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D’var Torah: Rabbi Victor Reinstein (Vayeshev)

Making Peace in all the Places where we Dwell

In a world in which violence is so ubiquitous, in a time of bigotry and bluster, of hate and division, one of the most radically hopeful things we can do is to be a wellspring of nonviolence from which ripples flow out into the spheres of our lives and into the great world beyond. Against a backdrop of violence, whether it is the violence of war, of poverty, of greed, of hurting the earth and people in so many ways, the way that each of us lives our own lives is the way of response that is most in our control. So too in our way of reading Torah, choosing to open our eyes and hearts to see more clearly her paths of peace and then to make them our own. On the surface of Torah there is often violence and strife, as in life. Sometimes on the surface itself, shimmering as a crystal fount, and sometimes beneath the surface, there is a river of peace that runs through Torah into whose flow we enter by engaging and wrestling with what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel calls the “harsh passages.”

In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Vayeshev, we encounter family violence and strife. Through the extreme dynamics of the text the Torah opens a window into the more ordinary dynamics that give rise to inadvertent strife. Unlike portions of Torah in which we encounter violence among peoples and nations, here we encounter violence that is closer to home. Jealousy, anger, misunderstanding, hurt are all inevitable realities of life lived with people. Tragically, strife is too often spawned by a lack of awareness of how one’s actions will affect others.

The first word of the Torah portion, from which its name comes, sets the stage. Vayeshev, meaning “and he dwelled,” referring to Ya’akov, in another verbal form becomes va’y’yashev, meaning “and he made peace.” We can simply dwell, or, aware of our actions and their consequences, we can dwell more deeply, making peace in the place where we dwell. Showing favoritism to Yosef, Ya’akov sowed seeds of jealousy and discord between Yosef and his brothers. Simmering over time, unholy sparks of jealousy were fanned into flames of hatred and violence. Thrown into a pit and reported to his father as dead, Yosef is eventually sold into slavery and comes down into Egypt in chains.

In a fascinating commentary to the Torah in a volume called Chochmat HaMatzpun/The Wisdom of Conscience, we are guided to look honestly at the lives of our ancestors and to learn from negative example as well as positive. Of the brothers’ behavior we are told, “it is a matter both ancient and new.” It is about our world, as well as theirs. Condemning their deed as “horrible, such a sin, such cruelty,” the writer then condemns Ya’akov for fostering such insensitivity in his sons through the favoritism of one. Helping us to see “the Torah of nonviolence,” the commentator bids us look beneath the surface and see Torah as a guide for living in the world beyond the text: A Torah of truth that does not whitewash the deeds of the great and beloved ones…, the Torah of life teaches us that we are to learn from our holy ancestors – even from their perversions and shortcomings. Engaging Torah as a guide for life lived with people, may we learn to make peace in all of the places where we dwell.

Victor Reinstein is the rabbi of Nehar Shalom Community Synagogue in Jamaica Plain and is a Schechter alumni parent, former Schechter teacher and school rabbi.

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D’var Torah: Rabbi Ilana Garber ’91 (Vayishlach)

Two weeks ago my family ate lentil soup for Shabbat dinner. Then we played games as a family, and in particular, we encouraged our two boys to play together, in order to foster their sibling bond. As the Shabbat candles flickered, my husband and I shared highlights and challenges from our respective weeks, celebrating each other’s achievements and supporting the growing edges. It was a typical Friday night in our home, and yet, everything was done with great intention.

Last Shabbat, we visited the two playgrounds that are within walking distance of our home, and we raced up the ladders and down the slides. We showed the kids our wedding photos (once again), reviewing the names of our family members and friends and recalling the incredibly special moments of that day. And, as always, we encouraged our boys to love each other, to play nicely, and to be truthful.

And this week, as we read Parashat Vayishlach, we will talk about our personal relationships with God, wrestling just like Jacob did with who we are and what we believe. And we will discuss our Hebrew names, crafting each Hebrew letter, sharing the stories of my sons’ namesakes.

We are living Torah.

