Thursday, September 8, 2011

D'var Torah: Parshat Re'eh

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to deliver a D'var Torah (literally, words of Torah) to the congregation at my synagogue. The way a D'var Torah usually works is that the person speaking studies the Torah portion that is to be read that week and finds something within the portion (parsha)to focus his/her talk on. Oftentimes, the speaker will use a piece of the Torah portion as a starting point and then steer the talk to a particular lesson or message that may or may not be directly related but somehow ties into the theme. I was asked to share the backstory of my book and how I became an author as part of the D'var Torah. Several friends and family members were not able to hear me speak, and have asked to read it, so I thought I'd share it here for anyone who is interested. Also, I'd like to give a huge "Thank You" to Rabbi Avi Olitzky who helped me pull it all together. 

D'var Torah for Parshat Re'eh:

Back when I was a college student, I studied Psychology, so I’d like to take a minute now to play a little psychology game with you. When I say the following three things, I want you to think of the first thing that pops into your head. (You can certainly close your eyes if you think it will help you concentrate on your answer, as long as you promise that you won’t fall asleep during my talk!)

Ready?  Passover….Shavuot….Sukkot. 

Raise your hand if the word Passover made you think of Matzah….Seder…Those Passover marshmallows covered with coconut?

Shavuot:  Receiving the Torah?  Blintzes?  Sebastian Joe’s Ice cream?
Sukkot:  Harvest?  Huts? Fall leaves? The Vikings?

We all have some shared associations that we make with the three big holidays in our Jewish calendar.  Interestingly, the three holidays are mentioned in this week’s Parsha and yet in the Torah they look nothing like what we celebrate today.  There is an entire section of the Torah portion devoted to describing the celebration of Passover and not once does it mention setting the seder table using your Bubbe’s finest china or crystal glasses. I could not find, in any of my research, whether Rashi approves or disapproves of putting sour cream on your blintzes or if hanging a garland of plastic fruits and vegetables in our sukkah is a law or a minhag/custom.

At the end of this week’s parsha, it talks about Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot--the Shalosh Regalim, —the tri-annual festivals when the Israelites made their pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem to worship, thank and praise G-d by bringing gifts from the yield of their fields and making animal sacrifices. We have maintained the observance of these holidays over the years, but since we no longer offer sacrifices and we no longer have the Temple in Jerusalem, our observances look very different from those described in the Torah. Over the years, these holidays have evolved and taken on a new form for us, while still maintaining the rhythm of the yearly cycle. The holidays are still relevant to us, but the practices have transformed. In this case, a lot of these variations are a result of societal changes. Sure, we may enjoy a good barbecue, but this is very different from the ritual sacrifice that our ancestors took part in. It is not acceptable or desirable to slaughter our own animals as a way of giving thanks to G-d, let alone the fact that this was all to take place in the Temple, which no longer exists. Also, the laws were based on the Israelites all living in the land of Israel. We obviously do not all live there.

However, there are some things that make sense across time and across societal changes. Earlier in the parsha we read the following:
If there is a needy person among you … do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman; rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs.  … Give to him readily and have no regrets.
Undoubtedly, this is something very relatable to us. It states in the Torah that there will always be needy amongst us and that we are always responsible to help those in need. And as such this is easy to understand-- it is still necessary and relevant. There are other laws that might not seem so obviously applicable to us, but what keeps the Torah “alive” for us is that we can take a step back and try to interpret the rules in a way that add meaning to our lives and that work for us personally in today’s world. This week’s parsha mentions slaves. While we certainly no longer have slaves, we could glean from this guideline ways to treat people that work for us. Maybe you are a director of some sort with a staff that answers to you, or maybe you’re the chief of surgery, a master teacher, a rabbi, or the head of a project at work or at school. There are innumerable instances in which we may find ourselves in roles where we are in a position of leadership or authority and that we can try extract a meaning from the lessons in this parsha that become relevant to how we live our lives.

6 years ago I realized that as an adult I was finding relevance in modern Judaism, but I was having some trouble finding age-appropriate literature which helps children find this relevance. And so my personal journey began. Believe it or not, it all began right here in this building (The old version of this building, anyway)--in the Victor Hall to be exact.

When my youngest son was in preschool here at the Aleph School, I was volunteering at the annual book fair. I had signed up to help set up the fair and I was asked to help put together the table of Jewish books. It was a round table and on one side of the table we were to put all the younger children’s picture books. On the other side of the table were the older-kid books. There were many, many wonderful picture books for the preschoolers that were bright, exciting, shiny and fun. There were books about Chanukkah, Passover and Rosh Hashanah. In other words, there was a wonderful selection for the younger kids.  On the other side, there were a few Jewish cookbooks and a handful of chapter books for older kids. Almost all of those books were somehow related to our shared history: the shtetl, Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, including Anne Frank’s Diary. There were non-fiction books about Jewish Sports stars, what it means to be Jewish or biographies about famous Jews such as Albert Einstein. It was a far cry from the shiny, colorful books on the other side of the table.  I did realize that it was a book fair at a preschool and I figured that that must be why there was such an imbalance in favor of the picture books. However, it set off a light bulb in my head and it led me to go to the library and the internet to see what sort of books there were for older kids that moved away from the non-fiction, information books and the books about our history and simply celebrated what is great about being Jewish today. What makes being Jewish relevant to today’s kids. I was looking for the bright, shiny, fun and exciting books for the post-picture book crowd. What I found was that there was a great big, cavernous void in our Jewish literary world for kids.

