D’var Torah: Esther Rosi-Kessel (Shemini)

My parsha, Parshat Shemini, in the book of Leviticus, begins with the inauguration of the Mishkan, the traveling Tabernacle. During the ceremony, Aaron’s sons, the priests Nadav and Avihu approach the altar and bring their own “alien fire” before God, not waiting for the Heavenly fire to consume the offerings. They are punished by death. Moshe asks the Kohanim, the priests, to remove the bodies and Moshe tells his brother Aaron that in order for the people not to become very upset and doubt the purpose of the mishkan, they must stay silent. There are very different opinions over the generations about what was Nadav and Avihu’s sin.

Then it says, “And Aaron was silent.” Many people think his silence was a bad thing, like he wasn’t allowed to mourn his son’s deaths, but I think it could have actually been his way of mourning. Not everyone cries or talks or is loud about their sadness. Many people deal with feelings silently, in their heads. Maybe the Torah was trying to tell us that there are different kinds of people, and everyone has their own way of dealing with things.

Then the portion continues with Kosher laws, such as: only eat land animals which have split hooves and chew their cud, and only fish with scales and fins can be eaten. It also gives the list of which birds can be eaten, and says that you can’t eat birds of prey.

According to some interpretations of Torah, humans were never really supposed to eat meat. In the Garden of Eden, God said: Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree that has seed-yielding fruit — to you it shall be for food.” God only says that plants can be eaten. Fast-forward to the time of Noah: after the flood, people really wanted to eat animals. God gives Noah and his descendants permission to eat meat, but God also says: “But flesh, with its soul, its blood, you shall not eat.” God prohibits eating blood, or the life of the animal. Much later, when the Israelites are stranded in the desert, God gives them Manna. Many people believe this was a second chance at a vegetarian diet. But they weren’t satisfied, the people wanted meat. So God gave them quail, but it was the ONLY thing they could eat. Think about it: only eating one food for about a month, wouldn’t you get sick of it, even if you liked it at first? This could be saying, maybe eating meat isn’t really the best option. The Kosher laws could be saying that if you have to eat meat, you still need to be mindful of what you’re eating.

The kosher laws tell people what they can and can’t eat. There are many things I can’t eat. I’m vegetarian, and I have never  eaten meat. My whole family is also vegetarian. I also have celiac disease, so I can’t eat gluten. I think this makes me much more aware of what I’m eating. When I go to a restaurant, I can’t just pick any item and say, “Oh, this looks good. I’ll get it.” I need to make sure it’s something I can eat. When many people eat food, they don’t really think much about what they’re eating. They don’t think about what’s in their food, because they don’t need to, but they also don’t think about where their food is coming from. Many people don’t realize that they might be eating an animal that had a really bad life while it was alive. Because I have to be more mindful about what I’m eating, I’m more sensitive to what it feels like to have restrictions on what I’m eating, so when there’s someone with a food allergy, I know what it feels like not to be able to eat anything at a party or event or restaurant. Even though the meat laws for kosher don’t really apply to me, because I don’t eat meat, I still think they’re important in helping people be more mindful about food. According to kosher laws, meat is only kosher if the animal was killed painlessly. People who keep kosher are often more mindful about their food. Whether or not you have food allergies, are vegan or vegetarian, or keep kosher, you can still be mindful about your food.


D’var Torah: Jacob Pinnolis (Tzav)

There is a striking repetition near the opening of Tsav, this week’s parashah, as the work of the priests is described:

“The fire on the altar shall be kept burning, not to go out:  every morning the priest shall feed wood to it…A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out.”  (Vayikra 6:5-6, NJPS)

In two short verses the same basic idea is expressed five times—namely, that the fire on the altar, once set, should never be allowed to go out.  Twice it says the priest should keep it burning (תוקד); twice, not to quench it (לא תכבה); and once the fire is described as perpetual (אש תמיד).

The Rabbis of the Talmud (Yoma 45b) argue that the repetition is merely apparent.  These repeated words tell us how many piles of wood were involved and what other flames were lit from the fire on the altar (נר תמיד).

Yet, I want to think about these verses more symbolically by holding on both to the rabbinic reading AND to the repetition.

Consider the sacred work done by the teachers and staff of Schechter and other Jewish schools.  The task of a Jewish education involves lighting a fire in all our children, just as the priests light each and every pile of wood. It isn’t enough to engage and excite only some Jewish children about learning—it must be all our children.

Let’s not lose the repetition, however, since telling us to keep the flame alive is a reminder of two other critical aspects of the work.  First, each day we must renew our commitment to fuel the passion of our children for learning, and the connection they feel to Judaism and their people.  Second, that we take care to prevent experiences that might quench that passion and connection.  Teachers do this by infusing Jewish education with care, intention, and love.

May our Torah reading be a reminder of the challenge and sacred work of keeping the flame within our children burning brightly.

