D’var Torah: Rabbi David Bernat ’72 (Vayeshev)

Parshat Vayeshev contains the first installment of Joseph’s story. We might, therefore, expect the portion’s initial sentences to mention Joseph, Torah style – “Eleh toldot Yosef … These are the generations of Joseph; Joseph was 17 years old …” or “Vayehi achar hadvarim ha’eleh … And it happened after these things that Joseph was 17 years old …” Instead, the tale commences – “Vayeshev Yaakov beeretz megurei aviv, be’eretz Kenaan … Jacob settled in the land where his ancestors lived, in the land of Canaan … Eileh toldot Yaakov … These are the generations of Jacob … Yosef ben shva esrei shanah … Joseph was 17 years old …”

Why begin with a reference to Jacob and his ancestors? These opening verses present a compact but powerful message about tradition and continuity. According to a Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 40:6), God instructs Abraham:“Tsei uchvosh et haderech lifnei vanecha – Go out and pave the way for your children.” This imperative applies to us all. From Abraham until this day and after, every Jew has and will have the responsibility to pave the way for his or her descendants.

While each of us sets our own life’s course, we also carry our ancestral legacy. While we tell our own stories, we must carry the awareness that we are setting a tone and direction for our children and their children after. As a Schechter alum and a Schechter parent, I am cognizant of the way my parents’ choice influenced their grandchildren’s educational paths. As members of the Schechter community, we all experience the force of tradition and the key role a day school education can play in promoting Jewish commitment and continuity. Like Jacob, we’ve elected to occupy the same spiritual space as our parents and to carve out that space for our children. Tsei uchvosh et haderech … Go out and pave the way.

David Bernat ’72, Executive Director Synagogue Council of Massachusetts, UMass Amherst Lecturer in Judaic Studies and Schechter Alumni Parent

D’var Torah: Rabbi Daniel Berman (Vayetze)

My wife Sarah and I named our children Elie and Mica after members of our families whom we loved: Esther, Eileen, Meir and Max. When Elie and Mica were born, we threw festive parties and blessed them with their new names. We shared why we loved these names and how we hoped that they would bring the qualities and values of the people for whom they were named more deeply into the world. It often seems that our beloved family members whom we have lost are resting on our kids’ shoulders, guiding their way. Naming children is beautiful, full of hope and promise and love. But naming also has what we call a “shadow side.” A name can feel limiting of one’s identity. What if our Elie didn’t feel like an Elie? Or our Mica didn’t want to be Mica? It is our responsibility to help them live genuinely and truthfully.

This is a core tension in our Torah reading this week, parashat Va’yeitzeh, which includes stories of giving birth and giving names.  Torah tells us a story of the origin of the name of each of Jacob’s sons born to Rachel, Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah. The names express experiences and emotions like feeling unloved, hoping for love, gratitude, vindication, prevailing in a battle, and fortune. These are not easy emotions for a child to hold in his or her name. I read much of the rest of Sefer Bereshit, the Book of Genesis, though this lens. The stories of this family originate in these very emotional experiences of birth. The children are given an immediate identity and they struggle to both fulfill and separate themselves from their identities. Their struggle to live genuinely is at the heart of the painful, but finally redemptive and fulfilling, story of this family. In each of our lives, as parents and as children, we can join this struggle, looking to the past experiences and emotions of our families for guidance while charting out an authentic life of our own.

Rabbi Daniel Berman, Temple Reyim


D’var Torah: Rabbi Victor Reinstein (Toldot)

Each One’s Life a Sacred Telling

A thematic thread of barrenness weaves through the book of B’reishit, of women unable to conceive. It is so for three of our mothers, Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel. Children do not come easily, but for each of them only over time and through struggle. Barrenness can also become a metaphor in our reading of these narratives, emptiness in the womb of each of our lives. Particularly from Rebecca, we learn what it means to actively pursue meaning, not to passively wait, dwelling on what isn’t, but to go out and seek, to birth meaning into our lives.

Rebecca is feisty, acting in relation to reality, making her mark in the unfolding of events. She is asked of her readiness to leave home to marry Yitzchak, who himself had notably remained at home while a wife was sought for him. We are told that when she saw Yitzchak from afar, not waiting for him to reach her, she slipped down from the camel she was riding. Much later, whether for good or ill, it is she, not Yitzchak, who maneuvers to insure that Jacob will succeed his father in the continuity of Israel’s coming to be.

