Parshat Toldot

As we end another week after the horrific Pittsburgh shooting, parents, teachers and students country wide are still struggling with processing the event. As time goes by, the fear, worry and stress this event has caused may decrease, but the remaining question - "why did this happen” - remains unanswered. Truthfully, it is an age-old question that starts right with this week’s Parsha, Toldot.
 
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks views this week’s parsha as the birth of anti-semitism in the world. His article is a fascinating read and can be seen at http://rabbisacks.org/courage-persistence-toldot-5779/ .
 
What is most relevant to us today, however, is how Isaac responds to the anti-semitism he faces. When his wells are stopped up by the Philistines he simply reopens them, consistently naming them the same names his father had named them, showing persistence and courage and continuity in his actions. Isaac’s name (He will laugh), given to him by G-d Himself before he was born is surprising considering the trials he underwent throughout his life; the binding, the anti-semitism,  the challenge of being the first Jewish child and staying true to his faith and continuing in his father’s path.  From Isaac we learn that faith is having the courage to persist through setbacks, never giving up and never accepting defeat. And ultimately, Isaac is the patriarch who was able to achieve the most elusive of goals - namely peace - because he never gave up.
 
As we continue to nurture our students and reassure them during these difficult times, it is also important that we keep in mind the lessons from Isaac.  We persist. We don’t give up. We stay true to our faith.
 
Attached is an article by Dr. David Pelcovitz. “Coping with Loss and Terror: Jewish and Psychological Perspectives” provides insights and coping strategies to live by and learn from. https://www.lookstein.org/articles/loss_terror.pdf
 
May we all merit to live in peace even during these times of terror, loss and tragedy.
 

What Makes Us a Light Unto the Nations?

I recently had a conversation with a very senior member of the Montgomery County Council. He was commenting on the strong presence of so many Jewish social service agencies in the county: Jewish Federation of Group Homes, Jewish Social Services Agency, Jewish Council for the Aging, Jewish Federation, Jewish Community Centers, Sulam and so many more. He was observing that the Jewish people notably take responsibility for each other, and for the greater community. He found it inspiring and curious that Jews feature so prominently in the social services agencies in our area, and, in fact, around the world.

The truth is, we are taught directly from the Torah, that personal, moral and collective responsibility is what Judaism is all about.

Starting from Bereishit, we are introduced one parsha at a time to the different kinds of responsibilities man must act upon in order to create a world of justice, freedom and safety. We learn these lessons through the failings of our early ancestors. We learn about Adam and Chava who don’t take personal responsibility for their sin, and instead blame one another, the serpent and even G-d Himself. We learn about Cain who killed his brother Abel, taking no moral responsibility, saying “Am I my brother’s keeper?” By the time we reach the generation of Noah, the world has become wicked, corrupt and violent - a systematic moral failing. The best man, Noach, follows the instructions of Gd, but does not take any responsibility for his fellow man, never once pleading with G-d to save their lives in the Flood.

Finally, in Parshat Vayeira, we learn that Avraham, the father of the Jewish people, is the model we are to follow. He is a man who takes responsibility for himself: He settles a dispute with his nephew Lot by proposing a solution, with no judgment and no personal benefit. He takes moral responsibility when he gathers a force to rescue Lot and returns him (and other captives) safely to his home - a very different perspective than that of Cain, who believed he was not his brother’s keeper. And finally, Avraham challenges G-d Himself when he sees that G-d is about to pass judgement on Sodom. “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” Avraham asks of G-d. “Will not the Judge of earth do justice?”Avraham, unlike Noah, challenges G-d on behalf of the collective.

These teachings are the essence of who we are as a people. It is why we feature so prominently in the social services in our communities. We teach our children from their earliest memories that we are personally responsible for our actions, that we proactively defend the vulnerable, and we always consider the collective group.

We do this by modeling honesty to our children. As parents we have to acknowledge our own mistakes and show them that when we do something wrong, we can make amends. We thus make it safe for them to own up to their own mistakes.

We model sensitivity and kindness to others. We speak up against bullying behaviors. We don’t allow our children to treat others unkindly.

We volunteer to serve our community. By doing so, we model to our children that we support the collective and by doing so we uplift ourselves as a society.

This combination of personal, moral and collective responsibility is what makes us a unique and remarkable people.

It is what makes us a light unto the nations.

Am I my Brother's Keeper?

A few years ago I was walking toward the entrance of a Giant grocery store when I heard cries for help. I looked at all the people nearby to see who could be calling out. No one seemed to be in need of help, and no one seemed to be alarmed by the cries for help either. Looking past the passive faces of the passersby I finally found the source of the supplicant. A woman had fallen out of her tipped-over wheelchair. She was lying on the ground unable to move. She was a few feet away from the entrance of the store and somewhat hidden from view behind a stand of hanging flower baskets. I noticed a woman quite nearby selecting a hanging flower basket from the stand.