At the time, I was still a full-time stay at home Mom. I had been planning to resume my teaching career once my youngest son went to school full time. I realized, however, that I had a new opportunity and that I wanted to try teaching in a new way, to a larger audience. And it was then that I came up with the idea of writing a book, which then led to the idea of writing a series of books that would entertain, inform and thrill young readers. I decided to create characters that kids today could relate to, that they would want to be friends with, that shared the same issues, concerns and struggles as themselves and that would do all this through a Jewish lens. It became clear to me, as I delved into this idea more and more that if we want to perpetuate our Jewish traditions, and see them continue to be passed on l’dor v’dor, from generation to generation, a phrase we use a lot around here, that we can’t just focus on our history and the tragedies that befell us. Yes, we need to remember and sanctify the memory of those who perished in the Holocaust, in the pogroms and other horrendous events in our history. But if we hope to keep our thousands-years old heritage alive, then we need to be sure that our kids feel a connection. Our kids need to foster positive identities with their Judaism so that they will want to pass down what they love to the next generations.
And so, my book series, YaYa and YoYo was born. The first book in the series is called Sliding Into the New Year and it is about fifth-grade twins, Ellie and Joel Silver, who go to public school and afternoon Hebrew school. Their Hebrew names are Yael and Yoel and when Joel was a baby he couldn’t pronounce their names and they came out as “YaYa and YoYo” and the nicknames stuck. 

In the story, Ellie is invited by her best friend, Megan to go to the brand new indoor water park in town. It’s not the sort of outing her parents would take her on, so it seems to be the perfect solution; She’d go with Megan and she wouldn’t have to bug her parents to take her somewhere that they really didn’t want to go. It’s the perfect plan until Joel points out that Megan, who is not Jewish, is going on Rosh Hashanah.
Throughout the story we watch Ellie’s growth as she first tries to finagle her parents to let her go to the water park on Rosh Hashanah. She tries begging and bargaining. I won’t give away the ending, so I won’t let you know if she gets to the water park or not, but I will tell you that she does end up spending time with her family at their Rosh Hashanah dinner and in services. Ellie grows to appreciate the traditions in her grandparents’ home, at her synagogue and even in her own kitchen. The sights, sounds, tastes and smells of the holiday pull her into it. She laughs at her family’s funny rituals and shared stories, she savors the tunes that she hears only once a year in synagogue, she feels her grandfather’s warmth as she snuggles up next to him in the cold sanctuary and wraps herself inside his tallit as they sit together in services. These are all very real experiences, positive experiences that kids can and do relate to.

Along the way, Ellie also learns about the concept of t’shuvah, which is all about reflecting on our behavior, turning ourselves around and trying to improve ourselves. It’s a central theme of the High Holidays and, I believe, an important one for kids to understand to help make Rosh Hashanah even more meaningful.  
Since the book has been released this spring, I have had the pleasure of sharing my story with children in many different day schools and afternoon Hebrew schools around the country. What I had hoped for has proven to be true—kids are hungering for books like this. I have received incredibly warm welcomes from kids as young as kindergarten and as old as 8th grade. Even though the books are written for grades 3-6, something seems to resonate with these kids. It’s like they’ve been waiting for someone to write about them, and finally they are finding themselves in this book and hopefully, will continue to find themselves in subsequent books. Shaking in the Shack, the second book in the series, about Sukkot, is due to be released this spring.

Writing and editing the book, finding a publisher, watching it go into production and finally seeing it released has been an incredible journey. I’ve been eating, sleeping and breathing Ellie, Joel and Rosh Hashanah for almost 6 years now.  And I think in writing chapter after chapter, I finally understand why the Torah is compelled to bring up the holidays of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot now-- Because right now, we are on the brink of welcoming another Rosh Hashanah. This coming Tuesday, we will be ushering in the month of Elul, the last month in the Hebrew calendar before the new year of 5772. We are heading into the Sukkot season, which begins with the Yamim Nora’im, namely, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. And just as Ellie learns – or, rather, as Ellie experiences -- in the book, we too blend where we’ve been with where we’re going. We blend what was old and make it new again. We find new relevance. And it is at this season that we take some time to reflect on all we have accomplished this past year, and we look back at what we are pleased with and what we are not so happy about. We think about the things that we would like to do better in the upcoming year.
During this period of reflection, we are supposed to give ourselves a bit of a progress report of sorts. We check to see if we have “missed the mark” in any way and need to work on improving our behavior. We think about what isn’t relevant and how we can make it that much sweeter, shinier and new.

My wish for you as we embark on this new year, 5772, is that you continue to realize and create the relevance that our tradition offers us in your own life.

L’shanah tova and Shabbat shalom.

1 comment: