Parshat Bo: The Gift of Time

As the narrative in Parshat Bo continues the story of the Exodus, Egypt is experiencing a multitude of plagues. Pharaoh’s stubborn resistance is finally crumbling. The Jewish people sense the long-awaited end of their enslavement. Hashem is about to take them out of bondage and make them into His chosen people, the recipients of His Torah. Indeed, even before the final plague is administered to the Egyptians, Hashem already gives them their very first mitzvah as a nation.

b2ap3_thumbnail_IMG_1814.JPGThis first mitzvah was the very practical mitzvah of Rosh Chodesh, establishing a lunar calendar to regulate the annual cycle of festivals and observances. It may not seem like a mitzvah that has much spiritual significance. 

The rhythm of our lives is driven by the passage of time. Our jobs, our schedules, our appointments, rush hour traffic, all the aspects of our contemporary lifestyles are measured and regulated by the unstoppable clock. But this is not really a new phenomenon. The accelerated pace of society has simply highlighted the fact that the most precious commodity, by far, is time.

Time, not money, is the fundamental currency by which the value of all things is measured.

Coming out of bondage, the Jewish people were presented with a sudden wealth of time. As slaves, their time had been stripped away from them, but now they got it back. What would they do with this great treasure?

When designating the new month, the Beth Din declares, “Mekudash, mekudash! Sanctified, sanctified!” Hashem gave the Jewish people the power to sanctify time by what they say and do, not only to give it worth, but to infuse it with holiness. Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the new month, has the status of a minor festival, reminding us that we can sanctify all the moments of our lives. By living in a way consistent with Torah values and ideals, we sanctify our time and preserve it for all eternity. This mitzvah delivered the gift of time.

The mitzvah of establishing the calendar also highlights another aspect of time--its cyclical nature. Life, as we know all too well, is an endless procession of ups and downs, with no guarantees as to the outcome. But the eternal existence of the Jewish nation is unconditionally guaranteed by G-d. The symbol of this guarantee is the lunar cycle that our calendar follows. The Jewish people are compared to the moon. Just as the moon shrinks to the point of oblivion but always returns to its fullness, so, too, will the Jewish people always return to their greatness, no matter how far they are driven down by the pressures of exile.

Therefore, the mitzvah of the calendar was doubly appropriate for the time it was given. The Jews were slaves deprived of spirituality and even basic human dignity, a people on the verge of extinction, yet they would once again glow with the brightness of the full moon. They had been stalled for centuries at the lowest point of human existence, but now Hashem had lifted them up and placed them on the peak of Creation.

The flow of time is a indication of hope, both for ourselves as individuals and for all of us as a people. But even as we wait for the future, it is within our power to sanctify the present, to give meaning and value to our time by the manner in which we live. We can mold our time into a bridge to an illuminated future.

Inspired by the thought of Rabbi Naftali Reich, Ohr Somayach, Monsey, NY.


Shabbat shalom,

Shoshana Cohen

Grade 12, Atlanta Jewish Academy Upper School

Continue reading

Parshat Va'era: A Question Less Frequently Asked

The week’s parasha of Vaera begins the narrative of the plagues, and when teaching this to our children and students, many questions come up. Why ten plagues instead of one? Why these particular plagues? How are the plagues grouped and what do these groupings teach us?

There is, however, a very obvious question that arises from this week’s parasha, one which is much less frequently asked. Why are the plagues split between two parshiot, with the first seven being described in Vaera and the last three only presented in next week’s parasha of Bo?

Rabbi Moshe Lichtenstein of Yeshivat Har Etzion tackles this question and proposes a fascinating answer. Rav Lichtenstein maintains that this division is not accidental, but rather is meant to underscore the differences between these two sets of plagues.

To understand these differences we must first consider Pharaoh’s initial reaction to Moshe’s demand to set Israel free. He does not merely refuse to send the Jews out, he also categorically denies God: “I know not the Lord, nor will I let Israel go” (Shemot 5:2). As is plainly evident, there are two elements to what he says. There is the theological--that is, a denial of Hashem; and the national--that is, a refusal to let the Jewish people out of bondage and out of Egypt.

Hashem cannot and does not ignore either challenge.

According to Rav Lichtenstein, from the very moment that Pharaoh denied God, he shifted the discussion from a historical-national context to a theological one. Consequently, it was not sufficient to deliver a single blow (or even a series of blows) that would subdue Pharaoh on the historical field (which would mean bringing the Jews out of Egypt). Rather, it was necessary to bring him to theological recognition of God.

This is why the plagues operate on two levels. Consider, says Rav Lichtenstein, the recurring demand throughout the two parshiot to allow the people to celebrate for three days in the wilderness and then to return to Egypt. Rav Lichtenstein asks, does anybody think that God needs such an intrigue in order to take Israel out of Egypt, or that it is to His glory to utilize such a scheme?  Of course not, but if we understand that from the outset that the plagues were exclusively meant to bring Pharaoh to recognize God, the idea of going out to the wilderness to celebrate before God and then returning to Egypt is absolutely reasonable. In this way, argues Rav Lichtenstein, Pharaoh will recognize God, irrespective of the struggle over Israel’s departure from his land, and this will be the achievement of the three-day celebration in the wilderness.

This approach can also help us understand the full significance of the role of the magicians in this narrative. When they appear in the argument between Moshe and Pharaoh, the issue in dispute is not Israel’s exodus from the house of bondage, but the question of who rules over nature--the God of Israel, or magic? Were it true that the plagues revolved around Israel’s exodus from Egypt, “Pharaoh’s servants” (or more accurately, his advisors on matters of state administration) should have taken part in the discussions, and the magicians (whose status stemmed from their religious-magical strength) should not have played a central role in the confrontation. It is precisely because the first seven plagues (which appear in this week’s parasha) were meant to lead to knowledge of God that the struggle with the magicians was of critical importance, and it was their help that Pharaoh sought.

Rav Lichtenstein’s approach to the seven/three split of the plagues also sheds light on why there were ten plagues in total. The implied message to Pharaoh is that God could have struck a single mortal blow against all the vital systems in Egypt, but He waived this option in order that “My name may be proclaimed throughout all the earth.” We see here that the plagues did not bring about--nor were they supposed to bring about--a full system collapse. Rather, their importance lay in the disturbance of those systems and in the demonstration of God’s control over nature. Were the plagues’ role to bring about the emancipation of Israel from the bondage of Egypt, harsher plagues would have achieved that goal in a much more efficient manner. But troublesome plagues were better suited to the purpose of sending a message regarding Divine providence. 

Shabbat shalom, 

Rabbi Reuven Travis

Judaic Studies faculty, Atlanta Jewish Academy Upper School

Continue reading

Parshat Shemot: With God's Help

Parshat Shemot: With God's Help


This week's parsha, Shemot, talks about the growing numbers of B'nei Israel, the midwives who disobeyed the decree of Pharaoh and saved the babies, and Moshe finding his way to become the leader of the Jewish people. 


