With the opening of this week’s parsha, Lech Lecha, the Torah begins to tell the story of one man and his family, rather than humanity in general. We are introduced to Avram and his wife Sarai, and their journey, at Divine command, from someplace in ancient Mesopotamia to the Land of Israel. This is more than just a physical relocation. It is a spiritual pilgrimage. Indeed, Pirkei Avot teaches that Avram underwent 10 tests, and both Rashi and the Rambam present a list of the tests. Even though there is some discrepancy, they agree that the last test is the binding of Yitzchak upon an altar, which we will read about next week.
Avram passes all 10 tests, and this is evident when HaShem gives him a new name. “No longer shall you be called Avram, but your name shall be Avraham, for I made you the father of a multitude of nations, “ he is told. The new name is indicative of Avraham’s spiritual ascendency. He is a different person. The Torah and Rabbinic literature are replete with examples of Avraham’s character. We are familiar with the midrash of him smashing the idols in his father’s store, in recognition of the One true G-d. Next week we will witness him standing up to HaShem on behalf of the people of Sodom and Gemorah. To a certain extent one may say that Avraham is the first maverick among humankind, swimming against the current of his time. In fact, he known, according to the midrash, as Avraham HaIvri. Ivri is Hebrew for “Hebrew,” but the word Ivri also indicates “other,” meaning that while the world was on one side, Avraham stood on the other, charting a different course for his family and ultimately his people.
Jewish tradition teaches that there are three crowns, the crown of Torah, the crown of the Kohanim and the crown of kingship, however, a fourth crown, that of a good name, is superior to them all. We are known by our name. Unlike Avraham we are not changing our names, therefore for each of us our name is our character, our reputation. Avraham, known as the man of chesed, of kind deeds, a hallmark of Judaism, is the exemplar of a good name, a good character. In the end, we will be remembered not for our grades and our degrees, but rather our character, how we touch, and make better, the lives of those around us.
We live in an uncertain and often times frightening world. We need heroes to whom we can turn for strength, guidance and inspiration. Sadly, sports figures, rock stars and politicians are fleeting at best as many do not embody the values we want for ourselves or for our children to emulate. While he is not perfect, Avraham is the role model we seek. He is devoted to HaShem, to his family; to treating people the right way (again, we will see this next week as Avraham welcomes the three strangers into his tent despite the pain following his brit milah). He stands up for injustices.
This is the time for heroes – let Avraham, the man with the good name, be ours.
Shabbat Shalom, one and all.
Rabbi Yaakov Traiger | Assistant Principal
A couple of years ago during a double period of one of my classes, one of the students asked to leave the room to get some water, s/he was thirsty. I was in the middle of a point, so I asked the student to wait. The student continued to ask, saying s/he was so thirsty. I commented that I was also thirsty, that I would give a short break in a few minutes and could get a drink. During the break another student came back into the room with a cup of water and handed it to me. I looked at the student who said, "You said you are thirsty."
We are back to the beginning of the Torah reading cycle. This week we reading Parshat Noach, the well-known account of the devastating flood which HaShem brings due to the corruption that has overtaken humankind. In fact, this corruption was so pervasive, Rashi tells us that it affected the animals as well. What was the nature of the corruption? The Torah calls it Hamas. What is Hamas? It is such a breakdown of the society to a point that robbery, for example, became so commonplace that it was done in the open. Thieves did not even try to hide. There were no longer societal norms that governed the people.
HaShem sees this Hamas, this corruption. He has Noach build an Ark, bring his family and animals on board with the intent to start the human race over and it is Noach who is to be the progenitor of humanity. HaShem sees something special in Noach, for the Torah says, " . . . and Noach was righteous in his generation." Noach has garnered Divine favor for this righteousness and it is this trait that HaShem wants as the "new genesis" of the human race.
