Devarim: Gratitude

Parashat Devarim opens Sefer Devarim, which is also called "Mishne Torah" because it describes the significant events from the previous books. One of the primary and most important incidents opening Sefer Devarim is Chet HaMeraglim, the story of the sin of the spies. There is a lot of commentary about this case, but in my opinion, one of the most essential lessons to be learned from this story is the importance of feeling gratitude for what Hashem does for us.


After all the miracles that Am Yisrael, the Nation of Israel, experiences through the desert, during Yetziat Mitzrayim, and after Matan Torah, here come the spies to say that we will not be able to enter Israel because it's scary and we have enemies there. What a lack of gratitude towards Hashem! And we can see that the punishment for this is a very severe one; all of that generation did not enter Israel.


It is said that Am Yisrael cried all night after that punishment was decreed, to which Hashem replied: You cried for nothing, so I declare that you will be weeping for generations. Therefore, it has been said in the Talmud: On Tisha B'Av, it was decreed that our ancestors would not enter Israel, and both Temples were destroyed. It is because of this that we fast on Tisha B'Av.


What we learn from this--the lesson the Torah comes to teach us--is that one of the most important and fundamental building blocks of the relationship between Am Yisrael, Hashem, and Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel, is gratitude. The same is true of any relationship. We need to show gratitude to our friends, parents, teachers, etc.

Be'ezrat Hashem, with Hashem's help, we are beginning a new, interesting, and challenging period of building, and all its success depends on the cooperation between us. We will be able to achieve that desired relationship with gratitude, so we would like to start with that and say thank you for the opportunity that has been given to us to come to this school and the Atlanta community.


I'm certain that together, we will be sure to succeed!


Shabbat Shalom,


Michal Hoch, Judaic Studies faculty,
Atlanta Jewish Academy Lower School

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Matot-Masei: The Secret of Happiness

I was always puzzled by the fact that the Torah goes to such lengths to tell us the names of all the places that the Israelites went through. We get it; they needed a route to travel in order to kill some forty years in the desert, yes? Why are the details so important?


I believe the following very sweet story can shed some light on this question.


I really love this story, because it is actually not new to Judaism at all; it is found as a subplot in one of the famous stories of Rabbi Nachman of Breslav (I'll save the full version for some other time, perhaps).


A merchant sent his son to learn the Secret of Happiness from the wisest of men. The young man wandered through the desert for forty days until he reached a beautiful castle at the top of a mountain.


There lived the sage that the young man was looking for.


However, instead of finding a holy man, our hero entered a room and saw a great deal of activity; merchants coming and going, people chatting in the corners, a small orchestra playing sweet melodies, and there was a table laden with the most delectable dishes of that part of the world.


The wise man talked to everybody, and the young man had to wait for two hours until it was time for his audience.


With considerable patience, he listened attentively to the reason for the boy's visit, but told him that at that moment he did not have the time to explain to him the Secret of Happiness.


He suggested that the young man take a stroll around his palace and come back in two hours' time.


"However, I want to ask you a favor," he added, handing the boy a teaspoon, in which he poured two drops of oil. "While you walk, carry this spoon and don't let the oil spill."


The young man began to climb up and down the palace staircases, always keeping his eyes fixed on the spoon. At the end of two hours he returned to the presence of the wise man.


"So," asked the sage, "did you see the Persian tapestries hanging in my dining room? Did you see the garden that the Master of Gardeners took ten years to create? Did you notice the beautiful parchments in my library?"


Embarrassed, the young man confessed that he had seen nothing. His only concern was not to spill the drops of oil that the wise man had entrusted to him. 


"So, go back and see the wonders of my world," said the wise man. "You can't trust a man if you don't know his house." 


Now more at ease, the young man took the spoon and strolled again through the palace, this time paying attention to all the works of art that hung from the ceiling and walls. He saw the gardens, the mountains all around the palace, the delicacy of the flowers, the taste with which each work of art was placed in its niche.


Returning to the sage, he reported in detail all that he had seen.


"But where are the two drops of oil that I entrusted to you?" asked the sage.


Looking down at the spoon, the young man realized that he had spilled the oil.


"Well, that is the only advice I have to give you," said the sage of sages. "The Secret of Happiness lies in looking at all the wonders of the world and never forgetting the two drops of oil in the spoon." 


The Israelites, B'nei Israel, are traveling through all kinds of places, but these places get their names from the actions and impact of B'nei Israel. What they are doing is teaching is that the beauty and uniqueness of every place (in Hashem's palace) is pointed out when we give it that uniqueness. A place may be called "Sukkot," (Booths), and forever teach mankind about the true perspective on things; or it can be called "Kivrot Hata'ava," (the Graves of Desire), and forever teach the same lesson in a different tune.


B'nei Israel are learning--throughout their time in the desert and on their unique travels--to observe and behold all the beauty of this world, without losing their two drops, their Jewish soul, their neshama.



Shabbat Shalom,



Rabbi Elad Asulin, Judaic Studies faculty,


Schoolwide Programming,


Atlanta Jewish Academy


 


Story translated from Portuguese by James Mulholland, originally by Paulo Coelho.

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Pinchas: Girl Power

Parashat Pinchas tells us a special and extraordinary story. The parasha opens with an accounting of the people of each shevet (tribe) in the desert. The next chapter, however, brings us the story of b'not Tzelophchad, the daughters of Tzelophchad of Shevet Menashe. 


In the parasha, the orphan daughters of Tzelophchad ask to keep the land that was to be allotted to their father. The five daughters do not demand the inheritance; instead, they come to Moshe with a request. Their father died in the desert, so is it right that his portion should be lost?


Why does the Torah bring us such a specific, detailed digression in this parasha? What is the connection between counting all the Jewish people in the desert and this narrow, particular request?


