The Staff’s Weekly Divrei Torah
A little bit of Torah to bring in Shabbat!
From your Penn State Hillel Staff
D’var Torah–literally a “word of Torah,” a lesson or sermon interpreting a text, which can be delivered by anyone reflects a fundamental Jewish belief in the infinite interpretive possibilities of Torah. This concept is best articulated in Mishnah Avot 5:22, “Turn it and turn it; for everything is in it,” and in the rabbinic assertion that each person who stood at Sinai saw a different face of Torah (myjewishlearning.com).
4/21/2017 – SHEMINI – LEVITICUS
By Alex Bolotovsky, Director of Institutional Advancement
If you’ve ever been to a Jewish prayer service, you have heard the “Shema”—the Jewish people’s declaration of monotheism (belief in one God). “Hear Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.” The Hebrew word Shema makes this relatively simple prayer more complex—it can mean “hear” OR “listen”, and both modern and traditional Jewish commentaries have dissected and re-dissected how this can change the meaning of the prayer. However, this word’s appearance in what is arguably Judaism’s most central prayer suggests that hearing/listening is important to our people.In this week’s parsha, Shemini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47), we learn about offering sacrifices as well as Kosher laws. Yet, there’s another powerful message that we can learn. Although Moses explains the rules of sacrifices to the Jewish people, Aaron’s two sons do not listen to him and offer an “alien fire”—a sacrifice not “Moses/God Approved”. Fire consumes both the sacrifice and their souls. Later, while Moses explains that Aaron, the High Priest, must eat some of the real sacrifices, Aaron refuses. Moses berates Aaron for not following his directions or God’s will.
Aaron is quiet throughout most of this parsha while Moses talks, instructs, and berates. Finally, Aaron tells Moses that he is in mourning for his two sons and that he doesn’t believe that it would please God to have a mourner partake in the holy offering. The story ends with the words “And when Moses heard…” (using the same root as the Shema), “he was pleased.” Through the act of hearing and listening Moses is transformed from a man barking orders and judging, to a man who is understanding and is pleased. Moses listened and heard; he knows that his assumptions about Aaron’s actions, Aaron’s motivations, and even God’s will, are incorrect.
Listening is hard. Changing your assumptions is even harder. However, as we see from our tradition, listening is key to growth and understanding. Just through a little silence and focus on others’ words, we can transform, become better people, and improve our relationships. Listening is growth and maybe that’s why Shema is so central in our tradition.
4/14/2017 – CHOL HAMO’ED PESACH
By Emma Kaplan, Springboard Fellow – Innovation Specialist
This week on Shabbat, we read the haftarah from the book of Ezekiel. It is a very famous story in which God throws the prophet Ezekiel into a valley full of dried up bones. God asks Ezekiel if these bones could ever live again. Ezekiel follows the instructions of God to speak to the bones and to say that they will breathe again. As he is doing so, the bones grow tendons and flesh and they rise up back to life. After this miracle God explains to Ezekiel that this experience is representative of the Israelites in their journey of exile. Just as God brought these bones back to life, he will bring hope back to the wandering Israelites.
In this story God delivers a feeling of hope to the Israelites in exile, similar to the hope delivered in the story of Passover. This past week we spent countless hours gathered around a table with our loved ones telling and retelling this famous story of our exodus from Egypt.The Passover Haggadah reminds us that it is our obligation to see ourselves as those in exile from Egypt. But in 2017 living as a freed group of people, this can be a somewhat daunting task, maybe one of the hardest tasks that we are given during Passover.
In Hebrew, the word for Egypt is Mitzrayim, which according to Jewish mystic texts comes from the word mitzarim, which means “narrow places.” God literally took the Israelites out of Egypt, a place of constraints and constriction, and he gave them freedom. Although, we are not stuck in the land of Egypt today, we remain struggling through our own Mitzrayim. This time of year can be one of particular struggle. For our students, April is that time of the year when you’re stuck in a funnel- a particularly narrow place, and you just have to get through final exams before you can drop out through the funnel into the liberation of summer. And for us “grown ups,” April means tax season, it means yard work, spring cleaning, and it means making sure that annual goals are being met at work.
God may not be here raking leaves off our lawns or stampings A’s on our final papers, but there is still a sense of hope that April brings. There is something about the Springtime that is full of fresh air and new beginnings. For me it’s the sunshine. Waking up to sun beaming through my window every morning is what pushes me through my funnel. What is it for you? Take some time this Passover to find your own prophesy to breathe the life back into your bones and push your way through to freedom. Shabbat Shalom, Chag Sameach.
3/24/2017 – VAYIKRA – LEVITICUS
By Rob France, Assistant Director
“The Lord called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying: Speak to the Israelite people, and say to them:”
3/24/2017 – VAYAKHEL- PEKUDEI/EXODUS
By Rabbi Danielle Leshaw, Multi-Campus Educator
This is my favorite Torah portion. Gifts are given. Women and men make pretty objects. Aromatic oil is blended. And nobody dies. Children aren’t dragged atop a mountain to be sacrificed, people don’t marry the wrong partner, golden calves aren’t built (see: last week), and the pillaging and death occur elsewhere. In these five chapters, in Vayakhel/Pekudei, where we design and create and pull together as a community of artists to build our beautiful and sacred tabernacle – dare I say it? Are we at our absolute best?
