05/25/2018 01:57 PM Posted by: David Cohen Poster Avatar
Naso - Take a Census
Numbers (4:21−7:89)
The Eternal One spoke to Moses: "Take a census … by their ancestral house and by their clans."

In honor of our graduating class and the students who crafted an amazing D'var Torah this week, I wanted to include excerpts from their speeches, in this our final "Friday Final" of the school year.  The product of our work together was original, insightful and personal to each student - and deserves an additional place in the spotlight.

As we examined different rabbinic commentaries on one of the central elements of the Parashah – the Miskan – the themes of sacrifice and action rose to the surface.  Carly Katz and Elie Bernstein both focused on the idea that the Mishkan was a model for parts of our lives. 
Carly also explored ways the Mishkan was a way for the divine to live among the people and the way that can help us follow a more righteous path:

" ‘And they shall make me a holy place and I shall dwell among them.’ It is interesting that G-d tells Moses he would like to live among them, not live above them just to watch over the Jewish people. For me this is a very important statement that G-d tells Moses. The fact that G-d wants the Jews to build him the Mishkan makes the Jewish people feel honored. Not only do the Jews not want to let G-d down, but they also want a place to be in G-d’s presence. The Jews felt special because G-d wanted to dwell among them, not just watch over them. To build this Mishkan, the Jews would bring only their finest of items and make big sacrifices. The roof was a tapestry with linen and red, blue, and purple wool. The walls of the temple were made of thick wooden beams directly beside each other on three of the four sides. On the fourth side was a curtain. The Jewish people tried to make the Mishkan the absolute best it could be, and it was a success.

Since some suggest that the Mishkan actually represented the path to correct religious behavior, today, synagogues, families, and even Jewish communities try to use the Mishkan as a model for how they may create the world around them. What I mean by this, is that some use the Mishkan as a guide because they believe that if you honor G-d through your actions, G-d will watch over you and protect you. Other people think that if you are a Jewish person, as soon as you are born, G-d is watching over you and making sure that you are safe. But, this may not be true. In order for G-d to watch over you and protect you, you have to follow proper Jewish behavior. For example, you must follow all the commandments, do mitzvot, and more. It is a two way street. If you respect G-d, G-d will respect you. So, this Mishkan is used as an example today, because it is used as a reminder to do what is right and follow the laws of the Torah.”

Elie used the metaphor of the Miskan to examine how we can carve out holiness in our modern, technology filled lives:
"How many of you feel close to your home or have something special at home? (pause to take answers or count hands)  In this case, G-d is asking to have a Mishkan be built for him so he can have a special place to stay for himself, like your home, so he can do things for us. If you built a house for someone, you would be in their debt. G-d is in this deal- the Jewish people built the Mishkan, now G-d will help them.

To me, Mishkan can be considered a figurative home, especially in our modern world filled with unending technology at our fingertips. We - build Mishkan - when we take a break from our smartphones. We create a metaphorical space for G-d when we take a pause from the internet. This is not to say we need to get rid of technology, but create space, a figurative home for Hashem in our minds and hearts. When we allow stress to run our lives we are living from our egos and literally Edging G-d Out. For us to have a relationship with Hashem, we need to build one, creating space and time to slow down and recharge our spiritual batteries.”

Elie also spoke of the importance of sacrifice, which was a key element to the way the Mishkan was to be used:

"Have any of you worked really hard hard on something and gotten better grades or a prize? In the Torah, it talks about something similar to that. It says, "Accept these from them for use in the service of the Tent of Meeting, and give them to the Levites according to their respective occupations.” G-d is telling Moses to give the Jewish people more sacrifices based on their work, so that each person will get to give what they have earned through work. 

In my own life, sacrifice looks like helping Mr. Phillips out or studying for a test when I’d rather be doing something else. It’s focusing on the greater good which isn’t always immediately rewarded. It’s doing what feels good, even when no one is looking.  When I think of sacrificing for greater rewards, I think of my parents and teachers, the ones who go out of their way each day to ensure I am, in equal parts, challenged and nurtured. Often, these adults will go without sleep or food to make sure us kids are on track.”

We received many compliments on the entire graduation service this year, including comments about the depth and insight of Carly and Elie.  I could not agree more and will go further to say that their insights represent the deep and complex thoughts of all of our 5th graders and the way they have approached Torah all year.