The answer is that the request of these five sisters wasn't narrow or particular at all; it is relevant to all girls and women, in more than one way.


The first lesson to be learned from this is the importance of girls, and support for their desire to settle and do mitzvot in Israel, in the natural way. This desire of the women to live in Israel contrasts with the attitude of many of the Hebrew men, who asked more than once during their travels to go back to Egypt, or stated their preference to just stay in the desert and live on the daily miracles they experienced there. The Hebrew women, on the other hand, wanted to enter the Promised Land and settle there.


A second important lesson to learn from this short story is that the daughters had the courage to stand up for their rights. They argued their case and convinced others that their way was correct. The reward for their courage was the privilege of entering the Land of Israel.


Another issue that comes up in the story are the halachot, the rules of inheritance. The fact that the daughters were legitimate heirs able to inherit property from their father was innovative for that time.


Adding it all up, we can see that the short story of b'not Tzelophchad was a powerful influence on the future of all of the Children of Israel. We should keep this story in mind as an example of the courage and the power found in the women of our nation.


 


Shabbat Shalom,



Tamar Lerer, Judaic Studies faculty


Atlanta Jewish Academy Lower School

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Balak: Get Inspired!

I think if Bil'am was alive today, he would probably be a famous rock star, or at least an American Idol winner. This guy is totally living in the moment and living it up!


Why do I feel this way?


First, let's try to understand who Bil'am is. Balak, the king, compliments Bil'am by repeating the known fact that any blessing that comes out of Bil'am's mouth is destined to be fulfilled. Not only that, the Torah confirms that it was not inevitable that he would fail in his attempt to curse Am Yisrael, the people of Israel; after all, Hashem speaks to him directly! As far as we knew, this was a privilege limited to spiritual personalities like Avraham Avinu or Moshe Rabeinu. Also, Bil'am is so independent that he can refuse a king's order to join him. So it looks like we have a very powerful guy here!


Eventually, Bil'am goes with Balak's advisors and sets up a whole extravaganza for his cursing of Am Yisrael, makes three attempts to do so, and then can't go through with it. Instead, he blesses Am Yisrael!


At the end, we learn that Bil'am really wanted to curse them, but couldn't. One might ask, "Okay, fine; so you can't see anything bad in Am Israel. But can't you just lie for once and get it done?!?" The answer is no!


Even though Bil'am was one of the "bad guys," that doesn't mean he didn't know the value of truth and inspiration. He might have cursed others in the past (a "bad guy" behavior), but he only did it when it was based on truth. Bil'am understands that in order to force hidden potential for good or bad into the open, you have to have two things: truth and inspiration. That is why Balak tried to change the location for Bil'am, but Bil'am could only act as he was inspired to from Above.


Last week I attended a concert by a famous singer in Israel, Ehud Banai; and he performed a song called "Blues Kena'ani," written in memory of another Israeli singer, Meir Ariel. Before singing the song, he told the following story: he visited another famous Israeli singer and told him that he is jealous of American blues artists, because they have such a vast land in which to travel, find inspiration, and write songs. But in Israel, we have only enough land to drive maybe drive 4 hours in each direction. So the other singer told him that he has something far more inspirational here in Israel. True, America is huge, but it's only about two hundred and forty years old. In Israel, we have a land that is small, but saturated with the history of the Jewish people, going back over three thousand years. Now that's inspirational!


Inspiration is the closest thing to prophecy (nevu'ah) that we have today. When parents name their kids, they receive a spark of prophecy that inspires them to choose the right name for each child.


We are inspired every day, by so many things that we see, hear, and do. During the summer, we have more "free" time, which gives us more control over what we want to be inspired by. The trick is to choose truthfully and wisely; so go out there and get inspired!


Have a great summer!



Shabbat Shalom,


Yifat Asulin, Judaic Studies faculty
Atlanta Jewish Academy Lower School

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Chukat: What Do Honoring Your Parents and the Red Heifer Have in Common?

Zot chukat haTorah...


The word chok tells us that although we don't understand the meaning behind or reason for a mitzvah, we still have to do it. The mitzvah of parah adumah, the red heifer, is a good example of a chok. This mitzvah requires people who have become impure through touching a dead person to purify themselves with a pure red cow that has been reduced to ashes.


There are many things that seem odd about this mitzvah; for example, why is the Cohen who performs the purification rendered impure?  But the importance of doing the mitzvah of parah adumah lies in the very fact that we are doing something that we do not understand.


Talmud Bavli in Masechet Kiddushin tells us a pertinent story that took place in the days when the Beit Hamikdash, the Temple, was still standing. One of the choshen stones of the Cohen haGadol was lost and had to be replaced. Therefore, a group of emissaries traveled the country, searching for the right stone to buy for the Cohen haGadol.


They looked all over the country, but without success. They found nothing until they arrived at a southern city on the beach named Ashkelon. There, they went to visit a foreigner named Dama Ben Netina, who was famous for his fine stones.


The group of emissaries went to his house and knocked at the door. Dama ben Netina assured them that he had the correct stone, and he was happy to sell it to them, but he couldn't open the safe. The key to the safe was kept under his father's pillow, and he was fast asleep; Dama ben Netina knew that if he touched the pillow to move it, his father would wake up. And his father's comfort and need for rest was so important to him that he had to refuse their offer to purchase the stone. The emissaries offered him more money, double what he could have gotten from anyone else, but Dama ben Netina was steadfast in his refusal to disturb his father; such was the way he honored his parent.


The following year, Dama was blessed by heaven. In his barn, a red cow was born. When the rumor of the birth of a red cow reached the Beit Hamikdash, once again a group of emissaries hurried to Ashkelon to buy the young calf. They were glad to pay a high price for it, and the money he "lost" by refusing to wake his father to sell the jewel was earned back in a very special way.


What is the secret connection between these two seemingly unrelated mitzvot?


The mitzvah of kibud av v'em, to honor one's father and mother, seems natural, even obvious. The mitzvah of the parah adumah is one that we cannot understand at all.The juxtaposition of these two mitzvot hints at how we are supposed to do all the commandments. It shouldn't matter if we understand the reasoning or not; we must perform the mitzvot we understand and those we do not with the same eagerness, the same level of observance.


In the story from the Talmud, Dama, a foreigner, learned that Am Yisrael, the nation of Israel, is willing to pay any fortune to obey the Torah and to keep each mitzvah properly, whether they understand the reason behind it or not.  



Shabbat Shalom,



Eviatar Lerer, Judaic Studies faculty


Atlanta Jewish Academy Upper School

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Korach: Anger Management

Korach and his group disagreed with Moses in this parasha, and as we know, the earth "opened its mouth and swallowed" 250 people. But while we might think this story ends here, the latter part of the parasha surprises us with a much larger death toll; the very next day, the people of Israel blame Moses and Aaron for the death of Korach and his congregation, which causes a plague that kills 14,700 people. The story of those 250 people that the earth swallowed, relative to this new tragedy, suddenly seems like child's play.

The main trigger for this whole story was the controversy between Korach and Moses, and after what happened there, the situation should have returned to the status quo. So why does B'nei Yisrael keep the controversy going with their complaints, causing even more death? Could all of this really have been worth it? Haven't they learned from past mistakes? The people of Israel complained repeatedly--about the watermelons of Egypt, about the lack of water, and just about anything else they could think of. Just last week, we read about the affair of the spies and the people weeping in response to their report, which also took a heavy toll. Does it really pay to cry and complain? After all, they can see very well that it brings heavy penalties. So why do they keep doing it?


When we read these Torah portions, they can seem incomprehensible. It's simple to read these stories as an outsider, easy to criticize other people and accuse them of wrongdoing. But what about us? Do we always learn from our own mistakes? When someone annoys us, we can't always control our anger--when things aren't going our way, our spouses irritate us, our children wake us up in the middle of the night, drivers on the road cut us off, the boss yells, the handyman is destroying the house, money is running out, and everything is going wrong, we do not always manage to keep our cool. We don't always act as if all is well without complaint, even though we know that we shouldn't let these things upset us, and only bad things can result from that kind of behavior. We might even punch or kick a wall in anger and cause severe damage, even though nothing good can possibly come of it. They say that trouble comes in bunches, that when we think negatively, we create a negative reality. From complaints and anger, nothing good can grow.


We often experience disagreements and fights that cause trouble for everyone involved, but even then, we insist on being right and don't ever end the quarreling. Even if we do stop the fight, we always seem to need to reopen wounds over and over, to complain and restart a fight that ended long ago. It's tempting to complain, attacking everyone around us and destroying as much as possible. But why go through all this? The Korach story teaches us that those complaints seem to cost a lot more than even the dispute itself, which is the central issue in the parasha. Even if we win the fight, and we're right about everything, we will gain nothing from it. So why begin?


We've all gone through wars and conflicts with others--especially with ourselves. We all know that in the heat of the moment, it is very difficult to control ourselves, to realize that everything is from God, to be quiet and not complain. But when we see the parasha unfold before us, we understand the severity of the matter. It is difficult to act correctly in the heat of the moment, but if we prepare ourselves and try to be alert to what is happening, maybe we'll be able to detect such a moment of anger and disappointment coming, and prevent ourselves from reacting badly. Maybe we can just be happy without complaint even when everything is going wrong; and then, unexpectedly, we will find that it is our faith and joy that bring us salvation.


The other parshiot near the parasha of Korach detail the complaints of the people of Israel in the desert, one after another. Every time, the People complain and get hit hard. Every time, the penalty is so heavy and not worth the cost. So while we may experience the destructive urge to think in a negative way, when we examine the situation, we realize how unnecessary it is and that it's not worth it. When we think positively, we achieve spiritual elevation, move forward and thus, we can achieve our goals easily and efficiently.



Shabbat Shalom U'mevorach,


Moshe Hoch, Judaic Studies faculty
Atlanta Jewish Academy Upper School

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Shelach: Leadership Lessons

At an impressive, well-attended ceremony, Moshe sends forth 12 spies--not in secret or in camouflage, not in hiding or in darkness, but in the light of day. As the pasuk says, "Moshe sent them forth from the Wilderness of Paran at Hashem's command; they were all distinguished men, heads of the Children of Israel. And these are their names..." (Bamidbar 13:3-4).


Is this how one sends out spies? Certainly not! One sends out spies the way Joshua does later in their history--only one pair, secretly and at night.


Why does Moshe send spies in this way? How can he send them so publicly, without worrying about their security? The answer is simple: The 12 men, heads of each tribe, are not really spies.


Yes, they are called spies. However, their mission was not solely to collect information.


Their main objective was to act as leaders.


Moshe tells them to go to the Land to see if it is good or bad, if its inhabitants are weak or strong. They are supposed to return and tell B'nei Yisrael, "Friends, we are going up, even if we appear like grasshoppers to the inhabitants of the land, even if they are giants in our eyes!" Their task is to return and encourage the people, to tell them, "Despite all these factors, we are going up to the land of Israel, and we will inherit it, because Hashem is enabling us to do so. Even if it is hard, even if it seems impossible, it is Hashem's plan." Their job was to rise above the details and the physical realities of the land and to have emunah, belief in Hashem. They were meant to declare statehood, despite the intelligence saying there is no way! They were supposed to blaze a trail, even if the realities were harsh!


However, of the 12 spies, only two succeed. "Joshua the son of Nun and Caleb the son of Yefuneh, of the spies of the Land, tore their garments. And they said...You should not fear the people of the Land, for they are our bread. Their protection has departed from them; Hashem is with us; do not fear them" (Bamidbar 14: 6-9).


