Each day when I arrive at school I type up the morning announcements which consist of the date, in Hebrew and English, Pledge of Allegiance, The Star Spangled Banner and Hatikva and then any pertinent news for that particular day. Then, at 8:25, two or three students come to my office and I press 88 on my phone which opens the intercom in the school and the students say the announcements. One day last week, two 5th grade boys came to my office did the announcements flawlessly. In fact, one of the boys added an extra emphasis to the anthems, singing with much heart.
There was one problem. Even though I held the phone receiver up to the boys so that all could hear the announcements, no one heard them. When we came out from my office everyone asked me, “What happened to morning announcements? We kept wait, but nothing.” I quickly realized what happened. I forgot to press 88. My forgetfulness was the source of much laughter during a staff meeting immediately after the non-heard announcements.
This week we read Parshat VaYeilech. In the parsha there is the commandment of Hakhel. Once every seven years, on the first day of Hol HaMoed Sukkot of the year following a sabbatical year, the entire people would be gathered together to hear the king read the Book of Devarim. The king would read from the beginning of the book, through the portion of Devarim that contains the first two paragraphs of the Shema, and then a little more, all containing the themes of allegiance to HaShem, the Covenant and reward and punishment.
The purpose of this event was to emphasize certain important principles of Jewish life. Everyone was gathered together because everyone, men, women and children were (and are) part of the Jewish people and the Torah belonged (and still belongs) to every Jew. The Book of Devarim was representative of the entire Torah which is only read in a community, symbolized by a minyan. In the Torah narrative Moshe is speaking to the people as they are about to enter the Land of Israel. What life would be like in the land was still an unknown, he was giving the people strength and encouragement that through a connection to the Torah they would be able to overcome the challenges they would face.
It is significant that we read this commandment now. The new year has arrived and as we continue our spiritual trek through the holidays the time comes for us to think about our commitments, or connection to Judaism and the Jewish people. Like the Israelites at the edge of the Jordan, we don’t know what 5777 will bring, what challenges each of us will face. As Moshe encouraged the Jewish people to remain part of the community, connected to the Torah, may we stay united, may we keep our connections to Judaism, to the Jewish people. In doing so, our challenges become easier, and our good times are that much sweeter.
May we remember to press 88 to hear Moshe’s announcements.
Rabbi Yaakov Traiger
The Talmud relates the episode of a dispute between Rabban Gamliel the head of the academy, and Rabbi Yehoshua. The argument was about a certain practice and when Rabban Gamliel publically embarrassed Rabbi Yehoshua, the students decided to replace Rabban Gamliel. The question was who would be appropriate. Several suggestions were put forth, but for various reasons were not accepted. Finally, it was decided that Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah was the best choice. However, Rabbi Elazar’s wife disagreed because her husband was only 18 years old and was afraid that due to his youth he would carry the respect an older person would. That night a miracle occurred and strands of grey appeared in Rabbi Elazar’s beard. And so, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah took his place in the leadership of the academy.
There is one piece of this story that rubs me the wrong way. No, it isn’t Rabbi Elazar’s youth. No it isn’t Rabban Gamliel embarrassing Rabbi Yehoshua, though that is a problem. The issue I have is that Rabbi Elazar didn’t earn those grey hairs. Each morning when I look at the grey running through my beard, and sitting by my temples I know I have earned that grey with the work I do, with the choices I make. Being a parent, being a teacher, a husband, earning a living, experiencing the ups and downs of life, I am entitled to my grey. The grey is testimony to the reality that I am alive.
We are on the threshold of a new year. In another three days 5777 will have arrived and a new year will begin. As I review the past year and think about the choices I made, the things I did I wonder what this next year will be like. What new experiences will I have and will I capitalize on opportunities? Do I have the ability to make a difference?
The story is told of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter (1809-1883), the father of the Mussar Movement in Europe (Mussar is a genre of study that emphasizes proper behavior) who one night walked past a shoemaker working by candle light. Rabbi Salanter asked the shoemaker how much more work he could do since the candle would soon go out. The shoemaker replied, “As long as the candle is burning, there is still more to do.”
How poignant the shoemaker’s response! Rosh HaShanah speaks about the Book of Life. For each of us that book is still being written. The new year will present us with new opportunities, new experiences which will become the next chapters of our book. And the good part is that we do indeed have the ability to make our book a best seller.
How many new grey hairs will form in my beard during the next year?
Wishing everyone a Shana Tova u’metuka, a sweet, healthy and productive new year.
Rabbi Yaakov Traiger
I grew up in Sharon, a small town in Massachusetts. Sharon is the typical New England community that stems from the Revolutionary War days; the white Unitarian church is in the center of town with its tall steeple and bell inside. Not far, behind the church is Depot Street that had a hill that many used for sledding in the winter. Sharon boasts Lake Massapoag and every summer we spent the weekends swimming there. My father, my sister and I spent many Sunday afternoons sailing on its waters. During the American Revolution iron ore was dug from the bottom of the lake to make cannon balls for the Continental Army (I know this because in high school I was a member of the Sharon Historical Society – yes, it is true).
