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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Parlor Meetings and the Purim Story

After a close reading of Megillat Esther, one may wonder: Why the need for the first chapter? It shares little, if anything, related to the miracle of Purim. 

In the book The Dawn: Political Teachings of the Book of Esther, author Yoram Hazony addresses this very question. Hazony sees more in the Megillah that just the wonderful story of Purim. To him, the story is also instructive as a list of political dos and don'ts for leaders. 

In Chapter One, the king is surrounded and advised by a large number of experienced and thoughtful advisors. They each voice their views, the king decides, and the kingdom prospers.  

All this stops after Bigtan and Teresh plot to kill the king. Achashverosh is already suspicious of the old guard because he is not of royal blood. For this reason, he moves his capital city to Shushan and builds a new palace, away from the old seat of power. 

The king's fears are realized with the disclosure of the attempt on his life, and this serves to increase his paranoia. Achashverosh then promotes one adviser over all the others. Whereas before, there were multiple voices heard and opinions shared, now there was to be but one voice.

It is for this reason that Mordechai, knowing the danger of such a political mistake, refuses to bow to Haman. It is this act of defiance that, in the end, will save the king and the kingdom. 

True freedom is about a multiplicity of opinions and beliefs honestly expressed and listened to with sincere interest. It is so important for leaders to hear multiple voices, and for everyone to feel safe sharing their thoughts! I invite you to come out and make your voice heard. There are many avenues through which to share your ideas--our News & Schmooze series of parlor meetings, the survey you have all received, and my always-open office door are just a few of them. 

We hope that you will partner with us in developing our beloved school and its programs. We look forward to hearing from you as we continue to improve AJA and strive for true excellence in everything we do.


Purim samayach, 


Rabbi Pinchos Hecht, Head of School

Atlanta Jewish Academy

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Parshat Terumah: The Real Point of Judaism

The second pasuk in this week's parsha goes as follows:  דבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְיִקְחוּ לִי תְּרוּמָה מֵאֵת כָּל אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִדְּבֶנּוּ לִבּוֹ תִּקְחוּ אֶת תְּרוּמָתִי

"Speak to B'nei Yisrael and have them take for Me a portion; from every person whose heart inspires him to give, you shall take My portion." If you think about it, there are different ways to phrase this pasuk. When donating to Hashem, aren't we giving to Him and not taking? So why does the Torah use the verb לקחת (to take) to describe an action that is actually a form of giving? 

 width=Someone who donates her time and money is called a "giver." Sometimes, when someone gives, she has ulterior motives; she may give with the intention to look good or to look nice to peers, not for the altruistic sense of the action. But, to me at least, that says something--the fact that our society thinks highly of someone who is charitable with everything she has speaks well for us. Giving is highly acclaimed in the Torah; we see its importance from the first man to act as a Jew.  

Also mentioned and described in this week's parsha is the structure of the actual building of the Mishkan. The walls of the frame of the Mishkan were made of individual beams of wood. Those beams were held together by a crossbeam that ran through the center. Interestingly, according to Targum Yonatan, the wood of the crossbeam was made of Avraham's famous tree. Under this tree, Avraham waited for travelers to pass so he could invite them into his house as guests. The very wood used to hold together the Mishkan, the center of B'nei Yisrael's camp and Judaism at the time, was once used by the kind master of chesed and giving himself. The original purpose of the Mishkan's support beam was to aid in giving, so the center of Judaism must be giving, too.  

In truth, giving is rewarding. When we put out our hands to another, Hashem rewards us with more than we started with. It is the center of our religion, the crux of our purpose in this world.  

Sometimes, people forget that. Sometimes, we get so caught up in the details of every mitzvah and everyday life that we forget to keep an eye out for one another and lend each other a hand. This week's parsha stands to emphasize--especially right after Yitro, the parsha in which the Torah was commanded, and Mishpatim, a parsha full of halachot that deal with bein adam lechavero (between man and his friend)--that kindness and giving are essential to our success as individuals and a nation.

Shabbat shalom, 


Zoie W., Grade 10 

Atlanta Jewish Academy Upper School


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Parshat Mishpatim: Interest-Free Loans


וְאֵלֶּה הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים אֲשֶׁר תָּשִׂים לִפְנֵיהֶם:

And these are the ordinances that you shall set before them.


As the very name of the parasha implies, it is replete with commandments, 53 in total, 23 positive and 30 prohibitions. These include the laws of the indentured servant as well as the penalties for murder, kidnapping, assault, and theft. However, much of the parasha relates to civil laws such as those pertaining to redress of damages, the granting of loans, and the rules governing the conduct of justice by courts of law. The commandment I'd like to focus on today, however, is the prohibition of charging interest to a fellow Jew.

Typically, when we think of civil laws, they strike us as logical, as making good sense. They generally do not leave us pondering their purpose like shatnez (the prohibition against mixing linen and wool) and the parah aduma (the red heifer). And yet, when we read the laws of interest set forth in this week's parasha, we are taken aback. Rationally speaking, one would think that there is nothing ethically wrong with interest. A lender ought to be entitled to a return on his or her capital. Conversely, a borrower would gladly pay for the use of someone else's capital. Nonetheless, the Torah forbids interest payments on loans, not once, but with five separate injunctions (Shmot 22:24, Vayikra 25:36 [twice in the same verse!], Devarim 23:20 and 23:21). Moreover, the Torah does not merely prohibit usury, an exorbitant amount of interest charged. From the Torah's perspective, the rate of interest charged is irrelevant. Interest is forbidden, not only to one who seeks to collect it but also for the borrower who seeks to pay it. In this regard, interest differs from other civil wrongdoings in that it is not open to the victim (the borrower) to consent to suffer paying interest. Interest taken by consent remains interest (see Ramban, Devarim 23:20).

Why is this so? Why is the Torah so fiercely opposed to interest? Given that God generally does not seek to place unreasonable burdens on his people, especially when it comes to earning a livelihood, there must be something more going on here. Perhaps the Torah's prohibition on interest is to be understood as being based on the religious obligation to make interest-free loans available to fellow Jews. Advancing an interest-free loan is a form of charity, an act of chessed. The Torah requires us to be benevolent towards our brethren and to accommodate them with funds in their time of need, without seeking reward for it. Thus, taking interest does not constitute a civil wrong but rather a lack of high moral conduct.

This notion that the prohibition against interest is grounded on moral considerations as opposed to being a civil misdeed is reinforced by the fact that the Tur and the Shulchan Aruch both chose to include the laws of interest in theYoreh Deah section of their respective codes, a section which deals with ritualistic precepts, rather than in Choshen Mishpat, the section which deals with civil laws. The inclusion of the laws of interest in Yoreh Deah demonstrates that the purpose of these laws is not to prevent exploiting one's fellow man. Rather, the laws belong to the category of mitzvot "between man and his Maker."

It is for this reason that rabbis across Atlanta are speaking this Shabbat about JIFLA, Atlanta's Jewish free loan society. JIFLA provides financial assistance to Jewish individuals and families in the greater Atlanta Jewish and surrounding communities. It helps our neighbors and friends remain self-supporting and self-reliant members of the community with dignity and respect through interest-free loans.

Over the last four years, JIFLA has made over 60 loans totaling $190,130 to Jews across Atlanta. In doing so, JIFLA has helped people keep their homes, put food on the table, pay for car repairs so people can retain their jobs, pay for medical procedures, and many other things. JIFLA allows people to get through difficult times with dignity by providing a hand up instead of a handout.  One of the goals of this Shabbat Parasha Mishpatim is to get the word out about JIFLA--which remains one of the best kept secrets in Atlanta.

If you are unfamiliar with JILFA, I want to encourage you to visit their website after Shabbat: There, you can learn more about this important organization. For those of you who are in need, you will find a link on JIFLA's home page that will allow you to privately and confidentially apply for a loan. For others, visiting the website will allow you to contribute financially to this very worthwhile organization.


Shabbat shalom, 


Rabbi Reuven Travis

Atlanta Jewish Academy Upper School
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Parshat Mishpatim: The Importance of Kindness

In this week’s parsha, Parshat Mishpatim, the concept of “ein mukdam u'muktar beTorah, there is not necessarily an order to the Torah,” is very relevant. Rashi staunchly believes that the Torah isn’t always written in chronological order; rather, it is written to teach us a lesson, which doesn’t always mean that it is written exactly as events unfolded. Ramban, on the other hand, believes the Torah is written in order, and therefore the two famous rabbis disagree on many events throughout Tanach. 


I width=n Parshat Mishpatim, matan Torah, the giving of the Torah, seems to be plugged in somewhat extraneously between other laws that have little to do with it. Upon reading the verses, I was originally very confused as to why phrases about matan Torah would possibly be (randomly?) included here. However, after reading Rashi’s explanation, I gained a greater understanding for the verse “ein mukdam u'muktar beTorah.” While it may seem random and strange that the verse discussing the giving of the Torah is inserted here at the end of Parshat Mishpatim, Rashi tells us that the reason for the verse’s placement here is to teach us the connection between the simple mitzvot surrounding it and what the giving of the Torah encompasses. Surrounding the verses discussing the giving of the Torah are verses discussing how to treat a Jewish servant--these laws form the foundation for derech eretz(treating someone properly). Since derech eretz and the Torah are so connected, it now seems extremely relevant that the two verses are juxtaposed.


In contrast, Ramban may take a different approach and say that this juxtaposition of verses was simply the way the events occurred--also an entirely plausible option. I tend to agree more with Rashi, because I believe the Torah is not a history book; rather, it is a guidebook of how to live our lives. Therefore, every word or phrase written is written for a reason, and is there to teach us a lesson. The placement of the verses about the giving of the Torah next to the treatment of a Jewish slave shows how important it is to treat one another kindly--the principle underlying the entire Torah. 


Shabbat shalom, 


Talya G., Grade 12 

Atlanta Jewish Academy Upper School
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Parshat Yitro: With a Little Help from Our Friends

This d'var Torah is sponsored in honor of the birthday of Jonah Newman (Yonah Shalom) by his grandparents, Daniele and Steve Newman. Mazel tov!

Every week, my father tells me how impressed he is with each student-written D'var Torah, and that (G-d willing), he looks forward to the day that I will prepare one, too. So this week, I have volunteered to write a D'var Torah, and I dedicate it to my loving father.

 width=In this week's parsha, Yitro, Moshe's father-in-law, Yitro, hears about all of the amazing miracles that G-d did for the Jewish people, and brings his daughter and grandchildren, Moshe's wife and children, along to see Moshe. When they get there, they discover that Moshe is working himself to exhaustion! Any time the Jews have a problem, or they want to understand how to do a certain mitzvah, they come to Moshe. Every day, from morning until night, Moshe sits and answers questions. Yitro tells Moshe that he is working too hard, and advises him to appoint judges to help make decisions and settle arguments. This way, Moshe will only get the hardest questions, and he'll then have time for other things. Moshe sees that Yitro is making a wise suggestion, and he does as his father-in-law says. Then, Moshe is able to return to his family and share the responsibility of judging with more members of the community.  

Next, the Jews travel to a part of the desert called Sinai, where G-d tells them that if they accept the Torah, they will be a chosen and special nation. The Jews respond, "Everything that G-d says, we will do!" They are told to prepare for an awesome event that will soon happen on Mt. Sinai. When the time comes, there is thunder and lightning, and a thick cloud over the mountain; they hear a long, powerful blast of the shofar. G-d comes down and proclaims the Ten Commandments, but the people cry out to Moshe that the revelation is too intense for them to bear, begging him to receive the Torah from G-d and convey it to them. 

We can learn a couple of things from this parsha. First of all, it is important to look for solutions before complaining to friends about their behavior. Yitro didn't just criticize Moshe; he offered an answer to his problem. Think about times when you wished someone would do something differently. Did you complain about what your friend was doing, or did you offer a way to fix it? This Torah portion tells us that we have a responsibility to help others by offering helpful suggestions. 

Second, Moshe took responsibility and showed true leadership skills when he listened to Yitro's advice. This shows us that if we are exhausted, we sometimes need to do what's best for us and get assistance from others. We can't always be independent, and it is important to realize that there are always going to be people who will help you when you need it. Everyone should have the opportunity to do their best, and sometimes that's only possible with a little help. 

Shabbat shalom,


Devra S., Grade 12

Atlanta Jewish Academy Upper School

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Parshat Beshalach: Quick Trip

In this week's parsha, Beshalach, we read that Hashem leads the Jews out of Egypt on a very indirect route. Because the direct route would take them toward the war-like Philistines, Hashem wanted to avoid this route to be certain that the Jews wouldn't be disheartened by an attack and yearn to return to Egypt. Some commentators make the comparison to a parent leaving his wealth to his son: the parent wants to wait until the child is out of his infancy and ready to make grown-up decisions about the best way to use this wealth. So, too, for the the infancy of their relationship with Hashem, it was too early to test them in this way.

 width=By the time students reach high school age, the choice of whether to lead them on a safer, indirect route or allow them to face the challenge of the direct route is less clear cut. For one, high school age students generally want the challenge and want you to believe that they can handle the shorter route. While the payoff of success can be great in terms of increased self-confidence and the recognition that adults believe in them, the risk of failure (depending on the particular choice) can be large as well, including a decrease in self-confidence but also potentially the more dire direct consequences of this particular failure.

Parents and teachers of high school students face this challenge regularly, as high school students start to drive themselves and passengers in motor vehicles, as they request more difficult academic loads, as they audition for a play or try a sport for the first time, and as they start to become leaders themselves. All we can do is hope that we will know our children as well as Hashem knew the Jewish people as they departed Egypt, and that we make a choice, with Hashem's guidance, that will lead our children to similar successes.

Shabbat shalom,

Dr. Paul Oberman

Associate Head, Atlanta Jewish Academy Upper School
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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

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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

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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

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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
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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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