In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Toldot/Generations, poignant expression is given even to Rebecca’s initiative in relation to God. It is here that her activism, if you will, becomes a paradigm for each of us to draw from in our own active engagement with life. Of this ancestral couple yearning for children, we are told, And Yitzchak entreated God concerning his wife, for she was barren. Clearly underscoring this sense of Rivka as one not to stand to the side, the rabbis emphasize that it was not only Yitzchak who was praying in that moment, but both of them. In a touchingly sensitive midrash, the rabbis say, this one stood in this corner and prayed, and this one stood in this corner and prayed.

Their prayers indeed answered, Rivka endures a very difficult pregnancy. She cries out, lamah zeh anochi/why is this happening to me? In another midrash, the rabbis appear to smile on Rivka’s rich and earthy relationship with God, Rivka said before the Holy One, Master of the Universe, You have not created anything in a person vainly, eyes to see, ears to hear, a mouth to speak, a heart to understand, hands to touch, legs to walk; and these breasts/hadadin halalu, for what, if not to give suck surely they are in vain. The Torah then says, va’taylech lidrosh et Ha’shem/and she went to inquire of God.

Lidrosh, to inquire, to search, to seek, this is the key word on which everything else turns, for Rivka and for us. It is a word that bursts with meaning, more than a word, an invitation to engage life if we would find meaning. Its root, DaRaSh, forms the root of midrash, that weaving of tales that comes of searching out the blank spaces between the letters, the words, the lines of Torah. It is at the root of our sharing words of Torah that rise from our heart, as in a d’rasha. Blandly translated so often as sermon, a d’rasha is the sharing of one’s search for meaning through engagement with Torah, with life. One cannot give a d’rasha without engaging, without, seeking. A beit midrash, one of the terms for synagogue, is generally translated as a “house of study.” I prefer to think of it as a “house of seeking.” When Rebecca went to “inquire of God,” lidrosh et Hashem, the rabbis say that indeed she went to a beit midrash, and that was long before women were counted in their number.

We learn of engagement with life from Rivka imenu, Rebecca our mother. When life seems barren, meaning ephemeral and hard to grasp, she tells us to get up, to go out, search out the landscape, of soul and psyche, of people and place. The nature of our seeking shapes the path and the purpose of our lives. If we don’t seek, we will not find. Our task is to become the d’rasha, the search that is shared, each one’s life a sacred telling.

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


D’var Torah: Jessica Weinfeld ’19 (Chayei Sarah)

Have you ever wondered how we can learn from the Torah? After all, the events in the Torah took place thousands of years ago. One way we can learn from the Torah is by looking at the qualities displayed by the people in these ancient stories. The people in Chayei Sarah illustrate qualities like trust and faith, diligence, hospitality, and bravery. These qualities are essential to have meaningful lives today.

Avraham displays trust in his servant when he sends his servant to find a wife for his son. This mission is immensely important to Avraham, and he would only send a trusted friend to accomplish it. Although people do not send friends with trains of ten camels trekking across the desert to find wives for their sons today, trust in one’s friends is absolutely essential in this day and age. I always take comfort in knowing I can completely trust and confide in my friends.

Avraham and his servant display enormous faith in G-d. When the servant questions whether a woman will come away with him, Avraham show faith in G-d by saying

יִשְׁלַ֤ח מַלְאָכוֹ֙ לְפָנֶ֔יךָ וְלָקַחְתָּ֥ אִשָּׁ֛ה לִבְנִ֖י מִשָּֽׁם׃

“He (G-d) will send his angel before you, and you will get a wife for my son from there.”

Avraham’s servant likewise displays his trust in G-d when he prays to G-d to reveal the woman G-d has chosen for Yitzchak. In this day and age of scientific discovery and discussion, it is easy for some people to lose faith in one’s religion because religion cannot be proven by science. Because I admire their loyalty and faith, Avraham and his servant inspire me to have faith in G-d.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             

Rebekah illustrates another important personal characteristic highlighted in this parasha, that of extreme diligence.  A thirsty camel can drink 30 gallons of water. Multiply this by 10 camels and you get 300 gallons of water that Rivka drew for the camels. BY HERSELF. Furthermore, as Nehama Leibowitz points out, it says in Bereshit perek כד  passuk

כ: “ וַתְּמַהֵ֗ר וַתְּעַ֤ר כַּדָּהּ֙ אֶל־הַשֹּׁ֔קֶת וַתָּ֥רָץ ע֛וֹד אֶֽל־הַבְּאֵ֖ר לִשְׁאֹ֑ב וַתִּשְׁאַ֖ב לְכָל־גְּמַלָּֽיו׃”

“Quickly emptying her jar into the trough, she hurried and ran back to the well to draw the water. . . “

Rivka “ran back” meaning that the well was a distance away from the trough, meaning that Rivka would have had to work very hard to give water to all of the camels.  This description highlights how hard-working she really was.

In addition, Rabbi Shai Held points out in his book Heart of Torah important parallels between Rivka and Abraham.  Just as Rivka “hurried and ran,” Abraham also “hurried and ran” when he welcomed the three strangers who told his about the birth of his son Yitzchak. In our day and age, diligence and hard work are valuable, especially when it comes to school and work. My parents are very diligent and they have shown me by example that diligence is an important quality. I always try to work hard in my life.   

Rebekah’s hospitality is also displayed by her offering Avraham’s servant, a near stranger, shelter and food for the night. This sort of hospitality, bruchim habaim, “welcoming those who come” and hachnasat orchim “bringing in guests,” is very important in Jewish values, and is another parallel between Rebecca and Abraham, who welcomed the three strangers who told him that Yitzchak would be born.  In my family, we often have guests over for Shabbat dinner, and I always try to make guests feel welcome.

Rebekah also displays bravery by her willingness to move away from her family and marry a stranger. Bravery is an important quality to have in life. If I did not possess this bravery, I doubt I would be able to stand here and deliver this dvar Torah! Speaking in front of large groups, such as the one assembled here today, has always been a source of considerable anxiety for me. But today, I have overcome that fear.

From the Torah times until today, trust and faith, diligence, hospitality, and bravery are key qualities we all need to have a meaningful life. These qualities are highlighted in Chayei Sarah, and they are important qualities to me.

Shabbat Shalom!


D’var Torah: Bil Zarch (Vayera)

Parashat Vayera illustrates an amazing scene. God appears to Abraham as he sits at the entrance of his tent. What would you do if you received a visit from God? It clearly would be a seminal moment in your life. (I mean, it would be in mine!) And yet, what does Abraham do? He leaves to greet three travelers, asking them to stop eat something and rest. Abraham’s bold move is the ultimate example of hachnassat orchim (welcoming the guest).

As it is written in the Talmud, “R. Judah said in Rav’s name: ‘Welcoming guests is greater than welcoming the presence of the Shekhinah, for it is written, “My lords, if it please you, do not go past your servant.’” (BT, Shabbat 127a). Our tradition truly holds this value in high esteem.

The Schechter community has welcomed all of us in ways that are too numerous to count. Hopefully our children feel their school is a second home where they can grow and be nourished in ways that we can’t do alone as parents. There are lists of reasons that we choose a school for our families – often amongst them is the sense of community. But here’s the secret –  it takes each of us to build the community. Our communal responsibility must be just that – shared. Today it is too easy to retreat and hunker down in our corners where we can control everything.

To build community, we must sometimes feel a bit uncomfortable. We tell this to our kids all the time – take risks, they will pay off. But we don’t always follow our own advice. Now may be one of those times to jump in and deepen our connection to the Schechter community.

I don’t know if it was bashert for me to write about this particular parsha, but the timing couldn’t be better. As you have been hearing a lot from me (and co-chair, Sydney Gross) lately about the PA sponsored Shabbat Across Schechter on Friday and Saturday, November 2 and 3. We each take a role in building community and doing it in a way that seems a natural part of our community’s fabric.

I hope you will join the many families that have already signed up for Shabbat Across Schechter and continue to strengthen our community.

Bil Zarch, Schechter Parent, Director of Camp Yavneh


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

In the last few weeks, I have seen a new crop of signs that proclaim that “there’s no place for hate in this house” on many front lawns. Indeed, I was heartened to see them distributed over the High Holidays at my wife’s congregation up in Sudbury.

Certainly, the sentiment is in keeping with a recent essay on this week’s Torah portion, Noach, by Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of England, where he concludes, “The great religious challenge is: Can I see a trace of God in the face of a stranger?”

Sacks builds his case by noting the differences between the narratives of what he calls the “story of the first creation”, of Adam in Genesis 1, and then the “story of the second creation, of Noah” in Genesis 9.  He finds the differences fundamental.

Genesis 1 tells us that we are in the image of God. Genesis 9 tells us that the other person is in the image of God. Genesis 1 speaks about the dominance of homo sapiens over the rest of creation. Genesis 9 speaks about the sanctity of life and the prohibition of murder. The first chapter tells us about the potential power of human beings, while the ninth chapter tells us about the moral limits of that power. We may not use it to deprive another person of life.

After the Flood, and to avoid a world “filled with violence” that led to the Flood in the first place, God asks us to see His image in one who is not in our image. Adam knew that he was in the image of God. Noach and his descendants are commanded to remember that the other person is in the image of God.

Sacks suggests that with one simple move – by creating a “brit,” or covenant with Noach –  God transformed the terms of the equation. After the Flood, He taught Noach and through him all humanity, that we should think, not of ourselves but of the human other as in the image of God. That is the only way to save ourselves from violence and self-destruction

Thus, when we see those lovely lawn signs, with a graphic of a heart encircling an American flag, we see the connection all the way back to the Noachide laws – laws that preceded our Jewish laws – on what it means to be human.

When reflecting on this, I couldn’t help but remember a conversation I had early in the summer, over Kiddush at a synagogue in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I was chatting with a very charming, very bright woman of about my age on the topic that often is a part of such Kiddush conversations – the direction of the Jewish community and how it is changing.

The woman shared that – in distinction from her mother –  she “would have no problem if her daughter married someone who wasn’t Jewish,” She said that she wouldn’t prefer it, but she would find a way to embrace her daughter’s partner.

I nodded, sharing that this was interesting, and perhaps evidence of the changing views of many in the Jewish community. And then – without prompting – this very articulate woman added, “But, if she brought home a Republican, I don’t think I could handle that.” I smiled, but she was not to be deterred, “No, really. I mean it’, she said. I have limits. I really don’t think I could accept that.”

Close to 30 years ago, Bob Dylan sang “We live in a political world”, where “love don’t have any place.” And  if the recent Hamilton biography and musical has taught us anything, it’s that we were living in a political world 250 years go. In all likelihood, we were living in apolitical world 500 years before that, as well. Difference in points of view is part of the fabric of life, and probably has been so since people had points of view.

Nevertheless the teaching of our Torah remains timeless – to be human, we must strive to seek the face of God in every other human we encounter, even people with whom we have deep disagreement. By doing that, we can begin to bring that “story of the second creation” into a world that is flourishing and not moving closer to destruction.

Sacks notes that people fear people not like them. That has been a source of violence for as long as there has been human life on earth. The stranger, the foreigner, the outsider (and I would the person who sees the world differently than we do), is almost always seen as a threat. But what if the opposite is the case? What if the people not like us enlarge rather than endanger our world?

Let us all learn a deeper lesson from the story of the second creation, and thus enlarge our world. Let us strive to be models of a more inclusive idea of inclusion for our families, our communizes, and perhaps even for our nation and the world.

D’var Torah: Ariel Skolnick ’20 (Beresheit)

We recently went through the holiday season with celebration, but also with reflection. These past holidays, we reflected on our past and tried to create a new path for our future. This year I did something a little different. I didn’t want to all together change my path, because whatever mistakes I made would be forgotten. I wanted to add on to my path or change the direction. Everyone has an unique path they take to their own future and they go in all different directions. They also intervene with each other in countless ways. How I remember to reflect is not by seeing someone’s path going in the wrong direction, but how they can correct it. We all start from a seed then grow into a root, and then make decisions like what to eat or drink, but we also make decisions on where we want to go to college or what our job would be.

Our paths are very personal to us, but sometimes we have to share them. We have to think about how we want to shape the future for ourselves, but also for the people around us and even our own children one day. When I was a kid a lot of my opinions were based on what my parents told me and what they did. They taught me how to help others in need, pursue what I love and work hard. They didn’t really have much trouble with the last one in the past few months. In all seriousness, I understand that I am only 13 and I am talking about the future. My thought and opinions will change and progressively develop into who I am. But it all starts as an idea. An idea can blossom into a passion and then into a creation, and finally a reality. The reality might take a while, but at least know that the idea will always be with me.

Let’s go back to the paths for a second. Let’s say one day, someone in front of you that’s in line for a store, drops a penny. So you pick it up and put it in your pocket. No big deal right, it’s just a penny, they’re not gonna miss it. But then the next day someone drops a dollar, again not that much, it’s fine. But it eventually progresses to 10 dollars then 20 then 100 and when does it stop? When is the point when we stop and  think to ourselves, that’s not right. I need to turn around and think about what we are doing. But which way is easier, is it doing something that at first is not harmful, or admitting a mistake and then gaining the trust that you lost. Cain and Abel for example. At first Cain is just a little jealous but it’s no big deal. All siblings have their fights and disagreements. But then he realizes that Able is his mother’s favorite, and he was always praised for being the good child. Then when the final test came, G-d was testing Cain. God told Cain and Abel to go bring him offerings. Abel being the good child that he was, brought his best and most ripe crops to G-d. But Cain brought a good, not great but good animal to G-d. Understandable, Cain wanted to have the best one, Ii mean he raised it, and took care of it, he did all the work. But when G-d chose Abel’s offering and disregarded Cain’s, that was his breaking point. It made him so mad, as to kill his own brother. His punishment, a wanderer. With all the time he needed to think about what he did.

Is that the only way for us to realize that something is wrong? Can’t we just stop at a dollar and call it a day? The farther we go down our paths, the harder it is to stray. So start with giving that one penny back, and the a dollar, and then 10. Because it will get you on a different path, one that will be hard to stray from, but it will be good rather than harmful.


D’var Torah: Shira Fischer ’92 (Sukkot)

On Sukkot we take up the four species: the Etrog (citron) and the lulav (palm), which is accompanied by the hadas (myrtle) and the arava (willow). Prescribed Biblically (Leviticus 23:40) and explicated rabbinically, what do these symbols mean?

One interpretation is from Vayikra Rabbah, a collection of midrash based on the book of Leviticus. This text (30:9) points out verses in which each of these words refer to God and thus these species represent dimensions of the divine:

  • The Etrog, based on Pslams 104:1: הוד והדר לבשת
  • The palm, based on Psalms 92:13: צדיק כתמר יפרח
  • The myrtle, based on Zecharia 1:8: והוא עומד בין ההדסים
  • And the willow, based on Psalms 68:5: סולו לרוכב בערבות ביה שמו

But Vayikra Rabbah goes on to offer other possibilities. In section 14 of the same chapter, it connects each of the species to a different part of the body, with the lulav representing the spine, the myrtle the eye, the willow the mouth, and the Etrog the heart.

And in one more interpretation (Vayikra Rabbah 30:12), the four species represent four types of Jews:

The lulav, which has taste but no smell, symbolizes those who study Torah but do not do good deeds.

The myrtle has a good smell but no taste, symbolizing those who do good deeds but do not study Torah.

The willow, which has neither taste nor smell, symbolizes those who lack both Torah and good deeds.

And lastly, the etrog has both a good taste and a good smell, symbolizing those who have both Torah and do good deeds.

These are quite varied ways to interpret a set of four plants. The similarity among these interpretations is the diversity and yet the interrelationship. Maimonides teaches in his laws of Sukkot (Hilchot Lulav 7:5) that the four species is a single mitzvah, and the absence of any of them renders the whole mitzvah undone (מעכב). If you just had a spine, but no heart, you wouldn’t have a working body. And if you just had one kind of person in the Jewish community, but not another, our variety would not be complete. We need all diverse kinds—bound together—to have a compelling understanding of the divine, to have healthy body, and most importantly, to have a healthy community. Each person contributes something and without any one—not despite their differences, but because of their differences—the mitzvah is not fulfilled.

As the midrash puts it, the lulav is Israel. And the myrtle is Israel. And the willow is Israel. And the Etrog is Israel. What does God do? Ties them all together into a single bunch and they atone for each other.

Wishing the whole community chag sameach as we enter this time of happiness (זמן שמחתנו) together.


D’var Torah: Dan Savitt (Ha’azinu)

Impermanent Things (Parashat Ha’azinu)

All these impermanent things

Well, they all add up to zero they make believe that they’re my hero

Then they fill my mind with doubt and false desires

Why keep hangin’ on to things that never stay,

Things that just keep stringin’ us along from day to day?

“Impermanent Things” (song) (1991)

Singer-songwriter Peter Himmelman vividly captures the transient nature of life itself in his song Impermanent Things. And despite life’s transiency, it can be difficult to always bear in mind what is truly important. In Parashat Ha’azinu (Deuteronomy 32:4) we catch a glimpse of permanence when we read that God is referred to as The Rock (ha-tzur). The image of God as a Rock symbolizes the Eternal as a “sure source of strength” and highlights that “[God] endures throughout every generation.” Moreover, God is depicted as a “strong refuge in which God’s people may take shelter from any difficulty.”1

God described as a Rock (tzur) is also found in traditional Jewish hymns. One of the Shabbat zemirot, Tzur Mishelo (The Rock from whom), is traditionally sung on Friday nights. Also, the well-known song Ma’oz Tzur (Refuge, Rock of my salvation) commonly sung each night after lighting the Hanukkah candles bears the title of God as the “Rock of my salvation.”

We are now in the midst of the Aseret Y’mei Teshuvah (Ten Days of Repentance), and with the metaphor of life hanging in the balance this is an opportune time for soul-searching and self-reflection. “These are days of reflection and introspection when we stand in the conscious presence of Infinity, knowing how short and vulnerable life really is, and how little time we have here on earth.”2 Because of life’s ephemeral nature it can be steadying to have something permanent to grasp hold of. Whether we find stability through God’s sheltering presence or some other mode of support, may we all find some sense of permanence and consistency in the year ahead.


  1. Harris, R. Laird, Gleason L. Archer, Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke, eds. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. Chicago: Moody, 1980. <BibleWorks, v.10.>.
  2. Sacks, Jonathan. The Koren Rosh HaShana Maḥzor. Jerusalem, Koren Publishers, 2013, pp. xiii-xiv.
Rebecca Luire

D’var Torah: Rebecca Lurie (Vayeilech)

What a wonderful first week of school! As I reflect on Rosh Hashanah and this week’s parasha, Vayeilech, I am mindful of beginnings and endings. Summer has ended and a new school year has begun. 5778 is ending and 5779 is about to begin. And we are about to finish reading the Torah and start anew with Breishit on Simchat Torah.

In this week’s parasha, Vayeilech, G-d instructs Bnei Yisrael (the children of Israel) to remind themselves of all of G-d’s commandments during the shmitta year (7th year of harvest) on the holiday of Sukkot through the mitzvah (commandment) of hakhel (mass learning initiative when everyone gathers together to hear the words of the Torah). While the mitzvot of shmitta, Sukkot and hakhel may not appear to have anything in common, they in fact are all about coming together as a community and helping one another. While shmitta is about sharing our physical resources with one another, hakhel is about sharing spiritual resources with others. And on Sukkot we are commanded to welcome guests into our sukkah.

While the end of the Torah (in Vayeilech) emphasizes the need for community and helping one another, this is in contrast to how the Torah began (in Breishit) with the creation of Adam and Eve and the message that each of us in created in the image of G-d (B’tzelem Elokim). The Torah begins with the uniqueness and holiness of each individual and ends with the beauty in community and helping one another. Moshe, the leader of Bnei Yisrael, fully realized how he was created in G-d image, and his final message to the Jewish people was that their ultimate task is to take care of each other and come together as a people.

This beginning and end may be the most powerful and beautiful of all. We must first understand ourselves as individuals (how we are made in G-d’s image) before we can contribute to the community and care for others. As we enter 5779, I wish for all of us to continue on this journey of both self discovery and taking care of one another. Shanah Tovah!