D’var Torah: Henry Goldstein (Pesach)

Engraved deep in our memories are the countless celebrations filled with traditional foods and treasured songs, captivating discussions and contagious laughter, religion and belief. Clearest of all is the basis of the Passover holiday: the importance of memory and faith.

At the beginning of the book of Exodus, the story of B’nei Israel seems to be a success. With Joseph’s help, they had plentiful food during the famine, Jacob’s sons were reunited, Joseph became a famous political figure, and the Israelites were soon strong and numerous. However, with success comes arrogance, and the naive Israelites began to forget God. They abandoned the consistency, trust, and direction that faith brings. This proved to be a horrible mistake, as when they were enslaved and faced with adversities, they had no source of hope or guidance. When Moses shared with the Israelites the optimistic future that God had told him, “they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage.” (Exodus 6:18) The Israelites could not even imagine a pain-free life; they were hopeless, and they had no faith to protect their spirits and restore their hope.

Throughout the rest of the Passover story, God tries to restore faith in B’nei Israel through miracles and plagues. Strangely, God also tests their fate and optimism by making conditions for the slaves even worse and “hardening Pharaoh’s heart.” Why would God both help the Israelites and test them? I believe that beliefs are not proven through miracles and heavenly deeds – faith comes from necessity. Religion’s purpose is not only to give reason for the unknown, but also to give hope, direction, and clarity in times of confusion and adversity. 

By losing their Jewish faith, the Israelites were incapable of finding optimism and purpose in the vast sea of despair. Only when they were placed in crueler and more unpredictable conditions did they find the loyal lifeboat of faith. We can all learn from B’nei Israel’s mistake – may we never forget the loyalty and consistency of faith. We must have faith not only when faced with adversities and failure, but also when faced with victory. Rabbi Jonathon Sacks connected this lesson of the Passover story to an Aesop’s fable about a competition between the sun and the wind. In this legend, the sun wins through gentleness and warmth while the wind loses although it’s strong and harsh. Failure may seem more powerful and dangerous than success, but the Passover story shows us that this is not true. Challenges make us yearn for the loyalty and consistency of religion, while success prompts us to arrogantly forget our faith.

In this odd and unpredictable era, it’s comforting, whether celebrating with just immediate family or through Zoom, to sing the Four Questions, as we do every year. This Passover night will most certainly be different from all other nights, but through religion, at least we have the consistency of having the Seder every year, the discipline and guidance of Passover’s many laws, the optimism of “next year in Jerusalem,” and the memories that we pass down from generation to generation. I hope and pray that faith will help us all through this strange, strange time.

 

Henry Goldstein, Grade 6

Living in an Unprecedented Time: Our Students Respond

We are living in an unprecedented time. This means that this  exact type of situation has never happened before.

What will you want to remember about this time? What details do you remember?

The Sickening Days by Naomi Luria, Grade 4

I call these the sickening days. They can turn into weeks that can turn into months that can turn to years. Being in your corner, in your room, in your house. Not going out into the open. Not to school, not to friends, not even out into the fresh breath of the earth and life. Be it the flu, be it the fever, be it the coronavirus. Dear God, please make it stop. Please stop the panicking and hurts in our hearts. Make it life, make it normal, make it happiness. Together shall we be, you and I, you and me. Though still remember, how sad we were, and take for granted, our shining light of happiness. Remember not seeing anybody, standing lonely in the cold wind. Online school, though awkward must be done for there was no other choice. You needed courage to get through the sadness. Bravery to get through the night. Happiness and strength too. But most of all, you needed family and friends, to stand strong with you!!

D’var Torah: Rabbi Ron Fish (Tetzaveh)

Of all the holidays of the Jewish year, Purim in particular invites us to play dress up. Whether it is your parents’ old 80s outfits (watch out for the shoulder pads and baggy sweaters), pretending to be your favorite action hero or just putting on a crazy wig- Purim is fun on display.

And the story of the Megillah has dress up as a central theme as well.  At the start of the story we see King Achashverosh and his friends dressing for a party. His wife Vashti refuses to ‘dress up’ for them, causing all the ensuing chaos. Esther spends months preparing to appear before the king, finally presenting herself in her finest array. When the king wants to honor Mordechai he dresses him in the king’s clothes. And when Mordechai wants to show his anguish over the danger his people faces he dons sack cloth and ashes to demonstrate his grief.

But given the many ups and downs of the story, the many costume changes of the characters in the book, we are always brought back to one central truth: the clothes don’t tell the whole story. If you want to know how good a person is you shouldn’t rely on the exterior. That layer can be deceptive. It is too easy to pretend to wear your heart on your sleeve, only to change that outfit in the next moment. In fact, the great moment of redemption in the story of Purim is when Esther finally ‘takes off her mask.’ She drops the façade she has worked to uphold, and proudly declares that she is a Jew. Her act of revealing her true self is when pain and fear are transformed into victory and hope.

This lesson about knowing the heart, versus trusting appearances, is an important one. So it is quite ironic that this week’s parashah focuses nearly entirely on the vestments – the costume – of the kohanim. We see in great detail how these holy actors must wear specific, highly regulated articles of clothing. They also are to adorn themselves with outer layers of frontlets and sashes, turbans and breastplates, each outward and symbolic expressions of their role. According to the rabbis, the items described in Parashat Tetzaveh are reminders of deeper values as well: modesty, justice, mercy and self-control.

But if the message of Purim is that we should never trust outward appearances, this seems strange! Why is it that the Torah seems to present these layers of clothing as so holy and so important?

Perhaps the message we are to recall is that we should see every outward expression for what it truly is – a costume. It is easy to wear the cloak of humility, but to be arrogant; to act the part of the pious, but to be cruel. For that reason, our masks and costumes on Purim are entertaining. We know we aren’t Spiderman or Tom Brady-but it’s fun to pretend. At the same time we all need to remember what it is we should aspire to. And even though the Kohanim are only people (in fact many of them were quite flawed), we ask our leaders to wear the costume that expresses our hopes for the kind of leaders we would so like to see in this world. They are certainly nothing more than human beings, but these ancient priests had to put on the clothes that would remind them, and the people of Israel, just what kind of people we should be. Even if wearing the linen garments of purity and innocence were a costume, it is also a call to be people of virtue. And we pray that our leaders, and all of us, might take seriously the mantle we are privileged to wear. After all- the pursuit of our best selves is no joke.

Rabbi Fish, Temple Israel of Sharon, Schechter Parent

D’var Torah: Rabbi Benjamin J. Samuels (Bo)

For three weeks now, we have been vicariously reliving the Exodus experience. It all began with the enslavement of our ancestors, the Children of Israel. Moved by our people’s anguish and heaven-piercing cries, we cheered God’s election of Moshe as the leader of the redemption. With Moshe as our leader, we joined in his resounding request, “Let my people go,” only to stiffen at Pharaoh’s hard-hearted refusals. Last week, the hammering devastation of the first nine plagues made us nervously tremble with both fear and triumph; but this week, we shudder in horror at Moshe’s final exhortation to Pharaoh threatening the tenth plague — the plague to end all plagues: “Thus says the Lord: Toward midnight I will go forth among the Egyptians and every first-born in the land of Egypt shall die … ” (Ex 11 :4-9). We expect the Torah to then relieve our built-up tension, to recount the final blow and our subsequent liberation. We expect the Torah to continue, as it actually does twenty-nine verses later: “in the middle of the night the Lord struck down all the first-born in the land of Egypt…” (Ex 12:29). But instead, the Torah introduces Israel’s first commandment, “ha-chodesh hazeh lachem” (Ex 11: 10), the sanctification of the Jewish calendar. Why? What is the Torah’s purpose in introducing this commandment at this time? Why does the Torah interrupt its literary continuity?

Rashi in the first words of his commentary on the Torah likewise asks our question, albeit from a different angle. Rashi quotes Rabbi Yitzhak: “The Torah which is a book of laws, should have begun with the verse, ‘This month shall be unto you the first of the months,’ which is the first commandment given to Israel. What then is the reason that the Torah begins with creation?” In other words, while we just asked why does the Torah interrupt the narrative with mitzvah, Rabbi Yitzhak asks why does the Torah interrupt mitzvot with narrative. The basic issue seems to be what is the purpose of the Torah? Is the Torah a book of commandments or a book of sacred stories? Both? Or more?

The prayer that is traditionally recited at the time of Friday night candle lighting includes a parent’s petition: “May I merit to raise children and grandchildren, wise and understanding, who love Hashem, are in awe of God, people of truth, holy offspring, who yearn for spiritual connection. May they light up our world with Torah and good deeds, and with their every effort and action serve their Creator.” Mitzvah teaches us how to act. Narrative gives us context to understand why. The Torah interrupts its story to bridge law and narrative; it calls time out for us to reflect on the interconnected hows, whys, and whats of being Jewish.

Rabbi Benjamin J. Samuels, PhD, is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Tefillah, a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Newton Center. 

D’var Torah: Stephanie Maroun (Noach)

In Genesis 6:1-11:32, we read of God’s dismay and response to the growing wickedness and moral devolution among the descendents of Adam. God levies a catastrophic flood upon the earth in order to eradicate every living thing, but not before identifying Noah as a singularly righteous individual among humankind. Through explicit instructions, God commands the ever obedient Noah to build an ark to save and shelter his family and to bring along a male and female pair of all earth’s creatures, seven pairs of clean animals and all the foods necessary for the ark’s inhabitants during the 40 days of devastating rain and torrent.

Following the flood and its lengthy aftermath, Noah, his family and the creatures aboard the ark eventually emerge to a new world with the weighty, providential opportunity to begin again and to lead subsequent generations towards a brighter future. Pleased with Noah’s efforts, God establishes a covenant with him in which He vows never to destroy humankind again and marks this promise by setting a rainbow among the clouds.

To this day, the rainbow, one of nature’s loveliest and most ephemeral phenomena is an enduring and indelible sign of hope. It has emerged, especially powerfully, in recent years to signify tolerance and inclusion. Fortunately, biblical floods and thunderbolts have been replaced by education, awareness and progress. The world of today is not as binary or quantifiable as in Noah’s time. The divine seven-color rainbow bestowed by God has evolved into a symbol that represents the complex, modern spectrum of life. Indeed, God’s reminder to Himself now adorns clothing, flags, storefronts and bumper stickers as a charge and message of better, kinder days to come, but only with our attention and efforts.

Like the rainbow, though, progress can sometimes be hard to discern or see clearly. In an era of growing hate crimes, parochialism and antisemitism, the citizens of the earth must be put on notice to develop sensitivity and respect when it is lacking, to be upstanders against turpitude and not to slip silently into egocentrism and passiveness through complacency or habit. Let us not forget again our dangerous ability to destroy ourselves by forsaking the personal and shared morality we must show towards each other and the world.

Grade 4 Students Win Brookline Children’s Book Shop Poetry Contest!

Mazal tov to Moshe Sherman-Kadish (Grade 4) who won first place in the Brookline Children’s Book Shop Poetry Contest in the third and fourth grade category for his poem, “When Winter Hits the Woods.” Mazal tov to Sonya Finkel (Grade 4) who won an honorable mention for her poem, “A Fall Walk.”

When winter hits the woods

Moshe Sherman-Kadish

The snow is up to my knees

and the wind is stinging my cheeks.

I see abandoned birds’ nests in the trees, and

rabbit and deer feet are printed in the snow,

walking across a frozen pond.

In the ice, air bubbles try to escape, but they’re stuck.