Today is the first day of Rosh Hodesh Marcheshvan. We have just spent the month of Tishrei celebrating, doing Teshuva and reflecting on how to become better people. Marcheshvan is a month without any holidays. Marcheshvan is the month to begin to put into action those promises we made to ourselves for improvement. When HaShem looked for an individual to be the model for the rest of humanity he chose Noach, not for his wealth, not for his brilliance, not even for his charm, rather for his righteousness, for his Chesed. It is chesed, righteousness, that is the first piece of humanity.
Shabbat shalom, Hodesh Tov
Rabbi Yaakov Traiger
The day is almost here and one can feel the anticipation. Many of us felt the same last week as the first day of school approached and a new school year lay ahead, but now there is another first day coming. Rosh HaShanah begins next week and again a new year is about to begin with opportunities waiting for us.
This week we read the final parsha of 5777, Nitzavim/VaYelech. In all of these parshiyot in the Book of Devarim the Jewish people have been standing on the edge of the Jordan River listening to Moshe give his final speech before they enter the Land of Israel. For the past eight weeks Moshe has been laying out a vision for the people for life in the Land; the type of society they can create through their continual connection to the Torah and Jewish tradition.
There is passage in the Talmud where the rabbis are debating whether an oven, made from clay, was ritually impure and therefore not able to be used. Rabbi Eliezer argued in favor of its use while the other rabbis were against it. Rabbi Eliezer tried using various proofs that his opinion was correct, calling upon nature to side with him. “If I am correct, let the carob tree prove it” he proclaimed and the carob tree uprooted itself several hundred feet. The rabbis did not accept the proof. Rabbi Eliezer tried again. “If I am correct, let the canal water prove it,” he called out and the canal water began to flow backward. However, yet again, the rabbis did not accept the carob tree as proof. Finally Rabbi Yirmiyah declared, quoting from this week’s parsha, “It is not in Heaven!”
What did Rabbi Yirmiyah mean? The Torah was already given to human beings and Rabbi Yirmiyah was telling Rabbi Eliezer, who was using Divine acts to demonstrate the correctness of his point, that it was up to human understanding of the Torah that would decide whether or not the oven could be used. The Torah was Divinely given to humans to apply their wisdom through study to render decisions for the society. Human beings were to be HaShem’s partner in the creation of a community.
In the Jewish people parsha, the Jewish people are standing at the threshold of a new era, in the same way we are standing on the threshold of a new school year, and a new year, all with incredible opportunities waiting for us. Our connection to Jewish tradition partners us with the Divine; to widen the circle of opportunity, to deepen the meaning of our Judaism, for form that more perfect community.
Just like the Israelites, our best days lies ahead.
With blessings for a sweet, healthy and fulfilling 5778.
Wishing all a Ketiva, v’chatima tova, may we all be inscribed in the Book of Life.
Shabbat shalom and Shana tova.
Rabbi Yaakov Traiger
There was once a man that walked into a clothing store. He told the store owner his measurements and was brought a fine suit. The man went into the fitting room to try the suit on. The man came out and complained that the suit didn’t fit – it was too tight. The owner of the store looked closely at his customer and discovered the problem. “Sir,” he said to the man, “in order for the new suit to fit, you must first take off the old one.”
This week we read Parshat Ki Tavo, which translates “When you come . . .” Last week’s parsha was Ki Teitzei, “When you go out . . . “ There is something poignant about the names of these two parshiyot. It is Elul and 5777 is quickly waning only to be replaced with 5778. As we hear the sound of the shofar each morning we are reminded that this is the season of reflection. It is a time to look back and think about what we have done – the good as well as the not so good. It is the time to ask the important questions: Who am I? Who do I want to be? How can I improve? The Rambam, in his Laws of Teshuva, says we must acknowledge our mistakes, know they were wrong and honestly strive to improve and fix them. This is the opportunity to become even better, to reach farther than we thought we could.
In order to do this when we come out of the old year we must shed ourselves of the old suit - those habits that prevent us from putting on the new one for if not when you come into the new year it will still be the old suit. This requires change – and that is hard. A former principal for whom I worked said at his retirement dinner, after more than 40 years of running the school, “The only one who likes change is a wet baby.”