I quickly ran to the aid of the woman on the ground to see how I could help. She had cut her head in the fall, so I called 911 and waited with her until the medics arrived. While waiting with her I watched the woman who had been choosing a hanging flower basket. She glanced toward us briefly and continued on as if nothing had happened.

It was a surprising experience that has stuck with me all these years. Why did the woman, who was so close by, choose to ignore the plea for help? Why didn’t the other passersby investigate the calls for help? What were people thinking?!

What I had experienced was the bystander effect, or, the Genovese Effect as it has come to be known. Social psychologists Bibb Latane and John Darley popularized the concept following the Kitty Genovese murder in New York City in 1964. As Genovese was stabbed to death outside her apartment, neighbors failed to help her or even call the police. Latane and Darley described the bystander effect as one in which there is a “diffusion of responsibility, (onlookers are less likely to intervene if there are others who seem likely to do so) and social influence (individuals monitor the behavior of those around them to determine how to react)”. In a nutshell - it is a failure to take responsibility.

In Parshat Bereishit, the beginning of our guide to Torah values and behavior, we learn about the very human predisposition to not take responsibility - in two instances. First Adam and Eve, after committing the sin of eating from the forbidden tree attempt to absolve themselves of personal responsibility, blaming G-d, each other, and the serpent. Then we learn that Cain murdered his brother, did not even deny the act, but rather asked why he should be concerned about it; “Am I my brother’s keeper?” He absolved himself of moral responsibility.

Later in the Torah we learn about the incident in which Moshe witnessed the beating of of an Israelite slave by an Egyptian officer. Moshe strikes and kills the Egyptian officer, but not before “looking this way and that and saw no one.” It would be easy to interpret this text as Moshe checking that no one would witness the murderous action he was about to take. However, the sages teach us that in fact Moshe was looking to see if any of the many people around the building site would take action, and when no one did, he saw it as his responsibility.

In Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers) the verse “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it “(2:22) is a further reminder of our obligation to take responsibility for others, for ourselves and for the community.

Sulam is an organization that wholeheartedly believes in taking responsibility for the children in our community who need support to maintain their right to be included. It is a behemoth undertaking. In order for Sulam to provide the excellent services that our students receive, we must rely on our community, our parents, our schools and our donors to be active and responsible participants. No one is absolved from the responsibility.

As the year begins, and our cycle of Torah instruction restarts, it is my hope that anyone everyone who has been touched by Sulam will commit themselves to a year of action and responsibility, in the forms of time, finances, positive messaging and advocacy.

In Rabbi Jonathan Sack’s words: “The responsible life is a life that responds. . .”

We must listen to the voice of “G-d calling on us to make this a more just and gracious world.”

Inclusion

Inclusion

“Every day at 12:30 pm I freeze...
It doesn’t matter whether I am in an important negotiation, if I am with a client, or if I am alone. I freeze because I know that it is recess at my son’s school. I wonder if he is sitting alone on a bench, feeling miserable. I worry that kids may be teasing or bullying him. I dream that he has perhaps found someone who will play with him, accept him for who he is, and see in him what I love so much about him. This is what I do, every single day.”*

Parshat Toldot - November 17, 2017

In this week’s parsha, Toldot, we learn that there was a famine in the land, besides the first famine that was in the days of Avraham. Like his father, Yitzhak intended to go down to Egypt, but G-d appeared to him and said: “Do not got down to Egypt for you are like an unblemished sacrifice, and leaving the land is not appropriate for you.”

The Perfect Ear

As the story goes, when I was born, my father talked about my ear and how perfectly small it was, and how perfectly shaped it was, because what else would he talk about? He didn't know me, and all the little quirks about me.

A Sense of Purpose

This week the Sulam team met on Monday for a professional day in which we discussed the task of helping our students develop grit - the power to stick to a task and to persevere through failure, struggle, feeling overwhelmed - and not give up. There are techniques to help children develop this important skill, such as using the correct type of praise.

Parshat Bo

Parshat Bo is one of my favorite parshiot in relationship to school and education.

After suffering through the drama of repeated disappointments, the Jews finally broke free from slavery. They made a  harrowing escape through a miraculously parting sea. Once on dry and safe ground, with the wilderness ahead of them, few possessions to maintain comfort, and nothing but un-risen bread to sustain them, Moshe had the challenging task of motivating them to continue the arduous physical and spiritual journey to become a nation.

A Single Life is Like a Universe

This week’s parsha, Parshat Vayeshev contains the famous story of the brothers throwing Joseph into a pit to be sold to slaves. So begins the story of the enslavement of the Jews in Egypt. There are very many aspects to this story that are intriguing, but one particularly meaningful aspect is that of Reuven’s role in saving Josephs’ life.

Jacob's Ladder

Jacob's Ladder

At Sulam, we teach our students that their journey is not an all or nothing event. Like the Chinese proverb, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step”, we at Sulam celebrate each rung a student climbs. We revel in gradual, yet consistent achievement.