God appears to Moshe through the burning bush and  width=instructs Moshe on what his mission is: “I will send you to Pharaoh, and take My people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt" (Shemot 3:10). Moshe is immediately taken aback, and asks God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and take the children of Israel out of Egypt?” Moshe starts to explain to God that the people will not believe him, and to this, God responds by giving Moshe the ability to offer Pharaoh certain “proofs”: Moshe's staff will turn into a serpent, his hand will become white as snow, and he will be able to turn the Nile into blood. 


However, even after God assures Moshe that He will help him, Moshe is still reluctant. “I am not a man of words...for I am heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue" (Shemot 4:10). Finally, God convinces Moshe to take on His task and free the people.


We see from this story how shy and humble a man Moshe was. However, even with a speech impediment, Moshe strives to be the best leader he can be. He was certainly a success by any measure; Moshe is considered one of the greatest leaders of Israel.


From this, we learn that no matter where we start or what obstacles are in our way, we can become whatever it is we want to be. Just as HaShem supported Moshe, we are also supported in this way by God Himself. 


We must set our minds to reach our goals, whatever they may be--whether we hope to get into a dream college or become a professional basketball player. With much perseverance and effort--and most important, with God's help--we can achieve our deepest hopes and dreams. 


Shabbat shalom,

Yarely Perez

Grade 12, Atlanta Jewish Academy Upper School

Continue reading

The Miracle of the Menorah...and Its Connection to a Community School

Why is the parsha for the week of Chanukah always the story of the sale of Joseph?


The history of the Jewish people is presented in the prayer of Al Hanisim that we recite on Purim and Chanukah. In this short prayer, we describe the specific danger that presented to our people and how Hashem, at the last moment, stepped in to save us. The prayer ends with thanks to the Almighty for preserving us yet again. Jewish history is replete with stories of evil leaders plotting to destroy us, only to be thwarted by G-d’s plan, and so is Jewish history.


When I spoke with a group of kindergarten children about the beauty of the holiday of Sukkot, one of our sharp five year olds raised her hand and asked me, “Rabbi, who was the bad guy of Sukkot that tried to kill us?”

We need to ask and analyze what it is that we are doing or not doing that allows these enemies of Israel to get the upper hand over us so often. What is that about, and what can we do about it?

It started with Pharaoh (and even Laban before him, according to the Passover Haggadah), and this path was followed by Haman, the Greeks, and on and on. What so weakens us and makes us so vulnerable as a people and nation? Why does the Haggadah need to repeat that in every generation, they rise to destroy us (Bechol dor v'dor)?

There is no one answer; but one possible answer is the prevalence of sina'at chinam--undeserved hatred--that dances amongst us.

Hatred begins innocently enough: someone is different. There is a group that has different clothes, different customs; they are more educated or less educated, more religious or less religious.

That difference grows in our imagination until we begin to fear them, causing us to act in ways that alienate them. This can be readily seen in the religious strife that has so overtaken much of the Middle East, or in the behavior of some who are homophobic or anti-Semitic.

Alienation turns to fear and mistrust, and the leap to hatred is but one short step away.

We ended up in Egypt because the brothers learned to hate Joseph. He was different, and they knew it. That episode led to the enslavement of our people in Egypt by Pharaoh for over 200 years.

The destruction of the first Temple was the result of Jewish hatred for their fellow Jews, weakening us and leading to our exile. The story of Purim and Haman's rise to power was a direct outcome of this destructive behavior, and it caused the loss of our sovereignty.

The destruction of the second Temple followed the period of the rule of the Hasmoneans, a period rife with “Jew against Jew." Jewish sovereignty in the Jewish State was short-lived as the Romans conquered us and exiled us, finally leading to the horror of the Shoah.

Today, we live with the miracle of the State of Israel. Yet there, too, we see strife rising to the forefront and weakening us and our state. What can we do, as a community and as individuals?

What can we do, as a community and as individuals? Moses, the midrash teaches, was unable to design the menorah. He turned to G-d for help; G-d asked him to throw the gold into the furnace and, according to the midrash, the menorah was miraculously formed by the hand of


What was it with which Moses so struggled? The menorah was to be a symbol of Jewish unity. Yet each of the branches stood separate and apart. How could such a structure define the unity of a people?


Hashem responded by designing the menorah so that all of the six branches aimed their light toward the center. Unity is not about sameness. Like the menorah, we must each celebrate our uniqueness. We are all special, and we are all different and unique in the image of G-d by design. Unity can only be sustained if and when we value and invite diversity.

Unity and love is possible when we all aim for the central branch or trunk representing our holy Torah its traditions, and obey the call to love, respect, honor, and cherish all of G-d’s creation.

We read the Joseph story on Chanukah to ever-reinforce this message. Together, we are strong and invincible; divided, we are weak and vulnerable. The brothers learned to hate rather than love, and we all know the end of that story. Ahavat chinam, true love, will bring light to all.

So why a community school? Community is about diversity, and true strength is only possible in the long term through diversity that leads to unity. That is what makes our beloved AJA so special.

Chag Urim Samayach,

Chanukah Samayach,

Rabbi Pinchos Hecht

Head of School, Atlanta Jewish Academy
Continue reading

Parshat Miketz: First Impressions

There are so many aspects of the Yosef saga that leave us filled with questions. Yet, ultimately, when this story reaches its climatic conclusion with the reunification of Yaakov with his beloved son, it is clear that the hand of God was directing matters every step of the way.

It is for this reason that I want to focus on a small, almost insignificant detail of this story that appears in this week’s parasha of Miketz, one which underscores the importance of man’s involvement with these divinely directed events.

The parasha opens with Pharaoh’s dream. (Whether it is one dream or two is much debated, but a close reading of the text makes clear that it is a single dream.) Pharaoh is deeply disturbed by his dream. The interpretation of his dream by his sages and necromancers fail to satisfy Pharaoh (they all explain the dream as pertaining to Pharaoh the person, yet he senses that this dream has a message for him as ruler of Egypt). Sensing Pharaoh's desperation, the chief cupbearer steps forward and tells Pharaoh of the Hebrew lad who interpreted his own dream when he was in prison. (Note carefully the cupbearer's lack of gratitude as he derogatorily describes Yosef as a youth and a slave.) So desperate is Pharaoh that he immediately calls for the Hebrew to be brought before him.

What does the text tell us of Yosef's reaction to this summons?

:וַיִּשְׁלַח פַּרְעֹה וַיִּקְרָא אֶת יוֹסֵף וַיְרִיצֻהוּ מִן הַבּוֹר וַיְגַלַּח וַיְחַלֵּף שִׂמְלֹתָיו וַיָּבֹא אֶל פַּרְעֹה

So Pharaoh sent and called Joseph, and they rushed him from the dungeon, and he shaved and changed his clothes, and he [then] came to Pharaoh.

Yosef, who has spent 12 long years in prison, is finally being released. Yet instead of rushing towards freedom, he insists that he first be allowed to shave, to bathe, and to don new clothes. Why is this? 