The new school year has begun. 5778 is only a few days away. I want to welcome our new students, our new families and our new teachers. I welcome back all those returning. May this be a wonderful, productive year, a fulfilling year, a year of good health, and a year of peace.
Rabbi Yaakov Traiger
Bravo to Morah Dassi and Mrs. Greenwald for another wonderful Zimriyah! This one was somewhat significant for me personally because I have been a Beatles fan for many years. One Saturday night back in late 1985 when I a UMASS student a friend who lived down the hall from me and I listened to many of our combined Beatles records (those were the days before CDs) all night while consuming large amounts of pizza. I even saw Beatlemania at a bar not far from campus. In fact, in high school when I attempted to take guitar lessons, being left-handed I had the guitar re-strung so I could play like Paul McCartney. How did those lessons go? Let’s just say having a left-handed strung guitar was as close as I ever got to playing like Paul McCartney. The Zimriyah was wonderful - not just for the hard work Morah Dassi and Rachel put in to make sure our students shine, but for the opportunity it provided me to stroll down memory lane.
This week we read Parshat Shelach which relates the famous episode of the spies. Moshe sends 12 men into the Land of Israel with a list of things for which to look while there. When they return, 40 days later, 10 give a report which results in complete hysteria on the part of the rest of the people. The 10 spies report that there are giants in the land, and that the land devours its inhabitants. When the people hear this report they immediately begin to cry, “If only we had died in Egypt . . . Why is HaShem bringing us to this to this land to die by the sword?”
When the people begin to cry, the Torah text says, “The entire assembly raised up its voice; the people wept . . .” The Hebrew root the Torah uses means “lift up” and it is used, along with the word for crying in three other places in the Torah when there was some feeling of hopelessness or complete despair on the part of the person, or people, crying. The people had the feeling that they had no future; the land to which HaShem was bringing them was fraught with danger. They wanted to return to Egypt, they wanted to return to the past.
In contrast to their 10 compatriots, it was Joshua and Caleb who looked towards to the future. Caleb silences the people, “We shall surely ascend and conquer it [the land], for we surely can do it.” Both he Joshua later say, “The Land is a very, very good land . . . if HaShem desire He will bring us to the Land . . . do not fear.” Unfortunately their words are for naught.
Wednesday night we say Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday” which has the phrase “ . . . and now I long for yesterday.” The lyrics of the song indicate a longing for the past. In 1992, when Bill Clinton was elected president, he used Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop Thinking about Tomorrow” as a theme song. It is a song about the future.
The Talmud relates a story about several rabbis who came upon the ruins of the Temple in Jerusalem. When they saw a fox emerge from the ruins they began to weep. However, Rabbi Akiva began to laugh. His companions asked why he was laughing. His response was poignant, “Why are you weeping? Just as Uriah’s prophecy of the Temple being plowed came true, so shall Zechariah’s prophecy (“Old men and women shall yet sit in the streets of Jerusalem” Zecharia 8:4) come true.” Rabbi Akiva was looking at the future when Jerusalem would be rebuilt.
As the 2016-2017 school year wanes and the summer approaches it is a time to reflect on the past year and examine the good and the not-so-good of the year. Successes of the past are for us to build upon, to strengthen. The failures are often more significant for they are our teachers. They allow us to find ways to improve and become better. However, the tricky part is not to become stuck in the mire of self-doubt. The Israelites looked to the past, which ultimately was their downfall for that generation was condemned to wander the desert for 40 years. Joshua and Caleb looked to the future and in doing so they merited to enter the Land of Israel.
This past school year was wonderful to be sure. Thank you to all the teachers who work so hard to teach the students each day. Thank you to the parents for entrusting your children to us. Thank you to the PTO for everything they do to support our school. There were so many successes, and there were those challenging moments as well. The past is the past, it can’t be changed. May Joshua and Caleb, and Rabbi Akiva be models for us. The future is in our hands. 2017-2018 awaits us. It is bright and full of opportunity.
Wishing you all a wonderful, restful and safe summer.
Rabbi Yaakov Traiger