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Parshat Chukat

By: Mia, Grade 7

My grandparents were once taking my mom hiking. When they stopped to get water, my grandfather opened his water bottle and a fly flew into it. My grandmother got angry - not at the fly - but at my grandfather! “Colin, you always do this!” she said.

I asked her why she blamed him for a fly going into the bottle. She said she was just accustomed to scolding him. 

We really do depend on having water to drink and when something interrupts that, we get upset. And not always in productive ways.

In Parashat Chukat, something really important happens that is barely described in the Torah: the death of Miriam.

וַיָּבֹ֣אוּ בְנֵֽי־יִ֠שְׂרָאֵל כָּל־הָ֨עֵדָ֤ה מִדְבַּר־צִן֙ בַּחֹ֣דֶשׁ הָֽרִאשׁ֔וֹן וַיֵּ֥שֶׁב הָעָ֖ם בְּקָדֵ֑שׁ וַתָּ֤מָת שָׁם֙ מִרְיָ֔ם וַתִּקָּבֵ֖ר שָֽׁם׃

The Israelites arrived, the entire community, at the wilderness of Zin on the first new moon, and the people stayed at Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there.

In just one verse, Miriam dies and is buried! Doesn’t she deserve something longer? There was no warning! She doesn’t even get her own paragraph! Even the verse is not only about Miriam. The first half of the verse is about the Israelites arriving at Zin. Didn’t she deserve more? Could it be that the Torah doesn’t care as much about great women as it does about important men?

Rashi explains that her death has a much larger meaning than one verse though.

. מִכָּאן שֶׁכָּל אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה הָיָה לָהֶם הַבְּאֵר בִּזְכוּת מִרְיָם 

During Miriam’s lifetime, a miraculous well of water followed the Israelites around in the desert. Once she died, the well disappeared. The Torah then immediately describes how after the death of Miriam we did not have water. We then complained. Moshe hit the rock to get water and was punished by being prevented from going into Israel. 

Miriam’s death is the cause and starting point for the entire chapter which then sets the stage for the rest of the Torah. Because Miriam died when she did, Moshe hit the rock, which is why he would not lead the Israelites across the Jordan River, which is why he had to find a replacement for himself. The entire final book of the Torah is comprised of Moshe’s farewell speeches. None of that would have happened if it weren’t for Miriam’s death.

Ibn Ezra, the author of a medieval commentary on the Torah,  points out that this verse is a leap in time. All of the events in the Torah take place either in the first year after the exodus from Egypt or in the 40th year after the exodus from Egypt. This verse marks the jump between them. Ibn Ezra makes it clear that Miriam’s death was the first thing that happened in the 40th year. It wasn’t a minor episode at all. And it is recorded at an important place in the Torah. This is not any old spot, this is right after that leap in time. Her death may not take up many verses, but it occupies a very special “real estate.”

Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, a 19th-century author of a Torah commentary,  explains that Miriam’s death sets off the entire change in the leadership of the Israelites. Aharon dies shortly afterward and is replaced. Moshe finds a successor and prepares to make him the leader. In addition to the significance of her death was the significance of the change in leadership as one generation handed over control to the next.

I think Ibn Ezra’s commentary makes a lot of sense because he isn’t answering the question directly but by pointing out that this is a giant leap in time. So her death does not occupy many verses but it is the first thing that happens in many years.

As I become a bat mitzvah I take inspiration from Miriam and the other great women in Jewish history. The Torah portion this week is focused on leaders and a new generation of leadership. I can’t wait to do my part as a leader too as I become an adult.

Shabbat Shalom!

Parshat Chukat

By: Ben, Grade 8

A few years ago I was in Israel at Masada with my family. As we climbed off the bus I fell and scraped my knee. So my grandparents, the tour guide, and  I took the cable car up to the top while the rest of my family spent the next two and a half hours climbing the mountain by foot. When I see my grandparents we still laugh about this moment. At first I felt sorry for myself. I had injured my knee and couldn’t join my family climbing the mountain. But, eventually, I realized that I was the lucky one because I had a much more pleasant day than everyone else. 

It isn’t always easy to make sense of the world. And that is not only true at Masada. That is also true in this week’s Torah portion.

This week’s Torah portion, Hukat, begins with a description of a strange ritual involving a parah adumah, or a red cow. 

זֹ֚את חֻקַּ֣ת הַתּוֹרָ֔ה אֲשֶׁר־צִוָּ֥ה יְהוָ֖ה לֵאמֹ֑ר דַּבֵּ֣ר ׀ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל וְיִקְח֣וּ אֵלֶיךָ֩ פָרָ֨ה אֲדֻמָּ֜ה תְּמִימָ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֤ר אֵֽין־בָּהּ֙ מ֔וּם אֲשֶׁ֛ר לֹא־עָלָ֥ה עָלֶ֖יהָ עֹֽל׃

“This is the ritual law that the LORD has commanded: Instruct the Israelite people to bring you a red cow without blemish, in which there is no defect and on which no yoke has been laid.”

The cow is completely red with no black or white hairs. The cow never did any work of any kind but was entirely devoted to being used in this ritual way. It was slaughtered like a sacrifice but then it was burned and its ashes were mixed with water and that mixture was used for purification. But the Torah never explains the meaning of this ritual or its details.

Rashi, author of a Medieval Torah commentary, explains that the parah adumah was never meant to be understood:

לְפִי שֶׁהַשָּׂטָן וְאֻמּוֹת הָעוֹלָם מוֹנִין אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל, לוֹמַר מַה הַמִּצְוָה הַזֹּאת וּמַה טַּעַם יֵשׁ בָּהּ

“Satan and the other nations taunt Israel saying what sort of mitzvah is this. And so the Torah has to come and say: it is a decree before Me and you do not have permission to question it.”

For Rashi we do some things just because they are in the Torah even if they don’t make sense.

The Mdirash records a story involving Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai (a Talmudic rabbi who lived around the same time as the fighters of Masada) who was once asked a question by a non-Jewish person who visited his beit midrash (study hall). “The parah adumah” looks like witchcraft. How can burning the parah adumah change someone’s purity status? Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai tells him that this is no different from what doctors do each day. They prescribe small quantities of medication and people are healed.

After this gentile leaves, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai’s students ask for the “real explanation.” Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai says: 

לֹא הַמֵּת מְטַמֵּא וְלֹא הַמַּיִם מְטַהֲרִין

It isn’t the contact with a corpse that renders someone impure and it isn’t the waters of purity that can make something pure. Rather, it is  decisions by God that are responsible for everything. We are not supposed to understand this mitzvah.

The Talmud (Kiddushin) tells about a non-Jewish businessman, named Dama ben Netina, who one time refused to awaken his sleeping father to retrieve the key to the box where a precious stone was located that the Jewish sages wished to buy. The sages were very impressed by how much Dama ben Netina honored his father. And the Talmud says that this individual was rewarded when a parah adumah was born in his herd the following year.  

The story about Dama ben Netinah is different because Dama, who was not Jewish, appreciated how lucky he was to have access to a parah adumah. He might not have understood it, but he understood what it was and he wasn’t mocking it.

Rabbi Moshe Schreiber, known most commonly by the name of his book, Hatam Sofer, wrote about this too. According to him there is an explanation for the parah adumah and Moshe was told but was not allowed to tell. And this shows how dedicated Moshe was as a teacher since he was so badly tormented by not being allowed to share with us how the parah adumah makes sense. 

I find the story of Dama ben Netinah to be particularly meaningful. Even though he didn’t understand the value of the Parah Adumah, he understood that it meant a lot to us and he respected that and didn’t mock that. This is true today as well. If we do things because they are important to us as Jews, even if we can’t explain it, and even if we can’t fully understand it, decent people who aren’t Jewish will respect that too.

As I become a bar mitzvah, I also want to be like Dama ben Netinah. There are so many people around us who live in different ways, and I want to appreciate and respect the things that are important to them even when I can’t understand it perfectly.

Thank you to CJDS and my teachers for preparing me for this day. And thank you to all of my friends for always being there for me and supporting me.

Grade 7 Dvar Torah student

Parashiot Nitzavim/Vayeilech

By: Nina, Grade 8

We are nearing the end of the Torah with this week’s double parshiot of Nitzavim/Vayeilech. In these parshiot, Moses continues his final speech to the Israelites. He talks about the Israelites' relationship with God and how important their faithfulness to God is. He emphasizes the curses that will befall them if they aren’t faithful and the blessing they will receive if they are.

God is forming a covenant with the Israelites, but God knows that the people aren’t going to be able to uphold it. In Deuteronomy 31 verse 16 it says, “The LORD said to Moses: You are soon to lie with your fathers. This people will thereupon go astray after the alien gods in their midst, in the land that they are about to enter; they will forsake Me and break My covenant that I made with them”. 

