The day is almost here and one can feel the anticipation. Many of us felt the same last week as the first day of school approached and a new school year lay ahead, but now there is another first day coming. Rosh HaShanah begins next week and again a new year is about to begin with opportunities waiting for us.
This week we read the final parsha of 5777, Nitzavim/VaYelech. In all of these parshiyot in the Book of Devarim the Jewish people have been standing on the edge of the Jordan River listening to Moshe give his final speech before they enter the Land of Israel. For the past eight weeks Moshe has been laying out a vision for the people for life in the Land; the type of society they can create through their continual connection to the Torah and Jewish tradition.
There is passage in the Talmud where the rabbis are debating whether an oven, made from clay, was ritually impure and therefore not able to be used. Rabbi Eliezer argued in favor of its use while the other rabbis were against it. Rabbi Eliezer tried using various proofs that his opinion was correct, calling upon nature to side with him. “If I am correct, let the carob tree prove it” he proclaimed and the carob tree uprooted itself several hundred feet. The rabbis did not accept the proof. Rabbi Eliezer tried again. “If I am correct, let the canal water prove it,” he called out and the canal water began to flow backward. However, yet again, the rabbis did not accept the carob tree as proof. Finally Rabbi Yirmiyah declared, quoting from this week’s parsha, “It is not in Heaven!”
What did Rabbi Yirmiyah mean? The Torah was already given to human beings and Rabbi Yirmiyah was telling Rabbi Eliezer, who was using Divine acts to demonstrate the correctness of his point, that it was up to human understanding of the Torah that would decide whether or not the oven could be used. The Torah was Divinely given to humans to apply their wisdom through study to render decisions for the society. Human beings were to be HaShem’s partner in the creation of a community.
In the Jewish people parsha, the Jewish people are standing at the threshold of a new era, in the same way we are standing on the threshold of a new school year, and a new year, all with incredible opportunities waiting for us. Our connection to Jewish tradition partners us with the Divine; to widen the circle of opportunity, to deepen the meaning of our Judaism, for form that more perfect community.
Just like the Israelites, our best days lies ahead.
With blessings for a sweet, healthy and fulfilling 5778.
Wishing all a Ketiva, v’chatima tova, may we all be inscribed in the Book of Life.
Shabbat shalom and Shana tova.
Rabbi Yaakov Traiger
There was once a man that walked into a clothing store. He told the store owner his measurements and was brought a fine suit. The man went into the fitting room to try the suit on. The man came out and complained that the suit didn’t fit – it was too tight. The owner of the store looked closely at his customer and discovered the problem. “Sir,” he said to the man, “in order for the new suit to fit, you must first take off the old one.”
This week we read Parshat Ki Tavo, which translates “When you come . . .” Last week’s parsha was Ki Teitzei, “When you go out . . . “ There is something poignant about the names of these two parshiyot. It is Elul and 5777 is quickly waning only to be replaced with 5778. As we hear the sound of the shofar each morning we are reminded that this is the season of reflection. It is a time to look back and think about what we have done – the good as well as the not so good. It is the 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.
In order to do this when we come out of the old year we must shed ourselves of the old suit - those habits that prevent us from putting on the new one for if not when you come into the new year it will still be the old suit. This requires change – and that is hard. A former principal for whom I worked said at his retirement dinner, after more than 40 years of running the school, “The only one who likes change is a wet baby.”
The new school year has begun. 5778 is only a few days away. I want to welcome our new students, our new families and our new teachers. I welcome back all those returning. May this be a wonderful, productive year, a fulfilling year, a year of good health, and a year of peace.
Rabbi Yaakov Traiger
Bravo to Morah Dassi and Mrs. Greenwald for another wonderful Zimriyah! This one was somewhat significant for me personally because I have been a Beatles fan for many years. One Saturday night back in late 1985 when I a UMASS student a friend who lived down the hall from me and I listened to many of our combined Beatles records (those were the days before CDs) all night while consuming large amounts of pizza. I even saw Beatlemania at a bar not far from campus. In fact, in high school when I attempted to take guitar lessons, being left-handed I had the guitar re-strung so I could play like Paul McCartney. How did those lessons go? Let’s just say having a left-handed strung guitar was as close as I ever got to playing like Paul McCartney. The Zimriyah was wonderful - not just for the hard work Morah Dassi and Rachel put in to make sure our students shine, but for the opportunity it provided me to stroll down memory lane.
