D’var Torah: Henry Goldstein (Va’era)

 

In this week’s parsha, Va’era, G-d told Moses about his promise to let the Israelites have a home in the land of Canaan and his plan to help the Israelites leave Egypt. G-d asked Moses to speak to Pharoah, and Moses responded “וְאֵיךְ֙ יִשְׁמָעֵ֣נִי פַרְעֹ֔ה וַֽאֲנִ֖י עֲרַ֥ל שְׂפָתָֽיִם” “How then will Pharaoh hearken to me, seeing that I am of closed lips?” Moses admitted to G-d twice that he did not feel comfortable speaking, so G-d told him to have his brother Aaron speak for him. Despite Moses’ imperfections, (including impulsively killing an Egyptian), G-d still chose him to be the leader of a new nation. G-d told Moses that he also made the promise of Canaan to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. These men were also not perfect: Jacob took advantage of his brother, Isaac favored one of his sons over the other, and Abraham laughed at G-d when G-d said he and Sarah would have a child. Just as the characters in the Torah are imperfect, none of us is perfect either.

And so Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh to free the Israelites. They threatened to send plagues to the land of Egypt, and Aaron turned his staff into a snake, but Pharaoh was still stubborn. 

וַֽיֶּֽחֱזַק֙ לֵ֣ב פַּרְעֹ֔ה וְלֹ֥א שָׁמַ֖ע

“Pharoah’s heart stiffened” the Torah says many times, to show how Pharoah still felt no sympathy for the Israelites. The plagues kept coming, and still Pharaoh did not let the Israelites leave Egypt and be free.

The plagues occur in order from least damaging to most severe. I think G-d wanted to do the least amount of damage possible to the Egyptians. First, the water of the Nile River turned into blood. Since Pharaoh did not let the Israelites go, the second plague hit. Frogs infested everywhere.

וַיִּקְרָ֨א פַרְעֹ֜ה לְמשֶׁ֣ה וּלְאַֽהֲרֹ֗ן וַיֹּ֨אמֶר֙ הַעְתִּ֣ירוּ אֶל־יְהֹוָ֔ה וְיָסֵר֙ הַֽצְפַרְדְּעִ֔ים מִמֶּ֖נִּי וּמֵֽעַמִּ֑י וַֽאֲשַׁלְּחָה֙ אֶת־הָעָ֔ם וְיִזְבְּח֖וּ לַֽיהֹוָֽה

Pharoah told Moses and Aaron that if they made the frogs go away, they would be able to pray and sacrifice to their G-d. The frogs went away, but Pharaoh changed his mind, and the Israelites were not allowed to leave Egypt. The same thing repeated itself again in the next plague, the plague of lice. Pharaoh again promised freedom, but then changed his mind.

Pharaoh made a big mistake. Every time he said “No,” the plagues got worse. Although everybody makes mistakes, and nobody is perfect, you can always change. Abraham lost faith only for a short time. Jacob realized trickery was bad, once he ran away, and Moses felt very bad, once he impulsively killed the Egyptian. But Pharaoh did not change. He could have, but he didn’t.

As 2018 starts, we should all recognize when we make a mistake, and always try to do better next time.

Henry Goldstein, Grade 4,  is a current Schechter student.

Grade 6 Students Make the Hanukkah Story Come Alive

In Grade 6 Tanakh class, the students studied the story of Hanukkah and how it is celebrated today. They put together a multi-part movie to present what they learned to their peers. Split into three groups, the students wrote the script, created the visuals, and recorded the narrations. On behalf of the 6th grade, we hope you have a joyous Hanukkah!

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1aCChbNMhfzEt2ftozLgqYsDuO4HhiHCF/view

D’var Torah: Rabbi Jonina Pritzker (Miketz)

Chanukah is a holiday that reminds us of Jewish people-hood. It represents the first recorded struggle for religious freedom, as the Maccabees fought for the national sovereignty and religious freedom in the Land of Israel against an oppressor who denied that freedom and forbade the practice of Judaism.

In the ancient world, Hellenism was spreading; other forms of worship were being banned and outlawed. Jews who refused to conform were massacred. The revolt of Mattathias with Judah Maccabee and his brothers was the first recorded struggle for religious freedom in history.

The first meaning of Chanukah is shown by dividing the name of the holiday: “Chanu” means “they rested” or “made camp,” and the letters “kauf” and “hey” in Hebrew add up to 25. It was on the 25th of Kislev that the Jews re-dedicated the Temple in Jerusalem after liberating it from the forces of the Greco-Syrian emperor Antiochus Epiphanes. The word “Chanukah” reminds us of the battle, and tells us that on the 25th day of Kislev, the Jews rested.

For the second meaning of this holiday, we put together the word and read “Chanukah,” which means “dedication” because, ultimately, this was the purpose of the battle. The unified word shows that the battle was not fought for military glory and achievements. The battle was fought for the purpose of re-dedicating the Temple which had been desecrated by the invaders; the battle was fought to ensure the right to live in freedom in our homeland.

For the third meaning of our Festival of Lights, we look at the Hebrew letters in the word “Chanukah:” “chet” “nun” “kauf,” which, when put together, mean “education.” This reminds us that to understand the ideals around which we have always built our lives, requires education. It reminds us that learning about our history and heritage gives us the spiritual strength and direction to fight the current rendition of these battles, thereby championing the just causes of our day, just as our ancestors did in ancient Israel, BaYamim HaHem BaZman HaZeh, in those days at this time.

Rabbi Jonina Pritzker, Alumni Parent

Dan_Savitt

Meet Dan Savitt!

Dan is excited to be at Schechter for his 14th year teaching 7th grade Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) and Toshba (Rabbinic Literature) and serving as the Tefillah Coordinator. He holds a B.S. in Chemistry from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and studied for two years at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies. Dan is the father of two Schechter students: Eliyah in 3rd grade and Adiv in pre-K. Every year, Dan looks forward to engaging with the unique dynamic of each class. He is especially excited to continue to help develop the Judaics and z’man kodesh (tefillah) program this year with his colleagues and students.

In his free time, Dan juggles!

Dan feels #SchechterPride when he hears from students after they’ve graduated from Schechter!

D’var Torah: Rabbi Michael Swarttz (Vayerah)

The Good and the Bad of Vayerah

Vayerah is a very rich parashah. It moves swiftly from one narrative to the next. There are elements that are consistent with our modern sensibilities, but there are others that are troubling, to say the least.

Among the positives: Abraham and Sarah are the paradigms for hachnasat orchim (hospitality) when they welcome the three strangers/messengers to their tent. Abraham, the very first “Jew,” as it were, bargains, or argues, with God to spare the innocent when God wants to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. In this he is the model for the rich Jewish tradition of arguing with God. The birth of Isaac, a fulfillment of God’s promise to Sarah that she would have a child.

On the other hand, Vayerah is filled with violence, and not just the obvious violence of the aforementioned destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the implicit violence of Akedat Yitzhak, the binding of Isaac. Additionally, as Judith Plaskow highlights in her commentary in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, there are numerous incidents of violence against women:

  • Lot’s offering his daughters to the people of Sodom in an effort to spare the men —“Do with them as you please.”
  • Abraham’s seeking to pass off Sarah as his sister in order to protect himself. Sarah’s potential rape by Avimelech, king of Gerar, is averted by a divinely sent dream. This is the second “wife-sister” incident with Abraham; it occurs once again with Isaac and Rebecca.
  • Violence against Hagar in expelling her and Ishmael from the household in order to assure Isaacs inheritance. Sadly in this case Sarah is the initiator here, with Abraham being the willing enforcer.

We always need to be careful in judging and evaluating biblical texts in light of our contemporary values and sensibilities. Obviously it was a very different world, and the status of women was radically different than today, at least in our Western world. Still, these narratives are extremely troubling to us, and it is striking to see so many examples chronicled in one parashah.

Plaskow asserts, “This Torah portion makes clear that our ancestors are by no means always models of ethical behavior that edify and inspire us. On the contrary, often the Torah holds up a mirror to the ugliest aspects of human nature and society. It provides us with opportunities to look honestly at ourselves…, to reflect on destructive patterns of human relating, and to ask how we might address and change them.”

Speaking of progressive change, Martin Luther King, Jr., famously said, “[T]he arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” [King was apparently quoting Reverend Theodor Parker.] Sadly, in our supposedly enlightened era, violence against women, particularly by powerful men abusing their power, continues unabated.   Famous examples abound, notably Bill Cosby, Bill O’Reilly, Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump, as do countless #MeToo’s.

From Vayerah to our own time. King’s moral arc moves excruciatingly slowly. We cannot complete the task, but neither are we free to desist from the work of bringing justice and dignity to women and to all of the vulnerable in our midst. May each of us do our part to move that moral arc in the right direction.

Michael Swarttz, alumni parent, is the rabbi of Beth Tikvah Synagogue of Westborough, the Jewish Chaplain at the Phillips Academy in Andover, and the Coordinator of the Harold Cotton Leadership Center of the Jewish Federation of Central Mass. 

 

meirowitz

D’var Torah: Rabbi Sara Meirowitz (Noach)

I still remember the day when I had to face the fact that I was imperfect. I was in fifth grade, a dutiful student in David Wolf’s Language Arts class, memorizing spelling words for weekly quizzes. I was an anxious child and a perfectionist, dreading every possible mistake. And then the unthinkable happened: I misspelled a word. I dug my nails into my hand in self-blame.

Even to recall this level of drama seems absurd now, but I remember so clearly the feeling of frustration and panic which led me to unconsciously scratch at my hand. But more important were the gentle yet firm words of my teacher (who thankfully still instructs Schechter students today!):

Everyone makes mistakes. Be kind to yourself.

                  You will have another chance.

                  I will support you.

I think of this story this week with Parashat Noach, which tells of a world so steeped in imperfection. We see a world in turmoil, sin-ravaged, with just one simple man and his family standing out from the pack. Human wickedness causes God to regret all of creation — the world is too spoiled, too imperfect. Let’s try again with just Noah, God says. Perhaps perfection can then be possible.

And yet, after the flood, the world is no more utopian than before. God utters perhaps the most pessimistic line in the Torah: “Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth” (Gen. 8:21). Imperfection – even evil – is part of human nature. And in truth, when I look at the many terrors and troubles in the world around us, it’s hard for me to disagree.

So how do those of us engaged in tikkun olam, perfectionists in our hearts, continue to have courage among this imperfection? I look to the next part of our parashah for inspiration, where God plays the role of teacher and coach to humanity.

Let’s make a covenant together, God says.

                  I’ll support you, and you do your part

                  There will be consequences for mistakes – but I will stand by you, no matter what.

And God gives the rainbow as a sign of the covenant.

May we all be blessed to have teachers and mentors who help us make mistakes, forgive ourselves, and live perfectly well in our imperfect world.

 

Rabbi Sara Meirowitz ’91 is Assistant Chair of Jewish Studies at Gann Academy in Waltham, MA.

 

Rahel Berkovits ’83 and Jackie Schon ’99 as recipients of the school’s Outstanding Alumni Award

Schechter has named Rahel Berkovits ’83  and Jackie Schon ’99 as recipients of the school’s Arnold Zar-Kessler Outstanding Alumni Award. Created in 2014, the alumni award is given in honor of former head of school, Arnold Zar-Kessler, and his 21 years of dedication to and leadership of Solomon Schechter Day School.

rahel-berkovitsRahel Berkovits ’83 was selected for being a trailblazer in bridging the worlds of feminism and halacha in the 21st century.  She is on the Faculty of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, where for the past twenty years she has been teaching Mishnah, Talmud, and Halacha.  In 2015, Rahel completed her studies at Beit Midrash Har’el and received rabbinic ordination from Rabbi Herzl Hefter and Rabbi Daniel Sperber, making her one of the first women ever to be ordained as an Orthodox Rav.  She is a founding member of Congregation Shirah Hadasha, a progressive halakhic minyan, which is enriched by both male and female participation in synagogue ritual and has published the book  A Daughter’s Recitation of Mourner’s Kaddish. Many of Rahel’s Talmud students at Pardes have gone on to become Jewish Studies teachers at SSDS Boston. Schechter classmate Glen Schwaber writes, “As an outstanding educator, an outspoken and effective community leader, a Zionist, a devoted spouse and parent, and a committed and proud Jew, Rahel’s life exemplifies Schechter’s vision and mission to the fullest.”

JackieJackie Schon ’99  was selected for her innovative business model, community service work and vision-driven leadership. In 2010, Jackie’s artistic background and “no option to fail” attitude positioned her to co-found The Paint Bar, Boston’s first “paint and sip” business (and the first business of its kind in the Northeast) with her mother, Jill Schon. Since its opening, Jackie has led and guided The Paint Bar’s creative team, to inspire more than 50,000 customers with little or no artistic background to discover their inner artist. In addition, The Paint Bar has hosted fundraisers for hundreds of non-profit organizations, contributing thousands of dollars on behalf of their supporters. Jackie’s sister and fellow alumna writes, “My sister, Jackie, applies sensitivity and originality to every task she approaches, whether it is volunteering with Jewish Big Brother Big Sister, painting a still life, or organizing Schechter’s 50th Anniversary event. She is an intuitive and gifted artist and businesswoman; this has served her well as she has the unique ability to channel her inspiration and energy. She sees the world through a colorful lens and inspires those around her to do the same.”

The awards will be presented at the school’s eighth grade graduation on June 20 at 6:30 p.m. at Temple Beth Avodah in Newton, MA. The Arnold Zar-Kessler Outstanding Alumni Award is presented annually to an alumna/us whose life embodies Schechter’s vision and mission. Nominations to the Director of Alumni Relations are due each year by March 15.

D’var Torah: Dan Brosgol (Korach: A Salty Reflection)

In this week’s Torah portion, Korach, God makes the Brit HaKehunah, the Priestly Covenant, with Aaron and his descendants. But this is not a covenant marked by a rainbow or the giving of Torah- it’s a covenant of salt.

A what?

Wait a moment. Let’s back up.

Remember when salt was bad for you? I only slightly exaggerate. When I was growing up, salt was bad and sugar was something (relatively) harmless. Things have certainly changed. Now, sugar is the root of all evil, and salt is getting to be more OK- as long as you’re adding it to what you cook at home. This is a long-winded way of saying that that food trends come and go, and perhaps salt gets a bad reputation.

The same might be argued when it comes to salt and Judaism. Many of you probably think of two associations between salt and our traditions- the salt water we use at our Passover seders to remember the tears of slavery, and the pillar of salt that Lot’s wife was turned into during the destruction of Sodom back in Genesis.

Both of those are, for lack of a better term, not awesome associations.

But the covenant of salt that we see in Korach this week? Well, that’s actually quite awesome.

Three times in the Tanakh we hear about covenants of salt. First in Leviticus, when referring to sacrificial offerings, second here in Korach, and for a third time in II Chronicles, when God is described as giving the kingship of Israel to David and his descendants forever “by a covenant of salt.”

Why are these moments of importance marked by covenants of salt? There are a few answers to this question, including those which allude to the Hebrew words for “bread” (lechem) and “salt” (melach) sharing the same three letters, but my favorite answer (obviously) relates to food. How? Because salt is a preservative that keeps food from going rotten or spoiling. Salt, in a word, preserves, and Judaism and our traditions I would allege are remarkably well-preserved.

So as you prepare for summer and good times, and a break from the rigors of school and activities, remember to add a little salt to your Judaism between now and September. I think we’d all agree that it is something worth preserving for another few thousand years.

Have a restful Shabbat and a wonderful summer.