God knows that they are going to stray from God. So why would God enter into the covenant with a party that God knows will let God down? Are humans so predictable that God knows we will stray to other gods? The answer seems to be yes.  God knows human beings will move on to the next thing. 

This reminds me of one of my favorite musicals, "Into the Woods." In "Into the Woods" there are two princes and they have both grown up in the lap of luxury. When they meet two princesses, the find one trapped in a tower and one who ran away from the prince after the ball. They are faced with something they want that they can't just have. It makes them want it more. Eventually both of the princes marry the princesses. They see new princesses and want to marry them even though they already have princesses. The princes are never happy with what they have; they always want the next thing God knows that the Jews are human and that they are going to want something new, too, even if the thing they already have is great.

Sometimes wanting the next thing can be good such as in art, science, and technology. If people didn’t want the next thing we would never innovate. We would never have invented phones or tacos or anything. We are supposed to make new things to make the world better by inventing new medicines, and inventing new ways to give back is being a mensch.

When we as humans make a commitment we should intend to honor it. If we want people to trust us and we want to be honorable, giving our word should mean something. But God knows humans will always want the next thing especially when it seems cooler and when everyone around them is doing it. So like a parent God puts in punishments and blessings. hoping this will be enough to keep the Jews in line. 

And, in the second part of our Torah reading today, God makes sure that the people know even after they sin and leave God behind for new gods. God leaves the door open. The Jews can always come back to God.  They can do teshuva. Whether this is because God fears there will be no more Jews left or because God really thinks the Jews deserve a second chance. The door is open and God knows our shortcomings as human beings, but will always take us back when we return.

Grade 8 Bar Mitzvah Izzy

Parashat Ki Tavo

By: Izzy, Grade 8

Have you ever gotten angry at someone you love and maybe done something you shouldn’t have? Well if you’re human (like me), you definitely have. At first, you’re nice. But then something ticks you off. You get really annoyed or angry and do something bad. For example, if it’s me, it may involve punching and kicking my brother. But it’s not just me who this happens to.

In Parashat Ki Tavo, God threatens the Israelites with curses. Well, some other things happen in Ki Tavo, too. First, Moses blesses the Israelites and provides detailed instructions. Once they’ve entered the land that God gave them, and settled it and cultivated it, then it’s time to time bring the first fruits to the Holy Temple, and declare their gratitude for all that God has done for them. There’s a bunch of laws about tithes and other instructions. But then you get to what’s known as the Tochachah. After listing the blessings with which God will reward the Jewish people when they follow God’s laws, Moses gives a long, harsh account of the bad things that will happen if they don’t. It’s pretty bad stuff, like illness, poverty, famine.

Why would God curse the Jewish people if God had just rescued them from Egypt? Why did God bless them, only to threaten If you don’t praise me, I will curse you? Why does God threaten punishing the Israelites, given that we are his chosen people, as we hear in this parsha. How are the blessings and curses related to each other? 

The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidism, said that evil concealed a seed of the good. He talked about liberating the good within the evil. Is this what’s happening here? Is there some seed of good to be taken from the curses? To me they sound a little bit like a temper tantrum on God’s part. Why does God act like a threatening bully in this passage?

On the High Holy Days, we read a poem, Ki Anu Amecha. It means, We are God’s people. In the poem, it talks about different ways that we relate to God, and how God relates to us.

One of the first examples in this poem is “anu avadecha, veata adonenu”. We are God’s servants, and God is our master. One way that we might view God is as our boss. God is there to make sure that we get our chores done.

But another way that the poem talks about our relationship with God is: “anu vanecha, veata avinu”. We are God’s children, and God is our parent. I think this is the poet’s way of talking about God as someone like a parent who will take care of us when we are in trouble. A parent makes sure that we do our chores. But it doesn’t end there. A parent is also meant to love and care for their children. I, like this poet before me, think that we relate to God like a person. I find this helpful because it makes me feel like God relates to who I am.

When God gets angry, or when we get angry, I find it helpful to find a way to calm down. We need something to ease our anger to help us function properly. For me, when I get mad, I like playing video games or watching funny clips and videos. This helps wash away the anger, and makes me feel better. Usually, I can come back with greater understanding of someone else’s perspective, and also as a calmer advocate for my own needs.

Being able to reflect and come back to a challenging situation sometimes can help us find a blessing embedded within a curse–and perhaps even turn a curse into a blessing.

In Judaism, we have certain rituals that are meant to make us take a moment and calm down. One moment like this that I love is called Tashlich. We take bread and throw it in the sea. It is meant to represent getting rid of your sins, getting rid of your bad deeds. When I was little, I liked sneaking and eating the bread. I also loved watching the seagulls fight for the bread when we threw it into the lake. I think that Tashlich is a reminder to say sorry to people for how we have hurt them. 

I wonder - what if God, in my parsha, Ki Tavo, had tashlich? When he was threatening the Israelites, I wish that God had a ritual to calm down. Surely if he had time to reflect, the curses might have had at least a small glimmer of blessing.

Grade 8 student Adin

Grade 8 Dvar Torah by: Adin 

Parshat Ki Teitze

This week's parshah is Ki Teitze. It, like many other parshiot, contains a whole lot of commandments. After reading through many of them, one in particular stuck out as being very simple, but also confusing.

Here it is:

“If you come across a bird's nest on any tree or on the ground, and it contains baby chicks or eggs, you must not take the mother along with her young. You shall surely send away the mother first, and only then may you take the young, in order that you might enjoy goodness and length of days" (Devarim 22:6-7).

Mainly, this stuck out to me because of the lack of explanation. The Torah doesn’t say why we shouldn’t take a mother bird with her young, only that we shouldn’t. It’s pretty much the ultimate “because I said so”. The first explanation that popped into my mind was that this was an attempt at conservation. By only taking some of the birds in the nest, the species could still survive and wouldn't be in danger of extinction. But if that was the reason, wouldn't you take only the mother, leaving some of the young who'll live longer?

And that’s when I started to think that this was an ethical teaching. By promising long life to those who follow this commandment, it seems like the text is trying to teach us that only a “bad person" would take the mother with her children. The offer of a reward could be a hint that this is what the writer thinks of as the right thing to do. 

A twelfth century commentator known as Ibn Ezra had a similar thought to this. In a commentary on these verses, he described killing the mother bird with her eggs as “constituting cruelty of heart.” I do like this interpretation, that we should follow this commandment simply because it is the right thing to do. Still, to me there seems to be something missing in this commentary. I mean, Ibn Ezra doesn’t once describe the reason that, at least to me, seems the most obvious: You wouldn’t want to cause the mother bird the emotional pain of seeing her young taken away from her. So to take this idea a step further, we look to another commentator: the Rambam, aka Maimonides.

In the Rambam’s commentary on this text, he cites the anguish the mother bird would feel as an explanation. This seems like it would wrap itself up very neatly as it is, but Maimonides takes it one step further. He explains that it is important to show this kindness towards animals not only because the animals feel pain, but because by doing so we can do a better job of showing kindness and compassion to other humans.

What we can learn from this is to show kindness to animals and people. But also, if I have something, please don’t shoo me away and take it. I don’t think that’s a very good takeaway. Shabbat shalom!

Grade 7 Dvar Torah by: Jonathan 

Parsha Terumah

Shabbat Shalom! Welcome to the first Leap Day Shabbat of the 21st Century! While there is no religious significance in the secular Leap Year, it is, nevertheless, a unique moment in time, especially for me, as I will have to wait until the year 2048 for the second anniversary of my Bar Mitzvah and another 28 years until 2076 for my third anniversary!

Still, what better two years to celebrate than the 100th anniversary of the founding of the modern State of Israel and the 300th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence! Yet, this Leap Day is also a leap into an important statement within Parsha Terumah. In the opening two versus G-d says to Moses: דַּבֵּר֙ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְיִקְחוּ־לִ֖י תְּרוּמָ֑ה מֵאֵ֤ת כָּל־אִישׁ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִדְּבֶ֣נּוּ :לִבּ֔וֹ תִּקְח֖וּ אֶת־תְּרֽוּמָתִֽי "Speak unto the children of Israel that they take for Me an offering; of every man whose heart makes him WILLING you shall take my offering." Parsha Terumah contains G-d's instructions on the building of a sacred space, a mishkan, to hold the tablets from Mount Sinai and a place where G-d can dwell with the Jewish people.

The moment of revelation within this Parsha comes in these opening psukim’, when it says every man whose heart is willing, or in Hebrew, נּוֶּ֣בְדִּי , willing. It is the ONLY time in the Torah that this word appears, and its uniqueness requires a greater appreciation of its meaning and its fundamental foundation for the Jewish people.