We certainly are. But we’re at our best not just because we’re engaged in the sacred act of building, we’re at our best because that building is placed alongside Shabbat. In the very beginning of our Torah portion, Moses gets the entire Israelite community together, and tells us: “On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Sabbath of complete rest…” (Ex 35:1).
Haven’t we heard this before? Why tell us this again? We know to honor Shabbat. In fact, if you want to get technical, the concept of keeping Shabbat is introduced as early as Chapter 2 in the book of Genesis. And then it’s mandated as a very important thing as we’re wandering in the desert collecting manna, and then that very important thing is repeated again during the giving of the 10 Commandments, and so forth, and so on. So much Shabbat! Why gather us together only to tell us something we’ve been hearing since the beginning of time?
I’m going to say something that rabbis have said before – in fact, there’s hardly much new to say on the topic of Shabbat or the Tabernacle, but how we speak Torah changes depending on our lives, and depending on our surroundings… Shabbat leads us into the building of the Mishkan. Shabbat leads us out into our work. How we honor and keep Shabbat informs the ways we interact with the world during the other six days of our lives. Shabbat helps us bless and act and create and come together to make holy things happen in the world. God only dwells among us during the mundane moments of our weekday slog if we make a space, weave some beauty, anoint our objects with purpose, tie ribbons and bows around ourselves and those nearby. Shabbat is the gift that gives us that creative and loving inspiration.
There’s this terrific verse towards the end of our Torah portion, and hence, towards the end of the book of Exodus. It’s all about bells and pomegranates. And it’s repeated twice! “They made bells of pure gold, and attached the bells between the pomegranates, all around the hem of the robe, between the pomegranates: a bell and a pomegranate, a bell and a pomegranate, all around the hem of the robe – as the Lord had commanded Moses” (Ex 39:25). We adorn the bottom of our robes, the fibers closest to our feet, with images of the richest and most meaningful fruits of our people, the pomegranate. We gather together, during our work week, to weave and embroider and place upon our lives the sacred story of our people. Shabbat and the Mishkan are forever linked, one doesn’t exist without the other.
Through rest and through work, God commands us to make our lives more sacred, and certainly more beautiful. Hazak! May it be so.
3/17/2017 – KI TISA/EXODUS
Dvar by Aaron Kaufman, Executive Director
“He took [the gold] from their hand, fashioned it with a graving-tool, and made it into a molten calf. Then they said: This is your God, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!”
The Torah portion for this week, Ki Tisa, is filled with important moments—the half-shekel campaign, the making of the Ten Commandments, the basis for keeping kosher, and more. Even as these chapters of Exodus contain many of the foundational elements of our traditions, as I read and reread the text my thoughts kept turning to the making of the golden calf, which occurs early in the portion.
This week’s text begins with Moses already on Mount Sinai, speaking with God. The people, waiting at the foot of the mountain for him to return, begin to lose faith. They fear Moses’ absence, and turn to his brother Aaron to provide a tangible god they can see and touch. Aaron obliges, uses the people’s gold to create the golden calf, and sets it up for the Israelites to worship. At this point in the Torah, God has already brought the plagues upon Egypt, freed the Israelites from slavery, parted the sea and guided them safely through the waters. The Israelites, who have witnessed all of these miracles, still lose their faith when they no longer have a visible connection to God.
If the Israelites struggled so deeply with their faith in God, it must come as no surprise that many of us struggle with this as well. The Torah offers us an opportunity to understand that this struggle is a key part of our relationship with God, not something to be hidden or ignored. One of the beautiful teachings of Judaism is that struggling, and questioning, are integral components of our personal and communal identities as Jews.
Hopefully none of us have created an actual golden calf to worship, but many of us may have encountered something that has taken us off our path, preventing us from becoming the best versions of ourselves. As we welcome Shabbat, I hope all of us can find a moment to consider the obstacles that have blocked our journeys in life, that have caused us to lose faith, and to begin to steer a course back toward the sacred and divine.
3/3/2017 – TRUMAH/EXODUS
Dvar by Leah Chakoff, Director of Leadership Initiatives
This week’s Torah portion, Trumah, focuses on the construction of the tabernacle, or traveling structure for prayer. It lists out the 13 different materials that were donated by people for the purpose of making the tabernacle as beautiful as possible.
When reading deeper into the portion, I was inspired by the community’s process of creating this structure. Trumah, the name of this portion translates to contribution in the form of charity. The people knew wanted to keep up with the tradition of prayer while wandering through the desert. Their solution to doing so was building an impermanent structure that could move with them as they wandered through the desert. The Israelites had to figure out not only how to build such a structure, but make it feel like a meaningful and sacred one. The community donated what they had, including fine materials like copper, to make something special not for themselves as individuals but for everyone to share.
The Israelites had so little, and yet they gave what they could for something greater than themselves. I am about to lead a group of 14 students to Roatan, Honduras and cannot help but feel a strong connection between the journey we are about to embark on and this story. To me, it sends a message of how a group of people can make a difference in a community by giving their time, money, and hard work. It demonstrates that you can make something beautiful and deeply meaningful which did not exist previously. For the Israelites, that was the tabernacle. For my group, that is building concrete steps that will allow people to travel to and from work and around their community more easily. Just as the Israelites created something beautiful and admired by all, I look forward to entering a community in need to produce similar results. By giving our time, money and hard work, I believe we are about to live out this Torah portion in real life, in our own way. If that’s not the point of Judaism and studying Torah, then what is?
