A Shabbat Thought

 by Rabbi Yaakov Traiger

Assistant Principal


I am directionally challenged. Unless I know exactly where I am going I will end up lost. I am so grateful for the WAZE app. I have been able to navigate my way even to do food shopping without my making some wrong turn. To illustrate this one summer when I was in college a friend of mine who was a cyclist invited me to watch one of his races. I used a map to get directions to the race which started at 7:00 in the morning. He said that the place was close to my house. It was not until I saw a sign that said “Last exit before the New Hampshire border” (two hours from my house) that I realized I was probably going in the wrong direction (for the record and in my own defense, I grew up in Massachusetts). I did eventually make it to the race, and to my amazement realized that I was in fact only 15 minutes from home.

Tomorrow night we begin the wonderful holiday of Pesach. As with every holiday there are so many lessons to be gleaned. We can talk about the ideas of freedom and what it means to no longer be slaves. We can discuss the notion of chamaytz and just as it causes bread to puff up, we also can become puffed up. The matzah and its thinness represent the humility for which we should all strive in order to become better people. However, I am going in a different direction (and hopefully I won’t get lost).

Pesach to a certain extent is about having a vision. In Parshat Bo Moshe tells the Jewish people, “And when your children ask you, ‘what do you mean by this rite?’ you shall say, ‘It is the Pesach offering to the Lord, for he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians, but saved our houses.” And the Torah further says, “And when, in time to come, your child asks you, saying, ‘What does this mean? You shall say to him, ‘It as with a mighty hand that the Lord brought us out from Egypt, from the house of bondage . . . “

These two verses capture the essential component of Pesach which is the mitzvah to tell the story of the exodus. They are significant for another reason. According to Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, whom I have often quoted, Moshe is telling the parents the importance of education, but not learning by repeating things learned merely by rote, but rather learning through asking questions. One needs to become active and engaged participants in the learning process. The genius of the seder is that it is supposed to be a give and take, a time of questions and answers. The rituals of the seder were designed to encourage children to ask questions. What is important about this, explains Rabbi Sacks, is that Jewish tradition made education the key to its survival and continuity. Many ancient nations built great edifices that still stand today. The Jewish people built schools and the teachers were the great leaders. The Jewish people are the only ancient nation that still alive and vibrant.

Tomorrow night we will sit down with family and friends at the seder. We will relive the exodus. We will recall, retell, ask questions and discuss their meaning. The seder is Jewish tradition’s WAZE app. Educating our children is to set a direction for the future - their future and the future of the Jewish people.

Hag Kasher v’Samayach,

A wonderful Pesach to everyone.

ShabbatshalomOne morning earlier this week as I was making my children their lunch for school, I was listening to an interview with John Kasich, the governor of Ohio and one of the Republican presidential candidates. I heard him talking as I walked around the kitchen putting cookies onto plastic bags and wrapping sandwiches. I was not looking at the ipad screen, rather I heard his words. Prior to this I had not given much attention to this man, but after hearing his words I decided to pay more attention. His message was clear, upbeat and positive, a far cry from the negative rhetoric and rancor that has been emanating from the other candidates. At that moment I felt bad that this man most likely will not be president (Did I just give myself away politically? – for the record, I am a registered Independent, but I digress . . .).

This week’s parsha is Metsora and continues many of the ideas discussed last week in Parshat Tazria. The metsora was a person who was afflicted the Tzaraat, a skin malady manifested by white patches on the skin. It was diagnosed by the Kohain, and the treatment was quarantine from the community for a period of seven days, after which the individual needed to shave the hair from his body and bring offerings. As mentioned last week, tzaraat was a spiritual affliction with physical symptoms. The person was quarantined for their anti-social behavior so that they could think about their sin and reflect with the hope of doing Teshuva when rejoining the camp.

It is well known in Jewish tradition that tzaraat was the punishment for the sin of Lashon HaRah, evil speech, talking about others in a negative way. In fact, the Talmud teaches that the spelling of the word metsora in Hebrew is a contraction of the words Motseh rah, meaning “he brought forth evil.” When told he is healed the Metsora is required to bring two birds as part of his offering. Rashi explains the significance of the two birds. He says that birds are offered because of their propensity to chir andthat chirp is symbolic of the gossip and slander for which the metsora is punished. Jewish tradition acknowledges that Lashon HaRah is difficult for people to rid themselves. Indeed, many rabbis often use this parsha to speak about Lashon HaRah.

However, what about Lashon HaTov, good speech? While we speak about Lashon HaRah, and the reality is that most of us actually speak Lashon HaRah at times (I admit I am guilt as charged), do we give the same focus to Lashon HaTov and how good it is to speak positively? As we discussed last week, we have the power with our words, to build or destroy. We have the power to lift a person who is low, to encourage; to inspire. Our words can also send a person crashing down.