When G-d's instructions on the building of the mishkan were given to Moses, the 600,000 Jews who had left Egypt had only been slaves six months prior and under the rule of the Egyptian taskmasters for hundreds of years. Now, in a rapid series of events, these former slaves had left Egypt through the leadership of Moses, had seen the miracles of the plagues upon Egypt, the parting of the Sea of Reeds, and the giving of the Ten Commandments. The Egyptians, in their haste to rid themselves of the Jews, gave them gold, silver and other precious items.

But, were the Jewish people at the time of Parsha Terumah truly free? Yes, they were literally no longer slaves, but in their minds were they still slaves or was the pain of slavery so great that the conscious thought of another taskmaster was an ever present fear? The Israelites, while they were in bondage, had kept the Covenant of Abraham thriving and had kept faith in a G-d who had made the promise of a land of their own. Yet, the specter of a slave mentally was still a clear memory. For centuries they were told what to do without question. Would such people want to be 'told' by G-d what they had to do without anything in return? Hence the emphasis on "willing."

In fact, the act of willingness has always, from the time of Abraham, been a part of the Jewish way of life. Abraham willingly left his home to go to a place where G-d said he would dwell and a Covenant was created. This willingness continued throughout the trek of the Jewish people into slavery, for they could not have survived as Jews without a willing heart. It was always implied, but the word was never mentioned until Parsha Terumah. To build a Mishkan, a home for G-d, it had to be more than a demand--it needed a people to deeply feel in their hearts the importance of their contribution for themselves, for the community, and for G-d. No, a demand to build a 'shrine' could not be forced on a slave mentally. Rather, a willing determination was essential. This unique concept of 'willing' has kept the Jewish people alive, while other civilizations have come and vanished. The Mishkan symbolizes the most holy structure in the Jewish world. Its creation was a willing and shared covenant for those who understood its long term meaning. But what would happen when the physical presence of the Mishkan disappeared, after the Temples were destroyed?

This willing attribute was more than about structures -- it became a state of mind. It became the heart and soul of the Jewish people. It allowed them to create the post Temple Synagogue, create the new Temple within one's home and family, to believe in a G-d who accepted our willing hearts and minds and would dwell among us no matter what circumstance would arise. Being willing has always been a trait for the Jewish people, even if they were not overly conscious of their identity.

One of the most famous quotes in Jewish history comes from a man, who had barely considered his Jewishness until the Dreyfus Affair of the late 1890's aroused his conscious: On creating a permanent home for the Jewish people, Theodore Herzl said "If you will it, it is no dream." It is no wonder that the word נּוֶּ֣בְדִּי is only mentioned once in the Torah. The power and resolve that it has, its association with the building of the mishkan is too great and too unique to be mentioned anywhere else. Its meaning is so great that it takes on an almost intangible understanding and is difficult to appreciate. It is perhaps best embellished by Maimonides’ eight levels of charity, in which the greatest donors are the ones who have given "anonymously and to help a fellow Jew be independent, and hence not a slave.”

More than not using your name for privacy purposes, it is a pure willingness, out of the heart and mind to give to what is right. Recently, I went to the JUF Uptown Cafe and served meals to people who could not afford to buy healthy meals for themselves. Although my synagogue, Anshe Emet, requires that b’net mitzvahs complete a mitzvah project, I willingly served meals. I felt that I not only provided hot, nourishing meals to them, but I also elevated myself by approaching this task out of my own willingness.

Grade 7 Dvar Torah by: Orli 

Parshat Mishpatim

When I was little, maybe two years old, I went to see the zoo lights and made a perfect snow angel. I was very proud. So when it was time to leave I threw the biggest fit ever, because I didn’t get to say goodbye to my snow angel. My mom had to make a choice whether to comfort me and give me empathy because I was sad, or put me in timeout because I misbehaved.

In my Torah portion, Mishpatim, God gives the Israelites detailed rules to follow after getting the ten commandments. There are so many rules in this parashah, I could go on for ages. Some examples of these rules are how to treat Hebrew slaves, animal property and when people get into fights and breaking into people's houses. Then God mentions the stranger, the widow, and the orphan. In Exodus chapter 20, the Torah says, “You shall not wrong a stranger nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” In other words, God wants us to feel empathy for the stranger.

The Torah then goes on to say, “You shall not mistreat any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me, and My anger shall blaze forth and I will put you to the sword, and your own wives shall become widows and your children orphans.” In other words, God threatens to kill us if we don’t take care of the widow and the orphan. Now when I looked at these two commandments in closer detail my question was: why does God want us to have empathy for the stranger, but does not set out consequences if we don’t, but then lays out the ultimate consequence for us if we don’t care for the widow or the orphan?

My question is, when are we motivated to do things based on empathy? In the wise words of Rabbi Google, empathy is defined as: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Empathy is when you see someone sad or upset, you relate to what they are going through, and that understanding helps you to help them. In the Torah, we are meant to help the stranger because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. Empathy compels us to take action.

But I also wonder, when are we motivated to do things because of the fear of consequences? Let me give you an example of the consequences in my life. I was told to clean my room, I said no.  I was told my phone would be taken away if I didn’t, so I cleaned my room.  

In the Torah, God threatens a very serious consequence if we don’t take care of the widow and the orphan. 

Why do we need both empathy and consequences as motivators? Do we really need both? 

I decided to see what others have said about this topic. I started with Rabbi Shai Held. Rabbi Held makes a strong argument for the importance of empathy. In reflecting on the verse about oppressing the stranger, Rabbi Held says, “We should not oppress the stranger because we as a people remember what oppression can mean.” But I would argue that we should also individually personalize the Torah’s demand that we remember. Each of us is obligated, in the course of our lives, to remember times when we have been exploited or abused by those who had power over us. From these experiences in our own lives, the Torah tells us, we are to learn compassion and kindness.” In other words, Rabbi Held thinks that we need to go to another level of empathy, not just the historical  level that we were strangers in the land of Egypt, but we also need to think of things that happen in our own lives so we give even more empathy. 

I also looked at Rashi. In commenting on the verse about the orphan and widow, Rashi says, “That is also the law regarding any person, but the Torah is speaking of what usually happens and therefore mentions these in particular.” I think Rashi is saying that lots of people are vulnerable when they don’t have someone to protect them, and widows and orphans are the best examples of that. We need to protect them and be that someone who stands up for them. Perhaps, in a situation this important, we need more than empathy, we may need a consequence if we fail to do so. Just knowing that widows and orphans may not have someone to stand up for them, may not be enough, after all, most of us haven’t been widows or orphans, so we need a consequence to push us more. 

In thinking about empathy versus consequences, I wanted to dig a little deeper. I found an article about timeouts for little kids in a journal from The American Psychological Association that said, “Our clinical case findings have shown that timeouts used consistently for select behaviors and situations significantly reduced problem behaviors over time.” In other words, giving consequences is ok when a child does not respond to empathy and needs greater incentive to stop bad behavior, but they should not be overused. I agree with this. I don’t think that consequences should be used all the time, but only when needed to push and motivate a child to do the right thing. 

My mom, being the great and amazing therapist she is, added that punishing a child, or putting a child in timeout, only works if the parent has a strong relationship with the child to begin with, based on empathy or else the child will keep misbehaving. In other words, we need both.  The truth is, our actions to help or care for others are motivated by empathy AND by consequences.

After having considered these other opinions, I came to my own conclusions. I think empathy is the ideal motivator, but if it’s not enough then we should turn to consequences. There are some experiences that are more universal, like starting a new activity or meeting a new group of people:  we have ALL been strangers, so we can relate to them and help them. BUT we haven’t all been widows/orphans, some of us can’t relate. So if empathy is not enough motivation, then the next thing would be for there to be a consequence. That is why I think God sets a consequence for not protecting the widow and orphan, but caring for the stranger is simply motivated by empathy.

This relates to my life because I’m with little kids all the time and needed to make these kinds of decisions weekly.  For my Mitzvah Project, I went to a preschool for underprivileged kids called Kinder Care and did a special program with two-year-olds called the sunshine circle. In this program, my mom and I, with some help from the teachers, did activities with the kids. We would sing songs, play games, read books, eat snacks and dance. But we did this all in a structured way, giving the kids extra calming touch and nurturing they need. I learned how to take care of a large group of kids at the same time, which is a new skill for me. Doing this helped me have a deeper understanding of empathy and consequence.

In my volunteering I could see that there are times when someone simply needs empathy to motivate good behavior, but there are other times when a consequence is needed. For example, when one child hit a peer back after first being hit by that kid, we told him “we’re sorry, you had an “ouchy” before, and we understand that you tried to give your ouchy to someone else” and we said, “say sorry to her, and she will say sorry to you” and then we took his hand and taught him to gently soothe the child he had hurt. 

Approaching with empathy and teaching empathy was the intervention we chose. But at a different time, a child was lying in the middle of the circle and being disruptive. The teacher said, “please sit on your bottom” and when he didn’t, the teacher came over, picked him up, and placed him somewhere else where he could no longer disrupt the activity. A consequence was needed. 