Yosef instinctively understood that he would be the first Hebrew the ruler of Egypt would ever meet. Yosef understood that he was, in this regard, the representative of his family and his people. He knew he had only one chance to make a first impression, and thus, he was determined to stand before Pharaoh cleanly shaven, adorned with new clothes, so that he would stand before Pharaoh as a mensch.

This is an important lesson for all of us who make up the AJA community. Whether we realize it or not, whether we like it or not, once we are identified as part of our community, others see us as representatives of the Jewish people. How we dress, how we speak, how we act is seen by others as representing the Jewish people. If you doubt this to be true, think back to the Bernie Madoff scandal. How many in the non-Jewish world were not surprised? His greed, his dishonesty, aren’t those the traits of the Jews?

A teacher of mine was fond of saying that if you wear the uniform (that is, a kippah and tzitzit showing), be prepared to live up to the standards the uniform conveys. Yosef understood this as he prepared himself to stand before Pharaoh. It is equally important for us to understand this, too.

Shabbat Shalom, 


Rabbi Reuven Travis, Judaic Studies Faculty

Atlanta Jewish Academy Upper School

Continue reading

Parshat Vayeshev: Playing Favorites

Our Parsha uses the term toldot, generations, to direct us to the unique relationship our forefather Jacob had with his son Joseph. Eleh Toldot Yaakov Yosef: Jacob had twelve sons, yet the Torah only lists Joseph as the toldoh, the offspring of Jacob. This troubled the Rabbis, and numerous attempts to explain the verse have been suggested.  Yet the question remains.

The parsha follows with a clear case of parental favoritism, and the dire consequences brought about by such parent behavior. Jacob, third and most perfect of our forefathers, is depicted as favoring Joseph, and even knowing that his behavior possibly would have serious consequences.  The Torah tells us before Joseph is sold off, vayikanu bo echav veaviv shomar et Hadavar, "the brothers were jealous of Joseph, and Jacob was guarded in this matter." Rashi explains the word "guarded" by suggesting that Jacob knew Joseph's dreams were the truth, and waited for the dreams to come about despite the jealousy growing in his children. What is that about?  How are we to understand it?

Parenting is a challenge even for the best of us.  Most parents believe that they are always fair and impartial, never favoring one child over another.  Yet, when the children are asked, often a different story emerges.

Jacob sees something in Joseph that he does not see in his other children. He wants to nurture Joseph's unique greatness, and sees no reason why his other children should not see and appreciate what he sees.

The Torah tells us that it was the special love Jacob felt for Joseph that caused the brothers to double down on their hatred for him.  No surprise, then, that Joseph begins to have dreams of grandeur, of lording it over his siblings, of being superior to them.

What Jacob saw in Joseph was real and true.  Jacob knew it, and "anticipated" the day that his dreams would become reality.

Jacob also assumed and expected that his children, knowing what he saw in Joseph, would accept Joseph as their superior to honor him.  Did not his wives accept his special love for Rachel?  Or did they?

Ein Adam Roeh Nigay Atzmoh,  man never clearly sees his own faults.

Man is not able to comprehend his own shortcomings.  Even one as great as Yaakov was unable to see how his actions--first with his wives, and then with his children--would bring such calamity to his family and to their future.

The Torah shares this story to encourage us to take a closer look at our family and children--to be aware and open to the possibility that, though we personally do not see favoritism toward one child, our children may be seeing it differently.  We need to listen to what our children tell us in word and action, and we need to be willing to accept it.  Only then will we be assured of a future harmonious family.

This lesson is as true for teachers as well. We at AJA need to make sure that every one of our children feels equally loved, valued, and respected.

How precious is our Torah, and the lessons it teaches all of us!

Shabbat Shalom, 


Rabbi Pinchos Hecht, 

Head of School

Atlanta Jewish Academy

Continue reading

Parshat Vayeshev: How Free Is Free Will?

Bechirah Hachofshit, free will, is one of the most precious gifts given by God to mankind. But the core, the underlying heart of free will, lies in one's thoughts and desires; one's actions are just a follow-up.

Under normal circumstances, the things that you want to do, and the desires that you have, lead to whatever eventually happens. The exceptions are those absurd instances where the divine presence has to intervene; for example, the story of Purim. Hashem can't let one man's free will destroy His entire people. As I said, we are not judged on our actions, we are judged on what we want; and most of the time, what we want is what we are able to do.

There are instances, though, when we find that people have no free will, even though it seems like they do. Anybody can want to do anything. But whatever Hashem, who is King of the Universe, wants to happen is what will truly happen. We might interpret this description of Him as "king of the universe" loosely, but Hashem has the power to change the nature of mankind.

Yaakov loved Yosef the most of all of his sons. Why? Because the Torah said that he was "a child of his old age." What does this mean? Unkelos translates this to mean "a man who has the [equivalent] wisdom of Ya'akov in his old age." Yosef had the ability to understand very complex ideas, like an elderly scholar. He was on an elevated spiritual level, and wise beyond his years.

So Rav Nebentzahl asks a question: If Yaakov was able to pick up and appreciate Yosef's special gift, shouldn't his brothers have been able to appreciate and understand that he was special as well? After all, respecting your parents is one of the Ten Commandments; shouldn't the other brothers have taken their cue from their father and loved Yosef as well? But instead, they actually hated him. Also, if Yosef was such a great person, couldn't he have a judged his brothers favorably, instead of telling on them and reporting every evil thing they did back to their father? 

These things are unfathomable and beyond reason. But here is where it gets crazy: in Gen. 37:14, when Yaakov sends Yosef to check on his brothers, it says he sends him from "the valley of Chevron". This is hard to understand, because the Gemara and Rashi both tell us that Chevron was on a mountain. So what does this mean, the valley of Chevron? Rashi says that the word emekcan also mean "deep." So rather than a literal valley, Yaakov intended it to mean: from the depth of the counsel, or the advice, of the righteous one, Abraham, who is buried in Chevron. At first glance, this makes absolutely zero sense. 

Rav Nebentzahl gives a fascinating answer. A few parshiot ago, Abraham was promised that his descendants would be strangers in a strange land. Now, if you think about this logically, Jacob would never send his most beloved son, Yosef, who all of his brothers hated, to go and check up on them by himself. He would realize that Yosef would just come back with bad reports about his brothers, which would end up making the brothers hate him even more, making the situation even worse. Events would have to happen to cause Yaakov to choose the course he took. Clearly, Yaakov was guided to make decisions that were beyond his control.

Abraham was promised by God that his people were going to be strangers in a strange land. So Yaakov sent Yosef to go check up on his brothers, his brothers sold him into slavery, Yosef became second-in-command of Egypt and the Jews came there, inevitably making them strangers and slaves in the land. We see that when events like these need to happen, all control is taken from mankind. Yaakov, in his right mind, would never have chosen to put Joseph in that predicament. But the Jews needed to go down to Egypt, so Hashem made it happen.

Why does this specifically happen here? This was a lesson that we needed to be taught immediately before we went into exile. Things were going to happen that were going to make no sense at all, and we needed to be aware of the fact. We need to learn that not everything goes the way of nature. Because this was the formation of our nation, we were learning that God is directing the world, and what He wants, happens. In a perfect world, Yosef should've been loved; but he was hated by his own family. Yet in the house of Potiphar, Yosef was beloved, and then he becomes second-in-command of Egypt. How does that make sense? That is the least likely result. A slave--a Jewish slave--becomes second in command of Egypt.