Snowflakes fall and melt on my tongue,

and the wind pushes against the trees.

My toes, my tongue, my cheeks are all cold, and

I see my breath swimming in the air.

 

All of this happens

when winter hits the woods.

 

 

A fall walk

Sonya Finkel

Feel the cool wind upon your face.

Listen to the golden leaves on the trees shake.

Look up at the geese overhead,

Migrating to somewhere warm instead.

Leaving behind all the rocks, logs and dust,

Leaving behind all the trash made by us.

Soaring up over the river, grass and trees.

Up over the sky and across the seas.

As they fly up over the trees ,

all the fourth graders cease.

On top of a hill,

They feel the chill,

And the start of fall begins.

D’var Torah: Seth Korn (Acharei Mot)

 

In Acharei Mot, B’nei Yisrael is basically doing what we do on Yom Kippur but a bit simpler. All they had to do was “give” their sins to Aaron, who was the head Kohen. Then Aaron placed all the sins of B’nei Yisrael on a goat which they sent off into the wild to die. And it was simple, for the people. But not for the Kohanim. God gave Moses all these rules and laws on how to conduct the work of the Kohanim. And there were a lot of them! Keep in mind that two of Aaron’s four sons had just been killed by God because they went up to the altar drunk. Aaron had no time to grieve or mourn, it was just, “Help the people with their sins. Make sure the people are okay. The people are the top priority.” That seems pretty harsh if you ask me.

Now as I said in the last paragraph, the people of B’nei Yisrael didn’t really do anything in their equivalent to a Yom Kippur service. They just gave their sins to Aaron, which basically consisted of them going to Aaron and telling him their sins. But that’s the point, they didn’t do anything.  After this once a year Yom Kippur service that occured in the desert, the Jews started a new way to get rid of their sins when they got to Israel and built the Temple.

As the Roman consul, Marcus says in his eye witness testimony, on Yom Kippur “There were thirty-six thousand of them, and all the prefects wore clothing of blue silk; and the priests, of whom there were 24,000, wore clothing of white silk.  After them came the singers, and after them, the instrumentalists, then the trumpeters, then the guards of gate, then the incense-makers, then the curtain-makers, then the watchmen and the treasurers, then a class called chartophylax, then all the workingmen who worked in the Sanctuary, then the seventy of the Sanhedrin, then a hundred priests with silver rods in their hands to clear the way.  Then came the High Priest, and after him all the elders of the priesthood, two by two.”

Just seeing the High Priest on this holiest of holy days was a life changing experience. The Yom Kippur service was entirely surrounding the High Priest. But then, as you all know, the temple was destroyed and the nation of Israel fell in to state of grief. After that happened, the Jews found their own little communities and their own part in each service, including the Yom Kippur service.    

As Rabbi Sacks says in his book The Koren Yom Kippur Mahzor “Every synagogue became a fragment of the Temple. Every prayer became a sacrifice. Every Jew became a kind of priest, offering God not an animal but instead the gathered shards of a broken heart.”

Now we would find it strange to go into a synagogue and see a priest doing everything while everyone else is just sitting there watching or even weirder, to find no one here except for a priest. But the new approach to Yom Kippur demonstrates that the people, everyday people, could talk to God. As Rabbi Sacks puts it “Even ordinary Jews could, as it were, come face to face with the Shekhina, the Divine Presence. They needed no one else to apologize for them. The drama that once took place in the Temple could now take place in the human heart. Yom Kippur was saved. It is not too much to say that Jewish faith was saved.”

Yom Kippur is one of those very special praying times. On Yom Kippur we are even not supposed to eat anything for fear of your thoughts straying away the prayers you are praying. “Yom Kippur is the holy of holies of Jewish time. Observed with immense ceremony in the Temple, almost miraculously rescued after the Temple was destroyed, sustained ever since with unparalleled awe, it is Judaism’s answer to one of the most haunting of human questions: How is it possible to live in the ethical life without an overwhelming sense of guilt, inadequacy and failure.”  