Jacob Pinnolis, Director of Teaching and Learning & Jewish Education, Gann Academy


D’var Torah: Rabbi Elan Babchuck (Vayikra)

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 Torahprecisely 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.

Rabbi Elan Babchuck ’96, Director of Innovation, Clal, Founding Director, Glean Network

D’var Torah: Rabbi William Hamilton (Pekudei)

Effort Counts

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 struggle to understand how we feel – than we are in their demonstrating actual empathy. Struggling to understand sends a positive message. After all, you wouldn’t invest that kind of energy in a relationship that you didn’t care about. Effort counts.

In the final chapter of the Book of Exodus Moses never speaks. Instead, his deeds 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 the Torah’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. There is a shift from God’s creating a world to make space for humans, to our making a Tabernacle to make space for God.

Even more nuanced 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.

Rabbi William Hamilton, Congregation Kehillath Israel, Schechter Alumni Parent

D’var Torah: Naomi Carr-Gloth (Vayakhel)

This week’s Torah portion is Vayakhel. Almost the entire parshah focuses on the building of the mishkan, or Tabernacle  – in other words, a portable place of worship. God instructs Moses to tell the Israelites how to build the Tabernacle in great detail. Moses then asks the Israelites to bring forth their gold and their finest valuables for the construction of the mishkan. The Israelites donate so many materials that Moses has to ask them to stop giving their gold. In Exodus 35:5, Moses tells the Israelites:

קְחוּ מֵאִתְּכֶם תְּרוּמָה לַיהוָה כֹּל נְדִיב לִבּוֹ יְבִיאֶהָ אֵת תְּרוּמַת יְהוָה זָהָב וָכֶסֶף וּנְחֹשֶׁת׃ “Take from yourselves an offering for the Lord; every generous-hearted person shall bring it…gold, silver, and copper…’” .

The parshah begins with the words, “וַיַּקְהֵל מֹשֶׁה” – “And Moses gathered the people.” We find the same verb in last week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa, as well, where it says, “וַיִּקָּהֵל הָעָם עַל־אַהֲרֹן” – “the people gathered against Aaron.” In that instance, they weren’t gathering for the building of the mishkan, but the building of the Golden Calf. The use of verbs with the same shoresh, or root, suggest that there must be a connection.

Last week, in Ki Tissa, we read about how the Israelites disobey God by creating a Golden Calf, which is made using gold they donated, demonstrating their temporary lack of faith in God. This week, in Vayakhel, we read that the Israelites also donate gold for the Tabernacle, perhaps in attempt to make up for the Golden Calf episode. When the Israelites realize what a bad decision they’d made, they do what they can to make it right.

We learn from the juxtaposition of the Golden Calf and the that the same action, gathering, can be for good or for evil. The same material, gold, can create an idol or a place of holiness. It’s all how we choose to use our resources and our energy.

If we want to correct a mistake we have made, the first step is acknowledging our mistake.Then, we have to do everything we can to try to fix it, even if it is difficult. Although we, too, may feel alone and afraid after realizing we’ve made a mistake, by trying to make things right, like the Israelites when they built the mishkan, we can invite holiness into our lives and the lives of those around us.

D’var Torah: Rabbi Donald M. Splansky (Tetzaveh)

In Jacob ibn Habib’s introduction to his anthology of Talmudic midrashim, Ein Ya’akov, he records an early rabbinic disagreement about what verse in the Torah is the greatest.  Three rabbis disagreed (although possibly not all of them were formally ordained).  The first one, Ben Zoma, said the greatest verse was the Sh’ma, “Hear, O Israel, the Eternal One is our God, the Eternal One alone (Deuteronomy 6:4).  The second one, Ben Nannas, said it was “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).  The third one, however, Shimon ben Pazi, chose a more obscure verse from Parashat T’tzaveh, “You shall offer one lamb in the morning, and you shall offer another lamb at twilight” (Exodus 29:39).  And then, surprisingly, an anonymous rabbi ends the disagreement by proclaiming, “The law is according to Shimon ben Pazi!”(1)

The reader can only wonder why two great, fundamental teachings of the Torah could not outweigh a third teaching about the regularity of offering sacrifices.  Something else must be going on.  The first two verses stand as pillars of Judaism, but the third one points out the importance of constancy, of commitment, and even covenant.  For example, I know of a woman in Jerusalem who never thought her actions would bring on the Messiah, but she goes every Friday afternoon to Hadassah Hospital to help female patients light Shabbat candles (in a safe way).  I know of a young woman who periodically cuts her long, beautiful hair and donates it to a charity that makes wigs for women undergoing chemotherapy treatments.  I know of a group of men and women who sign up month after month and transport a patient to doctor’s appointments and physical therapy appointments.

The rules for offering sacrifices require ongoing steadfastness, or, to use the Biblical word, “hesed”, which means “loving loyalty”(1).  It describes the covenant of marriage and the covenant between God and the Jewish people. When we look for signs of growing maturity in our children, we look for (and try to nurture!) that kind of steadfast reliability and sincere commitment.

  1. See Shai Held, The Heart of Torah, Vol. 1, (The University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln) p. 201.
  2. Nelson Glueck, Hesed in the Bible, Hebrew Union College Press (Cincinnati, 1967) p. 102.

By Donald M. Splansky, Rabbi Emeritus, Temple Beth Am, Framingham

D’var Torah: David Bernat (Terumah)


Terumah (Exodus, 25:1-27:19) inaugurates a narrative cycle devoted to the construction of the Mishkan, the mobile sanctuary that anchors the Israelites’ camp as they traverse the desert, en route to The Promised Land.  In that context, the Parashah includes what could be, from the perspective of its authors, the most important verse in the Torah —   וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָֽׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם         Ve`asu li miqdash veshachanti betocham,”Make a sanctuary for me and I will reside in their midst (Exod 25:8).”  This pasuk, and the Pentateuch’s conception of the Mishkan, is predicated upon several connected core beliefs; (1) God has a physical presence with weight and mass, often referred to as the Kavod.  (2) YHWH’s Kavod can be manifest on earth, in the human realm, in one place at a time, as illustrated in the previous chapter; “YHWH’s Kavod resided on Mt. Sinai (Exod 24:16).” (3) We benefit from God’s covenantal favor only when God resides among us. (4) God’s presence should be housed in a specially designed structure whose holiness and habitability must be constantly and scrupulously maintained. The same ethos is echoed in Terumah’s Haftarah (1 Kings 5:26-6:13), which recounts the building of the 1st Temple in Jerusalem.  The reading concludes “I will reside among the Israelites and I will not abandon my people Israel.”

Today, odds are that if we believe in God, we don’t necessarily imagine God as having a tangible presences that is constrained to a single space, natural or constructed.  How then do we uphold the relevance of our Parashah as a piece of “living Torah” rather than marginalizing it as an antiquated document with an outmoded theology?  The Mishnah offers a solution for a post-Temple world.  “When two people sit with words of Torah, God’s presence abides with them (Avot 2:2).”  For the Sages, holiness is about people, their actions and commitments, not about a building made of precious wood and metal.  I conclude then with two questions for us here and now — What makes a place sacred? How do we find room for God in our lives and communities?

David Bernat, PhD ’72, Schechter Alumni Parent, Executive Director,  Synagogue Council of Massachusetts                                                                            



D’var Torah: Rabbi Ron Fish (Yitro)

We have arrived.
We survived a midnight flight from Pharaoh and slavery.  Soon after the cries of Egypt began to fade into the distance. And we marched forward.

We faced sure death as their army pursued. Our group of ragged escaped slaves were trapped between chariots and lances or crashing waves and a sure end at the bottom of the sea.

Yet we charged ahead into the water. If we were not free from doubt, we were free of options. Now all that we could do was wade into the unknown.

Despite the panic and uncertainty we crossed the sea and were able to imagine, for the first time in centuries, what it could feel like to be on our own. Independent. With unbound creativity and hope. At the waters’ edge we sang and danced and rejoiced.

The next six weeks were met with some understandable cries of terror. There were also moments of childish complaints brought by a newly freed people, not yet ready to be on their own.

But we have finally arrived here at Sinai. We are as one people with one heart.* Ready to receive whatever God gives. Knowing that the future will be written in colors of anticipation and possibility when we are unified. Like we are today.

We have been through so much. The future seems bright for this singular people.

And yet, ‘one people with one heart’ isn’t easy to sustain. We know that in the past there have been differences. We have doubted ourselves, one another, even Moshe…even God. How will we return to this sense of the possible, becoming a single unified people, in the generations to come? We will surely face times of disagreement. Will all be lost if we do not succeed in becoming, and staying one?

In times to come, when future teachers of Israel disagree over the Torah/instruction we receive here at Sinai, it doesn’t have to lead to conflict or a loss of connection with God. If we recall what joins us together, this journey from slavery to freedom to whatever comes next, that sense of being on a shared quest is our path to survival. When we disagree we must recall that “these words and those can both be offered by the Living God.”**

Then, we will truly have arrived.


*Rashi describes the people of Israel as being “like one person with one heart” when they arrived at Sinai.