It’s easy in these months of Beresheet, where the stories of Genesis shape who we are as husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, children, and siblings, and then as a community, a nation, and ultimately a people. But it’s possible with just about every Torah portion: to live the lessons, to impart the wisdom, and to experience and engage in the meaning.

Consider just the past few weeks. Parashat Toldot: lentil soup that cost Esau his birthright, a lack of sibling bond between Jacob and Esau that led one brother to deceive the other, and poor spousal communication between Isaac and Rebecca. Parashat Vayetzei: Jacob’s dream with angels going up and down the ladder, the weddings of Leah (deceptively) and then Rachel to Jacob, the births of Jacob’s children, and so much more.

And now Parashat Vayishlach: Jacob wrestling with an unknown being (an angel? God? Or maybe his own conscience?), then being renamed Israel, because he has wrestled and prevailed.

In our food, our play, and our interactions, we model and experience what we read in the Torah. In this way, we are living through Torah and the Torah is living through us.

When we live Torah, the text of our tradition, and bring its stories and lessons into our contemporary lives, we encounter the holy sparks of the divine. We encounter God.

So, live Torah this week. From the playground to the kitchen and everywhere in between, experience a life blessed with Torah. It will be a life that is blessed. Shabbat Shalom!

 

Rabbi llana Garber ’91 is the Rabbinic Director of Lifelong Learning & Community Engagement at Beth El Temple in West Hartford, CT.

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D’var Torah: Rabbi Ron Fish (Vayetzei)

Human beings naturally seek home. The place where you know where to hang your coat; the place where you can fall asleep and feel safe; the place where familiar voices and smells can fill each of us with the quiet confidence that our world is secure.

For centuries the Jewish people did not have a national home.  We came to know well the dangers that went along with our national homelessness, even as we dreamed of Zion.

But for the most part, we did have individual homes.  Certainly over the course of those centuries there were awful times of expulsion and personal homelessness, but we were not always driven out- without a place to call our own.  Whether in Morocco or Mainz, in Venice or Vienna, in Baghdad or Bialystok, we Jews did lay down roots and we made our homes into sacred spaces.  The riches of our cultures through the generations are a testament to the homes that we constructed and the sense of rootedness we gained throughout the lands of the diaspora.

But we never forgot what it means to be a stranger in a strange land.  What it feels like to be truly afraid. To be on the run from Pharaoh and Emperor; to be a simple parent or child fleeing from armies intent on taking our very lives. Fleeing to survive.

During the nighttime flight of our patriarch Jacob, fleeing from his brother Esau’s intent to murder him, we can imagine the panicked short breaths. We can almost hear the thump-thump of his heartbeat as it races to carry him to safety. We can see the beads of sweat on his brow as Jacob lies down on a vacant hilltop, placing his weary head on a pile of rocks, trying to catch a moment of home in the midst of his homelessness.  And when he wakes, Jacob realizes that this very place, this very sense of vulnerability, is the gateway to heaven.  It is from here that he-and we, his descendants- are to be dedicated to the task of caring for the vulnerable and exposed. To remember the feeling of the outsider. And bring them in from the cold.

I ask all of us to remember this lesson as millions of children and innocents of all ages flee the violence and destruction unfolding in Syria and Iraq. In 2016, the United Nations identified 13.5 million Syrians requiring humanitarian assistance, of which more than 6 million are internally displaced within Syria, and over 4.8 million are refugees outside of Syria. While these people are citizens of states still technically at war with Israel, the children of historic enemies, they are also human beings in danger. They are homeless. And vulnerable. The gates of heaven are open and see their plight.

Do we?

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D’var Torah: Rabbi Jordan Braunig (Toldot)

In the chapter that comes between Esau’s birthright being swapped out for a bowl of lentil soup and Jacob’s wooly trickery to swipe his farsighted father’s brachah, there is some deep and nourishing Torah in the middle of Parashat Toldot.

We read in these verses, (Bereishit 26:18-19), “Isaac returned and dug the wells of water…The servants of Isaac, digging in the valley, found wells of living water.”