But this is the most significant time for God to teach us that He truly runs the world. He showed us that sometimes, He's going to make things happen that are unnatural and out of the ordinary; but in the end, everything's going to work out because we are His people and He loves us, and He is always looking out for us. 

Shabbat Shalom, 


Sam Kalnitz, Grade 12

Atlanta Jewish Academy Upper School

Continue reading

Parshat Vayishlach: Wrestling with Angels

In this week’s parsha, Yaakov is confronted by an angel. Rashi cites his opinion that this is a ministering angel for Esav, helping in his attempt to defeat Yaakov. Rashbam, however, views this story through a different lens. He suggests that the angel isn’t trying to hurt Yaakov; rather, this angel is trying to guide and direct him.

Although the story may seem as though it describes Yaakov preparing for battle against Esav, according to this interpretation, what he was really doing was planning an escape. The narrative describes Yaakov sending many presents to Esav, which seems like Yaakov is attempting to pacify him. But it may have been an attempt to guide Esav towards him, by placing these presents so that Esav will follow the trail for more. Through this diversion, Yaakov was able to lead Esav and his 400 men astray while he utilized a different path to escape.

However, as soon as we think Yaakov has been successful in making his grand escape, he is met by an angel who tries to distract and delay him in an attempt to buy enough time for Esav to arrive. As Yaakov is about to win, the angel dislocates his hip, in a final effort to obstruct his getaway. This fight continued until the sun rose; by that time, it was too late for Yaakov to leave, because Esav was already nearby.

This take on the parsha shows us the importance of facing an unpleasant situation head-on. Yaakov was eager to flee, hoping to avoid his brother altogether. But the angel stopped him, leaving him with no other choice but to meet Esav face to face. It was now Yaakov’s responsibility to own up to his prior actions (disguising himself as Esav and disappointing him in his hopes for Yitzchak’s blessing).

This story shows us an important life lesson. As humans, we often shy away from taking responsibility for our actions. It is incredibly easy to fall into the trap of running away from one’s problems. Sometimes we choose the easiest path to take in order to avoid unpleasantness, but is this really the best path? Despite the fact that it may be superficially easier, in reality, it inhibits character development and obstructs growth. The angels we may face in life do not appear to defeat us or cause us to succumb; rather, to enable us to overcome our weaknesses, causing us to flourish.


Shabbat Shalom, 


Tova Asher, Grade 12

Atlanta Jewish Academy Upper School

Continue reading

Parshat Vayetze: Leaving Home

In this week’s parsha, Parshat Vayetze, Yaakov is on his way to his uncle’s house to keep away from his brother, Esav, who wants to kill him. On his way, he stops to rest for the night. While Yaakov sleeps, he has a dream. He dreams of a group of angels going up a ladder to heaven, while another group of angels is coming down the ladder.


When Yaakov woke up, he realized that he was in a place of Hashem. He was in a very holy place, and he didn’t even realize it! Many people have asked how this is possible. How could Yacov not know he was in a place of Hashem? It doesn’t make any sense; after all, he lived at such a high level of kedusha (holiness).

I think the reason Yaakov did not realize that this location was holy was because he was leaving Israel. He did not have the same connection with Hashem at this time because he was losing it, or had already lost it, by leaving Israel.  With his departure from Israel, Yacov severed the special connection he had with Hashem.

From Yaakov, we learn that people who are in Israel have a special connection with Hashem, just by being in the Holy Land. This explains why the Jews were given the land of Israel in the War of Independence, and the Six Day War, and all the other battles they’ve fought to protect it. It serves as proof that the Jewish presence in Israel is necessary. Hashem helps Jews more when they are there because it is a holier place than any other location in the world, and it is where we are meant to be. If Jews continue to control the land, Hashem will make sure that we keep it, because he will protect HIS people in HIS land.


Shabbat Shalom, 


Deborah Broyde, Grade 10

Atlanta Jewish Academy Upper School

Continue reading

Parshat Toldot: Deception

This week's D'var Torah is sponsored by Natalie (Birnbaum), Sigi, and Felix Fisch, and Philip Keenan, wishing a Happy 2nd Birthday to nephew and cousin, Eitan Birnbaum!!

This week’s parsha is Parashat Toldot. The parsha talks about how, after continuous praying, Rivka is blessed with two boys, Yaakov and Esav. As everybody knows, Yaakov is said to be the tzadik, the righteous one, and Esav is supposedly the “bad guy.” (There is a big game of favorites played in this parsha.) Rivka loved Yaakov, and Yitzchak loved Esav. Yaakov was always the talmid chacham, studious and on a higher spiritual level than Esav, and Yitzchak clearly knew this--yet he still loved Esav more.

The parsha states, “ויאהב יצחק את עשו כי ציד בפיו,” which means “Yitzchak loved Esav, for game was in his mouth.” What does that mean, that “game was in his mouth”? Rashi explains that Esav was very creative with his words. He enjoyed tricking Yitzchak with witty and confusing questions. If this was talking about any normal person being tricked, it would make sense; but this is talking about Yitzchak, one of the smartest people alive.

The mefarashim (commentaries) then ask: Would it even make sense to say that, out of love for Esav, Yitzchak was so ignorant and unintelligent that questions like these would override his common sense and make him think of Esav as some talmid chacham? Would it make sense for him to love his deceptive son rather than his honest one?

Yitzchak knew that Yaakov was eternally righteous (not slick, like Esav.) He knew that Yaakov would spend his days learning rather than working to support himself. Yitzchak thought that Esav would eventually become the successful one, the merchant, since Yaakov would be learning all day. So Yitzchak planned to give Esav the blessing of success, so he could support both himself and his brother. 

”רב דגן ולא הרבה דגן" The literal meaning is “an abundance of grain, not a lot of grain.” These both seem pretty similar. What is the difference? The difference is that Yitzchak doesn’t intend to bless Esav with a lot of grain, a sufficient amount for himself; he intends to bless him with an abundance of grain, meaning that the farmers of his town will have so much grain that Esav could buy it for cheap and sell it for a lot more, making him very wealthy. With all of this wealth, Esav could support both himself and his brother while Yaakov learned. As I said before, Yitzchak was not ignorant and unintelligent; he knew that with this blessing, it would be guaranteed that one of his sons could benefit the other. There would be no need for him to worry about either of them.

Fortunately, Rivka knew that Esav was a mean, selfish person. She knew that if he was blessed with an abundance of wealth, not only would he keep it to himself, but he would take any opportunity to tax Yaakov and drain him of any form of wealth he had. With this knowledge, it might have made sense to go to Yitzchak and tell him, but she didn’t. Rivka wanted to prove to Yitzchak that Yaakov had the potential to be just as witty as Esav.