But God is understanding, “He [God] asks us to acknowledge our failures, repair what we have harmed, and move on, learning from our errors and growing thereby. … at its heart there had to be an institution capable of transmuting guilt into moral growth.”

Now we pray with Rabbis, but we also pray as ourselves. By ourselves or more often, with a community.  Again, “Even ordinary Jews could, as it were, come face to face with the Shekhina, the Divine Presence. They needed no one else to apologize for them. The drama that once took place in the Temple could now take place in the human heart. Yom Kippur was saved. It is not too much to say that Jewish faith was saved.” Because now we can all pray to God as ourselves.

 

Seth Korn ’20

D’var Torah: Rabbi Gilbert S. Rosenthal (Vayishlach)

EMERGING THROUGH CRISIS  

Jacob was terrified: he was on the eve of meeting, after many years of estrangement, his brother Esau. And now, after all these years, Esau was about to catch up with Jacob and accompanied with 400 of his men to boot (Gen. 32:7). It was a terrifying encounter because Jacob had “cheated” Esau out of his birthright for a bowl of stew (Gen.25:1ff.).

Jacob had good reason to be terrified. After all, Esau had a reputation as a man of violence whose life was stained with blood; who lived by the bow and arrow. Jacob prayed to God for salvation. Jacob was so terrified that he divided his family into two camps so that if Esau attacked one, at least that other would escape (Gen. 32:9).

But God did not forsake Jacob: Esau’s passion for vengeance abated and instead of killing Jacob they embraced and kissed. All was not forgotten—but all was now forgiven.

So Jacob returned shalem (Gen.33:18), “whole,complete, at peace.” The rabbis note the phrase and have a beautiful comment on it: “Shalem—ba-guf (whole in body); shalem be-mamon (whole in his wealth) and shalem be-Torato)—whole in his faith in God and commitment to the Jewish people (see Rashi at Gen. 33:18).

Here we have the key to Jewish survival. We endured the destruction of our two Temples; we suffered through the Crusades, expulsions, ghettos, religious persecutions and forced  conversions, martyrdom and all means of persecution. And we survived the Holocaust. How can Am Yisrael continue to march on its path to salvation? By returning to its roots, by reiterating its expectations as a Jewish people; by consecrating our wealth and possessions for good purposes—not just for levity and ostentatiousness, and by retaining, enriching and spreading our commitment to Torah (Jewish learning) and Jewish living by Jewish principles.

These three bases of Jewish civilization have enabled us to outlast our persecutors and survive as an Eternal People—Am Olam. Will we now abandon these saving, vital elements?

I pray not. In America and Israel we are blessed as no other Jewry in the past. May we always live up to the challenge!

Rabbi Gilbert Rosenthal, Schechter Grandparent

D’var Torah: Rabbi Elan Babchuck (Bamidbar)

Bamidbar: Embracing the Unknown

On more of my childhood nights than not, my father used to retire from the dinner table to the piano bench to play some of the blues songs from his earliest memories. Most of his repertoire consisted of well-known hits by Aretha, Ella, and BB, but there was one Bessie Smith song he truly loved to sing: Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out. The song is about losing everything you’ve ever had, and dreaming of what it might be like to recover even just one silver dollar. His favorite line, which – if I close my eyes and think back to those vivid memories of evenings by the piano – I can still hear him singing: “If I ever get my hands on a dollar again, I’m gonna hang on to it ‘til the eagle grins.”

The fourth book of the Torah, Bamidbar – “in the wilderness” – describes the Israelites’ attempts to regain a sense of comfort and stability amidst the tumultuous conditions of their endless wanderings through the desert. We learn about three such efforts: (1) taking a census of the population, (2) developing systems around the traveling sanctuary called the Mishkan, and (3) better understanding the nature of the Promised Land ahead by sending 12 scouts across the border.