The truth is, I can use the skill of empathy in my everyday life. I have empathized with sad friends. When I related to their problem I have shared what I did in my own life to fix the problem. This has helped friends to learn from my experience. On the other hand, in school I am motivated to do revisions and improve my grades in order to avoid the consequences of seeing the look on parents’ faces,  knowing I could have done better. Both empathy and consequence have a place in my life. Oh and by the way, that’s exactly what happened with the snow angel: first, my mom empathized by saying she understands how sad I am, but when I wouldn’t stop kicking and screaming she grabbed me, buckled me in my car seat and let me cry it out.

Grade 6 Dvar Torah by: Devorah

Parashat Yitro

Twelve years ago, I was born on Shabbat Yitro. In Parashat Yitro, we are introduced to Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law. He helps Moshe by recommending that Moshe appoint assistants to help him answer questions from the Israelite people, so that Moshe would not have to spend all of his time doing only that, and so the people would not have to wait in long lines for Moshe. Because I was born on Shabbat Yitro, my family started joking about whether to name me Yitra or Yitronah. I stand here today and my name is Devorah, and I like my name although it has nothing to do with the parsha.

In Parashat Yitro we read the ten commandments for the first time in the Torah. As Sforno notices there seems to be two different sections within the ten commandments besides the to do and not to do תעשה ולא תעשה. The first section is about honoring G-D which includes only worshipping one G-D, not to worship idols, not to say G-D’s name in vain and keeping Shabbat.

The other section is the commandments about honoring and respecting other people and their property, which has commandments such as not to commit murder, not to commit adultery, not to steal, not to bear false witness against your neighbor, and not to be jealous of other people. You might have noticed that I never said which section the commandment "Honor your Parents" falls into. 

It seems kind of obvious that your parents are people so this commandment is about honoring other people. But, what if this commandment isn’t just about honoring our parents, the people who gave birth to us and raised us? It could mean that we have to honor our creators, which would mean that this commandment is also about honoring G-D. This could apply to anyone who helped raise you even if they didn’t physically bring you into the world because the people who raise you and take care of you help create your personality and influence your behavior.

I mean, parents are pretty amazing, but do you think this commandment should be in the ten commandments between don’t murder and keep Shabbat? Many people believe that this commandment is actually the hardest one to do properly. 

Well, what does it even mean to honor your parents? Honoring your parents includes doing favors, fulfilling their wishes, and admiring them. If you hear somebody insult your parents behind their backs, you need to defend your parents. You are also obligated to honor your grandparents, in-laws, step-parents, aunts and uncles, and older siblings. When I found out about the older sibling part I was happy because I am the oldest kid in my family, and that means that my younger siblings have to honor me.

However, there are limits on when to follow this commandment. For example if your parents ever ask you to do something that is against Jewish law or something that will be painful to anyone, you should politely refuse. 

There are three other things in which you don’t have to respect your parents’ wishes. According to the Shulchan Aruch Yoreh De’ah Siman רמ you get to choose (not your parent) Whom you marry (To all the parents in the room, I hope you’re listening because your children have the right to choose whom they marry!) 

And to maximize your Torah study.

And Rabbi Moshe ben Yoseph of Trany says that, If you would like to move to Israel you can without your parents’ approval.

Why are these three things exceptions to having to honor your parents? 

One possible answer is that the decision to do and how to do these things will affect the rest of your life. Another idea is that all of these things are important Jewish values so you should have the right to make these choices on your own. Also, these mitzvot might just be seen as more important, especially maximizing your Torah study because that leads to all the other mitzvot.

Now that I am a Bat Mitzvah, I will make sure that I always honor, respect and listen to my parents and elders. Shabbat Shalom!

Grade 6 Dvar Torah by: Talia

Parshat B'shalach

This week’s Parsha is Beshalach. In Beshalach, God takes the Israelites out of Egypt. Rather than taking a direct route out, God leads them to the wilderness by the Red Sea. Then God decides to harden Pharaoh's heart again in order to demonstrate his power to the Israelites. God said, “Then I will stiffen Pharaoh’s heart and he will pursue them, that I may gain glory through Pharaoh and all his host; and the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD.”

Why does God harden Pharaoh’s heart if it makes it harder for everyone? Rashi says that God hardened Pharaoh's heart as a punishment to Pharoah. Since his heart has been hardened, Pharoah decides to chase after them. The Israelites soon see the Egyptians chasing them and flee, but soon they come to the Red Sea. There seems to be no way out, but then as the Egyptians draw nearer God makes a miracle. He tells Moses to raise his staff to the water and he does, making the sea split into two leaving a trail in between for the Israelites to pass through. The Israelites walk through the sea, but soon enough the Egyptians are walking behind them. They are gaining on them and entering the sea as well. The Israelites hurry to escape and they make it to the other side where Moses holds his hand out over the sea once again closing it upon the Egyptians and killing them all.

The Israelites celebrate joyously singing praise to the Lord and Miriam leads the women dancing and singing with their timbrels. Later on in the Parsha, the Israelites keep getting angry at Moses and God when they want water and food. And we see throughout the rest of the Torah, after being freed from Egypt, after receiving food and after receiving water, the Israelites complain. God has proved himself to do the Israelites so many times, with the ten plagues, splitting the sea and giving them Mana and yet they still get angry at God so easily. 

Why do you think the Israelites continue to complain even after all of these miracles? 

Grade 7 Dvar Torah student

Grade 7 Dvar Torah by: Nina

This week’s Parsha is Parshat Bo. In this week's Parsha the last three of the 10 plagues happen - locust, darkness, and death of the firstborn. This is where the whole Passover story happens. The Israelites are instructed to sacrifice a kid or a lamb and use its blood to paint their doors so that God passes over them and doesn’t kill the Jewish firstborns. Then they have to eat the meat from the lamb with matzah and bitter herbs. Do any of these foods sound familiar? They should because these are some of the important parts of our Passover seder. 

When Pharaoh let us go it was so quick we did not have time to let our bread rise. But somehow we did have time to go to our Egyptian neighbors and ask for gold, silver, and garments to fulfill a promise made to Abraham that we would leave Egypt with great wealth. 

This whole scenario strikes me as funny that we didn’t even have time for our bread to rise, but we had time to walk to our Egyptian neighbors who wouldn’t have lived right next to us. We had time to convince them to give us gold, silver, and clothing which they might not have. “Tell the people to borrow, each man from his neighbor and each woman from hers, objects of silver and gold.” Exodus 11:2. Sforno says that the people needed to be convinced to take the gold and silver because they were afraid the Egyptians would chase after them and reclaim their stuff. 

Looking at the text, it seemed that convincing the Egyptians wasn’t as hard as they feared. They really just wanted us gone, and even if that meant giving up some gold and silver, it was OK because we would be safe. Put yourself in the Israelites shoes - you have your matzah and your family, but what would you grab in the last minute? What would you take with you?


Grade 8 Dvar Torah by: Micah

This week’s Parsha, Va'era, is very important and renowned, because the first seven of 10 plagues are included. After some introductory information about the generations of Israel, we finally get to Moses’s confrontation with Pharaoh. Chapter seven verse ten says: “When Pharaoh speaks to you and says, ‘Produce your marvel,’ you shall say to Aaron, ‘Take your rod and cast it down before Pharaoh.’ It shall turn into a serpent.

So Moses and Aaron came before Pharaoh and did just as the LORD had commanded: Aaron cast down his rod in the presence of Pharaoh and his courtiers, and it turned into a serpent.” Aaron produces the first of many miracles from God's command, but Pharaoh's magicians come right back to perform the same miracle. Then God turns the nile into blood, and the magicians do the same thing.

The next plague, frogs, is presented as follows in Chapters 7 and 8: “If you refuse to let them go, then I will plague your whole country with frogs. The Nile shall swarm with frogs, and they shall come up and enter your palace, your bedchamber and your bed, the houses of your courtiers and your people, and your ovens and your kneading bowls. The frogs shall come up on you and on your people and on all your courtiers. ’”And the LORD said to Moses, “Say to Aaron: Hold out your arm with the rod over the rivers, canals, and the ponds, and bring up the frogs on the land of Egypt. ”Aaron held out his arm over the waters of Egypt, and the frogs came up and covered the land of Egypt.

But the magicians did the same with their spells, and brought frogs upon the land of Egypt.” In 8:2 the English translation says that the “frogs came up,” but in Hebrew, where everywhere else it says, “Tzefardiim” which is the plural, here it says, “Tzefardaya, one frog.” Why? Rashi has a comment on this: AND THE FROGS (literally. “frog”) CAME UP — Rashi says, that Really there was only one frog, but when the Egyptians tried to kill it and struck it with sticks, it was split into many swarms. But a literal explanation is that one could say that the swarm of the frogs is presented by the singular word - frog. Similar to when the Lice are presented as “and there was the KINAM” — the swarm of insects, instead of KINIM. So, too, here, V’TAAL HATZFARDAYA means: and there came up as a swarm of frogs. The rest of the parsha ends with lice, flies, disease on livestock, boils and hail/fire. Do you think God should have stricken Egypt with anymore plagues?