We see later on, when Esav comes to Yitzchak for the blessing, that it was already “taken” by Yaakov. Esav immediately starts to cry to Yitzchak, telling him of how he was tricked by Yaakov. Not only was he tricked once, but twice, with the sale of his bechorah (birthright) and then the blessings. At first, Yitzchak was shocked that he had been fooled, and upset that his ideal image for the success of his sons would not go as planned. But after processing the information, he realized that the greatest cheater had been cheated. With that, Yitzchak was overjoyed that it was Yaakov who received this abundance of wealth. He was happy that Yaakov would not only be a successful scholar, but would make sure that everybody who needs a little help would get it.

We learn from this that as a Jewish nation, we have the capability to take care of others and to make peace among all those who desire it. Every morning, Hashem gives us the chance to use all the blessings we have been granted to positively influence the world. We can relate this to the daily battles in Israel that are happening right at this moment. Although Hamas is awful to us, the Israeli soldiers and even the Israeli citizens protect all Arabs and Palestinians who are in need of help. Just like Yaakov was granted with the blessing to help those in need, so are we. We should help everybody who needs it, whether it seems fit or not, because ultimately, that is what the Jewish people are meant to do.


Shabbat Shalom, 


Nicole Dori, Grade 9

Atlanta Jewish Academy Upper School

Continue reading

Parshat Chayei Sarah: The Legacy of the Righteous

In this week’s parsha, Chayei Sarah, Sarah dies from the shock of her son being sacrificed--she doesn’t know Yitzchak will live in the end. Sarah understood life’s fragility. 


But a question may be floating through your mind: Why is this parsha called “Chayei Sarah, the LIFE of Sarah,” if she dies?


I’ll give you an answer. During her life, Sarah merited three miracles. The first was that her Shabbat candles were always lit; the second was that her challah dough always remained fresh; and the third was the cloud of glory resting above her tent. But after her death, these miracles ceased.


Later in the parsha, Yitzchak meets Rivkah, and they get married. The three miracles that had existed for Sarah returned to the tent for Rivka, demonstrating the theme of “dor l’dor, generation to generation.” This comes to teach us that even if someone dies, his or her legacy can still continue to live on in other people. Maybe our bodies die, but our souls don’t.

This can also be related to the events currently happening in Israel. The fact that people are dying in Israel is terrible; but it doesn’t mean we should give up hope, it doesn’t mean it’s the end. Their legacies live on.

Every person lost to us is a tragedy. But the fact that there are young men and women with the courage to defend the Land serving in Tzahal (IDF), who courageously sacrifice their lives for the state of Israel, shows that we should have hope for the future--just as Sarah died, but her legacy continued on through Rivkah. 

Sarah’s legacy still lives on today; we look on her as one of the mothers of the Jewish people. So, too, we look up to the brave people defending and protecting our land.


Shabbat Shalom, 


Sophie Harris, Grade 9

Atlanta Jewish Academy Upper School

Continue reading

Parshat Vayeira: Prayer...With Feeling

Parshat Vayeira: Prayer...with Feeling


In this week's parsha, Parshat Vayera, Avraham is told that the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are to be destroyed because everyone there is immensely wicked. In an attempt to save lives and protect the city from destruction, Avraham bargains with Hashem: "Perhaps there are fifty righteous men in the midst of the city; will You even destroy and not forgive the place for the sake of the fifty righteous men who are in its midst?" Being the merciful kind of G-d that Hashem is, He tells Avraham that if fifty righteous people did exist, He would spare the cities--but sadly, that is not the case. The numbers and arguments continue to dwindle until Avraham pleads to save the cities for the sake of merely one righteous man! Why the whole debate? Just save them or don't save them; why go back and forth with negotiations about numbers and lots of begging? 


When people daven, they must feel passionate about what they are praying for. Obviously, saving righteous men is Avraham's priority. Avraham has a soft spot for those that believe similarly to him. By beginning with the goal of saving large numbers of people that he really cares about, Avraham was able to rev himself up for a big triumph. He got excited about protecting many righteous people and, therefore, spent more time negotiating for the preservation of the city. The prep time of fifty people, forty people, thirty people allowed Avraham to become committed to the idea of saving Sodom and Gomorrah before reaching the more likely numbers of righteous men that were to be found in the cities. Going back and forth gave him time to mentally prepare for the tefillot that mattered more.

Before one davens--before one can sit and be passionate and really care about getting results with one's prayer--one needs to get into it. Davening isn't something that can just be done. We can't just sit down and expect to feel anything, or that Hashem will hand us what we've asked for on a silver platter. Just like Avraham, we need to find that thing to connect to, to sit down before prayer to meditate on it, to think about why it is important to us, why this is what we want. This way, when we actually get to the prayer, the passion will be there when it matters most--when the numbers get low, and there are only seconds left to get an answer.


Shabbat Shalom, 


Zoie Wittenberg, Grade 10

Atlanta Jewish Academy Upper School

Continue reading

Divrei Torah on Parshat Lech Lecha from the AJA Upper School Shabbaton

Michelle Khandadash on Parshat Lech Lecha:

I’m going to start with a synopsis of this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha.

Hashem commands Avraham to leave his home and travel to Eretz Yisrael. The Almighty then gives Avraham an eternal message to the Jewish people and to the nations of the world: "I will bless those who bless you, and he who curses you, I will curse." Because of a famine, Avraham was forced to travel to Egypt. Avraham asked Sarah to disguise herself as his sister, for she was very beautiful and local men would kill Avraham to marry her.

Pharaoh evicts Avraham from Egypt after attempting to take Sarah for his wife. They settle in Hebron, and his nephew Lot settles in Sodom. Avraham rescues Lot, who was taken captive in the Battle of the Four Kings against the Five Kings.

Entering into a covenant with Hashem, Avraham is told that his descendants will be enslaved for 400 years, and that his descendants will be given the land "from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates." (I do not think that this part of the story made it into the Koran...)

Sarah, childless, gives her handmaiden, Hagar, to Avraham for a wife, so that he can have children. Ishmael is born. The covenant of brit mila is made! Then Hashem breaks the exciting news that Sarah, at the fabulous age of 100, will give birth to Yitzchak. To finish it all off, Avraham then circumcises all the males of his household.

Well, that’s action-packed. So many things happen! But one thing in particular makes me enjoy this parsha. You see, everyone in the Torah is human, like me and like you, and one of the great things about human beings is that we get stressed! We all know that with college applications, endless hours of homework, cause fair (save the elephants!), we have a lot on our plates--and to put the beautiful, red cherry on top, there are life’s inevitable ups and downs. With all this in mind, why is it that when Hashem told Avraham to “go for yourself from your the land that I will show you,” Avraham doesn't get stressed out?

Hashem is asking Avraham to leave the home that is so familiar, the home that he knows inside and out, to a land that he can’t even find on a map! Hashem just says, “to the land that I will show you.” Avraham has to pack everything up and just travel! Wouldn’t you want to know where you’re going? When you’re going to get there? Let’s face it, moving is downright stressful for a human, but Avraham is not fazed. Why?