2/24/2017 – MISHPATIM/EXODUS
Dvar by Lauren Levinson, Israel Engagement Coordinator
Our Torah portion this week, Mishpatim, gives us our first set of principles, values, and rules for conducting our daily lives, both individually and communally. God demands of us certain actions and emotions, based largely on our enslavement in Egypt. We are told, in Exodus 23:9, to be empathetic and to strive to understand and share the feelings of another. “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” Stranger or not, I look at this as a way for us to put ourselves in other people’s shoes. Maybe we have walked around the same streets they have, or maybe it’s a time to listen, watch, and understand what that other person is going through. It reminds me that as Jews, we must be good to others, especially now, as we struggle as a nation to remain compassionate to those in need. Our country’s doors have, in recent history, been wide open to the stranger. Now, they are suddenly closed. We must work to push the doors open again — our Torah tells us this is our responsibility.
Rav Yehuda, a Talmudic sage, expounds upon the value of welcoming the stranger, in Shabbat 127, and tell us that hospitality towards guests is greater than receiving the Divine Presence. In addition to welcoming the stranger, there are other values that are considered the greatest of all values: visiting the sick, exploring the meaning of the prayers, going in early to the House of Study, raising children to study Torah, and giving your friend the benefit of the doubt. Some of these deeds or values feel very relatable to my everyday life, and some definitely need greater attention. In my Hillel work, I’ve been focusing on the value of “exploring the meaning of the prayers.” I am proud to work for an organization that encourages me to study our tradition and grow in knowledge. The more I learn, the more acts of love and kindness I can generate, and the more encouraging I can be to our students — to help them find values that feel right to them, and to try those Jewish values on as part of their daily lives. We hold values close to our heart, let us strive to express them more in the world today!
2/17/2017 – YITRO/EXODUS
Dvar by Hannah Giterman, Director of Community Engagement
In our Torah portion this week, Yitro observes his son-in-law, Moses, serving as a magistrate among the ancient Israelites. Over and over again, people approach Moses with their problems. And over and over again, Moses makes judicial decisions, ensuring that his people receive fair judgement. It’s exhausting work, and we know that Moses has other aspects of leadership that need his attention. Anybody who has ever held a position of leadership knows that there’s never just one task. Yitro knows this as well, and asks his son-in-law: “Moses, what are you doing? The people stand before you morning to night with their problems and you judge them morning to night. Why do you do this?”
Moses responds: “The people come to me with their problems, so I teach them the way of God.”
Yitro then offers Moses some sage wisdom: “This isn’t good, son. You’ll burn out. You can’t do this alone. You should appoint righteous judges. And you should divide them into courts. Only the major cases will come to you for judgment. Get God’s consent and you will not become worn out.”
In this moment, Yitro mentors his son-in-law, and offers up an alternative model of leadership. Yitro suggests that Moses teach a new crop of judges, and through that experience of selecting judges and teaching them how to be strong magistrates, Moses will, in turn, become a stronger leader. It’s like he’s building the very first staff team, filled with people he can trust and who are capable of accepting the responsibility of serving the community. While Moses is a good leader, a humble leader, he is not yet a great leader. Moses needs to readjust his leadership into a system that allows for others to lead as a way to truly serve the community..
Our parsha also reminds us that our leaders must transcend their personal beliefs as a way to honor and uplift a multitude of voices. A great leader is confident in those he delegates to and can see the value in passing ownership to his people. A great leader is someone that holds the community accountable – he mediates when necessary and he celebrates in their successes. A great leader’s main mission is for the betterment of the community, not for himself.
Today, we see this type of leadership model reflected in a number of ways. On a large scale, we see this organization in our government, and on a smaller scale, we see this organization in congregations or even families. This structure is empowering for community members and it offers a space for everyone to have their voices heard. Today it is more important than ever to honor this structure, to take pride in our ownership, and to exercise our voices.
As Former-President Obama said in his Farewell Address:
“…our work has not only helped so many Americans; it has inspired so many Americans…to believe you can make a difference; to hitch your wagon to something bigger than yourselves. This generation coming up — unselfish, altruistic, creative, patriotic…You believe in a fair, just, inclusive America; you know that constant change has been America’s hallmark, something not to fear but to embrace, and you are willing to carry this hard work of democracy forward…I am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change — but in yours.”
Our leadership in today’s government might not encompass the same leadership abilities as Jethro and Moses but we, as a community, have a responsibility to hold our leadership to high standards to remind them of the importance of this structure – our democracy.
2/10/2017 – BESHALACH/EXODUS
Dvar by Leah Chakoff, Director of Leadership Initiatives
This week’s parsha (Torah portion), Beshalach, is what some might consider to be a “juicy” one. To give a quick overview, the Children of Israel walk through the parted Red Sea to escape Pharaoh and his army. Then, Moses and the Israelites sing a song praising god. The Israelites complain that they are hungry and God rains manna over the desert. The Israelites complain that there is no water, so Moses strikes a rock which brings forth water. And finally, Amalek is defeated.
As eventful and busy as this parsha, I would like to focus in on the theme of rest. Take a moment and think about your this past week. What tasks did you need to get done to feel productive? My list would include things like keeping up with my ever-flowing inbox, planning meetings, and booking flights. When I think about these things, I feel stressed out. But on Shabbat, I do not do these things. It is a time for me to escape my work week and resort to my own slice of paradise.
Rest and Shabbat are synonymous in my eyes. It is a separation from the week allowing us to take a much needed break from our usual stressful activities. We live in a fast-paced world and it is amazing that we have a built in time in our tradition to slow down for a day. Have you ever pondered the first time Jews celebrated Shabbat and were introduced to this idea of rest? It actually began in this very parsha. When God brought manna into the dessert, he instructed the people to gather just enough for themselves for that day. Then on the sixth day, they were instructed to gather a double portion that would last them for two days. So the people did, and on the seventh day God provided no manna for people to gather. This allowed the people to take a break from the gathering of manna to just relax and enjoy what God had given them. It is also important to remember that before this, the people were enslaved in Egypt, having to work each and every day. It was a sign of faith that God not only brought forth good food, but he also brought forth rest.
No matter what is happening in our lives, we all need to take a break. It is important to our well-being. Think about something that makes you feel relaxed, or something that you wish you could always do to make you happy. My hope for you is that no matter your level of observance, you take the time to rejuvenate yourself during this Shabbat by doing something that allows you to feel relaxed.
2/3/2017 – BO/EXODUS
Dvar by Emma Kaplan, Springboard Fellow
This week, in Parshat Bo, we read through the end of the story of our exodus from Egypt. In particular, the parsha takes us through the last three plagues that were cast upon the Jews before their exodus- locusts, darkness and death of the firstborn son. Each of these plagues had its negative implications and every year during Passover we retell the story and remember the hard times that our ancestors faced during this time. Some of the plagues that we discuss feel vague and hard to understand- what would it have felt like to walk outside and see the entire surface of the ground covered in locusts? It’s almost impossible to imagine that sensation. Darkness, however, is one plague I believe we all can relate to.
In Judaism we emphasize the importance of memory but the torah never explicitly states how it is we are supposed to remember. During the Yom Kippur we reflect on our sins by casting away bread into running water. On Passover we come together with family and friends to remember the pain of the plagues and the exodus from Egypt. Parshat Bo says, “this day shall be to you one of remembrance.” (Exodus 12:14)
Today our country is facing a very dark time. We are living during a time of great uncertainty and many are forced to be living in fear. When we retell this story of the darkness we are living through, how we chose to remember it will be up to us. We may choose to focus on the violence, the hate and the fear. Or we can opt to remember the pockets of light that brought us hope- people coming together across the globe to stand up for what they believe in, community members standing up against acts of hate, and neighbors going out of their way literally to open up their homes and welcome in the stranger.
1/27/2017 – VAERA/EXODUS
D’var by Lauren Levinson, Israel Engagement Coordinator
This week’s Torah Portion, Vaera, is out of the book of Exodus and a part the story of Passover. Moses and his brother Aaron speak to the Israelities about leaving Egypt and returning to their home, the land of Israel. But the Israelites didn’t want to listen, and didn’t have faith that God existed. Their people had been in slavery for 400 years and they were not convinced God was actually there and looking out for their best interest. When Moses and Aaron were told to go speak to Pharaoh, Moses reminded God “The Israelites would not listen to me; how then should Pharaoh heed me, a man of impeded speech!” However, God assured the brothers to trust his word. To try and convince Pharaoh that he should listen to Moses, God portrayed Moses as God like and Aaron would play the role of his prophet. Convincing Pharaoh to listen to the brothers, God turned his stick into a snake. The Egyptians that worked for Pharaoh matched this trick. Not long after, the snake created by God ate all of the other snakes and turned right back into a stick. Pharaoh was not impressed and if we remember from the full Passover story, he was also a very stubborn man. After Moses begged “Let my people go,” and Pharaoh refused, the plagues began. In all of this, I am reminded how important our freedom is. I also recognize that getting to freedom wasn’t a piece of cake but a lot of hard work. Moses fights for the rights of the Israelites, with or without their support in the first place. And when Moses believed it wasn’t possible, God was his firm and steady voice reminding him that it was possible and he was the only one that could do it. With all of that trust, persistence, dedication, and chutzpah- Moses got the Israelites out of their slavery and into the homeland. Thinking about the kind of dedication and never-give-up mentality Moses had, I feel inspired to put it forth in my own work. Reading the story of Passover and celebrating Passover at two different times during the year can give us an even bigger reminder as to why our freedom is so important and why it shouldn’t be taken for granted.
1/20/2017 – SHEMOT/EXODUS
D’var by Rob France, Assistant Director
12/2/2016 – TOLDOT/GENESIS
D’var by Alex Bolotovsky, Director of Institutional Advancement
In this week’s Torah portion, Toldot, we meet the twins Jacob and Esau. Esau is born first with Jacob following close behind, grabbing onto Esau’s foot! Esau being only a second or so older has held great significance—it gave him the birthright and with it, the family legacy, greater inheritance, etc.
