Opening Minds, Bridging Differences, Living Jewish Values.

Parashat HaShavua

Parashat HaShavua - Lech Lecha

Towards the beginning of this week’s reading of Lech Lecha, not long after Avram (soon to be Avraham) arrives in the Land of Canaan, God instructs him to “Rise, walk in the land, to its length and breadth, for I will give it to you / קוּם הִתְהַלֵּךְ בָּאָרֶץ לְאָרְכָּהּ וּלְרָחְבָּ֑הּ כִּי לְךָ אֶתְּנֶנָּה” (Gen. 13:17). From the plain meaning of this verse, God wants Avram to familiarize himself with all the land that his ancestors will dwell in, and also perhaps to stake his claim to the land by virtue of a physical tour.

According to Rabbenu Bachya (Bachya ben Asher, Spain 1255-1340), however, the meaning is different: Avram’s journey  here is not physical, it is intellectual and spiritual. Rabbenu Bachya finds support for this idea in other places the word “hit’halech / walk הִתְהַלֵּךְ” is used. For example, “God walked with Noach / אֶת־הָאֱלֹהִים הִתְהַלֶּךְ־נֹחַ” (Gen. 6:9), which we know under the circumstances there clearly did not mean walking the land. And twice we are told “Chanoch walked with God / וַיִּתְהַלֵּךְ חֲנוֹךְ אֶת הָאֱלֹהִים,” up to the point where Chanoch “was no more, because the Lord took him / וְאֵינֶנּוּ כִּי לָקַח אֹתוֹ אֱלֹהִים,” a fate seemingly better than death. (Gen. 5:22/24) Thus the connotation is one of spirituality and partnership with God rather than taking a physical journey.

But doesn’t it still seem more compelling based on the plain language in our context that Avram’s journey was physical? Not entirely! Because in the verse immediately following God’s instruction to tour, “Avram pitched his tents, and he came and dwelled in the plain of Mamre, which is in Hebron, and he built an altar to the Lord there / וַיֶּֽאֱהַ֣ל אַבְרָ֗ם וַיָּבֹ֛א וַיֵּ֛שֶׁב בְּאֵֽלֹנֵ֥י מַמְרֵ֖א אֲשֶׁ֣ר בְּחֶבְר֑וֹן וַיִּֽבֶן־שָׁ֥ם מִזְבֵּ֖חַ לַֽיהֹוָֽה.” (Gen. 13:18) This is not a man on the move!

Rather, according to Rabbenu Bachya, Avram at this moment is being told to wander intellectually and spiritually. God actually gets this idea, he says, from Avram himself: Avram previously showed a desire to explore more than necessary when “Avram traveled, continually traveling southward / וַיִּסַּ֣ע אַבְרָ֔ם הָל֥וֹךְ וְנָס֖וֹעַ הַנֶּֽגְבָּה,” (Gen. 12:9), a place that Rabbenu Bachya associates primarily with spiritual significance (as those who have traveled to the Negev can attest).

Moreover, Avram’s extensive physical exploration of the land at the outset, before he heads south, reinforces the notion that now when he is being told to get up and walk the land the meaning is different.

It is worth quoting the closing words of Rabbenu Bachya’s interpretation, which I think can be instructive for us today:

״ההלוך הזה הוא תנועת הנפש השכלית והשקט הגוף…, כי דרישת החכמות צריך תנועת הנפש השכלית והשקט הגוף, בהפך מצרכי הגוף שהם צריכים נענוע הגוף והשקט הנפש…

This travel was a spiritual journey with physical stillness…, because seeking wisdom requires spiritual movement and physical stillness, the opposite of the body’s need for physical motion with spiritual stillness.”

May we, like Avram, strive in our lives for spiritual journey; may we have the courage to take those initial steps, and along the way receive support for the learning and growth we seek.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jack Nahmod
Middle School Judaic Studied Head
Rabbinic Advisor

Parashat HaShavua - Noach

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהֹוָה֙ לְנֹ֔חַ בֹּֽא־אַתָּ֥ה וְכל־בֵּיתְךָ֖ אֶל־הַתֵּבָ֑ה כִּֽי־אֹתְךָ֥ רָאִ֛יתִי צַדִּ֥יק לְפָנַ֖י בַּדּ֥וֹר הַזֶּֽה (בראשית ז:א)

God said to Noah, “Come to the ark, you and your entire family, because I have seen that you are righteous in this generation.”