Dan Brosgol, Director of Prozdor

D’var Torah: David Bernat (Bamidbar)

 

Parashat Bemidbar (Numbers 1:1 – 4:20) lays out “marching orders” for the Israelites on their desert trek to the Promised Land. The nation is arrayed, by tribe, surrounding the Mishkan, the holy Tabernacle building.  The Mishkan is the people’s spiritual and moral center of gravity, housing the Aron (Ark), the Two Tablets, and the very presence of God. However, the same communal arrangement also serves, sadly, to marginalize Israelite women.  The tribal census (Numbers 1:2) only counts the men, relegating females to secondary status, a condition less than palatable to those of us committed to egalitarian principles.   Fast forward through the centuries, when the mobile Mishkan gave way to the 1st and 2nd Temples in Jerusalem as the sacred centers of Judaism, until all traces of those structures were nearly obliterated by Roman, Christian, and Muslim conquerors. Still, one small corner of the Temple complex, its Western Wall, the Kotel, endures as a place of pilgrimage and as a potent symbol of Jewish history and identity.  At sundown on Tuesday, May 23rd, Iyar 28, we celebrate Yom Yerushalayim, now 50 years since Jerusalem was liberated during the Six Day War. Emblematic of that liberation was the moment Israeli forces stood before the Kotel, after so many years of denied access. However, to my mind, the triumph is slightly muted so long as the Israeli Government, and the Rabbanut, can use the Kotel to keep women on the periphery. Torah Scrolls are not allowed in the Ezrat Nashim, Women of the Wall, and their supporters, are harassed, and the authorities seem to be reneging on, or delaying, the promise of a fully egalitarian section at the southern edge of the plaza.  Isaiah proclaimed that God’s House should be “a House of Prayer for all peoples (Isaiah 56:7).”  Yet, the imperative is unrealized.  I urge us to mark Yom Yerushalayim as a moment of collective strength and resilience, hope and optimism.  At the same time, let us endeavor to fulfill the prophetic aspiration for a spiritual center and sacred space that is inclusive and welcoming for the entire community.

 David Bernat, PhD is the  Executive Director, Synagogue Council of Massachusetts  and is a Schechter parent and alumni parent.

 

D’var Torah: Rabbi Jethro Berkman (Behar/Bechukotai)

 

This week we read the double portion Behar/Bechukotai, the last Torah portion in the Book of Leviticus.  The bulk of the portion Bechukotai is comprised of a list of blessings that the Israelites will receive if they follow God’s commandments in the land of Israel (rain, bountiful crops, peace, security etc.) and a list of curses they will receive if they fail to do so (drought, famine, pestilence, war, and ultimately exile).

A cursory glance at these two lists quickly reveals the disheartening news that the list of curses is far longer, more specific and more colorfully narrated than the rather modest list of blessings.  Such is the discrepancy between the two lists that the portion is commonly referred to as the “Tochecha” – the Rebuke.

In her brilliant “New Studies in Leviticus,” the 20th century Israeli Torah commentator Nehama Leibowitz notes that this notion that the curses far outweigh the blessings has sometimes been questioned. A midrash notes that first word of the blessings starts with an aleph (which opens the Hebrew alphabet), while the last word of the blessings ends with a tav (which closes the Hebrew alphabet), suggesting that the blessings include all good things “from A to Z.”  The curses, on the other hand, begin with a vav (6th letter) and end with a heh (5th letter), suggesting that just as there isn’t much between heh and vav, so too there isn’t much to these curses.

The 12th century Spanish Torah commentator Ibn Ezra also argues that the blessings are in fact greater than the curses, noting that the blessings are stated in generalities (leaving the glorious details to the reader’s imagination), while the curses include all of the concrete detail.  Had the details of the blessings been provided, the argument seems to be, they would far outstrip the curses.

While Ibn Ezra’s argument, and the midrashists’ tricks with letters might seem a bit superficial to us now, they could be viewed as pointing toward a profound psychological truth.  How many of us spend more time focusing on the “curses” in our lives than on the blessings?  How many of us analyze and agonize over every detail of our mistakes and our shortcomings, while allowing our successes and our strengths to hover in the background, as vague generalities?

I’m reminded of an article I read last year about a study indicating that people who take a few minutes each morning to write down five things for which they are grateful, grow increasingly happy as they continue the exercise.  Perhaps our natural tendency is to leave our blessings unexamined—to assume that our blessings list is shorter than our curses list.  And perhaps our task (as Ibn Ezra’s reading might imply), at least now and then, is to linger on our blessings, to recount them to ourselves in all their beautifully.

Rabbi Jethro Berkman is the Dean of Jewish Education at Gann Academy