Jacob and Esau grow up to be quite different; Esau becomes a big, burly man, a hunter with a wild spirit, while Jacob becomes a nerdy homebody, quiet and obedient. One day, Esau comes home from hunting tired and hungry. Jacob is making some stew and after Esau asks for it, makes him a deal: Esau’s birthright, for a bowl of stew.
On the surface this seems like a crazy story; why sell your inheritance and legacy for some stew? Looking deeper, this story embodies a failed cost-benefit analysis and lack of thought about the future. Esau thinks, “I’m hungry right now. I get the benefit of a delicious meal to satisfy my hunger, and the cost comes way far down the line sometime in the uncertain future.” From the outside looking in, it is clear to us that trading a birthright, which has social and financial significance, for a measly bowl of soup is silly. However, we make these kinds of decisions for immediate gratification all the time, and every time, from the outside looking in, they are bad decisions.
This is what we can take away from this story. It is important to live life and make decisions that are best for the long run, not just in the immediate. We must make decisions to sometimes be hungry in the present in order for happiness in the future. The Torah teaches us that there are always trade-offs but one should err on making decisions that are best for the future at the cost of immediate gratification.
11/18/2016 – VAYEIRA/GENESIS
D’var by Emma Kaplan, Innovation Specialist – Springboard Fellow
This week we read about many of the famous stories that together create the values we hold
closely in Judaism. Parsha Vayera takes us through the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the visit of three angels, the birth of Isaac, and the trials of Abraham. Many of these stories raise some troubling ideas that may leave us with feeling frustrated and with many questions.
Through the ups and downs of this Parsha, we eventually end up at a point where all things seem to be coming together. Abraham has been named the Father of the Great Nation, he would see over more than just one Nation, he would continue to be rich in livestock and crops, and finally after the disappointment of his first son, Ishmael, Abraham is given a Jewish son, Isaac. God could have ended the parsha right here and we all would have walked away feeling pretty good about the current situation of Abraham and Sarah.
But that wouldn’t be very exciting.
Instead of closing the chapter here, God decides that Abraham must go through a test to prove his loyalty. God says to Abraham, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I will show you.” And Abraham listens. He takes his son to the mountains and ties him to the wood and raises the knife to sacrifice his greatest gift in order to follow God’s commands. But before Abraham can follow through with the task, God stops him and replaces Isaac for a ram to complete the sacrifice. Isaac survives and Abraham has passed the test.
This is the part of the Parsha where I am left feeling frustrated and confused. Why would God put Abraham through such pain just to prove his loyalty? In my endless search for answers through the modern textbook (google), I find varying responses from Rabbi to Rabbi. But one speaks loudly to me and to our generation. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks says, “We cherish what we wait for and what we most risk losing. Life is full of wonders…. Judaism is a sustained discipline in not taking life for granted. We were the people born in slavery so that we would value freedom.”
I truly could not have said it better myself. Often times we find ourselves frustrated when things don’t work out the way we want them to. When we don’t get the grade we worked so hard for, when our dream job doesn’t work out, when we get broken up with by a significant other. In these times of sadness and frustration it’s hard to see the light of the situation, but an unknown genius once said, “everything is okay in the end, if it’s not okay then it’s not the end.” We mustn’t let the hardships bring us down or hold us back, rather we must see these difficulties as opportunities. We never know what door lies at the end of the dark hallway. “Life is full of wonders.”
11/11/2016 – LECH LECHA/GENESIS
D’var by Assistant Director, Rob France
Our election exposed vast differences in how we see our country and the world. It brought to the fore voices that are under-heard in our country, on our television sets, or on our laptop screens – those of non-college educated whites, black communities, Muslim communities, Latino communities, and LGBTQA communities. Regardless of whom you voted for, we all have been witness to the discord in our country. I’m left paralyzed with how to move forward.
This week’s parsha, Lech Lecha, offers some insight. The biblical characters, Abraham and Sarah, faced similar challenges that we encounter. They lived in a time where few people believed in God. Abraham had the courage to see things differently – to remember that there was one God, and to live in unabiding faith.
Abraham’s unabiding faith secured God’s blessing. But, surrounded by people who thought differently than him, with different priorities than his, and with a different way of life than him, we can understand why Abraham would stay at home, wallowing in the challenging times in which he lived. He could have taken his blessing and be comforted in knowing that he was in good hands. And yet, Abraham and Sarah did the exact opposite. They went forth. They traveled and talked to anyone and everyone, regardless of belief. They opened their tent to the stranger. They treated each and every guest with an audacious hospitality. They listened, empathized, questioned, and learned.
Abraham did not receive his blessing because he went forth. He received his blessing, and then went forth, with an unabiding love for God and for all people. The distinction is critical.
As Jews, we are all inheritors of God’s blessing to Abraham. We find ourselves in a similar situation to him – surrounded by those with different narratives, truths, and realities. Our blessing comes with responsibility. We must not hide in our Twitter feeds, in our offices, or within our communities. If we are ever to bridge the chasms that divide us in our country, we must go forth like Abraham, seeking the stranger, loving them, and treating them with an unbridled love and respect.
Shabbat Shalom, and may God bless the Jewish people and America.