Joshua and Caleb were not unrealistic or insane, G-d forbid. They also saw the fortifications, met the giants, and were up-to-date on all of the reports. Yet they possessed "a different spirit," the spirit of emunah, the spirit of leadership, the spirit that sees beyond the present details, the spirit that knows that Hashem is with us--and therefore, we shall inherit the Land.


Shabbat Shalom U'mevorach,



Shachar Shalom, Judaic Studies faculty


Atlanta Jewish Academy

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Behaalotcha: Lifelong Learners

In this week's parsha, Beha'alotcha, Moshe says "Stand, and I will hear what Hashem will command you." Rambam tells us that Moshe is unique among prophets in that only he could speak to Hashem whenever he desired. Because of this distinction, it is surprising that Yehoshua declines Moshe's offer to answer any questions for him before Moshe passes away. As a consequence, Yehoshua forgot 300 laws and became murky on many other ideas, and once Moshe had passed away, there was no longer a way to clarify these laws or ideas on his own. R. Yaakov Kamenetsky suggests that Yehoshua should have deferred to Moshe's knowledge of what he needed, as his teacher.


 width=One lesson for the students among us is that we never stop learning and should never believe that we know all there is to know. Even Yehoshua, who had constantly been by Moshe's side, erred in not asking for Moshe to complete his instruction as he deemed fit. 


A subtler lesson that may be inferred here might be that as a teacher, it is important that we teach students how to learn on their own in the eventual case that we are no longer there to guide our students. In fact, we find out in Tractate Temura that Asniel Ben Kenaz stepped in and deduced the 300 lost laws through the skills he had acquired as a learner. If students can only learn from us, then their learning will cease when we are separated. If our students know how to learn on their own, then their learning never needs to end. In this particular case, of course, Moshe did not have the luxury or ability to train Yehoshua in communicating with Hashem at will; this was why Yehoshua's response to Moshe's offer for further instruction particularly had to be answered in the affirmative!  


May we all strive to be lifelong learners who teach our own students and children how to be lifelong learners themselves.



Shabbat shalom,



Dr. Paul Oberman, Associate Head


Atlanta Jewish Academy Upper School


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Shavuot: Loving Kindness

The custom to read and study Megilat Ruth on Shavuot is first mentioned in the period of the Gaonate.  The Gaonim, of whom Saadia Gaon was most famous, lived and built their great institutions of Torah study from approximately 600 to 1100 CE.


Numerous reasons are cited for this ancient custom. It has been pointed out that Ruth, and the book about her and her treatment of her mother-in-law Naomi, is full of chesed (loving kindness) and unconditional love. Our Holy Torah is likewise a Torah of Chesed, which we receive anew each year on Shavuot. Another reason cited is because the book ends with the birth of David, a direct descendent of Ruth. David was born and died on the chag (holiday) of Shavuot. 


 width=The Book of Ruth is a key book in the biblical canon, as it gives direct legitimacy to the existence of the Oral Law, or Talmud, which was fully mastered and disseminated by the great schools established by the Gaonim.  The very idea of shaylot u'tshuvot, writing to a rabbinic scholar to ask key questions about the law and then collecting and printing the answers, continues to flourish during and beyond this period and to this very day, making up a critical component of study for any rabbinical student.



Boaz, the hero of Ruth's story, seems to defy the accepted religious authority.  He agrees to do what others refuse to do.  He agrees to marry Ruth, a descendent of the People of Moab, about whom the Torah instructs us, "Lo yavoh amoni u'moavi bekehal Hashem," forbidding Jews to marry into the nation of Moab.  The reason given for this by the Torah is because they showed their true colors when they refused to allow the Jews traveling to Israel water or bread.  Such middot (character traits) are not to be brought into the nation founded by Avraham our forefather, who was all chesed.

 


Boaz, a Judge and Master of the Oral Law, knew that this prohibition against marrying into the people of Moab was only directed at the males of Moab, who were guilty of cruelty and the disregard of others in need. The females did not have the ability to step out of their communities to help; as the Talmud teaches, Amoni veloh amonit, moavi veloh moavit. In fact, Ruth was very much a follower of Chesed Avraham.


Knowing this halacha, Boaz chose to do the mitzvah of levirate marriage (yibum), and married Ruth despite the uproar.  He validates the Oral Law by teaching this forgotten ruling. Throughout Jewish history, there have been many attacks on the validity of the Oral Law. The Book of Ruth serves as a powerful source text for Torah she-Ba'al Peh.  The Almighty applauds the marriage of Boaz and Ruth, and signs off on the halachic decision of Boaz by ensuring that the eternal Jewish King and Messiah comes from their union. The giving of the Oral Law at Sinai and the House of David are both eternal.  No book fits better with the beautiful chag of Shavuot.


Reading Megilot Ruth on Shavuot is an ancient custom.  It reminds us of the importance of chesed and the full legitimacy of our holy Oral Law, given to us by the Almighty at Sinai for all time.


Read it this Shavuot, and fall in love with this most beautiful and moving story.



Chag sameach,

 



Rabbi Pinchos Hecht, Head of School

Atlanta Jewish Academy


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Behar/Bechukotai: Real Life Applications

The second of this week’s double parshiot, Bechukotai, begins with the following: “If you follow My statutes (בְּחֻקּתַי) and observe My commandments (מִצְוֹתַי)..." (Vayikra 26:3). The commentaries all ask a simple and obvious question. How do “statutes” differ from “commandments”?

 

 width=Rashi, based on Torat Kohanim, notes that the verse commands us to observe “My commandments.” He thus asks, what does following “My statutes” come to add? He concludes that this phrase must mean that we are to toil in the study of Torah, for the Hebrew תֵּלֵכו, which is usually translated as “follow,” literally means “walk,” which (as explained in the Gur Aryeh) can be a strenuous activity.