The Hiddushei Ha Rim teaches: the ark [teivah] was like the words and letters of the Torah [letters are also called teivot in Hebrew, same word as for ark] in that everyone can bring themselves to every word of the Torah and prayer.

The Hiddushei Ha Rim is commenting here on the difference between this verse and the words in the previous chapter, when God says to Noah (6:14), עֲשֵׂ֤ה לְךָ֙ תֵּבַ֣ת עֲצֵי־גֹ֔פֶר, make an ark for yourself.  In the verse quoted above, the ark is not just for Noah, but rather, for his entire family.  The commentator extrapolates from this that every different kind of person can find a way to enter into the words of Torah, just as all of the members of Noah’s family were able to enter the ark.  And just as the ark provided a safe space where life could continue to grow and flourish even in the stormiest of times, words of Torah can and should be a spiritual port in the proverbial storm, one that enables us to continue to grow and develop spiritually, and be inspired to continue to care about what matters in difficult times.

Rabbi Erin Leib Smokler comments on these words: 

The call to the teivah/word is a call to each and every one of us to actively bring ourselves, even to forcefully insert ourselves, into the words of our people—to locate ourselves within its frames; to see ourselves in the stories we tell and the prayers we utter; to carry with us our many gifts and burdens and to find space for it all on our collective ark. 

As our 3rd graders prepare to embark on their journey of studying Torah with their Humash Ceremonies next week, I couldn’t possibly think of a better “mission statement” for that journey than Rabbi Leib Smokler’s words.  We want the Jewish education that our students receive at Heschel to enable them to locate themselves within the frames of our sacred texts and to see themselves in the study of Torah.  We want to give them the courage to forcefully insert themselves into those narratives when such strength is called for, as well as the courage to carry their “many gifts and burdens” into the teiva of prayer and Torah study and to have faith that there will be space for all of it inside.

Rabbi Anne Ebersman
Director of Jewish Programming N-5 and Director of Hesed (Community Engagement) and Tzedek (Social Responsibility)



 

Parashat HaShavua - Bereishit

What can our response be when we encounter the seemingly outlandish beliefs of others? At the end of this week’s reading of Bereishit, we read a bizarre story that seems to precipitate the deluge to follow:

“The nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the divine beings would approach the daughters of man, and they would have their children... (Gen. 6:4)

הַנְּפִלִ֞ים הָי֣וּ בָאָ֘רֶץ֘ בַּיָּמִ֣ים הָהֵם֒ וְגַ֣ם אַֽחֲרֵי־כֵ֗ן אֲשֶׁ֨ר יָבֹ֜אוּ בְּנֵ֤י הָֽאֱלֹהִים֙ אֶל־בְּנ֣וֹת הָֽאָדָ֔ם וְיָֽלְד֖וּ לָהֶ֑ם...״

This was apparently very bad. God observes in the next verse that “humanity’s evil was great on earth, and every inclination of his heart was only always evil / וַיַּ֣רְא יְהֹוָ֔ה כִּ֥י רַבָּ֛ה רָעַ֥ת הָֽאָדָ֖ם בָּאָ֑רֶץ וְכָל־יֵ֨צֶר֙ מַחְשְׁבֹ֣ת לִבּ֔וֹ רַ֥ק רַ֖ע כָּל־הַיּֽוֹם.” As a result, “the Lord regretted making humanity on the earth, and God’s heart was saddened / וַיִּנָּ֣חֶם יְהֹוָ֔ה כִּֽי־עָשָׂ֥ה אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֖ם בָּאָ֑רֶץ וַיִּתְעַצֵּ֖ב אֶל־לִבּֽוֹ.” This, in turn, caused God to say, “I will erase humanity, whom I created, from upon the face of the earth; from humanity to cattle to creeping things to the birds of the heavens, for I regret that I made them / אֶמְחֶ֨ה אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֤ם אֲשֶׁר־בָּרָ֨אתִי֙ מֵעַל֨ פְּנֵ֣י הָֽאֲדָמָ֔ה מֵֽאָדָם֙ עַד־בְּהֵמָ֔ה עַד־רֶ֖מֶשׂ וְעַד־ע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמָ֑יִם כִּ֥י נִחַ֖מְתִּי כִּ֥י עֲשִׂיתִֽם.” (Gen. 6:5-7)

Rashi quotes a midrash explaining that they were called nephilim from the word nafal -  “fall” - because “they caused the word to fall / הפילו את העולם.” 

Thus the stage is set for the earth’s full reset save for Noach, his family, and select animals. All others are tragically erased.

Or are they? When Bnei Yisrael scout out Canaan, and ten of the twelve scouts return frightened and discouraged, they report: “There we saw the nephilim, the sons of giants, descended from the nephilim. In our eyes, we were like grasshoppers, as we were in their eyes / וְשָׁ֣ם רָאִ֗ינוּ אֶת־הַנְּפִילִ֛ים בְּנֵ֥י עֲנָ֖ק מִן־הַנְּפִלִ֑ים וַנְּהִ֤י בְעֵינֵ֨ינוּ֙ כַּֽחֲגָבִ֔ים וְכֵ֥ן הָיִ֖ינוּ בְּעֵֽינֵיהֶֽם.” (Nu. 13:33). This is the last straw for the nation, who in response “raised their voice, called out and cried all night,” (Nu. 14:1)

In other words, these nephilim first cause the earth’s downfall and then the downfall of Bnei Yisrael. But how did they even still exist the second time?

One is reminded here of the line from the song Hotel California, when “in the master's chambers / They gathered for the feast / They stab it with their steely knives / But they just can't kill the beast.” Why not? Because it is hard to kill something that doesn’t actually exist.

And so it is with the nephilim of Bereishit, who help cause the downfall of humanity and reappear after they should have been erased by a forty-day deluge, only to help cause the downfall of a generation of Israelites when they scout out the land by turning a trip of forty days into a forty-year ordeal. This second time, the scouts internalized so much the idea of the nephilim that it changed how they saw themselves: in their own eyes they were “like grasshoppers,” which - according to them - is how the nephilim saw them.

In other words, the attempt to erase the nephilim fails miserably. You can’t just “kill the beast” - the views of others that seem ridiculous to us - but rather somehow find a way to engage them, because they will likely endure. As Yuval Noah Harari writes in his book Sapiens, “only Homo Sapiens can speak about things that don’t really exist, and believe six impossible things before breakfast,” and we “do so collectively.” (27) Elsewhere he elaborates: “The real difference between us and chimpanzees is the mythical glue that binds together large numbers of individuals, families and groups. This glue has made us the masters of creation.” (p. 42)

May we find ways to strengthen this “glue,” to engage even with the beliefs of one another that seem most outlandish, and strive to be the best possible partners in creation with each other and with God.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Jack Nahmod
Middle School Judaic Studies Head
Rabbinic Advisor

 

Parashat HaShavua - Sukkot 2021

This Shabbat, in honor of Sukkot, we read the book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes). I began thinking about Kohelet last week as we ended Yom Kippur with a liturgical poem that repeats a verse from the 9th chapter of KoheletKohelet 9:7 states: 

לֵ֣ךְ אֱכֹ֤ל בְּשִׂמְחָה֙ לַחְמֶ֔ךָ וּֽשְׁתֵ֥ה בְלֶב־ט֖וֹב יֵינֶ֑ךָ כִּ֣י כְבָ֔ר רָצָ֥ה הָאֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶֽת־מַעֲשֶֽׂיךָ׃

Go, eat your bread in gladness, and drink your wine in joy; for your action was long ago approved by God.

Midrash (Lekach Tov) suggests that we should not understand this verse as literally speaking about bread and wine, but rather about Torah and mitzvot. If you toiled in your lifetime and busied yourself with the study of Torah, you should feel assured that you will receive reward in the eternal world.