Grade 8 Dvar Torah by: Lilly

This week’s Parsha, Shmot, is pretty juicy. There is a new Pharoah in Egypt who does not remember Joseph. The Israelites are enslaved in Egypt and Moses is born. Pharoah orders two midwives, Shifra and Puah, to kill all baby boys but they argue that the women give birth before they can get there. Pharoah then orders that all baby boys must be thrown into the Nile. After this order, Moses’ mother, Yocheved, hides him in their home for three months after giving birth to him. When she can no longer hide him she places him in a basket and puts him into the Nile. Moses’ sister Miriam watches Moses to make sure he is safe. She then sees Bat Pharoah take pity on Moses and take him into her home.

Now, what is one thing we notice here? Each time that there is an upstander in the beginning of the story, it is a woman. The midwives refuse to kill the babies, Yocheved does not throw Moses into the river, Miriam watches Moses to make sure he is safe, and Bat Pharoah saves Moses. Each of these women stands up against the word of Pharoah. I found this interesting since there is often a lack of representation for women in the Torah, and here, right at the beginning of Shmot, we see four female upstanders. 

This is just the beginning of the story. Moshe grows up in the palace and one day as he is walking he sees an Egyptian taskmaster beating an Israeli slave and he kills the Egyptian. He then runs to Midian and marries Zipporah. One day, God appears in a burning bush and tells Moses he must free the Israelites. I found this text particularly interesting:

וַ֠יֵּרָא מַלְאַ֨ךְ יְהֹוָ֥ה אֵלָ֛יו בְּלַבַּת־אֵ֖שׁ מִתּ֣וֹךְ הַסְּנֶ֑ה וַיַּ֗רְא וְהִנֵּ֤ה הַסְּנֶה֙ בֹּעֵ֣ר בָּאֵ֔שׁ וְהַסְּנֶ֖ה אֵינֶ֥נּוּ אֻכָּֽל׃

An angel of the LORD appeared to him in a blazing fire out of a bush. He gazed, and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed. Why would God appear in a burning bush what did the bush represent?

One answer that I found from Mathew Berkowitz explaining Professor Falk’s opinion was that from the burning bush, Moses can sort of see that the liberation from Egypt will not just be about being free, it will be about becoming a servant to this forever burning god. He also says that we must recognize our own “burning bush moments” and he writes when a sign appears, “we must have the patience and faith to embrace it, understand it, and be inspired by it. Such signs have the potential of liberating us from modern ‘bonds of Egypt.’”

Do you have an example of your burning bush moment? Can you remember a time where something happened to you and you weren’t really sure why and later it ended up helping you or making a large impact on you?

My burning bush moment was my Bat Mitzvah. When I first started, I was overwhelmed, confused, and I thought there was no way I’d be able to learn everything. But after putting the work in for months, it ended up being the most rewarding and meaningful moment of my life. 

Grade 7 Dvar Torah by: Daria

This week’s parsha is Vayechi. It is the last parsha in sefer Beresheit. It is the end of the story of Yosef and his brothers.  

Yaakov is dying so he calls his sons to his bedside so he can give them brachot and last words of advice.  

In the bracha that Yaakov gives to Yosef, I saw confusing language which made me wonder if Yaakov knew all of what happened between Yosef and the brothers. Did Yaakov know that the brothers tried to kill Yosef and then he was sold into slavery? 

Here are the words of the bracha:

וַיְמָרְרֻהוּ, וָרֹבּוּ; וַיִּשְׂטְמֻהוּ, בַּעֲלֵי חִצִּים.  וַתֵּשֶׁב בְּאֵיתָן קַשְׁתּוֹ, וַיָּפֹזּוּ זְרֹעֵי יָדָיו;

The pasuk says that a group of 'archers' made 'his' life bitter. They fought with 'him' and despised 'him'. But 'his' arrow was firm in the bow and 'his' arms were shaking.

I think the ‘him’ in this pasuk refers to Yosef because Yaakov is giving this bracha to him. But who is the ‘they’ in this pasuk? Why does the pasuk talk about archers?  

There is one word on the pasuk that makes me think the ‘them’ in this pasuk is Yosef’s brothers and that the word archers is used as an analogy.

The word וַיִּשְׂטְמֻהוּ , which means despised, is only used one time in Chumash before this and it is used to describe how much Esav despised Yaakov when Yaakov stole the blessing from him. Esav decided in that moment he was going to kill Yaakov for his action.

So the use of the word וַיִּשְׂטְמֻהוּ makes a connection between these two stories. Just like Esav despised Yaakov for getting a blessing from their father and wanted to kill him, the brothers despised Yosef for getting blessings from their father and wanted to kill him as well.  

SO, this final blessing is about Yosef and his brothers, but why compare the brothers to archers and describe Yosef as someone holding an arrow in his bow, his arms shaking, but not shooting the arrow?

I think archers take aim and shoot to kill. That’s exactly what the brothers did. They aimed at Yosef and intended to kill him. But Yosef was an archer who held the arrow in his bow firmly and did not let it go. Yosef was a very powerful man in Egypt by the time he sees his brothers again. He had all the power to just kill them, to shoot his arrow, but he didn’t. He might have wanted to, but he holds it firmly for so long that his arms are shaking from holding on to it.

So Yaakov’s bracha shows us that Yaakov knew what the brothers had done to Yosef and the restrain Yosef had shown in not getting even. That is why Yaakov blessed Yosef in this way.

Question? How do you think Yaakov knew what happened to Yosef?

Grade 7 Dvar Torah by: Adin

Let’s say there are two siblings who definitely don’t represent me and my sister. The older sibling has a new, unopened set of markers which they don’t really want. The younger sibling really wants them. The older sibling can just give them over and be nice. Or they could even just let the younger sibling borrow them, in case they want them later. But if they want to be more selfish, they could require the younger sibling to give something else in exchange. Should they be nice, or make a profit? And what are the consequences of this kind of decision?

In my Bar Mitzvah parshah, Miketz, Pharaoh has two dreams, the meaning of which no one can understand. Pharaoh hears about Joseph, this man who can interpret dreams, and calls him. Joseph understands the two dreams as one prophecy saying there will be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. Joseph tells this to Pharaoh, who promotes him to second in command on the spot. He then puts Joseph in charge of collecting the food during the years of plenty, and selling it back to the people during the years of famine. The first seven years go by smoothly. But it is during the famine when Joseph’s brothers come back to him, asking for food. Joseph recognises his brothers, although they don’t recognise him. He uses his power over them to harass them, saying they are spies, threatening them, and occasionally going into another room to cry. The parshah ends on a cliffhanger, with Joseph framing Benjamin for stealing his cup of divination. Read on next week for the next installment of the Adventures of Joseph!

When I read through my parshah, one main question stuck out to me; 'Why?’ What motivates Joseph to do what he does: rising to power wherever he is, punishing his brothers when they don’t recognise him, and some later things in his story beyond this parshah? 

It seems to me that Joseph wants power. We know from earlier in the Joseph saga that he was thrown into a pit and sold into slavery by his ten older brothers. So he clearly didn’t have any power there. This seems to create a longing for power in Joseph, which he displays by working very hard to get power, first in the prison and then later with Pharaoh. 

Now it does make sense that Joseph wanted power. It’s because when he didn’t, he got hurt. And now that he has power, he can protect himself. But now, the question is, is this a helpful motivation in Joseph’s case? Obviously, it got him to be second in command. But he also sometimes uses his power to hurt other people.

The most obvious example of this is when Joseph pretends not to recognise his brothers. You could definitely say that Joseph just wanted his brothers to repent, or understand his feelings. And I’m sure that Joseph justified it to himself in some way like that. But he didn’t have to do what he did. He could have taught his brothers to repent some other way, but he chose not to. So maybe for Joseph, this motivation made him incapable of seeing the best way of handling this situation. This seems to be the reason for Joseph’s rise to power: he is motivated by a deep-seated thirst for power to protect himself going back to when his brothers sold him into slavery. This incident may not seem like a huge deal. This was only affecting his brothers. It just doesn’t seem very important.

Fast forward one parshah to Vayigash. It’s later during the famine. The people of Egypt have already brought their animals to Joseph and sold them for food, since they are all out of money. The people have nothing left but themselves and their farmland. So they ask Joseph to make them Pharaoh’s servants in exchange for food and seeds to plant. Joseph accepts. So all right, I get this doesn’t seem too bad. The people want food, they suggest they become slaves, Joseph agrees. What’s the big deal?

Well, this idea of the people being slaves becomes the standard for the Egyptian law. This is why the Jewish people would become slaves in Egypt hundreds of years later. It’s because of this law! Without Joseph, the Jews might never have been slaves. 

You might say that it still doesn’t seem like Joseph’s fault because the people suggested it - not him. However, those people were desperate for food and they weren’t being rational. Joseph had plenty of food for everyone, and didn’t need to make it a transaction. He could have just given them the food like a caring leader would. 

So Joseph was motivated by power. He wanted power to always be able to protect himself. And this got him to big places. But he also used his power to hurt other people who couldn’t protect themselves. So let’s go back to the example with the two siblings. Joseph is the older sibling in this analogy. He can just give the people or his brothers the food. But he wants power. So without realizing he is doing what others did to him, the reason he wanted power, he asks for something in return: slaves or revenge. Despite being the second youngest brother, Joseph is the ultimate mean older sibling. So what we have to remember from this story is to not abuse power, even if it doesn’t seem like a big deal. 

Director of Jewish Studies, Tamar Cytryn

Synopsis for Parshat Chaye Sarah

By: Tamar Cytryn, Director of Judaic Studies

The parsha opens with the death of Sarah. Abraham mourns for her, and then deals with the details of her burial. He decides to bury her in Hebron, and after the Hitties who live there offer to give him the land as a gift, he insists on a proper sale.  Abraham then deals with finding a wife for his son Isaac. He sends his servant – Eliezer according to commentary but unnamed in the text itself - to his relatives back in Aram Naharaim.

Eliezer wants to ensure he finds the right match, so he decides that he will know the woman is right for Isaac if, when he asks her for water, she not only gives him water but also gives water to his camels. No sooner has he worked out this scheme than Rebecca appears before him and passes his test. Eliezer explains who he is and why he is there, and they proceed to Rebecca’s father’s house.

Eliezer repeats his story to Betuel, Rebecca’s father, and Laban, Rebecca’s brother. They agree to the match, but they do not want her to leave right away, as Eliezer insists. However, Rebecca decides to leave right away, and they are soon on their way. Eliezer and Rebecca meet Isaac in a field, and Isaac and Rebecca are soon wed, inhabiting Sarah’s tent. Isaac is finally comforted over his mother’s death.

Abraham, after a long and fulfilling life, passes away. Isaac and Ishmael together bury Abraham next to Sarah and then go their separate ways.

For a wonderful parsha-themed family discussion around Rebecca’s watering the camels and choosing to do chores, please click on this link.

Shabbat Shalom!

Grade 8 student Jesse

Grade 8 Dvar Torah by: Jesse

Parshat Vayera Dvar Torah

This week's parsha, parashat Vayera, begins with a visit from three angels to Abraham’s tent. The angels inform Sarah that she will bear a child by the time they return and her only response was to laugh.

She says, “Shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am?” Once the angels left, God tells Abraham that he is considering destroying Sodom and Gomorrah due to its wicked civilians. Abraham challenges God and stands up for complete strangers arguing, “Will you ruin the righteous along with the wicked?” They agree that if there are at least 10 righteous people God will not destroy the town. There weren’t 10 righteous people so God decided to warn Lot, Abraham's nephew, before destroying the town. God sends two angels and Lot and his family flee Sodom and Gomorrah before its destruction. Next, Sarah bears a child and they name him Issac. Sarah sees Ishmael, their handmaid's son, worshipping idols and decides she doesn’t want him to influence Issac. Hagar and Ishmael were sent away but God helps them in the desert and promises a great nation for Ishmael. Lastly, God tests Abrahams loyalty by requesting the sacrifice of his only son, Issac. Without question, Abraham brings Issac to the altar and begins binding him before God reveals this was all a test.

After reading and understanding this parsha, one thing that I found interesting was the fact that Abraham stands up for complete strangers but doesn’t hesitate to sacrifice Issac. He argues with God that righteous people shouldn’t be punished for the wicked peoples actions but later is willing to kill his own son.  Why do you think Abraham does this? Why is he willing to kill his son but stands up for strangers

I believe the reason for this was that the failure of losing this argument with God gave him the mentality to never question God again. 

Grade 8 student Ella

Grade 8 Dvar Torah by: Ella

Good morning! In this week's parashat, Parashat Noah, God is disgusted by how corrupt the earth, his creation, had become. Animals and people alike treated each other terribly and chaos surrounded them. God is reasonably outraged and as a result he decides to destroy the whole world in a flood, only saving few people to start anew. In order to do this, God tells Noah, “a righteous man . . . blameless in his age . . . (who) walked with God”- Genesis 6:9 how he ”decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness” -Genesis 6:13. God then told Noah to build an ark and gather a pair of each species of animal and put them on it so they would stay safe. It is assumed that Noah, his family, and the animals were on the ark for around 370 days. 

If this were me I would be very annoyed. To start, I wouldn’t want to spend the majority of my time building an ark for a flood that I can’t even be sure is going to happen and I can’t even imagine having to live with all the animals of the earth for such a long period of time. Then, as much as I love my family, I don’t think I could live with them on a smelly, most likely noisy, ark for 370 days without all of us getting on each other's nerves. To me this seems very unfair considering how Noah before was described as “ a righteous man. . . blameless in his age . . . (who) walked with God.”

If Noah was truly such a “righteous” person shouldn’t he have been rewarded for his behavior? I think this happened because Noah really wasn’t all that great of a person, just slightly better than everyone else, hence the “blameless in his age.” God had to find someone to save the animals and human species so he chose the best option out of a lot of bad options. But of course he still had to punish Noah, his family, and even the animals, so he stuck them all on an ark with pretty intolerable living conditions so they could learn a lesson. Thank you.

Grade 8 student Micah

Grade 8 Dvar Torah by: Micah

This past year, I played on the CJDS Rams volleyball team. During one game, we were behind and about to lose when the opposing team hit the ball to the back of the court. One of our teammates ran back, attempting to make a near impossible shot. Unfortunately, it didn’t work - and we lost the game.

Some teams would have blamed our friend. But we realized any one of us could have made the same mistake. All of us have dropped the ball at some point. But each of us needed to own up to our mistakes. After all, volleyball is a team sport, and the only way to win is if we cheer each other on, not put each other down, and TAKE RESPONSIBILITY.

This idea - of responsibility - is a major theme in this week’s parsha.

In B’reishit, G-d created Adam and gives him one main rule to follow:

וּמֵעֵ֗ץ הַדַּ֙עַת֙ ט֣וֹב וָרָ֔ע לֹ֥א תֹאכַ֖ל מִמֶּ֑נּוּ כִּ֗י בְּי֛וֹם אֲכָלְךָ֥ מִמֶּ֖נּוּ מ֥וֹת תָּמֽוּת 

Eat off any tree or bush except for the tree of knowledge. This is literally where the phrase “forbidden fruit” comes from. As we all know, Adam and Eve do eat the fruit. And then the story gets interesting.

Let’s start with the snake. According to the text, the snake first got Eve to touch the fruit. Then he got Eve to taste it. He’s certainly at least partially to blame.

Then, we have Eve. G-d told Adam that it was forbidden to EAT the fruit from the tree of knowledge, but Eve, in her discussion with the snake, adds that they cannot TOUCH it either. By creating this extra and unnecessary rule she allows herself to believe that if she touched the fruit and nothing happened, surely eating it would be fine as well. And it certainly wasn’t. By putting words in G-d’s mouth, eating the fruit, and by sharing it with Adam, Eve is also to blame.

Finally, we get to Adam. I personally think that Adam didn’t know what fruit he was eating, but he probably should have been more careful, and asked, ‘Hey, where is this fruit from?' Adam was careless in his actions. For this, he bears some blame as well.

Clearly, a lot went wrong in this story. There’s the eating of the fruit, of course… But my biggest concern is that there’s also a lot of finger pointing. It’s a classic tale of he said, she said, snake said.

When G-d asked if they ate from the tree, Adam blames G-d for putting Eve at his side. And he blames Eve for giving him the fruit in the first place. Then Eve, when confronted, said the serpent tricked her into taking a bite. But as I studied the text, it seemed clear to me that G-d wasn’t that mad about what they ate. Instead, I think He got angry that they didn’t own up to their mistakes.

G-d, and the parsha, are teaching us: take responsibility for your actions.

If you read the news these days, an interesting parallel can be found regarding the future of our planet. Despite all of the scientific evidence that humans have created our climate crisis, virtually no one wants to take responsibility. The people, countries and corporations who can bring about the greatest change, are failing to raise their hands. They won’t stand up for the planet we call home, the planet Hashem so beautifully and carefully built in six days.

In recent decades, many mistakes have been made and the blessings of the Earth have been taken for granted. The quests for convenience and economic growth have come at a devastating cost:

  • 19 of the 20 warmest years on record have occurred since the year 2000.
  • The melting of glaciers and ice sheets are causing sea levels to rise and extreme weather events like droughts, hurricanes and flooding.