 

Rashi expounds on this theme in commenting on the phrase “and observe My commandments.” Why must we toil in the study of Torah? In order to observe and fulfill the commandments.

 

With these two comments, it is as if Rashi were sitting in any of the Judaic Studies classes at AJA Upper School. Unlike the theories studies in our advanced physics classes, or the theorems learned in our top math classes, our Judaic Studies classes focus on the practical aspects of our day-to-day life. Yes, we intensely study the biblical narrative set forth in the books of Chumash and Navi. Yes, we follow the give-and-take of the halakhic arguments in our Talmud classes--and our students do so with interest and academic rigor. However, at the end of the day, it is how our students make these lessons an enduring part of their lives that matters most.

 

This is why we take such great pride in the high percentage of our graduates who opt to defer college and spend a gap year in Israel devoted to serious Torah study. They do so not merely for the intellectual pursuit, but in order to live richer and fuller lives in the service of Hashem.

 

This week marked the final day of classes for our graduating seniors. They are a fine group of young men and young women. And we, their teachers at the Upper School, have little doubt that they will continue to follow Hashem’s statutes and observe His commandments.

 

We wish them all much success in their studies in Israel and in college.

 



Rabbi Reuven Travis, Judaic Studies faculty,

Atlanta Jewish Academy Upper School


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Emor: Counting the Days


In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Emor, the entire Jewish nation finds themselves counting, as the Torah commands us with the mitzvah of S’firat Ha’Omer, the counting of the Omer.  The Torah tells us, U’sfartem lachem mimacharat haShabbat, “on the day after Pesach begins, you shall count for yourselves,” sheva Shabbatot t’mimot t’hiyena, “seven complete weeks you shall have.” In other words, everyone has the mitzvah to count the seven weeks from Passover until Shavuot.


 width=When something is truly exciting, you count every single day leading up to it with great anticipation--as I did when I was preparing for my Bat Mitzvah. But what is so special and exciting that causes the Torah to command us to count every day between Pesach and Shavuot?


The answer is that when B’nei Yisroel left Egypt, it took seven weeks for them to arrive at Har Sinai, where they received the Torah. This journey was not only a physical one, but a spiritual one as well. When we left Egypt, we were slaves; only once we arrived at Har Sinai did we experience true freedom. It was during those seven weeks that the Jewish people ascended the spiritual ladder that enabled them to be worthy of receiving the Torah on Shavuot. Since Matan Torah was the greatest event that took place in all of Jewish history, we continue the mitzvah today, as we joyfully count each day leading up to it with great excitement and anticipation.  


In fact, yesterday, we counted 33 days of the Omer.  This day has particular significance because of another historic event that took place during this time of year. The Gemara in the Tractate of Yevamot, page 62b, tells the story of the great Rabbi Akiva who led an enormous yeshiva filled with many learned young men. Once, a terrible disease plagued his school, and was claiming the lives of thousands of his students. After 33 tragic days, wherein 24,000 students died, the epidemic suddenly ended. This day happened to correspond with Day 33 of the Omer--also known as Lag B’Omer--which we joyously celebrated yesterday.


However, you have to wonder: If these were such great scholars, what could they have done that would have caused them to suffer such a terrible epidemic? The answer given by the Talmud is that they died Shelo nahagu kavod zeh lazeh, “because they did not show proper respect to one another.” In fact, if you look closely at the Gemara, you’ll see that it records the number of students that passed away not as 24,000 individuals, but as 12,000 pairs. Why?


Perhaps we can suggest that the entire reason for the epidemic was due to a lack of partnership between them and their friends. This teaches us that it is not enough to receive and study the Torah; we have to live it, treating all people according to the Torah’s laws. 


We see from this that the mitzvoth of the Torah are not there to burden us, but to teach us how to live a proper life full of meaning. Therefore, when we count the seven weeks between Pesach and Shavuot, the mitzvah is there for us, for our own sake. Perhaps that is why the Torah commands us u'sfartem lachem--to count it for ourselves. 


Shabbat Shalom,



Rachel R., Grade 11

Atlanta Jewish Academy Upper School
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Acharei Mot/Kedoshim: Loving Our Neighbors


Most people don't have any trouble being concerned about their own wants and needs. When we're hungry, we eat. When we're tired, we rest. But when it comes to the wants and needs of other people, the feeling may not come so easily.


This means that we should try to become so loving and sensitive to the people  width=around us that we care just as deeply, just as naturally, about fulfilling their needs as we do about fulfilling our own. When we do, we will find ourselves able to give of ourselves more and more in order to help them. The Torah is informing us that deep down, we are really all connected. Living with this awareness brings a lot of love into the world--and into our lives.


When we commemorated Yom Hazikaron in Israel, we heard the stories of six people who lost their lives while defending the State of Israel: four soldiers, one medic and one civilian. These individuals--as told to us by their family, friends and colleagues--exemplified the essence of giving. They gave of themselves daily until they made the ultimate sacrifice simply because they were Jewish and defending the Land of Israel. 


We discussed the need to learn a lesson from these brave men and women in how to conduct our daily lives, understanding that--as we learn from this week's parasha--we are all connected; and that strengthening that connection brings greater love into our lives. 


The love our students already had for the Land of Israel and the Jewish people was strengthened by every step we took and every experience we had in Eretz Yisrael.



Shabbat Shalom,



 

Debbie Bornstein, Coordinator of Experiential Jewish Learning

Atlanta Jewish Academy, Greenfield Middle School
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Tazria/Metzora: It Seems to Me...


In Israel this week, we will read the portions of Achrei Mot/Kedoshim, but I want to share a thought on Tazria/Metzora, the portions being read this week in the United States and everywhere outside of Israel. The parshiyot of Tazria and Metzora, as reflected by their names, deal primarily with the laws of the metzorah, one who is afflicted with the spiritual disease of tzara’at. It was possible to find signs of tzara’at on one’s body, one’s clothing, or one’s home.


On the topic of finding tzara’at in one’s home, the Torah states: "And he who owns the house shall come and tell the Cohen, saying, 'It seems to me as if there is a plague in the house'" (Leviticus 14:35). 


Why does the Torah tell us that the owner should say, "It seems to me there is tzara’at," rather than, "there is tzara'at?” 


Rabbi Yeruchem Levovitz notes that there is very little difference between "it is" and "it appears as if." In either event, it depends upon a Cohen to come and make the determination of whether or not the house is afflicted with tzara'at. However, the Torah is teaching us a practical lesson on how we should speak. 


People think that everything they say is correct, but we all too often make mistakes because of wrong information or faulty perception. By recognizing this reality about ourselves and then prefacing our statements with, "it seems to me," it is easier to concede that someone else is correct. Also, it makes it easier for others to agree with you. It facilitates communication and finding truth.  


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As we commemorated Yom Hazikron and Yom Ha’atzmaut this week, we witnessed the beauty of being Jewish and being in Eretz Yisrael. With our own eyes, we saw the sadness before the celebration, the sorrow before the joy, and recognized the sacrifices of those who have given their lives for the sake of our people and our land. It has been an experience that neither I nor our 8th graders will ever forget.  


We witnessed unity both in the mourning and in the celebration, and through it all, we recognized that--regardless of our personal views--we are bound together as one people, with one land, through our history and mesorah.  


Shabbat Shalom,



Debbie Bornstein, Coordinator of Experiential Jewish Learning

Atlanta Jewish Academy, Greenfield Middle School
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Parshat Shemini: Asking Questions


This week's parsha, Shemini, contains the halfway point of all the words in the Torah. This halfway mark (there is literally a mark in many Chumashim) comes after the word darosh and before the word daraysh, two words whose roots both mean "to inquire." (Together, these words are translated as "inquired insistently.") Degel Machaneh Ephraim suggests that this teaches us that Torah learning should be focused on asking questions and deepening our understanding through the vehicle of inquiry. 

 width=Of course, asking questions is critical to any learning environment, and particularly to schools. Think of the number of expressions in the English lexicon regarding asking questions:



  • There is no such thing as a stupid question.

  • The only stupid question is one that you never ask.

  • Who questions much shall learn much and retain much (Francis Bacon).


One of my personal favorites is Voltaire's opinion that we should "Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers."



All of these quotes rightly support and encourage the asking of questions as a learning tool without parallel. And of course, this is exactly the lesson the Torah attempts to teach us.

Some of the very best features of the AJA Upper School are in place because students and teachers asked great questions. The question, "How can we teach a really unique set of classes while also learning the core of an excellent education?" led to the formation of our minimester program. The question, "How can we acquire more current novels of interest?" resulted in a student-run and student-supplied portion of our library. The question, "How can every student have an opportunity to speak in front of the school about a passion?" was answered with Senior Talks. 

May we all be blessed with children who ask excellent and plentiful questions.



 


Shabbat Shalom,



 

Dr. Paul Oberman, Associate Head

Atlanta Jewish Academy Upper School
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Redemption: Are We There Yet?


How are we to understand geulah, redemption? Is it something that comes upon us suddenly, or is it a slow process? Are we part of creating and bringing the redemption (and therefore, our actions matter), or are we to be passive and allow geulah to act on us, or even despite us? 


 width=If we examine the historic day of our people's redemption, the 14th of Nissan, we find that the 14th is a divided day. In the morning, we are still permitted--and even commanded--to consume chametz. From noon on, we are biblically forbidden to partake of chametz, but we are not yet commanded to eat matzah; in fact, we are forbidden to partake of the matzah until after nightfall. This leaves a vacuum of sorts during the day of the 14th that is neither chametz nor matzah.  From noon to nightfall, no chametz, no matzah. What is this neutral time all about? 


Interestingly, the holiday of Sukkot has no such vacuum. We may eat until the night of the 14th of Tishrei in our comfortable permanent homes. It is only at nightfall of the 14th that we enter the sukkah. The moment we are forbidden to have a meal outside of the sukkah is the same moment we are commanded with the mitzvah to eat in the sukkah. 


 width=The movement from home to sukkah is sudden; there is no transition. The sukkah is very much like real life. Moving--or being forced to move--from comfort comes quickly; it overtakes us. Moving from a distressed situation to a more comfortable situation takes time; it has lapses. That is possibly why there is this gap on the 14th day of Nissan, noon to nightfall. Similarly, the Holocaust fell upon us suddenly, with no time to prepare or react, whereas redemption is a slow, laborious, and painful process. So, too, the trip of our forefathers down to Egypt was fast, but the Exodus and the trip to the Land of Israel, our homeland, took us over forty years. Suddenly, we realize that items are gone, and it takes a lot of searching time until we successfully recover our valuables. Loss is quick, recovery is slow and deliberate. It has lapses and neutral periods of time. 


 width=Redemption is all about healing, recovery, becoming whole again. It is a treasured gift, one that cannot be acquired in a hesech hada'at (loosely translated as inclining your mind to it), without careful preparation and planning. It is a gift that can only be found after one searches for it as one would search for diamonds. We are mistaken to think that by merely leaving slavery, we automatically are free and redeemed. Leaving avdut, servitude, does not necessarily mean entering cherut, freedom. There is a vacuum, a space between the enslavement of chametz and the freedom and redemption of matzah--a space we must first fill if we are to achieve true and total redemption. 