And yet, in the liturgical poem (written by Moshe Ibn Ezra in the 12th century) at the end of Yom Kippur, as part of the Neila service, it seems that the verse repeats itself at the end of each stanza to in fact suggest that the time to end the fast is quickly approaching: prepare to break bread! And rest assured that your prayers have been accepted. 

In the final stanza of the poem, we call God’s attention to the heavenly gates that are closing. We ask God to pour the waters of atonement on the people whom You have chosen. What a beautiful image of water as both a symbol of God’s forgiveness and a symbol of God’s love. We hold this image close to our hearts as we prepare for the final days of Sukkot followed by Shemini Atzeret where we recite a special prayer for rain. 

We end the fast on Yom Kippur asking God to pour the water of forgiveness and bless us with rain. However, we do not fully accept the latter half of the verse from Kohelet: “your action (prayer) was long ago approved (accepted) by God.” Rather, we spend the holiday of Sukkot shaking our lulav and praying for rain. This prayer intensifies on the last day of Sukkot (also known as Hoshana Rabbah).  And then on Shemini Atzeret when we begin to proclaim in the Amidah prayer that God is: 

מַשִּׁיב הָרֽוּחַ וּמוֹרִיד הַגֶּֽשֶׁם

The one who causes the wind to blow and rain to fall

As we sit in the Sukkah this Shabbat, may we take Kohelet’s words to heart. May we enjoy a festive and delicious meal. And then, may we merit the faith that our actions have been recognized and that the season ahead (in Israel especially!) will be rainy and bountiful. 

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach!

Rabbi Dahlia Kronish
High School Associate Head



 

Parashat HaShavua - Haazinu

Ha’Azinu: Listen. The first word of this week’s parasha is not coincidentally placed between Yamim Noraim and Sukkot, between the drama of our holiest days and a week-long celebration.

“Listen, heavens, and I will speak; let the earth hear the words of my mouth. (Deut. 32:1) /

 הַֽאֲזִ֥ינוּ הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וַֽאֲדַבֵּ֑רָה וְתִשְׁמַ֥ע הָאָ֖רֶץ אִמְרֵי־פִֽי.״

With this formulation, Moshe is calling upon angels in the heavens and people on earth to listen, according to Ibn Ezra. We are being instructed, says Malbim, “to lean in our ear and pay abundant attention / להטות האוזן להקשיב ברב קשב.” Moshe, especially as he is about to die, wants to be assured that his words are heard by all.

This phrase “the words of my mouth / אִמְרֵי־פִֽי” is also found in Psalms:

“May the sayings of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable before You, Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer / יִֽהְי֥וּ לְרָצ֨וֹן | אִמְרֵי־פִ֡י וְהֶגְי֣וֹן לִבִּ֣י לְפָנֶ֑יךָ יְ֜הֹוָ֗ה צוּרִ֥י וְגֹֽאֲלִֽי.” (Ps. 19:15)

Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch, in his commentary on that verse, quotes a Midrash that explains what is meant by King David: “May my songs be composed for the benefit of future generations and may they be preserved for them. Let them not be read like ordinary poetry, but let them be studied with the same rewarding reflection as are the most weighty parts of religious law.” This sentiment can be applied to our context as well to teach that genuine listening - abundant attention, as the Malbim says - entails showing the utmost respect for what one hears.

Finally, one is reminded here not only of the importance of listening to those who are easily audible, but to those who are less so as well. As Susan Cain pointedly explains, there is “zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas,” but unfortunately all too often we value the former more than the latter. A story from the Torah reading of Rosh Hashanah offers an example of what it means to hear those who are less audible: when Avraham and Sarah tragically and egregiously - and ironically, considering who they were - evict Hagar and Ishmael, the Torah tells us that Hagar “raised her voice and wept.” (Gen. 21:16) Immediately following in the next verse, we are told,

“God heard the lad's voice, and an angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her: ‘What is troubling you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the lad's voice in the place where he is’ / 

​​וַיִּשְׁמַ֣ע אֱלֹהִים֘ אֶת־ק֣וֹל הַנַּ֒עַר֒ וַיִּקְרָא֩ מַלְאַ֨ךְ אֱלֹהִ֤ים | אֶל־הָגָר֙ מִן־הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וַיֹּ֥אמֶר לָ֖הּ מַה־לָּ֣ךְ הָגָ֑ר אַל־תִּ֣ירְאִ֔י כִּֽי־שָׁמַ֧ע אֱלֹהִ֛ים אֶל־ק֥וֹל הַנַּ֖עַר בַּֽאֲשֶׁ֥ר הוּא־שָֽׁם:"

God heard in Hagar’s cry the cry of Ishmael as well, even though he hadn’t made a sound!

May we pause this Shabbat between Yamim Noraim and Sukkot to enjoy some quiet, and to remember how important it is to listen, to those who make themselves heard and even to those who do not.

Wishing everyone a Shabbat Shalom and a Chag Sukkot Sameach!

Rabbi Jack Nahmod
Middle School Judaic Studies Head
Rabbinic Advisor

Parashat HaShavua - Korach

How much effort must we make - how deep within ourselves must we dig - to feel empathy even towards those we perceive as bad actors? To explore this question through this week’s parasha of Korach, I’m first going to look back at the story of Sdom and Amorah from Genesis. As you may recall, Avraham’s nephew Lot and his family are warned about the pending destruction of those cities. They are told to flee without looking back, but Lot’s wife does look back and as a result is turned into a pillar of salt.

As I’ve shared previously here, Chananel Munk, in one of his books about female biblical characters, offers an original and I think beautiful interpretation of this episode: he says that actually Lot’s wife wanted to turn into a pillar of salt, that she wanted to be left behind because of her empathy with all the others who were being left behind. Just as they turned into salt as part of the destruction and desolation of Sdom and Amorah, so did she.

This week we read the story of the rebellion of Korach. After some very unpleasant back and forth with Moshe and Aharon, Korach and his band of rebels bring offerings to God. Moshe declares that if their offerings are accepted by God, then the rebels are right and he is not their true leader. However, if the ground swallows them up, then it will be made clear to everyone that they were mere troublemakers, and Moshe is in fact their rightful leader. They bring their offerings, and are promptly swallowed up by the earth. (Nu. 16:1-33)

It is hard to argue that Korach and his followers are well-intentioned or good-hearted people based on how the Torah describes them. However, applying Chananel Munk’s understanding of Lot’s wife to this situation, what if Korach and his followers were doubling down on her show of empathy? Last week we read that because the scouts provided negative reports on Canaan, which convinced almost all of Bnei Yisrael that God had abandoned them, the entire generation was told that they would not be allowed into the land due to their ingratitude and lack of faith. 

Perhaps Korach and his followers did not want to continue to Canaan once they knew most others would never have the chance to; perhaps their empathy was as deep as the earth that swallowed them up, the earth that was going to swallow up that entire generation!

Thus from this dark tale might we learn a lesson of empathy, even -- and especially -- for those who can be perceived as bad actors. In those inevitable moments when we don’t understand each other, we must redouble our efforts to do so; we must dig deeper within ourselves and within the reality of the other.

Just to take another moment to push this point even further -- both as a midrash on this story and as a life lesson -- the parasha then describes a conflict between Aharon and others, which is resolved when his staff blossoms as confirmation of his authority. (Nu. 17:16-23) Perhaps the empathy of Korach and his followers, which led them to be swallowed up by the earth, then enabled that same earth to cause Aharon’s staff to blossom. Perhaps those blossoms grew out of their empathy.

As it happens, the Torah later tells us that in fact, contrary to what seems to be described this week, “the children of Korach did not die / וּבְנֵי קֹרַח לֹא מֵתוּ” (Nu. 26:11). How can this be? Explains Rashi there: “during the dispute they contemplated repentance.” We also know that Korach ultimately has descendants such as the prophet Samuel and Levites “who will prophesy with ruach ha’kodesh,” divine inspiration. (Nu. 16:7, Rashi) And ultimately in Psalms we read the wise words of his descendants, that “a person cannot abide by honor / וְאָדָם בִּיקָר בַּל־יָלִין,” and “a person cannot understand honor / אָדָם בִּיקָר וְלֹא יָבִין.” (Ps. 49:13, 21)

May we learn from this alternative perspective on Korach and his descendants, to be inspired to better understand and show more empathy towards others, even those we might -- perhaps with justification -- quickly judge and dismiss. May we always dig deep for that understanding, and then when we think we have reached our limit, dig a little deeper.

Shabbat shalom and have a wonderful, healthy and restful summer!

 

Rabbi Jack Nahmod

Middle School Judaic Studies Head

Rabbinic Advisor

Parashat HaShavua - Shlach Lecha

About 185 years ago, a Frenchman by the name of Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States to study our young democracy. One of his goals was to report what he saw in order to enable the emergence of strong democracies elsewhere, primarily his homeland. As it happens, his observations also can help us understand this week’s parasha of Shlach Lecha, and provide insights regarding our experiences of this past year.

De Tocqueville marveled at how people are constantly excited by two conflicting passions: they want to be led, and they wish to remain free. So what do we do? We freely elect a government, he wrote, and then give it control over us, believing we have sufficiently protected individual freedom by exercising our right to vote. But the problem, he says, is that this “rare and brief exercise of free choice, however important it may be, will not prevent people from gradually losing the faculties of thinking, feeling, and acting for themselves...”

Now let’s rewind some 3000 years more to this week’s parasha. Leaders of Bnei Yisrael are chosen to scout out Canaan in anticipation of their imminent conquest of the land. Who is sent? The Torah tells us “אִישׁ אֶחָד אִישׁ אֶחָד לְמַטֵּה אֲבֹתָיו,” generally translated as “one man per tribe.” (Nu. 13:2) Note that the phrase אִישׁ אֶחָד is repeated seemingly unnecessarily. Why? Perhaps to emphasize that, though they were going together, they each also needed to be an independent thinker. Unfortunately, as we learn later, ten out of twelve of them failed tragically in this, thereby dooming their entire generation to die in the desert because everyone bought into their negative report. Only Calev and Yehoshua, it turns out, manage to think for themselves.

De Tocqueville, in fact, warns that it is hard to imagine a subservient people - as Bnei Yisrael essentially had been to this point - choosing leaders wisely. In this case, to apply the idea more specifically to our context, the leaders themselves were unable to choose wisely as leaders. It therefore makes perfect sense that after the spies provide their doomsday report the people say, “let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt / נִתְּנָה רֹאשׁ וְנָשׁוּבָה מִצְרָיְמָה!” (Nu. 14:4) In other words, ‘We cannot be individuals, we cannot think for ourselves, we need someone to take us back to where we had no choice!’

And yet, despite everything, this story of the scouts (often mistranslated as “spies”) is understood to be the primary basis for requiring ten for a minyan, using various textual connections. There are twelve scouts to begin with, minus Yehoshua and Calev who separate themselves from the group, which leaves ten who testify as one against the possibility of entering the land. Thus, according to the prevailing interpretation, do we arrive at the number ten for a minyan.

So where in all of this - if anywhere - is there a positive message about davening in a minyan, or about group identity?

Well, there is also another story involving ten where scouting out a land is mentioned: when the original Bnei Yisrael, the children of our forefather Yisrael, descend to Egypt in a group of ten for food. They numbered ten because out of an original twelve - sound familiar? - Yosef was already there and Binyamin was not allowed to go. Not only is Yosef already there, he greets his brothers with the false accusation that...they are scouting out Egypt to cause harm. The brothers, unlike this week’s scouts, ultimately set an example of kedusha, of holiness, that is worthy of being the origins of minyan and of a group identity we can strive for, by showing excessive concern for one another and taking responsibility for previous mistakes.

Rabbi Avraham Mordechai of Ashdod explains beautifully that, according to Rabbi Isaac Luria (“The Ari, 16th cent. Tzfat), “the souls of the brothers were intertwined with the scouts in an attempt to guide them away from sin / “נתחברו נשמותיהם במרגלים לסייעם שלא יחטאו.” Although this unfortunately wasn’t enough to prevent the scouts from making their mistakes, there is still much to learn from this model of caring and interconnectedness, a bond that can exist within a group at a particular moment in time and between groups spanning generations.

