Rebecca Luire

D’var Torah: Rebecca Lurie (Nitzavim-Vayelech)

This week’s parashiyot, Nitzavim-Vayelech, describes Moshe, at 120 years old, passing along his role of leading B’nei Yisrael to Joshua. As his days were nearing the end, Moshe is told by God to relate the Shira, the portion of Ha’azinu that is the Song of Moses, to B’nei Ysrael. The last verse in Vayelech reads: “Moses spoke the words of this song into the ears of the entire congregation of Israel,” עַד תֻּמָּם, “until their conclusion” (Deut. 31,30).

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, a Lithuanian Rabbi from the late 19th century asks, why does the Torah say “until their conclusion?” Wouldn’t everyone assume Moshe would recite the entire song? Rabbi Feinstein answers that Moshe was not just reciting the words, but also providing in-depth meaning to these words “Until their conclusion”  implies Moshe provided the deepest understanding of the true meaning of the Song.

Every day, my colleagues and I seek to create authentic Jewish experiences for our students that will ignite in them a spark to form their own Jewish identities. And I am thrilled to see so many moments in the Schechter program that grapple with text – through Tefillah, Talmud and Tanach – in order to find purpose, meaning and deep understanding. Just this week, I sat in on the 6th-grade Tanach class where Lianne Gross emphasized to students that “every translation is an interpretation.” There is so much beauty in the concept of the p’shat (literal translation) and the drash (deeper meaning/interpretation) of the Tanach. That is why I personally love studying Tanach – because it is a place to think deeply about the possibilities of what specific words and texts mean. And it is up to us to find personal connections.

Just as Moshe acted as a facilitator to B’nei Yisrael to help them form a deep understanding in the scripture, so too are the faculty at Schechter facilitating a community of purpose and meaning seekers. And I am truly grateful for the work they do every day with our students.

12155_10101034329068193_2109195832_n (1)

D’var Torah: Rabbi Ravid Tilles (Ki Tavo)

The new school year has finally arrived! We are concluding an invigorating summer of reflection, strategic work and planning as we eagerly await the arrival of our students. But in some ways it has also been a summer of heartbreak and sadness while we watched, like all of you,  news reports from Charlottesville and Houston. Though vastly different in many ways, both events have deeply shaken our national consciousness and have shown us the worst and then the best of American character and capability. These events remind us that our hearts have the potential to travel many hundreds or thousands of miles, across state lines, and connect with people we have never met.

Our empathy and our concern for the stranger is a core Jewish value that we see reinforced in this week’s Torah portion Ki Tavo. In this portion we find the famous verses from our Passover Seder that begin “My Father was a wandering Aramean…” (Deut. 26:5-8). These verses recall how far the Israelite people had come during their 40 year-long journey. They had been strangers, oppressed in the Land of Egypt, and now they stood at the edge of the Promised Land, preparing for a life of prosperity. God reminds them that every year, when it is time to bring the first fruits, the Israelites must make note of their gratitude for their good fortune, AND they must share their wealth with the stranger and the oppressed.

One of the most important lessons we can teach our children, and a lesson that we constantly reinforce with every student in every grade level at our school, is that the world is bigger than ourselves and that we are responsible for one another. That kindness and love for others is essential to our nature as Jewish people and human beings. We teach our students the prayers of gratitude and thanksgiving, but we remind them that prayer is only the first step and that action must follow. Which is why we encourage our Gan Shelanu students to share, and find tzedakah projects for our Lower School students, and promote citizenship in our Intermediate Division and create social action projects with our 8th graders. All of these initiatives reinforce what our Torah treasures the most and therefore, our priority as a Jewish community. We must give thanks for what we have and then remember to share with those most in need. Our faculty, staff and administration all believe the work we are doing with our students, your children, is crucial toward repairing our shared society and communities.

May we all have a blessed year of learning, love, compassion and growth in which we see the world become a better place! Shanah Tovah!