There is a story of a monastery located somewhere in the deep woods. There were only five monks left in this monastery as it was dying out. These remaining monks often did not get along with each other. Not far from the monastery was a hut where an elderly rabbi from the nearby town often came to study. The abbot from the monastery once visited the rabbi to ask him for advice that could help save the monastery. The rabbi answered him, “I have no advice. The only thing I can tell you is that one of you is the Messiah.”

The abbot returned to his monastery and told the rabbi’s words to his fellow monks. While at first they did not understand what the rabbi meant, a remarkable transformation began. Because they now had the mindset that one of them was the messiah, they began to treat each other in a way that would befit the messiah. Suddenly they saw each other in a new light. Slowly the squabbling stopped. They each found a new respect for their comrades since it was possible that one of them was the messiah. In the end there was a new life into the monastery, and others began to join. Ultimately the rabbi did indeed save the monastery.

Is this what I heard in Governor Kasich’s message? Not the fighting and name calling coming from the other candidates. Whether one agrees with his ideas or not is irrelevant – it is the positive message that is important. As we mentioned last week, King Shlomo, about whom Jewish tradition regards as the wisest of all men, wrote in the Book of Mishlei (Proverbs) “Death and life are in the power of the mouth.”

That wise, elderly rabbi gave the monks a gift. He taught them how to build. May we take that same gift, may we see each other as the possible Messiah and build and strengthen not only our school, our community but also each other.

Shabbat Shalom one and all.

ShabbatshalomThis past summer I had the privilege of attending The Principals’ Center at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. School leaders from around the world assembled in Cambridge, Massachusetts for one week in June to learn from and with Harvard’s best about school leadership. I went as part of a cohort of 15 Jewish educators from around the country though a grant given by the AviChai Foundation whose focus is to help produce top leaders for Jewish day schools. Whatever I did to attract Divine notice that should merit participation in this program I will never know, however I am ever grateful I had the experience. Our first session was presented by a man named William Henderson, a former principal in the Boston public school system who used several humorous anecdotes (by the way, besides that some of the smartest people teach Harvard, some of the funniest people teach at Harvard as well) spoke about the dynamic created in the school through the way we communicate.

This week’s parsha is Tazria. It, as well as next week’s parsha, Metzora, have a similar theme, that of the Metzora, the person afflicted with the malady called Tzaraat, often mistakenly translated as leprosy. Tzaraat is not leprosy rather it was a spiritual disease that was physically manifested by white patches on the skin. It was brought about by what is known as Lashron HaRa, literally, “bad speech.” We see this in two episodes in the Torah. The first, which is well-known, takes place in Parshat Behaalotcha where Miriam speaks about her brother Moshe and her perception regarding the relationship between Moshe and his wife. Through her slander Miriam is stricken with Tzaraat and must remain outside the camp for seven days of healing, which is the Torah’s mandate for the person with the disease.

The second episode comes much earlier, at Moshe’s encounter at the burning bush when he is given the task of bringing the Israelites out from Egypt. At one point Moshe says that the Israelites will not listen to him. The verse says, “HaShem said to him (Moshe), ‘bring your hand to your bosom’ and he brought his hand t o his bosom; then he withdrew it and behold he had tzaraat like snow . . . “ Rashi quotes the midrash on this verse explaining that Moshe was stricken with Tzaraat for saying that Israelites would not believe him. Unlike Miriam, HaShem immediately healed Moshe.

Indeed many rabbis use Parshat Tazria, and Metzora, to talk about speech. It is here that I want to bring it back to where we began. King Shlomo, about whom Jewish tradition regards as the wisest of all men, wrote in the Book of Mishlei (Proverbs) “Death and life are in the power of the mouth.” This was one of Dr. Henderson’s points in his presentation. How we speak to another can make so much difference. We can criticize and degrade and “cause the death” of someone by how we speak to them or we can breathe new life into them by how we speak to them. While criticism sometimes is necessary, and Jewish tradition recognizes as such, doing so can and must be done in a way that does not demoralize a person, but rather in a manner that enables the person to grow and improve. We have the power to build people up, to encourage people, to inspire people through what we say. A simple compliment for having done something well, a text, or an e-mail or even a (perhaps obsolete in today's world?) note, can lift the spirits or inspire one in ways we don’t even realize.

Parshat Tazria teaches us that words have meaning, that words have power. May we use our words to inspire and not degrade, to build up and not bring down.

Shabbat Shalom

ShabbatshalomAs we begin the final third of the school year, we are reflecting on how the year has progressed so to develop a vision for the coming year. A major initiative this year has been the integration of The Leader In Me process into the fabric of the school, which is part of the Leadership Academy. Indeed many our discussions on the parsha in recent weeks have had focused on the theme of leadership, for there is much to learn from our Biblical ancestors about leadership and being a leader.