 width=Even today, we have these three spaces. Morning to noon for chametz; noon to nightfall, a vacuum; and nightfall, redemption and matzah. We have a minority of Jews who are still in avdut, servitude--Jews who are still trapped in Ethiopia, Syria, and the like. Like chametz, they are not yet free. We have Jews who have made the move to Israel for the start of their redemption, at nightfall. And then, there are the Jews like us. We are in between; not enslaved, with our free and wonderful lives here in the USA--but still living in galut, exile, and not fully redeemed, whether we recognize it or not. We are between the chametz and the matzah. For us, it's the afternoon of the 14th of Nissan. In truth, even those living in Israel are not yet secure, and thus not yet fully redeemed, physically or spiritually. You see, redemption can only be fully achieved if all of us are redeemed: all for one or none. 


 width=We see this as well when looking at the arbah kosot, the four cups. There are four "languages of redemption," four phrases describing the process of geulah. The first language of redemption that signifies the first of the four cups is vehotzeyti etchem miMitzrayim, "I removed you from Egypt." The phrase for the fourth cup is velakachti etchem li le'am, "I took you to be my people." Between this first cup of vehotzeti and the fourth cup of velakachti, we need to undergo the process of vehetzalti me'avodatam, "I will deliver you from servitude", as well as vega'alti, "and I redeemed you." And yet, even after all four cups, we still haven't reached veheveiti etchem el ha'aretz, "I will bring you into the Land"--how many were sacrificed and continue to be lost to us in the last hundred years of Jewish history to get us, as a people, to the veheveiti etchem el ha'aretz


Like Israel of old, it took more than just one miracle to get us from the chametz of Egypt to the matzah of redemption in Israel--from the ha lachmah anya, the bread of affliction, to the matzot mitzvah, baked with the recitation of Hallel. There was the miracle of the ten plagues and there was the miracle of kriyat yam suf, the splitting of the sea. There was the miracle of water from a stone, the miracle of the manna, and the miraculous military victories over Amalek, Sichon, Og, Midyan, and much more; miracle after miracle to get us, finally, to the Promised Land. 


 width=Like Israel of old, we, too, require the daily miracle and providence of Hakadosh Baruch Hu, of G-d, blessed be He, to continually sustain us. But these daily miracles require our participation as well. Just as each of the ten makkot, plagues, required Moshe and Aharon to stretch out their hands as they held G-d's staff to start the miracle of each plague, so, too, we must become partners with Hashem in the miracle of our own future redemption, to help move ourselves from the no-man's land that is neither chametz nor matzah, neither the painful exile nor the promised geulah sh'leimah, the total redemption. We have the power given us by Hashem to affect His miracles and our own destiny; to help free ourselves. For in the end, only we--with Hashem's help--can fully achieve the true geulah sh'leimah for all of Israel. 


 width=For us, it will require a metaphorical bedikat chametz, inspection for hidden chametz, to locate the chametz in ourselves, the seor shebeishah--the chaff that is hidden in our hearts and souls must be located and purged. Once found, we need to rid ourselves of the chametz: sell it (mechirah), or throw it to the winds, toss it in the sea, burn it (biyur), so that we may move from chametz to matzah--to a pure existence, one that is balanced, humble, and redemptive. We must once and for all rid ourselves of this pollutant chametz because we know that chametz sheavar alav hapesach, owned on Passover, is assur, forbidden to us. 


This is what Chag haPesach, the holiday of Passover, is truly all about. Pesach--movement from one place to another, from one domain to another, from a state of non-redemption to a state of total redemption.  


May we merit it this year. 


Chag kasher v'sameach,



 

Rabbi Pinchos Hecht, Head of School

Atlanta Jewish Academy
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Tzav: Thanksgiving Offerings

In this week's parsha, Tzav, we learn about different offerings, including the offering of thanksgiving, which is composed of 40 loaves. Our sages inform us that once Mashiach comes, these are in fact the only offerings that will remain! From this we understand how critical it is to express our thanks.

 

 width=In that light, it is important to recognize and thank those at AJA responsible for recent huge successes. Student leaders Ariella Shapiro and Zoe Ogden, and adviser Talya Gorsetman, led a wildly successful Chagiga production of A Tsuris Line; Mr. Dave Byron and all of his students involved in the Cause Fair deserve huge praise and thanks for all of their efforts. Our boys basketball team just returned from the Red Sarachek tournament at Yeshiva University, where senior Samuel Kalnitz was named to the All-Star Team after scoring the most points in the tournament and in any single game of the tournament (45).

 

It's also important to recognize less public efforts. One of our students chose to continue to pursue her cause fair project, resulting in the opportunity for AJA students to experience a tech-free area each day at school. Were it not for her perseverance, this opportunity would not exist.

Years ago, at a memorial service for a colleague, I was moved by the kind words spoken about this friend and simultaneously saddened that he was not around to hear such nice things spoken. From that point on, I resolved to tell those I loved how important they are to me.


In the spirit of the thanksgiving offering, may we all endeavor to express our gratitude to those who have made a difference for the better in our lives. 

 

Shabbat Shalom, and an upcoming Chag Kasher V'Sameach--

 

Dr. Paul Oberman, Associate Head

Atlanta Jewish Academy Upper School
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Vayikra: "I Was Wrong"


In this week's Torah portion, we learn about a most humbling experience: how Jews must react when they commit a sin. Hashem's instructions for how Jews should proceed once they have unintentionally committed a sin are very clear. What I have found particularly interesting is the text that says, "If his sin that he has committed is made known to him, then he shall bring his offering" (Vayikra 4:28). It seems like the Torah is punishing people because they realize that they made a mistake. This seems highly unfair, and almost antithetical to our religion. We always recognize the fallibility of humans--it is a very basic principle in Judaism--and so it simply doesn't sit right with me to believe that G-d would punish us once we realize we have unintentionally broken his rules.


 width=I believe this ruling was put in to teach us an invaluable lesson, straight from Hakadosh Baruch-Hu. One of the hardest things humans have to do is admit when they are wrong. Day in and day out, we all make mistakes; but I have found that my difficulty has never been in realizing my misstep, but in admitting it to other people. It is built into us, practically part of our genetic makeup: people hate to be wrong. So when G-d is giving us rules about how to live our lives and how to approach our everyday endeavors, it is necessary for him to mention how to deal with our mistakes. 