D’var Torah: Rabbi Donald M. Splansky (Sh’lach L’kha)

I once enjoyed the privilege of attending the 50th anniversary weekend celebration of Kibbut Yahel in the southern Negev. During the musical presentation of the smallest children in the kibbutz’s school, they sang a song with such cuteness, verve, and joy that the audience clapped and clapped until the students came back to sing an encore of the same song. As they entered the stage again, one little boy said to another in Hebrew, “We better not sing it as well this time so they won’t insist we come back again!”

That thought stuck in my mind as one possible position to take: it is better to stay put and secure rather than excel and be expected to excel further. Surely the ten scouts of the twelve who reported to Moses about the land of Israel felt that way. They said, “We cannot attack that people for it is stronger than we.” (Nu. 13:31) Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the Lubavitcher rebbe, asked a good question: why did the ten scouts fear invading Israel when they had already seen what God had done for them already? God had worked the miracles of the ten plagues, the crossing the Sea of Reeds, the gift of manna every weekday in the wilderness, and ample water, so why did they become so defeatist? The rebbe’s answer was surprising. He said the scouts were not afraid of defeat, but rather they were afraid of success. Why leave “the security of wilderness”?

We ask a lot of our children and grandchildren to persevere through S.S.D.S. with its demanding curriculum in both Hebrew and general studies. And then we will ask for similar excellence in high school and college. Surely, there is nothing wrong with asking them to be all that they can be. (A ship can stay in harbor, but it is built to sail out to sea.)

Nevertheless, let us monitor our kids’ academic success very carefully, and judge their “bad stress” and their “good stress”, and distinguish their “excellence” from their “good enough.”

— Rabbi Donald Splansky, Rabbi Emeritus Temple Beth Am, Framingham, Schechter grandparent

D’var Torah: Rabbi Ed Gelb (B’halotcha)

In this week’s Torah portion, B’ha-alot’kha, Miriam and Aharon talk negatively about Moshe’s marriage and express jealousy over who was the greater prophet. God rebukes them and Miriam is left afflicted with leprosy. Aharon begs Moshe to intercede on her behalf, and in one of my favorite Torah moments Moshe prays to God: “אל נא רפא נא לה” – “O God, pray heal her.”

There are two reasons why I love this. First, there is the juxtaposition of evil and good speech. Most gossip revolves around lengthy conversations that tear someone down. Moshe’s prayer of healing is short and to the point. The more we talk about others the more likely we are to stray into negative talk. Second, Moshe’s prayer is instructive. It is passionate, short and from the heart. There are definite times that praying as a community from siddurim with elaborately constructed poetry is important and meaningful. Still, we should also know that we can pray anywhere, anytime and with words and feelings that come from our hearts. I find that empowering and comforting.

Using speech for good and constructive purposes while staying away from negative talk is very hard. Very few people have mastered this ability. As both talkers and listeners we have a responsibility to strive to elevate our speech and use it to build others up.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Ed Gelb, Director, Camp Ramah in New England

D’var Torah: Rabbi Marcia Plumb (Emor)

פַרְתֶּ֤ם לָכֶם֙ מִמָּחֳרַ֣ת הַשַּׁבָּ֔ת מִיּוֹם֙ הֲבִ֣יאֲכֶ֔ם אֶת־עֹ֖מֶר הַתְּנוּפָ֑ה שֶׁ֥בַע שַׁבָּת֖וֹת תְּמִימֹ֥ת תִּהְיֶֽינָה׃

And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering—the day after the sabbath—you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete: (16)

עַ֣ד מִֽמָּחֳרַ֤ת הַשַּׁבָּת֙ הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔ת תִּסְפְּר֖וּ חֲמִשִּׁ֣ים י֑וֹם וְהִקְרַבְתֶּ֛ם מִנְחָ֥ה חֲדָשָׁ֖ה לַיהוָֽה׃

You must count until the day after the seventh week—fifty days; then you shall bring an offering of new grain to the LORD. (17)

This week we are in the midst of observing the biblical command from this week’s parasha to count the days of the Omer.   The Kabbalists added a trait from the Sefirot to each of the weeks. According to the Kabbalists, the Sefirot are the Emanations that reveal God’s presence.  In our home, each week of the Omer, I create a poster with a set of questions for the family to think about and discuss, related to each week, and trait.  I offer them here to you:

Week One of the Omer
Hesed: Lovingkindness
How have you shown hesed this week?
How have you said thank you for hesed shown to you this week?
 
