This week, along with students and teachers from across the area, I went back to school. My summer was wonderful - exciting and eventful - but not so restful. I've been left feeling like I needed a little more summer in my summer. So it was with slightly mixed emotions that I dropped my kids off the other morning and headed upstairs to my own classroom.
One of the special things we do in the middle school at Krieger Schechter to mark the start of the year is to have an all-middle-school minyan on the first day. Far more meaningful than an opening assembly, our minyan is an opportunity for students to reconnect with each other; to get used to their new place in the school, as each grade has a traditional makom kavua, or assigned place; to re-engage with tefillah as we do it here at school; to find some kavanah and joy on what for some is a difficult transition back to school life. (And by the way, it also fills a similar set of roles for the teachers.)
Our first day minyan did not disappoint. Collaborating with my colleagues on coordinating and guiding the service, I felt myself sliding back into the familiarity and synergy of those relationships, getting my groove back. The students, a little hesitant at first, soon brought their wonderful energy. All together, we created and experienced a service with soul, a service that I would want to go to again.
The beginning of the school year also coincides with the beginning of the shul year, with the new year and the High Holidays rapidly approaching. Many of our amazing, dedicated community members and volunteers are working busily behind the scenes to prepare for our services and experiences at Chevrei Tzedek - planning for how we'll be using the building, organizing leaders and greeters, preparing words of Torah and small-group discussions, crafting opportunities for our youth. There's a lot to plan for, and I know our High Holidays at Chevrei will be filled with soulful davening, thoughtful learning, and opportunities for both contemplation and connection with each other.
The High Holidays, much like the beginning of the school year, are a time when everybody comes back to shul. With your help, we, as a community and as individuals, will find great meaning in that experience. I look forward to seeing you at shul, to being together during this pivotal time of the year, to building on the relationship we've begun to forge with each other.
And then, I encourage you to come *back* to shul, to reconnect, re-engage, and continue the spirit of the new year well into 5784 and beyond.
Wishing us all a Shanah Tovah and a Shabbat Shalom,
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The other day, I took my kids to a birthday party. We didn't really know the newly 3 year old birthday girl - she is the daughter of my brother's next door neighbor, a young, single mother, without a lot of friends or much of a local support system. The mother planned a big party for her daughter, but learned rather late in the game that only one person from her original invite list was planning to come. So she called my brother and sister-in-law, who have a large family, and my sister-in-law called me. Somehow, we were able to scare up a couple of handfuls of kids and helped this family have a fun, freilikh party, hopefully lifting a few spirits along the way. (The birthday girl certainly enjoyed double-fisting cupcakes after we sang to her!)
As we were driving home, I asked my kids what they thought about the party - did they have a good time? After they both said that they did, I agreed and added in, "Plus, it was a mitzvah." The kids knew how we came to be invited to the party, so they understood that I meant that we had done something kind for another person.
Shmuel, my always-insightful 9 year old, thought about it for a second, then said: "It was a MITZvah, but not a meetzVAH. We did a good deed, but it wasn't a rule from the Torah."
So we talked about it for bit and decided that it was actually both - going to the party was a kind thing to do and also was a way to fulfill וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ, "Love your neighbor as yourself." (Leviticus 19:18) Sometimes a MITZvah can also be a meetzVAH.
This Shabbat, we read Parashat Ki Teitzei, which has the distinction of being the parashah with the most mitzvot - depending on whose count you go by, either 72 or 74. Many of those mitzvot seem to fall into the same category as our going to the birthday party. In addition to being explicitly instructed in the Torah, they're also good, kind things to do. Things like striving to return lost property, not ignoring injured animals you come across, building a parapet around your roof - these are mitzvot that speak to our obligation to act with kindness and accountability toward each other.
And many of the mitzvot in our parashah challenge us, coming from a worldview that seems xenophobic, misogynist, and prone to violence. These mitzvot, I imagine, are not ones we aim to fulfill in our interactions with others. And yet, they are still part of our Torah, a part of our inherited tradition.
Confronting troubling texts is something that I, as a woman and a rabbi, have had to do for as long as I have been a serious student of Torah. Excising these texts from the tradition, as tempting as that is, is not the right choice in most cases. Rather, I believe they provide us with the opportunity to look at them unflinchingly and examine how they may still - despite our vocal opposition - be operating in our lives or in our world today. When we see these parts of the Torah for what they are, we can both more fully understand how they continue to impact our world and find meaning in working to make them a record of our past, instead of instructions for our present.