I mention this because last night I was on What’s App with several colleagues from my Harvard cohort, one of whom also graduated from Sharon High School (though I finished many, many years earlier). She is heading back to Sharon for her 20th high school reunion. I felt a bit of envy, for I always enjoy returning to Sharon, for doing so allows me to return to my roots and get a sense of balance.
In this week’s parasha, Ki Tavo, the Torah begins with the mandate of the Bikkurim ritual, of bringing the first fruits to the kohain. As part of the ritual, the farmer was required to say a specified text which is part of the Torah narrative, “An Aramean tried to destroy my father, He descended to Egypt, and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation – great strong and numerous. The Egyptians mistreated us and afflicted us and placed hard work on us. Then we cried out to HaShem . . . and HaShem heard our voice and saw our affliction . . . took us out of Egypt and a strong hand and outstretched arm and with great awesomeness . . . “
This passage is the essential piece of the Maggid section of the haggadah at the Pesach seder. It encapsulates the story of the Exodus, and much of the haggadah is an expansion of these verses. The power of this passage is that it brings us back to our roots as a nation and how we became the Jewish people we are today.
We are now 10 days from Rosh HaShanah. As Elul wanes we continue to focus on the idea of Teshuva, of who we are as individuals and how we can improve. It is a time to return to our personal roots, so to speak. It is 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.
Rabbi Yaakov Traiger
This week’s parsha is Ki Teitzei. Throughout the parsha Moshe gives over many commandments, many of which deal with not only ritual but also interpersonal dynamics. The parsha reveals that Judaism is an all encompassing way of life.
One of the themes found in the parsha is the rebellious son. If a set of parents have discovered that their son does not listen to them, despite attempts to discipline him, or that he is a drunkard and glutton he is taken to the elders of the city and if they determine it so, he is pelted with stones to death. The Talmud relates that he stole the money from his parents to buy the excess food and alcohol. The execution is not so much for what the son had done, but for what he still could turn into.
Question: Have the parents given up on their child? Have they reached the point where the son cannot be rehabilitated? Is the Torah saying that mistakes can’t be fixed?
In the Book of Mishlei (Proverbs) King Shlomo wrote, “A righteous person fails seven times, yet rises again.” Mistakes and failures are part of life, and as we continue through the month of Elul which is often the time for personal introspection before the advent of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, we need to realize that failures and mistakes do not define us. As painful as they sometimes are, failures are opportunities to learn, to grow and to improve.
Life is often called a test. We have challenges, whether at work or with our families. There are moments when it can feel overwhelming. Just as the sun sets each day, it also rises. Along with mistakes are the successes. Thomas Edison failed many, many times before inventing the light bulb. However, he is reported to have said, “I didn’t fail, I just found many way that didn’t work before hand.”
Shabbat shalom, one and all.
The month of Elul has begun and as the shofar is sounded daily, we are reminded that Rosh HaShanah will soon be upon us. This is a time of reflection and introspection as we ponder how we can improve.
There is story from the Talmud from Tractate Ta’anit that has resonated with me for a long time. It is told that Rabbi Elazar was returning from Migdal Gedor after learning with his teacher and feeling very proud with what he had learned. As he was traveling, he encountered a man on the road about whom the Talmud describes as not having an appealing appearance. The man wished him, “Peace upon you, Rabbi.” Rabbi Elazar responded, “Are all the people of your town as ugly as you?” The man replied, “I don’t know, you need to ask craftsman who made me?” When Rabbi Elazar realized his sin, he descended from his donkey and asked forgiveness. The man refused and continued on his way with Rabbi Elazar following him all way to his town begging forgiveness from him. The townspeople prevailed on the man to forgive Rabbi Elazar, and he finally did so.
The passage has always given me personal reflection. As the townspeople were urging the man to forgive Rabbi Elazar, he said, “If this man is a rabbi, let there be no more like him.” Rabbi Elazar was the personification of what it meant to be a rabbi, a learned Jew who upheld the dictates of the Torah. There would be no doubt regarding Rabbi Elazar’s observance of Shabbat, or kashrut, however part and parcel of Jewish practice is how we relate to other people. Our words and our actions towards people have ripple effects that sometimes we can’t even see.
This week’s parsha is Shoftim and the Torah predicts that there will be a time when the people ask for a king “to be like the other nations.” The Torah gives certain parameters regarding who this king should be and what he shall do. Included is the mandate that he write two Torah scrolls, one to keep in his treasury, and the other to keep with him at all times, from which to constantly read and learn. In fact, the Rambam says that even if a king inherited the monarchy from his father, he must write his own Torah to keep with him. The continued review of the Torah, with its ethical dictates, is meant to humble him, to give him the equilibrium that power could throw off.
This is where Rabbi Elazar got it wrong. He failed to remember that the hallmark of a Jew is humility and it is the Torah that is supposed to instill that important trait into a person, hence the reason the king needed to keep that Torah scroll with him all times. The man thankfully reminded Rabbi Elazar, and me, of just that.
Shabbat shalom to all.
Rabbi Yaakov Traiger