Y’shar Koach and Mazaal Tov to them all!!

- Additional Torah Study Resources: Torah Study / Leading a Family Torah Discussion

Categorized under:  Torah

05/18/2018 01:40 PM Posted by: David Cohen Poster Avatar
B'midbar - In the Wilderness
Numbers (1:1 − 4:20)
"…  following the exodus from the land of Egypt, the Eternal One spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, saying: 'Take a census of the whole Israelite company…'"

As we approach the holiday of Shavuot, when we celebrate the Jewish people receiving the Torah at Sinai, the Jewish world syncs back up as we read the Parashah B’midbar.

While it is often difficult to find meaning in the detailing of a census, as with most of our texts, there is rich meaning beneath the surface.  On the one hand, the modern concept of "census” is only one way to look at what was happening.  Another interpretation of the Hebrew leans more toward a "raising up” rather than counting.  For many, this sends our minds to thoughts of what it means to "rise up and be counted.”   To take account of something is also one way to look at it – as is the idea of "taking account”.  All of these should bring to the surface ideas of taking responsibility for something – or standing up and being recognized as a part of the community.

The richness of these divergent themes can also lead us in other directions.  This book of the Torah we are now reading, B’midbar, or "in the wilderness,” has many commentators asking questions about the order a census brings – in the face of the chaos implied by the term wilderness.  So whether one is being accounted for as a member of the Jewish community – and accepting all of its obligations – or one is being literally counted – the community is becoming more and more defined.  We left Egypt as a people with a name but not an identity.  With the arrival of the Mishkan and this this census – as well as the laws of Kashrut and Shabbat – our identity as a people is become more and more clear.  This progression toward what it means to be a member of this community, is an important development in the evolution of the Jewish people and the Jewish tradition.

Still others use this communal identity – as a contrast to the individual accounting that is taking place all around them with the census.  Some describe how this accounting places a focus on individuals to see how they fit as unique members of this Kehillah Kedoshah, our holy community.

What is interesting about all these interpretations, is that as we approach Shlenker graduation and Shavuout – a time when we celebrate Torah and Torah Study – these are the themes we have been imprinting on our older students especially.  This idea of balancing the individual with the communal is in many ways at the heart of adolescence.  Peer pressure, puberty, dating, acceptance, all take center stage with our students right now – yet we want them to take the mitzvot to heart and to make the right, or the good choice.  Making good choices does strengthen them and the community, but it is often hard for them to see that connection.  In our recent Human Development class with our fifth graders, our closing unit focused on how hard it is to make good choices in the face of the challenges that adolescence and adulthood bring.  We spoke of the challenge however as a great responsibility that comes along with the gift of Torah.  How to see yourself as B’tselem Elohim - and thus a member of this holy tradition - is a frame we found useful.  It was a frame that helped focus our students on ideas like respect, dignity, and humility when it came to our bodies and our relationships with one another. 

As Shavuot approaches, many Jewish communities around the world are asking graduates to look at the story of Sinai and see themselves at the foot of that mountain. We ask them to see themselves accepting the challenge and responsibility that leads to acts of kindness, compassion, and empathy.  As are we all, they are unique and special – yet contain the same holiness as their peers and all those who came before. We ask them to be proud of who they are and who they have become – yet at the same time we ask them to be humble, to place the needs of others ahead of their own, and to be awed by the presence of God in our lives.  We ask them to do this because we know if they can, they will have achieved the balance the Torah asks us to find.
Categorized under:  Torah

05/11/2018 11:40 AM Posted by: David Cohen Poster Avatar

B'har - B'chukotai / On Mount [Sinai] - My Laws
Leviticus 25:1-26:2 / 26:3-27:34

The Eternal One spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai: "Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When you enter the land that I assign to you, the land shall observe a sabbath of the Eternal."

If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit.

On Gifts, Obligations, and the Actions We Need to Take for Each:

In different parts of the Jewish world this week, we read either B’chukotai or a combined B’har-B’chokotai Parashah.  In each we are still being commanded about various holidays and observances – and about the census and the tribes that will be counted. 

One construct that seemed appropriate for this week was the opening of B’chokotai which told of the rewards the Israelites would receive if the followed God’s laws.

When speaking about this passage with students, I asked them if they thought it was that simple.  I asked if you simply did X or Y and your crops would grow or you would have the happy life being promised.