I believe the hardest midah (character trait) to achieve is humility. I was always impressed when I learned about Moshe, because he is famous for his humility. Moshe serves as the epitome of a humble man, and is someone I look up to with true respect. With that in mind, I still find it to be the most difficult midah to embody, so this Torah portion really gave me strength. It shows me that G-d recognizes how difficult it is to be humble and to admit we are wrong. G-d is taking extra measures to be sure that His people never become too egocentric or full of themselves to admit their errors, even when those errors are unintentional. Just as a father always reminds his son to say please, thank you, and sorry, G-d reminds His children to do the same.


 




Shabbat shalom, 

 

Rachel R., Grade 11

Atlanta Jewish Academy Upper School
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Vayakhel-Pekudei: Accounting for Our Gifts




(אֵלֶה פְּקוּדֵי הַמִשְכָּן... (ל:יג



And these are the accountings of the מִשְכָּן...


In the beginning of פַּרְשַת פְּקוּדֵי, the תּוֹרָה offers an exact list of the amounts of the precious materials that were donated for the מִשְכָּן. Rav Moshe Feinstein points out a tremendous lesson the תּוֹרָה is teaching us by giving us this exact list, and what everything was used for.



Hashem gave us, and gives us, all we have--our lives, our health, our strengths, our capabilities--everything! Hashem did not give these to us to waste; rather, they were given to us for a purpose. Just as in the מִשְכָּן there was an exact reckoning of how much there was and what it was used for, so, too, we must work out how much ה' has given us and what we are using it for. Are we using our time properly, or are we wasting it? Are we using our money for good things, or are we spending it on the trivialities? Are we using our capabilities for good things, to treat others well, or are we using our strengths in negative ways?

פַּרְשַת פְּקוּדֵי teaches us to stop and think, to calculate our actions and abilities, and to ensure that we are using them wisely.

 



Shabbat shalom, 

 

Debbie Bornstein, Coordinator of Experiential Jewish Learning

Atlanta Jewish Academy Middle School
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Vayakhel-Pekudei: Giving Generously



Oftentimes, when we give, we do so to reach a goal, and without much sincerity. Everyone can admit to doing so at some point in their lives. Whether we give to appear generous, to have a favor returned, or just give even as we subconsciously resent it, we don't always have the right intentions. While this is completely understandable, and quite possibly part of human nature, it can take away from the beauty of generosity.

 

 width=In this week's parasha, Vayakhel-Pekudei, Moshe reiterates to B'nei Yisrael the instructions to build a Mishkan. Along with these instructions, the materials needed for the Mishkan were also listed. B'nei Yisrael then donated an abundance of materials. They donated things that are obviously valuable, such as gold, silver, precious stones, and animal skins; and seemingly everyday things, such as wool, olive oil, and herbs. The sheer plenty given by B'nei Yisrael was so great that Moshe had to tell them to stop giving.

 

This concept of sincerely giving as much as we can is, I believe, a characteristic we should all work towards integrating into our lives. We must learn that the goal to be accomplished is often more important than our own personal agendas; it doesn't matter how or what we contribute, as long as we give our best. Our generosity can come in so many forms--helping someone with homework, lending someone a few dollars, or just giving up time to help someone else. If we all take an active role incorporating genuine generosity into our minds and actions, we'll be able to build an even greater environment in school, in our community, and in every aspect of our lives. 

 



Shabbat shalom, 

 

Daniella S., Grade 11

Atlanta Jewish Academy Upper School
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Ki Sisa: The Everlasting Covenant

Ki Sisa: The Everlasting Covenant


This week's parsha, Ki Sisa, is jam-packed with significant quotes and events that I'm sure many of you are familiar with. In Ki Sisa, B’nei Yisrael is given the commandment of Shabbat. We immediately sin with the golden calf, causing Moshe to drop the tablets and ascend Har Sinai once again, where Hashem recited His thirteen Attributes of Mercy. With so many to choose from, it is easy to draw meaning from this parsha; I have chosen to tie together the mitzvah of Shabbat with the thirteen attributes of Hashem’s mercy found in Slichot.  


Personally, I find it very scary when Hashem commands B’nei Yisrael to keep the Shabbat and continues by stating that those who desecrate it shall be put to death. This, however, should show Jews the importance of Shabbat, something many people often forget. To explain why this day is so important, Hashem states that Shabbat should act as a  בְּרִית עוֹלָם, an everlasting covenant between G-d and His people. With the example of Purim this past week, and the reading of the Megillah in which Hashem's name does not appear, we learned that Hashem’s hand is truly behind everything, even when it seems hidden. By keeping Shabbat week after week, we are reminded that Hashem is playing an active role in all of our lives, even though during the week, with everything moving so quickly, we don't always see it. 


Towards the end of the parsha, Hashem is extremely angered by the incident of the golden calf, yet He recites His attributes of mercy and compassion. This shows B’nei Yisrael that, while it is a commandment to keep the Shabbat--and it is written in the Torah that breaking Shabbat is punishable by death--Hashem has everlasting love for His people, and is always willing to give second chances to all of His children. It is never too late to do teshuva and reinstate the everlasting covenant made by Shabbat between Hashem and His people.


Shabbat shalom, 


Rina S., Grade 10


Atlanta Jewish Academy Upper School

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