Friday, September 27, 2013

V'zot Habracha: The Four Giants

This Dvar Torah comes from Rabbi Jay Kelman of Torah in Motion.  Since we just completed reading the Torah and begin again, let us contemplate what makes for a good life, as Rabbi Kelman cites in this drash.

"And Moshe was one hundred and twenty years when he died" (Devarim 34:7). It is a beautiful, if somewhat unrealistic, custom to offer blessings to those celebrating a birthday that they should live to be 120. While this quantity of life is (currently) unrealistic, the blessing to live to 120 relates not only to quantity, but to the quality of life; "his eyesight did not diminish and his strength did not wane" (ibid). 
The Midrash notes that three other giants of Jewish history also lived to be 120; Hillel the Elder, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zackai, and Rabbi Akiva. And like Moshe, the Midrash claims that they, too, "gave sustenance to the Jewish people for forty years", forty being the number representing transformation. These four are the transformative figures of Jewish history.
It takes forty days for fetus to develop, the flood lasted forty days, Moshe spent forty days receiving the Torah, and we wandered for forty years in the desert, fulfilling G-d's promise to Abraham that we would be strangers in a land for four hundred years.
Not surprisingly, the Midrash divides the lives of these four heroes into three periods of forty years, with the culmination being their service to the Jewish people for forty years. Moshe, the Midrash notes, spent forty years in Egypt, forty in Midian, and forty "sustaining the people". Rabbi Akiva became interested in Torah at the age of forty, and Hillel arrived in Israel from Bavel at forty.
The message of the Midrash is not to convey their age at death[1], but to link these four great heroes of Jewish history. Each led at a time of great historical crisis, and they literally "sustained (parnesh) the Jewish people for forty years" (Sifri 36:7). Without their efforts, there would have been no Jewish history.  Not only did Moshe redeem the people as they came perilously close to total assimilation--something the Midrash claims did indeed happen in the case of at least 80% of the people--he spared them from the destruction due them for their sinning. Hillel established the "house" (Beit Hilllel) that set up the contours of Jewish law. He was extolled for his great humility like Moshe, and had an uncanny ability to relate to all. His student Rav Yochanan ben Zackai perhaps single-handedly saved the Jewish people by not attempting to save Jerusalem, affording the opportunity to rebuild Judaism from the ground up in Yavne. With the Temple lost, many groups of Jews disappeared; and if not for Rav Yochanan's understanding that the Temple is only a means to an end, we would not be here today.
While Rav Yochanan ben Zackai saved Judaism, it was Rabbi Akiva who developed it. It was to his Beit Midrash that Moshe was "transported" at Sinai--to witness Rabbi Akiva "expound on every thistle and thistle, mountains and mountains of Jewish law" (Menachot 29b). His willingness to sacrifice his life in order to worship G-d with all his soul is the (tragic) model that was emulated by many. It is he and his students who are the primary teachers of the Mishnah and halacha.
Anthropologists generally divide life into three stages; growth, maturity and decline. Yet that is true in the physical realm only. If one is immersed in "sustaining the Jewish people", something each of us can do in some form or another, the legacy we leave for our people will endure for all time.

[1]Even Moshe may not have been exactly 120 years old at death. The Torah tells us he was eighty when he first spoke to Pharaoh, and if we add the forty years in the desert, that leaves no real time for the ten plagues and the Exodus. Biblical numerology is often meant not as mathematical or historical certitude, but to convey certain ideas rooted in the symbolic nature of numbers.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Don't let your child get stuck in Juvenile Judaism

I want to share with you 2 articles which recently came out about Hebrew high schools.  The first one deals with one school in New Jersey that changed its curriculum to appeal to more students.  Here’s a quote from the article:

The new curriculum puts a modern, topical spin on the traditional Hebrew language, holiday, and ritual-centered program. Based on an eight-semester program developed by Brandeis University’s Institute for Informal Jewish Education, the curriculum will include courses on Jewish bioethics, modern and historic Israel, and “Who Wrote the Bible?”

In other words, they’re doing EXACTLY what we’ve been doing here for years – in fact we have offered all of these courses and are presently offering the first 2 this semester.  Read more in:

This next article deals with the cost of Hebrew High Schools.  As you will note, since we are a member of NAACCHHS, we have the lowest cost of any of the high schools in the country.

With our innovative programming and no/low cost, you’d think parents and teens would be knocking down our doors to get in.  You’d be wrong.  Each semester it’s getting more and more difficult to get students to sign up for our innovative and interesting program.  We expend much energy querying the students as to what their interests are – many of whom express a desire to come to Chai School, and yet when the time comes they do not come to Chai School.  The feedback we receive from students who’ve taken the program is so positive – I know we are competing with many other after-school activities – but when all is said and done, isn’t it important to engage your child in a program that will make him/her feel positive about her/his heritage and give him/her a greater understanding of our Jewish history, culture, Israel and one’s place in the world today?

I hope you will consider enrolling your teen in the Chai School and if you know of other Jewish teens in the community who have not been to Hebrew school, ever, but would like to explore their heritage, please share with them the information about our Vermont Chai School.  After all, secular education doesn’t end after 7th grade, why should Jewish education?

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Learning Judaism as a Native Language Requires More Than Synagogue Once a Year

I wanted to share with you this article from Tablet Magazine, an online Jewish ezine with great articles:

Becoming fluent in your own religious tradition is like playing an instrument or a sport: It takes time, dedication, and practice.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Post Labor Day Whites

When is it fashionably acceptable to wear white after Labor Day? On Yom Kippur!

Many people have the custom of wearing white on Yom Kippur. In the synagogue you will often see women dressed in white suits or dresses and men bedecked in a white garment known as a kittel (Yiddish for robe).

There are several reasons for this custom:

1) Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the day on which we ask God to overlook all of our mistakes. Consequently, it is customary to wear white as a way of emulating the angels, who stand before God in purity. In Hebrew, angels are known as "malachim" (singular-mal'ach) which means messenger(s). 

The malachim were created as God's spiritual messengers and are pure, totally spiritual creatures. Human beings, on the other hand, were created of both matter and spirit. It is this combination that gives us "free will," enabling us to make choices that, unfortunately, are not always the best. These unwise choices are what require us to engage in teshuva (repentance). On Yom Kippur, one wishes to emulate the malachim, the pure spirits who exist only to serve the Creator.

2) White garments, especially the kittel, are also reminiscent of the burial shroud. On Yom Kippur, one's life is held in balance by the greatest Judge of all. When one is reminded of one's mortality, a person is more likely to engage in honest introspection...Did I really act properly? Was there anything I could have done better? etc.

3) And of course, on Yom Kippur you don't have to worry about food stains!