Week Two of the Omer
Gevurah: Strength
What are your strengths and gifts?
When have you felt strong and confident this week?
How have you shown inner strength this week?
How have you shown strength of character this week?

Week Three of the Omer
Tifferet:  Beauty
What have you noticed that is beautiful this week?
When have you shown inner beauty this week?
How have you brought out the beauty in others this week?

Week Four of the Omer
Netzah:  Endurance, Determination, Victory
What helps you overcome obstacles?  How can the family help you succeed?
What keeps you going when you want to quit?
What do you feel victorious about this week?  What are your successes this week?

Week Five of the Omer
Hod:  Gratitude
What are you grateful for this week?
How have you shown gratitude to others this week?

Week Six of the Omer
Yesod: Bonding, Nurturing, Foundation
How have you shown love and nurturing to yourself this week?  How have you looked after yourself?
How have you shown love and nurturing to others this week?

Week Seven of the Omer
Malchut:  Majesty, Nobility
How have you shown nobility of character this week?
How have you risen to be your best self this week?
How have you brought out the best in others this week?
How have you seen the noble in others this week?

By Rabbi Marcia Plumb, Rabbi of Congregation Mishkan Tefila, and Chaplain at Orchard Cove, with Hebrew Senior Life 

D’var Torah: Rabbi Joshua Elkin (Acharei Mot/Kedoshim)

This Shabbat, we read a double parsha – Acharei Mot and Kedoshim. My focus is on Kedoshim because it is one of the parshiyot which is richest in specific mitzvot dealing with our relationships with other people. A quick examination of Chapter 19 of the Book of Vayikra reveals the details of a powerful system of ethical behavior which helps to create a humane society. Rather than delve into the specific mitzvot enumerated, I want to focus on the meaning of the word Kedoshim and the opening verse of the chapter – “You shall be holy because I the Lord thy God am holy.” What is the most authentic translation of kadosh?

The usual meaning ascribed to it is “separate” or “setting aside.” However, some years ago, a Schechter parent, Dr. Shim Berkovits, taught me a different meaning for kadosh which he learned from his father, Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits z”l, a distinguished modern Orthodox philosopher. That meaning is “to draw near” – ostensibly meaning that by being holy and doing these mitzvot, we bring ourselves nearer to God and to the transcendent realms of the universe. This meaning is unusual and quite original, and sheds new light on the meaning of kadosh and of the opening verse quoted above.

In addition to this perspective, I would like to probe our precious Hebrew language for words whose root is kadosh and to see what added light can be shed on this important concept. Here is a partial list:

  1. Kiddush – blessing the wine on Shabbat and festivals
  2. Kaddish – prayer said by mourners
  3. Kedushah – the part of the Amidah where we stand and repeat phrases of holiness and praise, after the hazzan
  4. Kiddushin – Hebrew word for betrothal
  5. Harey at MeKudeshet lee – (you are betrothed unto me), said by groom under the huppah as the ring is placed on the bride’s finger
  6.  Beit HaMikdash – the Temple in Jerusalem
  7. Ir HaKodesh – the traditional way to refer to Jerusalem 
This is an example of the beauty and richness of the Hebrew language. We have numerous words which share the same root and which shed light on each other. The meaning of to draw near is enriched and expanded through these seven Kadosh perspectives. By uncovering and sharing all of these various words and meanings associated with Kadosh, we are also recognizing that translating Kadosh as Holy misses the richness and multi-layered quality of this ancient word. May we continue to draw near to the transcendent through the saying of Kadosh, singing it and mining it for the different meanings which emerge.​
Rabbi Joshua Elkin, Executive and Leadership Coach at Joshua Elkin Consulting, Former Head of School, Schechter alumni parent
12155_10101034329068193_2109195832_n (1)