During the past year we have learned tremendous lessons about interconnectedness and caring, about finding the right balance between independent thought and commitment to community. As has been emphasized at school and in our community throughout the year, the mitzvah of ve’ahavta le’reicha kamocah / וְאָֽהַבְתָּ֥ לְרֵֽעֲךָ֖ כָּמ֑וֹךָ - our empathy mitzvah - warrants and requires constant nurturing. And, as De Tocqueville and the cautionary tale of the spies teach us, this interconnectedness must be accompanied by, and not come at the expense of, our faculties of thinking, feeling and acting for ourselves.

May we look back at this past year with a profound appreciation for all the care we have shown one another, and look forward to a time when even more care can be shown and shared, when commitment to community coexists comfortably with individuals also maintaining the ability to think for themselves. And may ever learn from the example of Calev, who - despite all pressure to the contrary - implored the people “we can do this / יָכוֹל נוּכַל לָהּ.” (Nu. 13:30)

Shabbat shalom and have a wonderful, healthy and restful summer!

Rabbi Jack Nahmod
Middle School Judaic Studies Head
Rabbinic Advisor

 

Parashat HaShavua - Naso

יִשָּׂא ה׳  פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם

May God turn God’s face towards you and grant you peace.

This week we read Parshat Naso which includes Birkat Kohanim (the Priestly Benediction). This blessing is familiar to us from the daily Amidah (central prayer) as well as from the Shabbat ritual of parents blessing their children. The benediction consists of three lines -- each longer than the one that came before it. I read this benediction as an articulation of step by step process to experience Shalom (peace) or Shlemut (wholeness). I offer this Devar Torah as a kavanah, a prayer for peace in Israel. 

The first line asks God to bless us and offer us protection. These are basic necessities. Material and physical well being. We are grateful for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. There is a significant difference between peace and a secure ceasefire. Ceasefire is a necessary first step to restore calm, safety, and basic necessities to the people impacted by this conflict. 

The third line of the benediction beseeches God to grant us peace. It also clarifies that peace is similar to seeing God’s face. It takes an enormous amount of effort, courage, vulnerability, faith, and intentionality to encounter the Divine.

The central line (right in the middle) asks God to shine God’s light and be gracious with us. The path from safety and protection to peace relies on human beings who are able to transform their God given gifts of leadership, wisdom, and political insight into action. These gifts are those which will light up our beautiful homeland and bring us closer to achieving peace and to merit the opportunity to encounter the divine.

May God turn God’s face towards Israel and grant her peace.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Dahlia Kronish
High School Associate Head

Parashat HaShavua - BeMidbar - The Great Wide Open

The profound meanings of the Torah can be discovered both in reading its text closely and in observing the overall arc of its narrative. One such arc is the progression we see from narrow to open space. This is important, I think, to how we relate to the Torah itself and also provides insight regarding the moment we find ourselves in now.

In Shemot, the Book of Exodus, we watch as Bnei Yisrael escapes their narrow existence in Egypt, via the narrow straits within Yam Suf, the Reed Sea. The Torah makes a point of telling us that there are walls of water “mi’minam u’mi’smolam / to their right and left.” (Ex. 14:22) In fact, the very name Mitzrayim can be reread as “mitzar yam,” from the narrowness of water. The narrowness of Egypt pursues them through the Sea, along with the Egyptian army, until their ultimate escape.

It seems to me that a similar pattern arises in the parshiyot we are reading of late, though represented very differently. In Sefer VaYikra, there is narrowness of focus on the subject of the kohanim and levi’im. There is also narrowness of space in its focus on physical offerings to God on the mizbe’ach. Then, at the very end of VaYikra, we returned to the “har,” the mountain in the wilderness upon which we received “chukotai,” our laws. After all the focus on a confined space, we were reminded that our laws actually originate in a wide open place before beginning Sefer BeMidbar this Shabbat. Of course those laws also relate to smaller spaces, but their original context is in fact the great wide open, the midbar, the wilderness.