This week we read Parshat Shelach which relates the famous episode of the spies. Moshe sends 12 men into the Land of Israel with a list of things for which to look while there. When they return, 40 days later, 10 give a report which results in complete hysteria on the part of the rest of the people. The 10 spies report that there are giants in the land, and that the land devours its inhabitants. When the people hear this report they immediately begin to cry, “If only we had died in Egypt . . . Why is HaShem bringing us to this to this land to die by the sword?”
When the people begin to cry, the Torah text says, “The entire assembly raised up its voice; the people wept . . .” The Hebrew root the Torah uses means “lift up” and it is used, along with the word for crying in three other places in the Torah when there was some feeling of hopelessness or complete despair on the part of the person, or people, crying. The people had the feeling that they had no future; the land to which HaShem was bringing them was fraught with danger. They wanted to return to Egypt, they wanted to return to the past.
In contrast to their 10 compatriots, it was Joshua and Caleb who looked towards to the future. Caleb silences the people, “We shall surely ascend and conquer it [the land], for we surely can do it.” Both he Joshua later say, “The Land is a very, very good land . . . if HaShem desire He will bring us to the Land . . . do not fear.” Unfortunately their words are for naught.
Wednesday night we say Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday” which has the phrase “ . . . and now I long for yesterday.” The lyrics of the song indicate a longing for the past. In 1992, when Bill Clinton was elected president, he used Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop Thinking about Tomorrow” as a theme song. It is a song about the future.
The Talmud relates a story about several rabbis who came upon the ruins of the Temple in Jerusalem. When they saw a fox emerge from the ruins they began to weep. However, Rabbi Akiva began to laugh. His companions asked why he was laughing. His response was poignant, “Why are you weeping? Just as Uriah’s prophecy of the Temple being plowed came true, so shall Zechariah’s prophecy (“Old men and women shall yet sit in the streets of Jerusalem” Zecharia 8:4) come true.” Rabbi Akiva was looking at the future when Jerusalem would be rebuilt.
As the 2016-2017 school year wanes and the summer approaches it is a time to reflect on the past year and examine the good and the not-so-good of the year. Successes of the past are for us to build upon, to strengthen. The failures are often more significant for they are our teachers. They allow us to find ways to improve and become better. However, the tricky part is not to become stuck in the mire of self-doubt. The Israelites looked to the past, which ultimately was their downfall for that generation was condemned to wander the desert for 40 years. Joshua and Caleb looked to the future and in doing so they merited to enter the Land of Israel.
This past school year was wonderful to be sure. Thank you to all the teachers who work so hard to teach the students each day. Thank you to the parents for entrusting your children to us. Thank you to the PTO for everything they do to support our school. There were so many successes, and there were those challenging moments as well. The past is the past, it can’t be changed. May Joshua and Caleb, and Rabbi Akiva be models for us. The future is in our hands. 2017-2018 awaits us. It is bright and full of opportunity.
Wishing you all a wonderful, restful and safe summer.
Rabbi Yaakov Traiger
As I many know I grew up in Sharon, Massachusetts, a small New England town whose history is goes back to the Revolution. I remember the milk truck from Crescent Ridge, the dairy farm in town which would leave milk bottles in the metal box on our front step. There was an enormous corn farm next to my elementary school and it was literally unheard of to eat store-bought corn. There were many mornings when deer were standing in my backyard and then scamper off into the woods at even the slightest sound. When my family travels up to Massachusetts in the summer I still relish the opportunity to drive through the town and show my children different sights, tell them about this place, or that place. While it has been over 30 years since I left Sharon, but I still consider myself a Sharonite.
I mention this again as we read Parshat Behar – Bechukotai this week. This double parsha opens with the command to allow the land to lie fallow every the seven years, which is known as the Shmitta Year. The parsha then continues with the mandate to count seven cycles of the Shmitta Year. After the seventh cycle, there is an additional year, a fiftieth year known as the Yovel, the Jubilee Year. During this year, the land continues to lie fallow; a shofar is sounded and land that has been sold during the previous 50 years is returned to their original owners. Coupled with this, the Torah commands to “proclaim freedom throughout the land” (which interestingly is engraved on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia) and all indentured servants, those who because of theft or poverty, were compelled to serve another for six years, went free in the Yovel year.
This coming week we will celebrate another Yovel. Wednesday is the 28th of the month of Iyar, 50 years ago this week the Old City of Jerusalem, the eternal city of the Jewish people was liberated from its Jordanian captors. In what many could only describe as a nes, a miracle from the Divine, the Kotel was returned to Jewish hands. While the Torah commands us to “proclaim freedom throughout the Land” so it could be heard everywhere, the sounds of General Motta Gur, the commander of the IDF units in Jerusalem declaring “Har HaBayit (the Temple Mount) is in our hands!!” still reverberate in our ears. Indeed at that moment the IDF Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren blew a shofar at the Kotel, at its liberation.
Jerusalem has always played a prominent role in Jewish tradition and history. Jerusalem is special. The Talmud teaches that one who has not seen Jerusalem in its splendor has never seen beauty. There is a midrash which states that the Land of Israel is the center of the world and that Jerusalem is the center of the Land of Israel. What it meant to have the two parts of Jerusalem reunited, to be able once again to go to the Kotel and not just touch its stones, but have its stone touch you is something I can only imagine.
Sharon, Massachusetts is where I grew up and I will always have nostalgic feelings for this town. However, Jerusalem, where I was privileged to live for three years, where my Jewish spirit was formed, will always be home. This Wednesday, the 28th of Iyar I will say Hallel, I will celebrate the Yovel of Yerushalayim.
As we conclude the Book of VaYikra we say “Hazak, Hazak, V’Nit’hazayk”
Rabbi Yaakov Traiger
I love Shabbat. When it finally arrives I can often feel the tension fall off from my shoulders, especially during the singing of Lecha Dodi in shul. I have written about being in shul in Israel, sitting by the tall windows and watching darkness, and Shabbat, literally descend on the city. I loved walking to shul on Shabbat morning, especially in the spring in summer. It wasn’t just that the streets were quiet in the morning, but rather there was a quality of calmness, of peace (Shabbat peace) that was palpable only the streets of Jerusalem.
This week we read Parshat Emor. In the parsha there is a list of all the holidays of the year. However, the Torah basically gives the date of each holiday and the offerings brought on those days. Not much else is related about the meaning of each holiday itself. This part of the parsha is the Torah for reading for the Shalosh Regalim, the three pilgrimage holidays, Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot.
If we look closer there is something significant in these descriptions on the holidays; two common elements. First, is the number seven. For example, Pesach is a seven day holiday in the Torah. On the 14th of Nisan the Pesach offering must be brought. 14 is a multiple of seven. Sukkot is also a seven day holiday. Beginning with the second day of Pesach we count seven weeks and 49 days, the Omer period, 49 again being a multiple of seven. At the end of this time is another holiday, Shavuot. Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are in the month of Tishrei, the seventh month.
The second common element is that the Torah describes these holidays, or the first and last days as in the case of Pesach and Sukkot as a “Shabbat Shabbaton,” days that have an element of Shabbat embedded in them. Shabbat is the seventh day. Shabbat becomes the paradigm. Just as Shabbat is part of the week, there are moments when Shabbat is woven into the very fabric of the year.
Shabbat is first introduced to us in Bereshit at the end of the six days of Creation. The Hebrew root of the word Shabbat means to stop. HaShem stopped the act of creating and let things be as they were. Jewish tradition encourages us to emulate HaShem. Just as HaShem is compassionate, so we should be compassionate. For six days we wrestle with the world, we work at our own creative process, for one of the traits HaShem instilled in humanity is to create, to be productive. The seventh day allows us to take a step back from the creating, to let things be, to appreciate what we have done. The myriad of laws of Shabbat are restrictive in nature, but that restriction is meant to ultimately free us from the bonds of the creative impulse and allow to fully appreciate what it means to be human, created in the image of the Divine; to appreciate the world around us and the people we hold most dear.
Each week after my family makes Havdalah the first thing I do is prepare the next week’s Shabbat candles. Shabbat doesn’t just disappear. With this act I begin to prepare for the next Shabbat, to look forward to that moment when the Shabbat Queen will come.
Rabbi Yaakov Traiger