This Shabbat in my d'var Torah, I'm planning to address some of these issues from our parashah. Again, over the High Holidays, you'll hear more from me in this vein. I hope you'll join us as we engage in learning together.
Reading parashat hashavua has felt particularly difficult this week. Too close to things happening in our country, in Israel, and in the world as a whole. Rules about corrupt leadership, reminders of how to behave in war time, how to set up a just society in the absence of justice, how to contend with murder. Sometimes Parashat Shoftim feels like a call to pursue justice - and that it definitely is. But for me, as we enter the month of Elul, it feels more like a call to examine those parts of ourselves and our world that are falling short of that goal.
So where do we start? How do we go about looking closely at ourselves and finding those places that need improvement?
We get a hint in the section of the parashah about arei miklat, cities of refuge. If someone kills another accidentally, without intent, they can flee to one of these cities and escape the vengeance of the surviving relatives of the person they unwittingly killed. Unintentional manslaughter is not the same as murder and the Torah demands that the accidental killer be protected. However, the Torah warns about these cities being abused by those who killed not by accident, but with malice aforethought.
וְכִי־יִהְיֶה אִישׁ שֹׂנֵא לְרֵעֵהוּ וְאָרַב לוֹ וְקָם עָלָיו וְהִכָּהוּ נֶפֶשׁ וָמֵת וְנָס אֶל־אַחַת הֶעָרִים הָאֵל׃ וְשָׁלְחוּ זִקְנֵי עִירוֹ וְלָקְחוּ אֹתוֹ מִשָּׁם...
If, however, a man who is the enemy of another lies in wait and sets upon [the victim] and strikes a fatal blow and then flees to one of these towns, the elders of his town shall have him brought back from there...(Deuteronomy 19:11-12)
The Midrash (Sifrei Devarim 186-187) picks up on the wording in the Torah's description of the type of killer who cannot seek refuge: "A man who is the enemy of another" - in the Hebrew אִישׁ שֹׂנֵא לְרֵעֵהוּ (ish soneh l're-eihu). These words recall another, more famous, verse, the instruction from Vayikra of וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ (v'ahavta l'reiakha kamokha), to love our fellows as ourselves. In the explanation of the Midrash, someone who does not attend to loving his fellow person, a seemingly less difficult mitzvah, will eventually come to disregard them and foster hatred for them, making it a short journey to being able to kill them, transgressing a far more serious command.
The Midrash teaches that neglecting smaller obligations opens the door to trampling on larger ones. In these first few days of Elul, I see in it an answer to the question I posed above - how do we begin to look within and take note of where we need to recalibrate ourselves?
Start by noticing the small stuff - the corners we cut, especially in our relationships with each other, the tiny insensitivities, the minor failings we let slip by because they're not so big of a deal. As the Midrash sees it, these "not so big of a deal" actions desensitize us to the point where we can do grave harm to another person.
This process can also work in the opposite direction. If we resensitize ourselves to those small transgressions and do the work to repair them, we will be led not toward callousness and disregard, but toward love and connection. May we experience an abundance of both in the coming new year.
Hello again, friends, from (this time rainy) Camp Ramah in the Poconos! This week, I'm thinking a lot about the relationship between the individual and the community. Much of the educational program at camp, whether through the explicit learning experiences or the less overtly 'educational' parts, focuses on the development of an interdependent community. Campers and staff must work together to foster positive tzrif (bunk) cultures, meaningful pe'ulot (activities), and healthy relationships. At the same time, it's the contributions of many individuals that make these endeavors successful.
This past week, I explored this idea with my Halutzim students (entering 7th grade) in our study of Pirkei Avot. Before even getting to the text, I gave them a challenge. Showing them a beautiful and detailed illustration from a storybook here in our sifriya (library), I gave them one minute to look at it carefully, then asked them, as individuals, to do their best to draw what they saw, closing the book so that they could no longer see the illustration. They worked hard on their drawings and were proud to point out what they had captured from the original when we came back together after a few minutes. We then did the exercise again, looking at the illustration and preparing to draw it. This time, however, they would work in small groups to create a drawing together.
After finishing the activity, we unpacked the experience, with the campers reflecting on how powerful it was for them to rely on themselves when working independently and also how working with other people provided opportunities for collaboration and increased creativity.
We then tied this experience to Avot 1:14, Hillel's famous teaching of "If I am not for myself, who is for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?" The campers were easily able to see how reading the first two questions together allowed us to glean an important lesson: in order to join together in community with others, we must strive to be whole in ourselves. And if we are whole in ourselves, we can best express our individual potential in community with others.
This same synergy between the individual and the community is present in our Torah reading this week. Parashat Re'eh opens with the words, "רְאֵה אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם בְּרָכָה וּקְלָלָה׃" - "See [singular], I set before you [plural] blessing and curse." (Deuteronomy 11:26) Many commentators note the grammatical inconsistency in the verse here, drawing meaning from the use of both the singular and the plural in one place. Particularly on the heels of the learning I shared above, the explanation that feels most resonant for me this week is this: Each of us has a personal responsibility - and the individual opportunity - to decide how we respond to the blessings or curses laid before us in our lives. And at the same time, our individual choices don't exist in a vacuum. We exist in community with others and the blessings we bring into our lives will, God willing, benefit those around us, helping each of us to take part in creating our sacred community.
Especially as we draw closer to the month of Elul and our annual period of introspection, my wish for us this week is that we each take the time we need to see what lies ahead of us for this coming year, that we invite blessing into our lives, and that we do all of this supported by, and in support of, each other.
Rabbi Marci Jacobs
Hello again, dear Chevrei friends, from sunny Lakewood, PA!
First, I want to thank those of you who reached out to share your personal stories in response to my email last week! It has been a true joy to read your reflections and continue the conversation through email. Please feel free to keep writing! It might take me a little longer than normal to respond from here at camp, but I do love hearing from you, and will do my best to respond to every message I receive.
Just a few hours after sending that message, I experienced my first Shabbat here at camp. Every camp has their own culture, and Ramah in the Poconos is especially proud of their ruah, their spirit and liveliness, especially when it comes to singing on Shabbat.
In our parashah this week, Eikev, we begin with a rather long description of the blessings that will come to the people when they settle in the Land of Israel. As this section nears its conclusion, we read: וְאָכַלְתָּ֖ וְשָׂבָ֑עְתָּ וּבֵֽרַכְתָּ֙ אֶת־ה׳ אֱ׳לֹהֶ֔יךָ עַל־הָאָ֥רֶץ הַטֹּבָ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר נָֽתַן־לָֽךְ׃ - "When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to Adonai your God for the good land given to you." (Deuteronomy 8:10)
This verse is the source for the mitzvah of reciting Birkat Hamazon, the blessing after meals. In fact, the second blessing of the 4 that comprise Birkat Hamazon quotes this verse in its entirety, making the explicit point that giving thanks to God for the good land given to us (and the food produced by that land) is accomplished by saying this set of blessings and connected additional prayers.
Birkat Hamazon can be said in a number of ways. We can say it individually, communally, to ourselves, sing it all out loud, some combination of the above, or in a number of different ways. And then there's the way we say it at camp on Shabbat.
It's noteworthy that Birkat Hamazon is led by campers - these children somehow manage to capture the attention of several hundred of their peers to lead them in reciting the ancient words. As soon as the leaders begin, the hadar okhel (dining hall) erupts with sound. Hands keeping the beat on tabletops, feet tapping on the floors underneath, tables of campers competing with each other to see who can sing the loudest; the room vibrates with the energy everyone brings to the experience. The ruah is amazing, with special melodies, hand motions, and flourishes added in to make it even more fun.
After Birkat Hamazon, everyone sticks around to sing zemirot (Shabbat table songs), also led by campers. One of the treasured traditions here is that each Edah (unit of campers) learns and leads their own verse to the Shabbat song Mipi El. What a wonderful way to build familiarity with Shabbat zemirot and to honor each camper's contribution to the community. The song travels around the room, with each Edah taking the lead for their verse, and the whole camp chiming in for the response lines.
Gavi was ready for bed shortly after the singing began, so we made our way back to our cabin with the beautiful ruah of the rest of the camp accompanying us on our walk home. I'm hoping we'll make it through more of the singing this week - it's one of the things that makes Shabbat here at camp so special. While we can't quite achieve the same kind of ruah in our home and shul lives (unless you regularly have 300+ very excited young people at your table each week!), we can be inspired to infuse our blessing and our singing with joy, excitement, and gratitude.
Rabbi Marci Jacobs