I didn’t ask the questions to see if they believed that God wasn’t being forthright.  I asked them if they thought any work was required on their part.  To a student, they agreed that work was required.  But then I asked them how they knew what to do?  

After a moment of silence, I asked them what they thought they needed to do to live a good life.  Many responded with ways to be healthy and to be kind to others.  I ran with the health part – and even alluded to a human development class the 5th graders were about to have the next day.  I asked them what it meant to live a healthy lifestyle and what they actually had to DO to BE healthy.  Many told me of diets, keeping hydrated, going to the doctor if they don’t feel well.  Then I asked them if Jewish law said anything about what foods to eat.   Gradually, eyebrows raised and a significant group shouted "Oh, keeping Kosher!”  I replied with a resounding yes and expanded on what Kashrut could mean for all of us. 

But then I focused on the idea that laws of Kashrut were both about humanitarian treatment of animals and our own health.  God, or the Torah, knew something about health.  And so if God says – follow my commandments and you will be rewarded, it is not about a magic wand being waved and a pot of gold appearing.  If you follow these laws – laws that were meant to guide you and help you – you will gain the benefit.  The law is somewhat of an obligation or a burden.  But it is also a gift.  It is a guiding set of principles to help us lead a better life.  That IS the reward.

We also discussed the general idea of taking care of one’s own health and looking out for the health of others (telling a friend they need to go to a Dr.) and began to talk more about the values our Mitzvot teach.  I asked – if they were all followed – would this create a pretty awesome world.  More accurately, I put that premise to the students and asked the question.  What would the world be like if all these values were adhered to – Lashon Harah – no gossip – Gimilut Hassadim – loving kindness – these were examples.  There was a short silence until one student exclaimed – "Whoah!  That would be a pretty awesome world.”  And that I said, would be the awesome reward.

Additional Torah Study Resources: Torah Study / Leading a Family Torah Discussion

Categorized under:  Torah

05/04/2018 01:25 PM Posted by: David Cohen Poster Avatar
Emor [Speak]
Leviticus 21:1−24:23
The Eternal One said to Moses: "Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron …

From the Sacredness of Space and Time – to the Sacredness of People, Justice and Fairness:

In different parts of the Jewish world this week, we read either Emor or Bahar.  In each we are being commanded about various holidays and observances. And interestingly, as we move from a conversation about marking time, we are presented with ways to mark time – and fairness.

When we are presented with the concept of Shabbat – and reminded of it here – we are told it is a time to rest, to refrain from work.  We are rarely told exactly why however.  We can of course extrapolate that rest is good - especially since we are told that God rested on the 7th day and that was good.

But as we are presented with additional "Sabbaths” we can glean more understanding about the original Shabbat.  We are told that not only are we to rest every seven days, but also, we are told of a very special Shabbat that happens every seven years (the original Sabbatical).  On that seventh year, we are to rest our fields so that they can be rejuvenated and not be over-used.  Might that be the Torah’s way of saying that this is why WE are to rest as well?
Even beyond the rest we are commanded to take on the seventh year, there is an even more dramatic "rest” we are to take on the seventh cycle of seven years.  The text relates the concept of the "Jubilee” year when debts are to be forgiven.  After 49 years of toil, in the 50th year, in our very own texts, we are supposed to – in a sense – reset to zero.  Debts are to be forgiven and practically – that would mean many people get to start our fresh.  And given our current system of investment, banking, and mortgage backed capital, those who make money off of those debts would no longer do so.  They also, in many ways, would re-set to zero.

If you are thinking that this exact interpretation of the Jubilee year seems radical or even crazy, what would be interesting to think about is the concept behind it.  We are being told that there is value in fairness.  We are being told that there may be something inherently unfair about the way wealth is accumulated and debt amassed.

As with many things in Torah, considering the lesson may be even more important than the context or events that are being presented.  If the value is sound, it may be incumbent upon us to ask ourselves – and share with our children – the extremes of our monetary systems that may inherently create inequality and it’s perpetuation.  This lesson would not fly in the face of the value of hard work, or the value of earning to take care of your family.  What it would reinforce however, is the imperative to acknowledge privilege and the responsibility to give back to help those less fortunate than ourselves – something we already teach to our children and hold as one of our highest values through Tzedakah and Gimilut Hassadim.   
Categorized under:  Torah

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