I will tell you why. Because of Lech Lecha. It says it right there, in the first verse! Lech Lecha -- go for yourself. Hashem could have just ended it at Lech, just go--but no, He decided to add the Lecha, for yourself.

Avraham traveled to embark on a journey where he will find himself. Now his travel has a meaning, a purpose, an end goal. This is what eased the great mind of Avraham. When you have a clear vision of what you want your end goal to be, the travel oddly becomes easier!

This brings up another interesting question: Avraham Avinu is, well, Avraham Avinu! What is it about himself that he needs to find?

As I previously said, he was human—and there is always something in all of us that we can grow from, there is always something that we can improve on.

When Hashem called on Avraham to find himself, He chose a specific destination for him: Israel. Hashem implied that this is the best place to find who you really are. It’s a maturity process, so to speak, and this process of setting forth on a soul search is a key to the door and everyone should go through it.

I know what you’re thinking. Yeah, right, who has the time? But let me open your eyes to something. The Hebrew word for “life” is chaim, and it always seems to appear in plural form. This is because life is a never-ending process of self-discovery. The time is now, take advantage of it! It’s common to hear, Come on, this only happens once in a lifetime! Well, hello! Every day happens once in a lifetime! This moment, right now, you are never going to have it again! It’s the only chance you’re really going to get. So look to the person to the right of you, and look to the person to the left of you, and appreciate them! Appreciate what you have. Love the time you are blessed to have. It is said that Hashem tells each one of us “Lech Lecha” -- go for yourself. Avraham heard the call; hopefully, we will too.

Next year in Jerusalem!


Talya Gordon on Parshat Lech Lecha 

“I need Shoshi, Maayan, and Ezra to please leave the room,” I shouted. Confusion filled the room as everyone wondered why I was requesting such a thing. I waited for a moment, letting the uneasiness sink in. Then I began. 

So you all probably think I’m crazy right now, but what I just demonstrated to you is what Hashem told Avraham in this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Lech Lecha. While it may have seemed crazy that I just asked Shoshi, Maayan, and Ezra to leave the room, how much crazier does it seem that Hashem asked Avraham to leave his home and the land that he had lived in for his entire life? 

Just imagine this: You wake up one morning, and you are going about your daily activities. For Avraham, that was probably doing acts of kindness; but still, it was just a typical day for him. Then suddenly, God appears to him and says: לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ. 

Hashem wanted Avraham to leave at His command, and Avraham listened right away. Avraham obeyed because of Hashem’s promise to make him a great nation. But this basic concept, the foundation of our entire religion, has bothered me. After all, if Hashem came to me and asked me to move and start an entirely new life, would I listen? Sure, I’m no Avraham, but did he have enough faith? 

What I find most peculiar is that Avraham didn’t even know where he was going. He was supposed to just go on a journey, and when Hashem told him to stop, he would. 

I think that this comes to teach us that while in some areas of life, it is beneficial to have an ending point, a specific goal, we are never supposed to have an ending goal in our spiritual growth. Each and every one of us always has room to grow in our spirituality, no matter who we are. For this reason, Hashem demonstrates to us that—without an end goal in mind—Avraham is willing to grow spiritually without even knowing how he will develop or how far he will travel. 

Avraham encounters many obstacles; so, too, we will encounter many obstacles in our spiritual journeys through life as well. It is simply inevitable. As soon as Avraham and Sarai leave their hometown, they encounter a king who wants to sleep with Sarai and kill Avraham. They are forced to lie and say that Avraham is Sarai’s brother in order to keep him alive. This comes to teach us that—even though Avraham is listening to Hashem and trying to grow spiritually—he will encounter barriers. It is his job, and our job, to try and maneuver around these barriers and grow nonetheless. 

This theme is again present when the Jews receive the Torah, when they all proclaimed in unison, “נעשה ונשמה--we will do, and then we will hear.” The order of the words in this phrase comes to teach us that we, as B’nei Yisrael, must be willing to grow through action, for only then can we ensure that we are unlimited. Only then will we be able to grow as much as we possibly can.



Continue reading

Parshat Lech Lecha: To the Land I Will Show You

What would you do if you were in class, and your teacher asked you to skip around the classroom reciting the Declaration of Independence? 


Odd, but do-able, right? 


What if a principal asked you to represent your school by making a televised speech on religion? 


Scary, but still do-able. 


Now, let's imagine that someone you hardly know--but really like--asked you to pick up all your belongings, leave your family, friends, home, and lifestyle, and move to a whole different country. Would you do it? 


Ummmmm, I don't think so. That kind of decision is life-altering. 


It sounds crazy, but our forefather, Avraham, believed so passionately in Hashem that he was willing to take that risk and venture out to the land of Israel. From this parsha, we are able to appreciate Avraham's courage and faith. 


In fact, we should strive to achieve similar behavior in our own everyday mitzvot from Hashem. If Avraham was able to put down everything that he knew to be his life and put it on hold in order to follow Hashem, we should be able to learn something from this, too. Avraham teaches us the importance of following what is most important to you. 


In Avraham's life, this meant devoting his life to God. He was the first monotheist! Therefore, he would have seemed like a hypocrite had he not listened to God's word while he was telling others of its importance. Avraham wanted to follow through with his beliefs and show others that it is important to believe in God, even when we don't always understand His motives.


Shabbat Shalom, 


Mia Azani, Grade 12

Atlanta Jewish Academy Upper School

Continue reading

Parshat Noach: Whose Roots? by Rabbi Reuven Travis

I cannot help but wonder each year when we reach Parashat Noach why the Jewish people trace their roots to Avraham and not to Noach. Few individuals in the Tanakh receive higher praise than does Noach in the opening verse of the parasha.


" אֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת נֹחַ נֹחַ אִישׁ צַדִּיק תָּמִים הָיָה בְּדֹרֹתָיו אֶת הָאֱלֹהִים הִתְהַלֶּךְ נֹחַ: 

These are the generations of Noach; Noach was a righteous man, he was perfect in his generations; Noach walked with God.


Think about it. When "all flesh had corrupted its way on the earth," to the point that Hashem decrees that "the end of all flesh has come before Me, for the earth has become full of robbery because of them," He does not opt to begin creation anew. Rather, Hashem saves Noach so that he and his descendants can repopulate the earth. And yet we call Avraham our father and the founder of our faith. 


Why is this so? 


Many are quick to point to Rashi's commentary on the language of the praise offered Noach, namely, that "he was perfect in his generation." Basing himself on the Talmud in Sanhedrin 108a, Rashi writes as follows: 


"Some of our Sages interpret it [the word בְּדֹרֹתָיו] favorably: How much more so if he had lived in a generation of righteous people, he would have been even more righteous. Others interpret it derogatorily: In comparison with his generation he was righteous, but if he had been in Avraham's generation, he would not have been considered of any importance." 


I have no doubt that every AJA student at some point in his or her Chumash studies has learned this Rashi and has discussed and debated its implications. Nonetheless, I believe there is a more fundamental reason why we consider Avraham to be our progenitor and not Noach. 