The Earth has been neglected and abused - and no one seems willing to own up to it.  But unlike Adam, Eve and the snake, each of us must take responsibility. This planet is our Garden of Eden… if we are driven out - by flood, famine, name your natural disaster, we have nowhere else to go.

In Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:28 it says: In the hour when the Holy one, blessed be He, created the first person, He showed him the trees in the Garden of Eden, and said to him: “See My works, how fine they are; Now all that I have created, I created for your benefit. Think upon this and do not corrupt and destroy My world, For if you destroy it, there is no one to restore it after you.

As a 13-year-old, I know that the things I can personally do are somewhat limited. Recycle. Pass on plastic straws. Compost after kiddush - which I encourage all of you to do so please read the signs by the garbage cans at lunch! But the most important thing that I - and all of us - can do is raise our hands and make ourselves heard… like 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg.

“What we should do as individuals,” said Greta, “is to use the power of democracy to make our voices heard and to make sure that the people in power cannot continue to ignore this.”

Just last month, on September 20th, millions of young people around the world did just that as part of a Global Climate Strike... raising their hands and their voices - to fight for their future.

For my Bar Mitzvah project I wanted to do something directly connected with my parsha. Thanks to a unique program at KAM Isaiah Israel Synagogue on the south side of Chicago, this was pretty easy to do.

Since 2009, dozens of volunteers have transformed the shul's lawns and other spaces around the neighborhood into food-producing gardens, growing fruits and vegetables and distributing the harvests to those in need. As a volunteer, I learned how to build a tomato trellis, identify when radishes are ready to be pulled, that green beans like to climb (and they taste pretty great), and that it takes a lot of time and effort to go from planting to plate.

As a volunteer, I got my hands dirty - literally - and was able to take direct responsibility for the city I am proud to call home. This idea of planting, not for me, but for others, reminded me of a story I’ve heard many times throughout my Jewish life. 

In Taanit 23b it says: "While the sage Choni was walking along a road, he saw an old man planting a carob tree. Choni asked him: “How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?” “Seventy years,” replied the man. Choni then asked: “Are you so healthy a man that you expect to live that length of time and eat its fruit?” The man answered: “I found a fruitful world because my ancestors planted it for me. Likewise, I am planting for my children.”

CJDS Grade 8 student Noa

Grade 8 Dvar Torah by: Noa and Isabel

Moed tov Middle School,

Today we would like to talk about Sukkot!

How many of you built a sukkah this year? Well, we both did. Sukkot is a super fun and cheerful holiday. It is centered around community and we are supposed to invite others into our sukkahs to celebrate. So, why is Sukkot supposed to be a very joyous occasion? 

We just had Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, in which we cried out to God and we focused on our sins this past year. They are both personal holidays and times for self-reflection. We are asking God for forgiveness in a desperate way and we are becoming vulnerable. 

Now that our name is inscribed in the book of life we should rejoice! It's time to celebrate after observing a holiday in which we focused primarily on ourselves as we reflected on our sins.

The Torah says that we must invite the stranger and the neighbor into our sukkah. Inviting our community into the sukkah is not only a mitzvah - it allows us to acknowledge others after focusing on just ourselves. 

What are some ways you connect you God in a positive and thoughtful way? One way that we feel we connect is by doing mitzvot. It gives us great pleasure to help people in our community and elsewhere. 

Director of Jewish Studies, Tamar Cytryn

Sukkot Family Learning by: Tamar Cytryn, Director of Jewish Studies

Chag sameach! Happy holiday!

Gather your family together for a conversation about what we do on Sukkot. Read the following text and discuss the questions below. When you're done, enjoy the two videos that follow!

We'd love to hear about any great answers or questions that arise!  

Leviticus 23:39-43

39 But on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you gather in the produce of the land, you shall celebrate the festival of the Lord for a seven day period; the first day shall be a rest day, and the eighth day shall be a rest day.

ל אַ֡ךְ בַּֽחֲמִשָּׁה֩ עָשָׂ֨ר י֜וֹם לַחֹ֣דֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִ֗י בְּאָסְפְּכֶם֙ אֶת־תְּבוּאַ֣ת הָאָ֔רֶץ תָּחֹ֥גּוּ אֶת־חַג־יְהֹוָ֖ה שִׁבְעַ֣ת יָמִ֑ים בַּיּ֤וֹם הָֽרִאשׁוֹן֙ שַׁבָּת֔וֹן וּבַיּ֥וֹם הַשְּׁמִינִ֖י שַׁבָּתֽוֹן

40 And you shall take for yourselves on the first day, the fruit of the hadar tree, date palm fronds, a branch of a braided tree, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for a seven day period.

מ וּלְקַחְתֶּ֨ם לָכֶ֜ם בַּיּ֣וֹם הָֽרִאשׁ֗וֹן פְּרִ֨י עֵ֤ץ הָדָר֙ כַּפֹּ֣ת תְּמָרִ֔ים וַֽעֲנַ֥ף עֵֽץ־עָבֹ֖ת וְעַרְבֵי־נָ֑חַל וּשְׂמַחְתֶּ֗ם לִפְנֵ֛י יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶ֖ם שִׁבְעַ֥ת יָמִֽים

41 And you shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord for seven days in the year. [It is] an eternal statute throughout your generations [that] you celebrate it in the seventh month.

מא וְחַגֹּתֶ֤ם אֹתוֹ֙ חַ֣ג לַֽיהֹוָ֔ה שִׁבְעַ֥ת יָמִ֖ים בַּשָּׁנָ֑ה חֻקַּ֤ת עוֹלָם֙ לְדֹרֹ֣תֵיכֶ֔ם בַּחֹ֥דֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִ֖י תָּחֹ֥גּוּ אֹתֽוֹ

42 For a seven day period you shall live in booths. Every resident among the Israelites shall live in booths,

מב בַּסֻּכֹּ֥ת תֵּֽשְׁב֖וּ שִׁבְעַ֣ת יָמִ֑ים כָּל־הָֽאֶזְרָח֙ בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל יֵֽשְׁב֖וּ בַּסֻּכֹּֽת

43 in order that your [ensuing] generations should know that I had the children of Israel live in booths when I took them out of the land of Egypt. I am the Lord, your God.

מג לְמַ֘עַן֘ יֵֽדְע֣וּ דֹרֹֽתֵיכֶם֒ כִּ֣י בַסֻּכּ֗וֹת הוֹשַׁ֨בְתִּי֙ אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל בְּהֽוֹצִיאִ֥י אוֹתָ֖ם מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם אֲנִ֖י יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶֽם

1) According to this text, what time of the year do we celebrate this holiday?  What did we just complete?

2) Why do you think we should be happy at this time of the year?

3) Can you identify at least two ways we should celebrate this holiday according to this text?  What are they?

4) What is the reason this text gives us for why we live in sukkot/booths on this holiday?

5) What questions do you have about this text?


Do you love the holidays?  Do you love Lego?  This is the video for you!

Sukkot is a time of the year when we welcome guests to our Sukkot and our homes.  Enjoy this video about hachnasat orchim/welcoming guests.

Director of Jewish Studies, Tamar Cytryn

Rosh HaShanah 5780 Family Discussion by: Tamar Cytryn, Director of Jewish Studies

This week we want to challenge our families to do some learning and thinking together around Rosh Hashanah! 

In the mishna (oral tradition) our Rabbis ponder what the shofar blasts should sound like. What kind of noise should we aim to produce when blowing the shofar? The mishna suggests it sound like a "יבבה", a "yevava", often translated as a wail or sob or whine.

There is only person in the Tanakh (our Bible) described as making these sounds.  It is a woman who only appears once and doesn’t even have her own name!

In Shoftim/Judges 5:28 it reads:

בְּעַד הַחַלּוֹן נִשְׁקְפָה וַתְּיַבֵּב אֵם סִיסְרָא בְּעַד הָאֶשְׁנָב

מַדּוּעַ בֹּשֵׁשׁ רִכְבּוֹ לָבוֹא מַדּוּעַ אֶחֱרוּ פַּעֲמֵי מַרְכְּבוֹתָיו

“Through the window the mother of Sisera looked forth and sobbed, and peered through the window; why is his chariot late in coming? Why tarry the strides of his chariots?”   

Sisera was a very successful commander of the Canaanite army of King Jabin of Hazor, He commanded an army that included 900 chariots. According to Judges chapters 4 & 5 Sisera was eventually defeated by the forces of the Israelite tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali under the command of Barak and Deborah. The verse quoted above describes his mother waiting by the window for her son.


1.     What do you think the mother of Sisera is feeling at this moment?

2.     What do you think the Israelites felt at his defeat?

3.     Why do you think the Rabbis chose this particular woman to pattern the sound of the shofar after?

4.     Do you think there is a connection between her experience and our experience on Rosh Hashanah?

Wishing all a happy and sweet new year!