This week we read Parshat Shemini and we find a contrast in attitudes towards leadership. There is the tragic episode of Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, who are caught up in the frenzy of the inauguration of the Mishkan and approach it with “strange fire that He (HaShem) had not commanded” and when doing so “fire came forth and consumed them and they died.” However, immediately before this incident Aaron is told by Moshe to approach the altar to perform the ritual offerings in his new role as the Kohen Gadol. Aaron is hesitant to do so and as we have mentioned previously Rashi explains that Aaron was ashamed due to his participation in the Golden Calf incident and felt himself unworthy of the Kehunah (role of being a Kohain). Rashi writes that Moshe says to Aaron that he was chosen for this role.

The commentators grapple with what exactly was Nadav and Avihu’s sin that resulted in their death. Some say they were drunk when they approached the altar. Others mention their arrogance, that they held themselves above the community. The Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, records their conversation where they almost longed for the demise of Moshe and Aaron (their uncle and father) so they could take the leadership of the Israelites, “When will these two old men die so that we can lead the congregation?”

There is a stark contrast here. Aaron is reluctant to lead. Nadav and Avihu were eager, in fact too eager to lead. Perhaps the lesson is found in the contrast. On the one hand, leadership is challenging because people are complex and leadership requires one to deal with people, to take risks and face criticism and failure and that can be daunting. However, over-enthusiastic leaders, indeed over-confident leaders can do much damage unless they understand how their actions can affect the people they lead.

Does true leadership lie in this contrast? Jewish tradition acknowledges that Aaron and his sons, Nadav and Avihu were great people. The difference was that Aaron needed to have his greatness pointed out to him so that he could lead in his own right, outside Moshe’s shadow. Nadav and Avihu were already convinced of their greatness to such a degree that it lead to their ultimate downfall. Perhaps leadership requires a balance between the two. A true leader must have a sense of his/her short comings to provide wisdom and caution, but not be debilitated by them to the point of fear of taking risks. At the same time a leader must know his or her strengths without being arrogant about them. A leader needs to approach the task with a sincere willingness to serve others and help bring out their greatness.

Our school is celebrating 30 years of leadership. May we develop our students into leaders who can balance these two pieces; that have the ability to recognize that while everyone has shortcomings, they indeed have talents which are Divinely given and may they have the strength and humility to use those talents to bring us to new heights we can’t even imagine.

Shabbat Shalom.

ShabbatshalomI would bet that the most asked question posed to a child is “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Even though many of us could not have answered such a question as children, the question continues to asked during elementary school, then into high school and certainly when beginning college. While some children are able to answer early on and that becomes goal, most need some experience in life, or the chance to determine academic strengths before embarking on that chosen career. Whatever the answer is, we spend much time and effort and money to achieve that goal.

This week’s parsha is Tzav and is discusses the laws of the Kohanim, and their role and duties as ministers of the Mishkan. Throughout the Torah reading Hashem instructs Moshe to tell Aarom and his sons how they will dress and how they will carry out their responsibilities of various offerings in the Mishkan. Aaron, as Kohain Gadol, is now the religious leader of the people.

At one point in the parsha, Moshe is to “take Aaron and his sons” along with anointing oil, the special garments and animals for offerings and in front of the people he is inaugurate Aaron into the Kehunah, the position of Kohain Gadol. Rashi says that Moshe had to win Aaron over with words. Aaron felt unworthy to be the Kohain Gadol due to his role in the Golden Calf incident. However, the fact that HaShem wanted Aaron to be the Kohain Gadol indicated that he had received Divine forgiveness.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, whom I have quoted often, points out that it was precisely the fact that Aaron made that mistake made his worthy to be Kohain Gadol. Leaders make mistakes, but their ability to learn from those mistakes and to grow and (hopefully) improve is what helps them develop into good, or better, leaders.

One can only wonder what Aaron felt at this point, as he was inaugurated into his new role as Kohain Gadol. Am I ready? Am I worthy? Am I credible? The answer to all three questions was yes. Yes, it was time for Aaron to come out from Moshe’s shadow. Despite past mistakes, yes Aaron was worthy of the sacred office of Kohain Gadol. And yes, Aaron was credible for HaShem’s desire for Aaron made him so. Whatever his hesitations were, Aaron did become the Kohain Gadol, he did perform the sacred ministry of the Mishkan, as only he could do, as he was meant to do.

Aaron had to realize that he was in fact ready, able and credible to lead as well. His type of leadership was to be different than Moshe’s, but no less crucial. Aaron was the man among the people. He provided the ritual functions in the Mishkan, but he was the peacemaker, he was the person who interacted and mingled with the people. His leadership complimented Moshe’s and their 40 years of combined leadership was critical in preparing the Jewish people for their eventual entrance into the Land of Israel.

However we answered the question as children as to what we wanted to be when we grow up, that answer now is probably different than the one we once gave. That answer, whether the one we gave as children, or what the answer turned out to be as adults, has its challenges. May Aaron be an example for us to face those challenges head on.

Shabbat Shalom, one and all.




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