**The conflict between the houses of Hillel and Shammai 2,000 years ago was resolved when they both accepted that “these words and those are both the words of the living God.” Eruvin 13b

Rabbi Ron Fish, Temple Israel of Sharon, Schechter Parent

D’var Torah: Cantor Michael McCloskey (Beshalach)

The Passover Seder: The Holiness of Play

וְהִגַּדְתָּ֣ לְבִנְךָ֔ בַּיּ֥וֹם הַה֖וּא לֵאמֹ֑ר בַּעֲב֣וּר זֶ֗ה עָשָׂ֤ה יְהוָה֙ לִ֔י בְּצֵאתִ֖י מִמִּצְרָֽיִם:

And you shall tell your child on that day, “For the sake of this [celebrating Pesach] that Adonai did this for me, liberating me from Egypt. —Exodus 13:7

Pesach, the most widely observed and practiced Jewish holiday, is also the most democratic.  According to the Jewish philosopher Franz Rosensweig this equality is expressed in that “the youngest child is the one to speak, and what the father says at the table is adapted to this child’s personality and his degree of maturity…The one nearest the periphery of the circle gives the cue for the level on which the discussion must be conducted. For this conversation must include him.  No one who is there in the flesh shall be excluded in the spirit. The freedom of a society is always the freedom of everyone who belongs to it.”

Interestingly, the first description of the celebration of this holiday in this week’s portion of Beshallach creates some ambiguity in regard to its essential nature.  Is our observance of Passover a commemoration of the liberation from Egypt or was the celebration of Passover G-d’s first benchmark or spiritual goal for our people. According to this second understanding, to which Rashi and other commentators adhere, we were redeemed from Egypt so that we could engage with the commandments and serve the Holy One, most specifically with the observance of the Seder!  

Why is the seder such an important observance?  Why does it resonate so deeply with our people, regardless of their observance?  According to Maimonides, the great philosopher, rabbi, and physician, the essence of the seder is playful change, and that change in turn fosters personal, familial, and communal renewal.  According to him, those who conduct the seder “need to make a change on on this night in order that the children see and ask, “How is this night different from all other nights?” and he in turn replies “This-and-this happened and so-and-so occurred.” And how [specifically] does he change [the seder]? He distributes to them [the children] parched corn and nuts and uproots the table before they can eat and snatches matzah from hand to hand and the like…” In other words, there is a teasing sporting aspect to this meal of meals which invites questioning. “Whoa, why did you remove the table.  What’s going on? Hey, that’s my matzah? Why are you taking it? Wait, why are we having popcorn? This isn’t the movies, this is the Passover Seder!” Told another way, the most important facet of the Passover Seder is midrash, its creative, daring, and meaningful interpretation of the biblical accounts of the exodus from Egypt. In fact, the midrashim included in the Seder are believed by many scholars to be some of the first examples of this uniquely Jewish and highly playful form of interpretation!

In my home, for one of the two sedarim, we host families of many different faith traditions, utilizing the bare bones of the seder arranged by our sages, but each year adding new commentaries, new discussions, new activities, new songs, and new rituals.  Moreover, now that our children Leonardo (4.5) and Ramona (1.5) have joined our life, we are exploring even more modalities. Our seder features not only story-telling, discussion, and songs, but theatre, legos, and responding to the narrative with play-dough and painting, which we enjoy as much as our kids!

Cantor Michael McCloskey is the Cantor-Educator at Temple Emeth, Chestnut Hill, MA. He serves as adjunct faculty at Hebrew College and is currently working toward rabbinic ordination.   


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

Where is God? This is a question we’ve all likely asked on more than one occasion. Where was God during the Shoah? Where was God in Parkland, in Pittsburgh, and in all of the other places where tragedy has struck?

In difficult times we so often worry that God is absent. Indeed, it can feel that way. But I’d like to suggest that in this week’s Torah portion, Bo, we learn of a very different way to understand God’s presence in difficult times. When God tells Moshe to go to Pharaoh and to ask Pharaoh to let the people go, the words we read are, “bo el Par’o” – literally, come to Pharaoh. How can this be? What does “bo” (come) mean in this context? And note, most translate this phrase as “go to Pharaoh” because it makes more sense!

Let’s learn from this literal translation that when God says “bo” – come to Pharaoh – it is because God is there in Pharaoh’s palace – and in all of our dark times. We cannot see God, we cannot understand God, and we cannot appreciate God’s presence and impact in difficult situations. And yet, what this text teaches us is that we need to understand God is there in the difficult times, even if it doesn’t seem logical. That’s what faith is all about: trusting, believing, hoping, and assuming (yes, a bold word choice!) that God’s presence might impact our lives in ways we cannot know.

We’ve all been there – our own personal version of Mitzrayim, Egypt, the narrow place between despair and hopelessness. And we’ve all likely had moments when we have needed to confront our own personal Pharaoh. Like Moshe, we might stutter, tremble, and wish it was someone else in our sandals. But like Moshe, let us seek God’s presence. We cannot understand God’s ways, but as we confront challenging situations, let us try to recognize God’s impact on our lives.

Rabbi Ilana C. Garber ’91, Rabbinic Director of Lifelong Learning & Community Engagement, Beth El Temple, West Hartford, CT