This openness, while obviously presenting challenges, offers us a grand opportunity for growth and learning after leaving Egypt. It is an approach to Torah endures. In one of my favorite Talmudic stories, several rabbis encounter each other and discuss the importance of being open to learning new things. At the end of their conversation, we are taught the following lesson: “Aseh oznecha ka’afarkest / make your ear like a hopper” - an agricultural tool that is wide open at one end and then tapers - “in order to obtain for yourself a perceptive heart, to understand the words of those who pronounce things unclean and of those who pronounce them clean; the words of those who prohibit and of those who permit; and the words of those who disqualify of those who declare fit.” We are meant to study Torah with an open mind befitting the open space we received it in.

This is not only about Torah study, of course, it is also a worldview. As Andre Neher writes, the desert is “in universal thinking a symbol of emptiness, but where the Jewish destiny is concerned, the symbol of an overflowing fullness…” (They Made Their Souls Anew, p. 82) And Viktor Frankl, in his classic “Man’s Search for Meaning,” recalls being inspired by the passage in Psalms, “I called to God from the narrowness, and God answered me from the openness / מִן הַמֵּצַר קָרָאתִי יָּהּ; עָנָנִי בַמֶּרְחָב יָהּ.” (Ps. 118:5) 

When we look around the country, in Israel and around the world, the increasing prevalence of narrowness is shocking. We pray for peace and safety in Israel. We pray for our democracy here. We pray that the challenges and vulnerabilities of openness are seen not as threatening to oneself and one’s values, that they are instead seen as opportunities: for growth, for learning, and for greater understanding and peace with one another.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Shavuot Sameach

Rabbi Jack Nahmod
Middle School Judaic Studies Head
Rabbinic Advisor

Parashat HaShavua - Behar Bechukotai

We are in the midst of counting the Omer. Today (Friday) is the 40th day of the Omer which corresponds to 5 weeks and six days. The Torah instructs us to count from the second night of Passover, 49 days, 7 weeks of seven days each, to Shavuot -- translated as the Festival of Weeks. Towards the very beginning of this week’s double Torah portion Behar-Bechukotai - we read a verse that sounds like it might be talking about counting the Omer. Except, we are counting something different. Here - also counting in sevens - we are counting seven cycles of seven years each -- towards the proclamation of the Yovel, the Jubilee year.  At the conclusion of the 49th year, we welcome the Yovel by sounding the Shofar.

The Holiday of Shavuot (which if today is the 40th day of the Omer, begins at the end of 9 days from today) celebrates the Revelation at Sinai -- the moment when God gave us the Torah. This was a great theatrical moment, accompanied by light and sound, including the sound of the Shofar.  How are these two sounds of the Shofar - one to usher in the Yovel (Jubilee year) and another to accompany Revelation - similar? 

The sound of the Shofar at the start of the Yovel proclaims דרור Deror - Freedom. Nechama Leibowitz z”l (modern commentator) explains the word deror as the positive gift of freedom, different from the word חופש, also translated as freedom, which signifies the release from a yoke.  In the Jubilee year, when the shofar is sounded and deror is proclaimed throughout the land, all Israelites regain their independence and personal freedom.

While we joyfully celebrate the attainment of freedom, acceptance of this gift is layered with other emotions as well.  Rashi (11th century) explains that different from the sounds of other wind instruments which usually get duller the longer that they are blown, the sound of the Shofar began as a soft sound and progressively got louder. Ibn Ezra (12th century) clarifies that God intentionally began with a softer blast so that the Israelites would not die from fear. 

The sound of the Shofar at Sinai ushered in the culmination of the Exodus from Egypt. The Israelites had achieved freedom: they were a free people preparing to receive God’s Torah. Simultaneously, the Israelites indeed should have been terrified. As we are reminded throughout the Torah, the gift of our freedom comes with the responsibility of securing freedom for all other people. This is why we must sound the Shofar as we usher in the Jubilee year: to remind us of our responsibility to give the same gift of freedom to all people in our midst. 

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Dahlia Kronish
HS Associate Head