Hashem appears to Noach and informs him of the terrible fate awaiting not just humanity but all living creatures that walk the earth and fill its skies. He tells him to build an ark and gives him detailed instructions concerning its dimensions. Hashem further instructions Noach which animals to bring aboard the ark and advises him to fill its holds with ample food. Noach silently listens and in the end does all that God commands him. 


Compare Noach's silence and lack of any visible reaction to Avraham's encounter with Hashem when Hashem appears to inform him of His plans to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Even before considering Avraham's response, it is worth noting why Hashem felt compelled (if we can say such a thing) to share His plans with Avraham: "I have known him because he commands his sons and his household after him, that they should keep the way of the Lord to perform righteousness and justice, in order that the Lord bring upon Avraham that which He spoke concerning him" (Bereishit 19:19). When God tells Avraham of His plans, Avraham's first reaction is to challenge God: "Will You even destroy the righteous with the wicked?" (Bereishit 19:23). Avraham is relentless. What if there are 50 righteous individuals? What if there are 45, 40, and so on? Avraham's language becomes increasingly impassioned. "Will the Judge of the entire earth not perform justice?" (Bereishit 19:25).


Ultimately, Hashem sees the strength of Avraham's arguments and logic, and cuts off the discussion when Avraham asks what God will do if there are 10 righteous individuals, for Hashem understands where the discussion is heading. Avraham will demand that He spare the cities if there be but one righteous individual there. 


And herein lies the reason we are the heirs of Avraham, not Noach. Noach was a great man, one deemed worthy of saving by God Himself. Yet Noach was inwardly focused. He walked with God, as the verse tells us, but seemed to be unconcerned with his fellow humans. Avraham, however, was willing to argue with Hashem to try and save even one righteous individual. Avraham's worldview is encapsulated in his defining character trait: chesed, that is, unrelenting kindness and concern for others. This is the trait the people God would ultimately choose to be "a light unto the nations" (Isaiah 49:6) need to fulfill their mission. The righteousness of a Noach may be enough to save humanity, but only the chesed of an Avraham can bring God into the world. 


May the lessons of this parasha inspire us to instill Avraham's legacy in our students and in our children. 



Shabbat Shalom, 


Rabbi Reuven Travis, Judaic Studies Faculty 

Atlanta Jewish Academy Upper School


Continue reading

Simchat Torah: Touching God's Heart, by Rabbi Ari Karp

What has the power to save us even when all seems lost? What remains intact no matter what we experience and where we travel? No matter how far or how widely we have wandered?


It's one thing and one thing only: Love.


We are God's beloved, and He is ours. But sometimes we don't feel the love. Every Jew owns and breathes the Torah. But like breathing, sometimes we forget that we do it.


The holiday of Simchat Torah serves as a reminder of this love, and thus, we dance like we have never danced before.


The Zohar's explanation on the verse in Shir HaShirim, Song of Songs, captures the sentiment. We ask God, "Place me like a seal upon Your heart." A seal leaves an enduring impression long after it has been removed. Even if the seal itself is gone from the heart, however far away it is, the impression of the love that was there will always remain.


On Simchat Torah, we read the end and the beginning of the Torah. The last and first letters of the Torah are lamed and bet, spelling lev, "heart."


So tell me, when the sealing of the Torah is placed upon God's heart, how could we not dance?


As the famous phrase goes... "Simcha poretz geder, joy can break limitations." When we are joyous on Simchat Torah, anything is possible, even outwitting heaven itself!


So dance, and clutch that Torah as tightly as you can; it is your most powerful lifesaver.


Chag Sameach,


Rabbi Ari Karp,

Judaic Studies Faculty, 

Atlanta Jewish Academy, Greenfield Middle School

Continue reading

Shemini Atzeret: Stay, by Mrs. Sonia Hoffman

When we celebrate Yamim Tovim, it's important to understand what we're doing so that our celebration and our mindset are focused and meaningful. That being said, Shemini Atzeret has always been a bit hard to understand. It is a day that comes right after Sukkot, but isn't officially part of Sukkot, so what should we be thinking and feeling during our Shemini Atzeret celebrations?


In Vayikra 23:36, where the Torah brings down the celebration of Sukkot, it says:


"[For] a seven day period, you shall bring a fire offering to the Lord. On the eighth day, it shall be a holy occasion for you, and you shall bring a fire offering to the Lord. It is a [day of] detention. You shall not perform any work of labor."


This is a reference to Shemini Atzeret, the eighth day of the seven day celebration of Sukkot. The verse tells us that the eighth day is a "day of detention". We all know detention isn't something we generally celebrate; there must be a deeper meaning to the word.


Rashi comments on this verse and relays a really profound message. Rashi writes, "It is a [day of] detention: [i.e., God says to Israel,] "I have detained you [to remain] with Me." Rashi continues with a short parable. He says, imagine there's a king, and the king invites his children to a huge celebration for a specified number of days. The children come and they all have a great time, but then the specified number of days is up and the children have to go back to their lives. But the king wants to spend more time with his children, so he calls out to them and says "Please, stay just one more day!"


This is Shemini Atzeret. God invited us into our Sukkot for seven days, and we enter in gladly and we celebrate and have a great time. But then the seven days of Sukkot come to an end; and as we're about to go back to our lives, God calls to us and says, "Please! Stay for one more day!"  That one day is Shemini Atzeret. It's a time where we focus on the relationship we have with God and His desire to be close to us.


This year on Shemini Atzeret, as we're celebrating, let's think about the special relationship we have with God; and hopefully, our love and appreciation for the relationship will grow as well.


Chag Sameach,


Sonia Hoffman,

Judaic Studies Faculty, 

Atlanta Jewish Academy Upper School

Continue reading

Sukkot: The Holiday of Jewish Unity

Sukkot is almost upon us, and one of the biggest Mitzvot of Sukkot is to shake the Arba'ah Minim, the four species.  In Vayikra 23:40, it says:  "ולקחתם לכם ביום הראשון פרי עץ הדר כפת תמרים וענף עץ עבות וערבי נחל, you will take on the first day a fruit from a citrus tree (etrog), the branch from a date palm (lulav), twigs of a plaited tree (hadassim), and brook willows (aravot).”

We shake the four species every day of Sukkot except on Shabbat. The four species are a key part of celebrating Sukkot, but what do they stand for?

Imagine the four species as body parts. The etrog represents the heart, the hadas (myrtle) has leaves shaped like an eye, the lulav (date palm) represents the spine, the aravah (willow) represents the lips.

In order for the mitzvah of shaking lulav and etrog to count, you have to have all four species together. So if you put all the body parts together, you get a whole person. A person is not complete if he doesn’t have a spine to hold him upright, or he can’t be complete without a heart, the center of feelings and emotions.

One Jewish person makes up a little part of the entire Jewish population. Each Jewish person is different. The Midrash says that each type of person is represented by one of the four species. The etrog has a good smell and a good taste, so it represents somebody who does good deeds and has wisdom.

The hadas has a good smell, but can’t be eaten, so it represents somebody who does good deeds, but doesn’t have wisdom. The lulav can be eaten, but doesn’t really have a smell. This symbolizes a person who has wisdom, but doesn’t do good deeds. The aravah doesn’t have a smell and isn’t edible either. That represents someone who doesn’t do good deeds and doesn’t have wisdom.