D’var Torah: Rabbi Ravid Tilles (Tazria/Metora)

This week we read the double portion of Tazria and Metzora, both of which further the themes of the preceding chapters of Leviticus: purity and impurity. We learn about the ways that a person can become impure (ta’may), and therefore unfit to bring sacrifices to the Tabernacle. We also learn the process by which a person can be purified (tahor) and reintroduced into the ritual society. These two portions deal primarily with anatomical issues such as skin disease or bodily fluids and how these medical conditions can cause impurity (WARNING: These portions are rated PG-13 – though parental guidance is ALWAYS encouraged).

On the surface, the words ta’may and tahor (impure and pure) seem charged with judgment.  It is good to be tahor and it is bad to be ta’may. After all, one who is in a state of ritual impurity must not service God in the Tabernacle. Someone who is impure longs for purity, so impurity must be bad. The question arises, however, about the issue of childbirth, which is discussed at the beginning of Parshat Tazria. A woman who has just given birth is given the classification of “impure.” How can that be? How can such a beautiful, joyous, positive moment, such as childbirth, be associated with impurity or negativity?

From this we learn that ritual impurity is not a negative classification, rather it is a state of reality. Ta’may is not good or bad it just is. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of England, expounds, “Though we have immortal longings, mortality is the condition of human existence, as it is of all embodied life.” Meaning, even though we wish we were always perfect and even strive for perfection, the reality is that we will never be perfect. There will always be times that we are ta’may, and we should give ourselves permission to live with our challenges and accept them as a part of our whole being. Our goal should not be perfection, since that is impossible. Instead our goal should be to accept ourselves, 100% fully and purely, as we are.

Rabbi Ravid Tilles is the Associate Rabbi at the Merrick Jewish Centre and Incoming Director of Jewish Life and Learning at Schechter

D’var Torah: Dr. Joseph Reimer (Sh’mini)

The Strange Case of the Strange Fire: Parshat Sh’mini

Leviticus, the third book of the Torah, is well-known as the priestly code. In its early chapter we read about the animal sacrifices that the priests- Aaron and sons- were to bring before the Lord in the sanctuary built by the people to serve their God. These sacrifices were the main avenue of Israelite approach to God and the priests played the crucial role as mediators between the people and God. So it is shocking in chapter 10 to read what happened to Aaron’s two oldest sons.

Now Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, each took his fire pan, put fire in it and laid incense on it; and they offered before the Lord alien fire, which He had not enjoined them. And  fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Lord (verses 1-2.).

Much is not clear in this terse narrative. Were Nadab and Abihu asked to take their fire pans and bring in fire? If so, what is an alien fire? How did this alien or strange fire defy God’s orders? And why was this offense so grievous that God consumed them on the spot?

As happens often in Jewish tradition, when the Torah fails to supply the many details we need to understand what happened, the commentators jump in with many differing interpretations. To them there is an absolute need to know what happened and why. This is a potentially highly destabilizing story. We are, after all, reading about Aaron, Moses’ older brother who co-lead the Exodus from Egypt and was subsequently honored with becoming the first High Priest. Aaron has been told that the priesthood was to be hereditary and that his sons would succeed him in this role. And here, two of his four sons are struck dead, the two oldest who might well have been his immediate successors. Were these sons evil? Or had they made a terrible error of judgment for which they paid with their lives? And is this God so fraught that He can, without explaining, strike dead two of the highest priests?

I leave you to explore the many possible responses to these questions. What strikes me, writing during Passover week, is that ours is a tradition that honors questions more than responses. We know that the commentators will work their way out of this terrible dilemma, but that the ways out are less lasting than the dilemma itself. Answers fade with time. Questions last a life time, indeed many life times. In my view the very beauty of a Jewish education is not that our developing children are armed with responses, but that they realize they come from a people who pursue lasting questions and expect of them the same: a life time of studying and posing questions.