11/4/2016 – NOACH/GENISIS
D’var by Rabbi Danielle Leshaw
Noah built the ark for 120 years. Or was it 52 years? Maybe it was only five. Our rabbis can’t agree on how many years it took Noah to create and design, to cut wood, to find strong and reliable help, to assemble the pieces. But they do agree that it took Noah a bit of time, and that he was commanded to build the ark in front of everybody, on a mountaintop, for all to see. Noah didn’t build the ark in seclusion, like, say, in his wood shed, or behind a row of evergreen trees, or in dribs and drabs, fashioning it beneath a big blue tarp, waiting for the great reveal. Noah built the ark out front, and he didn’t rush to piece it together.
The rabbis want our good deeds on display, for all to see. Our actions – those that will help others towards goodness – are supposed to be witnessed. We can influence people. Noah’s slowpoke ark building was intended to help those around him see their evil ways and turn towards God. It didn’t work. Quite the contrast to what happens in the book of Jonah, where arks and stormy waters are also present, but where repentance takes place at lightning speed.
There’s a skeleton of an ark on Route 81, someplace in the middle of Pennsylvania. A big sign reads: Ark Being Built! Or something like that. I’ve passed it so many times I’ve either got it right or have muddled the memory. The ark has been under construction for the 15 years that I’ve been driving the region (and probably for much longer), and it never seems close to being finished. I’ve often wanted to ask the builders if this is intentional. Is their hope that every generation see not a completed ark, but rather the building of the ark? Do the folks who live in a farmhouse in a field in central Pennsylvania know the midrashic and rabbinic literature? That the public process of building something big, remarkable, godly, and sacred, is capable of helping others get on the right path?
Time and materials and guidance matter, for sure, but the ultimate rabbinic message of Noah’s building remains clear. Be for yourself and for others a builder of good works, and you may very well inspire yourself and those around you.
10/28/2016 – BREISHIT/GENISIS
D’var by Aaron Kaufman, Executive Director
“At the beginning of God’s creating of the heavens and the earth, when the earth was wild and waste, darkness over the face of Ocean, rushing-spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters…”
The first words of the Torah are evocative, and speak to a sense of the world before creation as disordered and formless, with powerful forces existing but yet to be harnessed or controlled. This week’s Torah portion, the first chapters of the Book of Genesis, tells the story of how God creates order out of this chaos by shaping these forces into the world we know. God does this through separation and formation—separating light from darkness, heaven from earth, and dry land from the seas, and making the sun, the moon and all the plants and creatures of the earth.
There is a lesson here for us. Especially in college, we can often feel like a small ship tossing about in stormy seas, propelled by powers beyond our control. Whether it’s the expectations of our parents, social pressures, or the challenging job market, there are many factors that can make us feel like we don’t have control over our own lives. While we typically can’t alter the forces that impact us, we can shape how they influence us. This week’s Torah portion provides a road map: separation and formation, powerful tools for more deeply understanding ourselves. We can separate outside influences from our own innate beliefs and values, and in doing so ensure that we can make something positive in our lives in how we respond to challenges. Just as the pre-formed world had spectacular potential for creation, our own lives hold great promise as well.
10/21/2016 – Chol HaMo-eid Sukkot
D’var by Alona Lipetz, Israel Fellow
Leaders aren’t born- they’re made.
In this week’s d’var, we conclude the reading of the Torah with Chol HaMo-eid Sukkot, and begin Sukkot by reading the Book of Prophets. The Torah ends as it begins, with an act of kindness. These acts of kindness -God clothing Adam and Eve, and God burying Moses) is to remind us that we were given the Torah for good.
As the Torah concludes, we find that Moses dies at the age of 120. He is considered to be Israel’s greatest biblical leader. It is important to understand that Moses was not born a leader, he became a leader. He became a leader out of necessity when his people needed him to rise to the occasion though very difficult times. Moses made it his life mission to fight for the freedom of his people by accompanying them to the Promise Land. Although he led his people there successfully, he unfortunately died before he was able to enter into the Promise Lead. Although he wasn’t able to cross over into the Promise Land with his people, he made sure that each of them knew that they had the potential to achieve greatness in their own way.
To me, that is what a true leader, a true hero, does for his people. He helps each individual find the strength that already lies within and he helps you connect to that strength. A great leader, like Moses, will wander the desert with you, for as long as it takes and uplift you to higher ground, but he will let you cross the finish line on your own. Moses selflessly fought for a land that he loved without having the opportunity to enter. It is said, that even God grieved the loss of Moses.
10/7/2016 – Vayelech/Deuteronomy
By Lauren Levinson, Israel Engagement Coordinator
This week’s Parsha begins with 120 year old Moses explaining to the people of Israel that he will not be entering the land of Milk and Honey with them. The parsha actually expresses that Israel is the land of Milk and honey, a saying I had always heard of, and on occasions referred to Israel as, but never really knew where it came from. I’m happy to finally be aware that in Deuteronomy 31:20 this description is used! This is an interaction from God to Moses talking about the people of Israel “When I bring them into the land flowing with milk and honey that I promised on oath to their fathers, and they eat their fill and grow fat and turn to other gods and serve them, spurning Me and breaking My covenant,” In this part of the Parsha, I picture God and Moses game planning how life will really work once the people enter Israel. It feels like God is nervous that the people will go against what was promised to them. That is why in this Parsha, God and Moses chose Joshua to not only be God’s official contact person but also lead the people into Israel. Thinking about what kind of pressure Joshua might have been under is pretty unimaginable. However it seemed like he would be supported by God no matter the circumstance. “And He charged Joshua son of Nun: “Be strong and resolute: for you shall bring the Israelites into the land that I promised them on oath, and I will be with you.” And now being at the beginning of a brand new year, I’m taking away something important from this Parsha. God instructed the people of Israel to follow the teachings of the Torah which in part tells us to do the right thing, be a good person, and support those we love. These are values we can take with us no matter if we’re in the land of Milk and Honey or the land of Happy Valley. Shana Tova!