These three methods of seeking security and stability in the midst of the unknown are much more constructive and purposeful than the nostalgic complaints that this generation’s predecessors tended towards in the earliest years of their exodus. We could certainly conclude, then, that the takeaway from their wanderings is that we too must seek out a sense of security during tumultuous times. Like Bessie Smith gripping the silver dollar with all her strength, it’s human nature to seek comfort in the face of change.

But on the other side of the border from our wanderings is the Promised Land, the one flowing generously with milk and honey and the promise of a stable existence for this weary people. It is here that the Israelites will soon take root and build a nation. And while stability has its draws, on the flip side of this silver dollar is the danger of losing our wandering spirit – the sense of adventure, possibility, and curiosity that got us here in the first place.

In fact, our wandering story’s most important lesson is two-fold; two sides of the same coin. All of life is about finding forces of stability in the unknown wilderness, and seeking a wanderer’s spirit even in the midst of stasis. When our life’s wanderings weigh too heavily on our weary souls, we must find ways to anchor ourselves on the journey. And the moment we get too comfortable in place, it’s time for a new adventure – of the mind, body, or spirit. So whether your next step is to plant yourself right where you stand or to broaden your horizons and step forward, I wish you a nesiyah tovah – a safe, fulfilling, and enlightening journey ahead.

 

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

Will McDonough Writing Contest Honorable Mention: Emma Shay-Tannas

Mazal tov to our Middle Division students on their accomplishments in the Will McDonough Sports Writing Contest:
The Will McDonough Writing Contest, named in honor of the legendary Boston Globe sportswriter, takes place every year. This year, over 900 students from across New England participated in the contest. The winners are chosen by Globe Sports Editor, Joe Sullivan.
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Emma Shay-Tannas, Grade 6
Solomon Schechter Day School, Newton

                                         Behind the Goal

                    (creating a life changing experience from poor sportsmanship)

“The camera cannot lie, but it can be an accessory to untruth.” –Harold Evans

The photographer who takes the photo chooses what side of the story he portrays. Photos can often be misleading. The photographer will not be able to portray all angles of the story in one photo because one photo cannot be shot from all angles. An honest person will try to take the photo from the most truthful angle.

I have never accomplished this. I’ve never even tried. I don’t exactly want to show the truth because I’d rather convince myself of lies than face the facts. The fact is I’ve always dreamt of being a professional soccer goalie, but I knew this was an impossible dream. I was never fast, I have never had good reflexes, and I have bad coordination. No matter how little talent I had in soccer, I always tried out for the school team. Every time I tried out, I would get glares from my classmates who would laugh at the way I kicked the ball and when we ran to warm up,  would make me run alone. The more they isolated me, the more they treated me like I was nothing, the more I wanted to play, and the more I wanted to prove them wrong.

Every game I would ask to be the goalie, but the coach always said no. I went to every game in the season, always ready to play, but sadly I was never in a game for more than a few minutes.  Then, one day I got sick of waiting on the bench, so I brought my Nikon camera to the game. After I played my few minutes, I got up, picked up my camera and started walking along the sidelines of the field. I didn’t stop walking when I saw the players staring at me, some starting to whisper to one another; I didn’t care. They had already drained the joy of playing soccer out of me. I would not let them take the joy of taking pictures from me. I just pretended they weren’t there.  I saw no one but me, my camera, the ball, and the goal. When I got right behind the goal, I had a realization. When placed behind the net, and while facing the camera to the game, the pictures look as if I were the goalie myself. I had finally found a way to pursue soccer without even playing.

The day after, I asked the coach if rather than playing in the game, I could take photos instead,  and he happily agreed. After that, I became the official photographer for the team. I would take pictures of every person on the team during practices and games. Instead of  the team berating me for taking photos, they were amazed at how I captured them. I had turned years of bad sportsmanship from my teammates into mutual friendships. Several of my photos won awards including the first one I took behind the goal.

                  “When God closes a door he opens a window”  Malachi 3:10