Our forefathers were well-diggers, it seems. Again and again, facing heavens that failed to produce they chose not to give up on this outlandish promise of a people or to flee South to greener pastures, but, instead, they made the bold decision to dig deep. They believed that beneath the dry and arid surface there was something nourishing, something life-giving. What level of surety did it take? What faith?

It says in the verse “Isaac returned,” for these were wells that had been dug by his father, Abraham. He learned from his parents, Abraham and Sara, that there were living waters if we go deep enough. This is Isaac’s inheritance; the knowledge that even when wells have been plugged, we have the power to access the richness of our tradition. This is an understanding that must be transmitted from one generation to the next. For those of us who are parents, educators, grandparents our task is to model this mining of our tradition and to search for the fissures where meaning comes bubbling out.

Yet, lest we think that our lack of learning makes us unfit to pass on a heritage of digging for wells, the great Chasidic master, R’ Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl, taught in reference to these lines that our mythic ancestors “opened up channels of the mind and awareness, teaching all who were going to come into this world how to dig within themselves a spring of living water…” Like so many great Chasidic teaching, he internalizes the metaphor transforming the external digging to a digging within. To model mindfulness and a searching within ourselves, to believe that within each of us is our own unique Torah, this is within all of our grasp.

Our tradition is not just some great cistern full of still, gathered waters. What we all know and what we dare to teach our children is that we have access to the wisdom of generations, that by digging into our tradition and into ourselves we can tap in to a wellspring of hope and love and resilience.  There is no better time to dig this message than now. Shabbat shalom!

 

 

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D’var Torah: Rabbi Ira Korinow (Chaye Sarah)

This week’s parasha begins with the verse, “Va-y’hiyu chayei Sarah, me-ah shanah v’esrim shanah v’sheva shanim – sh’nei chayei Sarah,”  “The life of Sarah was a hundred years and twenty years and seven years; these were the years of the life of Sarah.”  Commenting on why the words “chayei Sarah,” “life of Sarah” are repeated, Rashi says it is to indicate to us that all the years of Sarah’s life were equally good.

Is it really possible that Sarah never had a bad year?  Did she never suffer any loss or did she never feel any anguish in her life?  After all, noting that this week’s parasha begins immediately after Akedat Yitzchak, the story of the binding of Isaac, Rashi comments that Sarah’s death was as a result of her learning about God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.  In addition, did she not feel anguish during her many years of being barren?

According to Rabbi Zussia (Rabbi Meshulam Zusha [18th Century – Annopol, Poland]), Sarah was the most righteous of women.  Not that Sarah never experienced challenges during her life, it was the way she responded to those episodes that mattered.  In fact, she would say, “Gam zo l’tovah,” “This, too, is for the good” – a phrase often used in modern Hebrew when reacting to something negative.  She faced everything in life with acceptance; she blessed the bad just as she blessed the good.

Since Election Day two weeks ago, the majority of the American Jewish community has felt that a “catastrophic” event occurred, the election of Donald Trump as the next President of the United States.  The campaign leading to his election was filled with the rhetoric of bigotry, hate and disrespect – what we as Jews are responsible to constantly oppose.  Many of his speeches, especially right before the election, were hauntingly similar to what is written in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the anti-Semitic, fictitious work published in 1903 describing the plot of world Jewry to dominate the world.  It influenced Hitler to seize power and begin the systematic elimination of European Jewry.

Thanksgiving is this week.  Perhaps we should pause, take a deep breath and, as difficult as it may be, express gratitude for living in a democracy like ours with checks and balances on power.  We are grateful to live in a country where we freely practice our Judaism and are able to fight proudly against social injustice wherever it may be.

Like Abraham who did not know where God was sending him, we do not know the direction in which our country may be heading.  While we may feel legitimately pessimistic about the next four years and fear that we may feel like strangers in a strange land, maybe we can be grateful for the freedom to express the values that we cherish.  Perhaps Sarah’s example will encourage us to try to bless the bad along with the good.

Rabbi Ira Korinow is the Rabbi at Temple Emanu-El, Haverhill and is a Schechter Alumni Parent and Grandparent
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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.
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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 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.