9/30/2016 – Nitzavim/Deuteronomy
By Hannah Giterman, Director of Community Engagement
This week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim, begins with Moses addressing the people and welcoming them into the covenant, “You are all standing this day before the Lord, your God the leaders of your tribes, your elders and your officers, every man of Israel, your young children, your women, and your convert who is within your camp both your woodcutters and your water drawers…” (Deuteronomy 29:9–10).
In Moses’ address to the people, he makes sure to include all of the Jewish people, acknowledging that each person in the covenant, rich or poor, young or old, contributes something to society; and each person provides meaning and substance to the community. Looking closer, we see that the Torah uses the terms “woodcutters and water drawers”. Who are the “woodcutters” and the “water drawers” and what do they contribute to the covenant?
Rabbi Bradley Artson of The Ziegler School has some interesting answers! He explains that these two terms can, and should, serve as metaphors. Woodcutters are “a metaphor for possible abuse in interpersonal relationships.” A woodcutter is someone who, instead of chipping away at the edges, cuts too deep. As humans, we often seek immediate gratification; we want answers and we want them fast. Because of this, we sometimes abuse our relationships by cutting too deep or expecting too much.
Rabbi Artson then goes on to tell us that the water drawers serve as a metaphor for “how we can see others as wells of inspiration, waiting for us to engage them, learn from them…” Here, we are reminded that relationships are comprised of give and take. We take from a person by seeking out compassion or love, or asking for advice or help if there is not an exchange or a replenishing of that exchange, then the well dries up, and the person gives up.
As we approach Rosh Hashanah, we ask ourselves, when have I been the woodcutter and when have I been the water drawers? As we stand with our community members, our friends, and our families this high holy day season, may we all have the courage to nurture our relationships so that we don’t again, in this new year, find ourselves as the water drawer rather than the woodcutter.
9/23/2016 – Ki Tavo/Deuteronomy
D’var Torah by Leah Chakoff, Director of Leadership Intiatives
Do you feel as though your life reflects your priorities? Take a moment, close your eyes and think about it. If it doesn’t, why not? Maybe it’s because of distractions or obstacles thrown your way. Maybe you need to work to make ends meet, or are taking classes that you don’t want to take just to graduate.
This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, forces us to face this question. In this portion Moses continues to tell the Israelites the laws of entering the land of Israel. He begins with the commandment of bikkurim, of the first fruits. Moses commands that after the people enter Israel, they must farm the land and gather the very first fruits grown there. They must then put them in a basket, travel to Jerusalem and bring them before the priest to tell of their difficult journey which guided them into Israel. This declaration is so important that it is read each year at the Passover Seder. Instead of focusing in on this portion of the story, I choose to focus in on something that is more often overlooked, the fruit.
The Israelites had no choice but to offer their very first fruits. We can interpret that perhaps they were the most special fruits that could have been offered. This is much different than today. We have the option of pursuing what truly makes us feel happy and fulfilled (our best fruits) or just getting by because we need to. We have a choice which can either make us our best selves or question how we ended up on our current path. Sometimes we are not happy and feel stuck.
We often make excuses for not reaching our full potential and pursuing the lives we dream of living. As we step into a period of self-reflection and new beginnings, think about how you can make your life feel more meaningful. The Jewish calendar offers us a unique chance to be able to think of what type of person we really want to be, what type of fruit we want to offer. You have complete control over your own journey. If you have ended up on an undesirable path, take a moment to sit and reflect on your true values and priorities. Figure out how to get back to where you want to be. Don’t let this opportunity pass you by.
9/16/2016 – Ki Tetzei/Deuteronomy
D’var Torah by Emma Kaplan, Springboard Fellow
Today we are officially halfway through September. It is the time of year when we go back to school/work, the sun slowly starts to set earlier, we get to tap into our unjustifiably large sweater collection, and perhaps most importantly we can finally indulge in pumpkin spice lattes from Starbucks. As we walk around campus, we see that ever so slowly the leaves are beginning to change colors and the morning air is just a little bit cooler each day than it was the day before. These small and incremental changes are similar to those that the Israelites, our ancestors, saw and felt as they approached the eastern side of the Jordan River.
Ki Tetzei takes place as the Israelites are stationed on the edge of Israel, the Holy Land. They sit eagerly, waiting for Moses to give them guidance. I imagine the Israelites gathered around Moses similar to the way a football team huddles around their coach in the locker room before a big game, or the way our Hillel staff sits with ears wide open awaiting a pump-up speech from Aaron before the start of the High Holidays.