D’var Torah: Rabbi Mendy Uminer (Vayikra)

When one thinks of Passover, images of the traditional Passover meal, the Seder, immediately enter the mind. A seder is truly the time of togetherness for the Jewish family. Together, we recount the miraculous birth of the Jewish people. We revisit G‑d redeeming His people from the depths of despair and His transforming a nation of slaves into the beneficiaries of the Sinai experience and the recipients of His Torah.

During the Seder we discuss the “Four Sons” and the questions they pose, from the “Wise Son” who wants to know all of the particulars of Passover observances, to the “Wicked Son” who challenges and mocks them. There is a “Simple Son” who simply asks “What’s this?” There is even a son whose only form of participation is simply being there. With everything happening around him, not a single question occupies his mind.

My teacher and spiritual mentor the Lubavitcher Rebbe teaches us that today we have yet another son, “the fifth son”. The son who does not even attend a seder.

Just as we address the challenges and questions of the Four Sons, we must address the challenges of this fifth son as well. We must reach out and include those who have no place to be at the Seder, and for those who don’t feel the need or relevance to be there, we need to inspire them to its’ relevance to their lives.

In the early seventies, the Jewish Federation of North America decided to launch a campaign. They sought to institute that at every Seder table there should be an empty chair to bring into the Jewish consciousness the awareness that – if not for the holocaust and the loss of our 6 million – there would have been another Jew sitting in that seat.

They asked the Rebbe’s input, The Rebbe’s answer stunned the leaders of the federation: “Your idea of adding a chair is very important, and I’m ready to join the call. But, there is one condition…the extra chair should not be empty, but filled.”

We are lucky enough to have a school that inspires us to be engaged in Jewish life and we need to spread the light.

I want to take this opportunity to thank Schechter for being the home of our summer camp- Camp Gan Israel, thanks for the hospitality!

A Kosher & Happy Passover to you all.

Rabbi_William_Hamilton

D’var Torah: Rabbi William Hamilton (Vayikra)

Priest and Prophet

The sensibilities of the prophet and the priest are quite different in the Bible. Prophets espouse values, champion integrity, and liberate dreams.  Primarily concerned with social morality and faith, biblical prophets view situations through the lens of history.  Alternatively, priestly systems care about boundaries, categories, and distinctions.  Priests have a strong moral sense, but their institutions leave no place for spontaneity.  Prophets are not opposed to ritual, but they become outraged when it is misused in effort to avert one’s gaze from hypocrisy or injustice.

This week’s Torah and Haftorah portions offer an up-close and personal view the divergent leadership models of priest and prophet.  We glimpse their different vocabulary, reflective of differing agendas.  Nearness to God is the aspiration of Leviticus’ world of offerings.  Atonement seeks the realigning of a disjointed relationship with God.  Isaiah’s voice encourages redemption, repentance, and societal renewal.  The word atonement, kapara (for which Yom Kippur is named) appears a dozen times in this week’s portion.  While the words for repentance and redemption (shuv, and go-ail) appear in the prophetic reading’s penultimate verse: “I have blotted out, as a thick cloud, your transgressions and your sins; return (shuva) unto Me, for I have redeemed you (ga’altecha)” (Is. 44:22). When these twin hemispheres coexist compatibly, creativity and vitality flourish.

Priests seek order.  Prophets seed hope.  An additional setting where their voices harmonize elegantly is at the Passover Seder.  The identity of the Seder itself means ‘order’, given how baked into its origins the priestly Pascal Sacrifice has always been.  Yet the prophetic voice which vectors toward Elijah holds sway by Seder’s end.

Often we feel called by prophetic expectations.  Sometimes we feel nourished by priestly habits and familiar rituals.  May we draw inspiration from a sacred blend of both.

A sweet Shabbat to you.

Rabbi William Hamilton, Congregation Kehillath Israel, Schechter alumni parent