents. Scent connects us to the past and to the future.

God gave the Israelites, and the Kohanim, instructions on the rituals of Jewish life in the wilderness  into which lasting emotional impact was embedded. We would do well, here at Schechter, as we inculcate our children into Jewish life and values, to turn our attention to those scents, that reyach nikoach. What is the scent that we are transmitting to our children, our faculty, our leaders, our parent community during the everyday and during times of transition? How Schechter treats all of the members of this community, from our head of school to the beginning toddler at Gan Shelanu produces a reyach that impacts individual lives, our community, and wafts into the broader community as well.

Rabbi Elan Babchuck,

Vaykira – Holy Chutzpah

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 Torah precisely 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.


Pekudei – Effort Matters

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 are willing to struggle to understand how we feel and how we see – than we are in believing that they will actually accomplish their goal. Struggling to understand, thinking hard, sends a strongly positive message. After all, you wouldn’t invest that kind of energy in a relationship that you didn’t care about. So arriving at the point of saying “I understand just how you feel” is not the only outcome that registers powerfully with us. Effort counts.
Curiously, in the final chapter of the Book of Exodus Moses never speaks. Instead, his deeds eloquently 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 theTorah’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. The shift from God’s creating a world to make space for humans, to our making a Tabernacle to make space for God is noteworthy.
Even more nuanced, however, 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.
Behavioral psychologist Dan Arielly writes about the “IKEA effect,” which suggests we care more for something we’ve worked to assemble. It works for ideas too. Try discussing a text together with somebody, and note how differently you feel about the fresh ideas that you helped to create. Perhaps it also works for effort exertion in struggling relationships. As we complete tabernacle furnishings in this week’s Sedra, try a different kind of furnishing work this weekend. May sincere efforts at empathy be recognized and rewarded.