All these types of people together make up all of the Jewish people. Without the people with wisdom, there would be nobody to teach the people lacking wisdom, and without the people who lack wisdom and good deeds, there would be nobody to teach good deeds and wisdom to.

Every person needs other people to serve a purpose in the world and everything needs another thing to serve its purpose in the world. On Sukkot, the Arba'ah Minim all have different meanings and different purposes, but when they all come together, they all act as one whole unit.

Everyone is needed in this school to make it complete. If one person is missing, then that takes away a part of the experience for everyone, because that person wasn’t there to say what he would have had to say, or do what he could have done to change the experience.

On Sukkot, if you have the four species, but you have no people to shake them, the lulav and etrog have no purpose. Similarly, the experience of eating in a Sukkah with the walls holding us together as a community teaches us that Sukkot is the holiday of Jewish unity.

Sukkot is also a holiday of joy. Celebrating Jewish unity is a very important mitzvah. So we hope you have a happy Sukkot and a Chag Sameach,

Adina B. & Zach M.


Continue reading

Sukkot: From Sacrifice to Prayer, by Rabbi Reuven Travis

Sukkot: From Sacrifice to Prayer


The core ritual of our observance of the holiday of Sukkot, that is, our dwelling in sukkot, commemorates our wanderings through the wilderness for 40 years under the miraculous care of Hashem. Many of the miracles we witnessed during that time were connected to the Mishkan (Tabernacle), and the very fact that God's presence then visibly dwelt among the Jewish people.


With the permanent settlement of the land of Israel, Mishkan became Temple; but through our sins, we lost that miraculous edifice not once, but twice. That loss forced the Jewish people to adapt and seek a new means to connect, as a people, with Hashem. That new ritual was, of course, prayer.


How did this new rite emerge and take shape?


Based on the Talmud in Megillah 17a, the Rambam (Maimonides) explains that the exile that occurred upon the destruction of the First Temple resulted in the Jewish people losing their common language. Thus, "to recite the praises of the Holy One, blessed be He, in the holy language [i.e., Hebrew]" became an impossible task. For this reason, states the Rambam, upon the return of exiles from Bavel to Israel, Ezra and the Beit Din established 18 mandatory benedictions, a group of blessings that ultimately came to be known as the Amidah.


The composition and sources of the Amidah are critical in understanding the evolution in Judaism from sacrifice-based to prayer-oriented ritual. However, the more immediately germane point raised by the Rambam involves the number of times these blessings were to be recited each day.


The Rambam writes that the men of the Great Assembly decreed the number of times daily prayer (in this sense, the Amidah) is to be recited must correspond to the number of daily sacrifices. The count is therefore as follows: one prays the Amidah two times a day to correspond to the two daily Oleh offerings, morning and afternoon, brought in the Temple. An additional Musaf prayer is also to be recited on those days when an additional Musaf offering was sacrificed in the Temple (i.e., on ShabbatYom Tov and Rosh Chodesh). Finally, a third prayer was to be recited daily, in the evening, to correspond to the time in which the limbs of the afternoon offerings were left to burn on the altar, as the verse states: "It is the burnt-offering [that stays] on the flame, on the Altar, all night until the morning" (Vayikra 6:2).


Given the destruction of the Temple and the breaking of bond with God that resulted, it is understandable why the Sages wanted to--and did--link prayer to sacrifice. Why they felt it so important to link prayer to the Avot, or Patriarchs (as they did the talmudic tractate of Brachot) is less obvious, but may be explained by a powerful insight offered by the Ramban (Nachmanides) onParshat Lech Lecha.


There, the verse states very simply that "Avram passed into the land as far as the site of Shechem, until the Plain of Moreh" (Bereishit 12:6). The Ramban uses this verse as a springboard to explain an extraordinarily important principal (ענין גדול), namely, that all the events which the Torah documents as happening to the Avot are but harbingers of the events that will befall their descendants in later generations. This is a well-known teaching of our Sages. However, the Ramban understands this dictum in an interesting and unique way. 


For the Ramban, the actions of the Avot are not mere signs of future events; they are actual precursors of those events. In other words, Avram's initial entry into Canaan at Shechem and his continuing until the Plain of Moreh were not symbolic of how Joshua's future conquest of the land would unfold, but were instead necessary pre-conditions for that conquest. In this vein, it can be argued that prayer had to be linked to sacrifice to bolster the people's connection with HaShem in the face of His concealing His divine presence, but that its establishment by the Avot was a mandatory prerequisite for it to succeed. 


During this special time of year, as we sit in our sukkot and contemplate our past and plan for our future, let us all, as parents and as teachers, remember that our children and our students learn from our actions--just as we, as a people, learn from the actions of the Avot. And may it be that the many special and beautiful prayers we offer during the holiday of Sukkot be an inspiration to us all to bring about the time when the miracles of the Temple are not merely part of our collective history, but a reality of our present times. 


Chag Sameach,


Rabbi Reuven Travis,

Judaic Studies Faculty, Atlanta Jewish Academy Upper School


Continue reading

Yom Kippur: Fulfilling the Mission, by Rabbi Jake Czuper

The Talmud in Yoma 85b says, "How fortunate are you, Israel! Before whom are you purified and who purifies you? Your father in heaven....Just as a mikvah purifies the impure, so, too, the Holy One, blessed be He, purifies Israel."

Our tradition views Yom Kippur as a great gift; the culmination of the process of amending our past and looking forward towards a successful, bright future. 


During the previous month of Elul and the lead up towards Yom Kippur, the prayers have focused on our past.  During Selichot, we have called out to G-d, confessed our mistakes, regretted our misdeeds, and asked for mercy and to be written in the Book of Life.  The beginning of the Yom Kippur service starts out in a similar vein, but the tone of the day changes with the final prayer in Sh'mone Esrei. 


Every Amidah of Yom Kippur ends with ... "My God, before I was formed I was unworthy, and now that I have been formed, it is as if I had not been formed." Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook (the first Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel) interpreted this sentence as follows: "Until I was born, it was not the time for me; my specific mission in life was for this period and no other. And now that I have come into this historic epoch, it is as if I was never born, for I have squandered the abilities that were given to me in order to fulfill this mission." 


We end off each Amidah prayer on Yom Kippur by reminding ourselves that Hashem has put us here in this world and this point in history for "our specific mission," and it is incumbent upon ourselves to reflect on our own unique strengths, talents, and untapped abilities, so that we can use the upcoming year towards success in fulfilling our mission.  The culmination of the Teshuva process not only atones for our past, but guides us towards a bright future. 


Perhaps this is reason why the Talmud states in Ta'anit 26b, "There were no happier days for the Jews than the Fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur."


May this New Year 5775 be filled with blessing, joy, and peace, and may the entire AJA community have a g'mar chatimah tova,


Rabbi Jake Czuper

Judaic Studies Faculty, Atlanta Jewish Academy Upper School


Continue reading