Rather than receiving the praise and cheer they’re eager for, Moses instead delivers a lengthy set of laws. He gives rules for how to build a proper home, how to treat a wife-to-be, how to treat an orphan, and how to handle cases of rape in the new judicial system. The Israelites realize that this new home is not perfect, nor will everybody make the right choices in regard to their neighbor and family members. Israel can, however, be a home with great potential to flourish with milk and honey, fruits, animals, and successful agricultural systems. It is not a Promised Land, but a land full of promise.
The month of Elul is much like this time in our people’s’ history- just with more cozy sweaters, crunchy leaves and pumpkin spice lattes this time around. Like our ancestors sat at the edge of the Jordan River, we are sitting on the edge of something great- a new year. Elul is a time for new beginnings and for reflection and preparation. We are excited and eager for the promise that lies ahead, but we have to remember that the promise can only be achieved through our own personal efforts. Ki Tetzei literally means “when you go forth.” This year as the Rosh Hashanah approaches we have new opportunities to go forth. And with this opportunity comes great responsibility. We must approach the new year with intention, with grace, and with the ability to see the promise in all of our efforts.
9/9/2016 – Parshat Shoftim/Deuteronomy
D’var Torah by Lauren Levinson, Israel Engagement Coordinator
In reading through Parshat Shoftim, one of our final portions in the book of Dueteronomy, I saw very quickly that the main focus of the parsha is justice. I’ve heard this word so much in my life — in synagogue, in youth group, in my family, in Hillel. Initially, justice makes me think about the conflicts in our country, and around the world, and what our responsibilities are, as Jews, to push our world towards justice. Justice is about fairness, morality, and honesty. Shoftim focuses on how we, as Jews, should step into Israel and bring about a righteous society for ourselves, others, and the land of Israel. We have a responsibility to always treat people kindly and fairly no matter the circumstance. For example, when someone is being tried or interrogated for a crime, he or she should receive a fair trial and justice in an honest way. The Torah tells us “by the mouth of two witnesses, or three witnesses, shall the one liable to death be put to death; he shall not be put to death by the mouth of one witness.”
In addition to expressing kindness toward people when we enter the land of Israel, we should also be kind toward the nature and land that surrounds us. The Torah tell us “you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them, for you may eat from them, but you shall not cut them down.”
The importance of protecting the rights of people and environment have stayed just as vital to us today as it once was when we were entering the land of Israel. Rabbi Marc Israel tells us that “true justice is reached when all members of the group’s needs are taken into consideration, not only our individual needs.” Our mandate as Jews, as we move into the new year, is to be honest, just, and fair individuals that care for the world and the people around us. These values should stay close to our heart.
9/2/2016 – Parshat Re’eh/ Deuteronomy
D’var Torah by Rob France, Assistant Director
“Focus on the journey, not the destination. Joy is found not in finishing an activity but in doing it.”
The man who said these words, Greg Anderson, is an author, but I have a very hard time believing that he was ever a teacher.
Ten years ago, as a recent college graduate, I stepped into my first job as an educator in Memphis, TN, teaching English Language Learners in high school. A lot has changed in the time that I’ve been teaching – I’m calmer, more humble, and most notably to students, possess considerably less hair. One thing that hasn’t changed is that every year, this year included, I feel overrun and overcome by the sheer amount of work that must be done during a new year. Whether you’re a public school teacher in Memphis or an informal educator on a college campus, there are lessons to make, e-mails to respond to, phone calls to take, meetings to participate. Every year, I struggle to remember through all the busy-ness of a new year that I LOVE doing what I do every day – teaching, learning, and watching others and myself grow. It is hard to find the joy in doing an activity sometimes when there is so much to do.
Our parsha this week, Re’eh, seems to address this directly. In it, Moses describes the festival holidays that Israel must celebrate when it enters the land of Israel – Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot. Directly, G-d appears to instruct us that in the midst of our busy lives, we should pause, recognize our good fortune, and be joyful. Indirectly, the parsha reinforces this. In the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, the Hebrew root for the word joy – simcha – appears one time each. In Deuteronomy it appears 12 times – seven of them in this parsha. It says to us that when we are busy, overwhelmed, or troubled – especially during these times – we should pause and find joy in our lives.
This Shabbat, I wish you all the ability to find joy in your lives, in places both expected and unexpected.
8/27/16 – Parshat Ekev/ Deuteronomy
D’var Torah by Alex Bolotovsky, Director of Institutional Advancement
In 1676, in a letter to Robert Hooke, Sir Isaac Newton said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” A man of great knowledge and achievement, Newton understood that he could not have accomplished all that he has done without building on a foundation of those that came before him. He demonstrates humility and a deep appreciation of everything that came before that supported his success.
The modesty and humility that Newton exhibits in his letter is the kind of humility that we can see commanded in this week’s Torah Portion (Parshat Ekev/ Deuteronomy 7:12- 11:25).
“…12 when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, 13 and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied,… 17 You may say to yourself, ‘My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.’ 18 But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth…”
This passage clearly reminds us that we must always be humble about our success and understand that it cannot happen in a vacuum. Whether we believe in the God of the Bible, understand God differently, or question God’s existence, we must remember that were is not for our ancestors, our teachers, our friends, our support system, and maybe some luck, we could never find success. One of the greatest thinkers in history, Sir Isaac Newton, understood this, and this week, the Torah reminds us that we must internalize this as well.
May we all find success and humility! Shabbat Shalom!