D'var Torah by: Nitai, Grade 7

Here is a simple riddle... 

A basket contains five apples. How can you distribute those five apples to five different people and still have one apple left in the basket?

You give up? You give one apple each to four people, and give the fifth person the basket with the last apple still inside.  Simple, right?

This Torah portion also describes baskets filled with fruits, and these baskets were brought as gifts. The gifts, called bikkurim, were the first fruits of each year’s harvest.  Farmers brought these “gifts” to Jerusalem and presented them before the priest and ultimately sacrificed them to God. The verse states:

וְלָקַחְתָּ מֵרֵאשִׁית כָּל־פְּרִי הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר תָּבִיא מֵאַרְצְךָ אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ וְשַׂמְתָּ בַטֶּנֶא וְהָלַכְתָּ אֶל־הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְשַׁכֵּן שְׁמוֹ שָׁם׃

“you shall take some of every first fruit of the soil, which you harvest from the land that the LORD your God is giving you, put it in a basket and go to the place where the LORD your God will choose to establish His name.”

The Torah continues and a few verses later it commands the farmer not just to bring the fruits but “to rejoice in all the bounty that the LORD your God has bestowed upon you and your household”

וְשָׂמַחְתָּ֣ בְכָל־הַטּ֗וֹב אֲשֶׁ֧ר נָֽתַן־לְךָ֛ ה' אֱ-לֹהֶ֖יךָ וּלְבֵיתֶ֑ךָ אַתָּה֙ וְהַלֵּוִ֔י וְהַגֵּ֖ר אֲשֶׁ֥ר בְּקִרְבֶּֽךָ׃ (ס)

Rashi, the medieval commentator adds that the farmer doesn’t just rejoice but needs to make a public statement when he brings the first fruits to demonstrate that he is grateful for all that he has been given.

Listen, I am just a kid, but it is pretty clear what is being described in the first verse -- “tax collection.” And then God commands the farmer to be happy about it!

Personally - I have never had to pay taxes, but to all the adults in the room, how many of you are rejoicing during that second week of April.  Or I’ll ask my Uncle David, the accountant. How many people run up to you when they hand over their W2s or are cutting their checks to the Federal Government rejoicing and make that public statement: “man - God is great!” 

But that is what this farmer is being asked to do, to make a dramatic speech, filled with joy when bringing his first fruits to Jerusalem .

Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, a 19th century Lithuanian rabbi known as the Netziv, builds on the verse and Rashi’s explanation and asks “What does it mean to rejoice in everything that is good? That it means “to rejoice with your body and soul together.”

The Netziv explains that the moment of bringing bikurim combines different types of happiness.  Happiness of the body - because we have lots of great fruit. And happiness of the soul because we are being reminded to feel gratitude. Feeling grateful comes from recognizing that these gifts, we bring to God are more appropriately framed as “gifts that God has given to us.”   Those fruits that we think come from all our hard work were gifts that we were actually granted.

So essentially, the torah flips the script and reframes the entire picture of giving.  That these gifts that come with us in the world, whether we are blessed with nourishment, like the farmer, or with talents or skills; they are truly gifts from God, and that what comes with these gifts is a responsibility to dedicate those gifts to giving back to our community and to the broader world.

But even more importantly, the Torah is teaching us that giving back is not done with any resentment, but just the opposite. It is done with joy, happiness, with gratitude in realizing that we have been blessed and privileged, and with that blessing comes the true gift of being able to help others.  We must understand that every opportunity to give means that we have been blessed with something to give.

It is very appropriate that this reframe is one of the main themes of my Torah portion, as I get to see these lessons play out all around me.  When I look at my 4 grandparents, My GG and Zayde, My Saba and Savta, who I am so blessed to have here today, they have all dedicated their lives to live by this approach; they have dedicated their time, energy and many talents to their communities with absolute Chen - with grace, and with gratitude to God.  They built their communities, in Kansas City, Silver Spring and now Jerusalem, not out of a sense of obligation, but a sense of gratitude and pleasure. And my parents work every day to emulate their parents and pass those same lessons to me and my siblings.

So it is today, as I stand as a Bar Mitzvah, that  it is my turn to make the public declaration, to use my passions and skills to give back to my community and the world at large; and to do this, not from a sense of obligation, but out of a sense of gratitude, responsibility, and joy.

And though I imagine that when I grow up, I too will not be praising God when I cut my first check, to the Federal Government, I do hope I can live up to lessons in my torah portion, and the bar set by my family so that I can always be a source of pride for this wonderful community!  Shabbat Shalom.


In this week's Torah portion, Ki Teitze, we find an important  commandment/mitzvah - something named shiluach haken, which roughly translates to sending away the mother bird. We are commanded to shoo the mother bird away if we plan on taking baby birds or eggs for our own consumption. If we fulfill this commandment/mitzvah then the Torah tells us it will be good for us and it will prolong our lives on this earth.  

In Deuteronomy/Dvarim chapter 22, verses 6-7 the Torah commands us:

6 If a bird's nest chances before you on the road, on any tree, or on the ground, and [it contains] fledglings or eggs, if the mother is sitting upon the fledglings or upon the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young. 

כִּ֣י יִקָּרֵ֣א קַן־צִפּ֣וֹר | לְפָנֶ֡יךָ בַּדֶּ֜רֶךְ בְּכָל־עֵ֣ץ | א֣וֹ עַל־הָאָ֗רֶץ אֶפְרֹחִים֙ א֣וֹ בֵיצִ֔ים וְהָאֵ֤ם רֹבֶ֨צֶת֙ עַל־הָֽאֶפְרֹחִ֔ים א֖וֹ עַל־הַבֵּיצִ֑ים לֹֽא־תִקַּ֥ח הָאֵ֖ם עַל־הַבָּנִֽים:

7 You shall send away the mother, and [then] you may take the young for yourself, in order that it should be good for you, and you should lengthen your days.

שַׁלֵּ֤חַ תְּשַׁלַּח֙ אֶת־הָאֵ֔ם וְאֶת־הַבָּנִ֖ים תִּקַּח־לָ֑ךְ לְמַ֨עַן֙ יִ֣יטַב לָ֔ךְ וְהַֽאֲרַכְתָּ֖ יָמִֽים

Family Questions

1) Why might someone take birds or eggs from a nest?

2) What do you think it means when the Torah says "it should be good for you" if you fulfill this commandment?

3) What do you think it means when the Torah says "you should lengthen your days" if you fulfill this commandment?

4) There is only one other commandment/mitzvah in the Torah where you earn prolonged life if you do it, the commandment/mitzvah of honoring your mother and father. Can you think of any connection between these two commandments/mitzvot?

Grade 8 Bar Mitzvah student reads his dvar Torah

D'var Torah by: Noam, Grade 8

Means and Ends

One of the classic questions of philosophy is the relationship between ends and means. Do the ends, the goals that we are pursuing, justify the means that we use to pursue those goals. This question has occupied philosophers and politicians for thousands of years and one approach to this question appears in this week’s Torah portion.

Early in the parsha this week, we find the famous verse:

צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף לְמַ֤עַן תִּֽחְיֶה֙ וְיָרַשְׁתָּ֣ אֶת־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־ה' אֱ-לֹהֶ֖יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לָֽךְ׃ (ס)

Justice justice you shall pursue in order that you live and inherit the land that the Lord your God is giving to you.

Even though we know that the word צֶ֖דֶק means “justice” we don’t know why the word is repeated at the beginning of the verse. What does צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף mean?

Ibn Ezra offers the simplest explanation - but one that might be true. The Torah frequently repeats words just for emphasis.

R. Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (Netziv) looks to the Gemara in Sanhedrin which interprets one tzedek for law and one tzedek for compromise. There is a need for judges to rule in a fair and just way whether they are engaging in law or facilitating compromise. 

He then asks: Why would there need to be a special mitzvah for judges to be impartial in cases when they are asked to facilitate a compromise? They would only ever be asked to arbitrate if they are trusted and respected by the litigants.. He answers that  sometimes there is an obligation to compromise and therefore judges must treat it just as seriously as when they are deciding a case of law.  

He then points to a gemara in Bava kama which states that the beit hamikdash was destroyed because people only followed the letter of the law and were not willing to compromise

R. Simcha Bunim of Peshischa offers a different interesting interpretation. 

One must pursue justice justly. The ends don’t justify the means. Just because you are trying to do something with good intentions doesn’t mean that you can go about achieving them in bad ways.  

We can see the relevance of this insight in contemporary debates about crime and punishment. The fourth amendment to the Constitution prohibits searches and seizures without a warrant. This is an example of pursuing justice justly. 

From this verse we can take away the importance of compromise,  and making sure we are doing things in a just and moral way.