Posted on

Mark Young’s D’Var Torah

Mark Young

By Mark Young

In exactly 8 days I will walk up onto a stage, receive a slip of paper, and leave my high school class behind forever. I’ve been with most of them for 13 whole years and a student in the Gilford School District for 14 (I didn’t quite get Kindergarten the first time). Over the course of that near decade and a half, my peers and I have established and built upon our own unique identities as human beings. We have forged relationships, learned about ourselves and the world around us, and developed into young people more or less ready to embark onto greater things.

For me, a significant part of this ever evolving identity has always been my status as a Jew. There have been times that have made me feel important and special like those in elementary school when I have taught my classmates about the significance of High Holidays or how to properly spin a Dreidel and others that are not so nice. Like having unfair stereotypes pointed out in the way that only cruel middle school cliques can. I have both connected with and felt unstoppably supported by the community at TBI and experienced sensations of helplessness and devastation when I have learned of the bitter hardships faced by countless men and women for the sole reason that they identify as a Jew. I understand how a scapegoat works and have felt jealously like any other human being but I will never comprehend how one person can hate another so deeply on the basis of religious belief.

Personally, I value diversity and think being Jewish is kinda great. I mean, we literally have a holiday dedicated to frying things in oil and gambling and there is no such thing as a gathering of Jews without delicious food. Our culture has survived for millennia, producing some of the greatest intellectual and humanitarian minds that the world has ever seen. Next time you sit down for a Passover Seder, try to remember that Louis Brandeis, Albert Einstein, Sandy Koufax, and Jesus all made it through the whole thing so you can too. I did a little reading online and according to Forbes, you are a more than 100x more likely to become a billionaire if you are Jewish. We only make up .2% of the worlds population but take up an unprecedentedly large portion of its history.

Being Jewish comes with high standards but I hardly feel any pressure. Sure, I want to succeed, but after a few long years in hebrew school, I now know that that can be taken a few different ways. The only real guidelines are those of morality given to us by the Torah and through study of Jewish tradition. Basically as long as you adhere to justice and are a good person, you’re in the clear.

Overall, I am very proud of my Jewish heritage and thankful that I grew up so close to a synagogue. Temple B’nai Israel truly is an oasis in the cultural desert that is northern New England. Sure, we may not be the most traditional or observant synagogue, but I wouldn’t want it any other way. The members of this temple have taught me right from wrong, to fight for the good in this world, and most importantly, how to be a Jew. I feel empathy for my fellow man regardless of his culture and will never be a bystander as I know how that can end. From the first time I walked through the front door I have never ceased to be reminded of how much people can accomplish when they treat each other with love and respect. To the younger members of the congregation who have not yet been bar or bat mitzvah’d I say that it is 100% worth it and to keep coming to Hebrew school and Friday night services. Judaism is part of you and nothing but good can come from it.

I would like to say thank you to my various teachers, tutors, rabbi and all of you at TBI who have made the past years of my life special for one reason or another. I appreciate it more than you could ever know.

Posted on

The Commencement Speech I Would Have Given

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

A rabbinic midrash tells that when God wanted to give humanity the Ten Commandments, God searched far and wide for a people who would be willing to accept them. However, one group after another refused God’s offer, preferring instead to follow more worldly pursuits. It was only the Jewish People who agreed, sight unseen, to accept God’s commandments and observe them faithfully.

Maybe that accounts for the high success rate among Jews. Through our Covenant, we have a closer, more immediate relationship with God, with an extra measure of blessing. Just note the number of Jewish Nobel prizes winners, or the number of successful Jewish lawyers, doctors, teachers and businessmen in our country.

Or perhaps consider for a moment the fact that Judaism is the third oldest extant religion, the third longest—and still-practiced! —way of life in the whole world, just behind the Chinese and Hindus—two groups that together add up to about 50%, half of the world’s population. Yet the Jews, who account for less than one-quarter of one percent, have managed, against all odds, despite persecution and exile, and even despite the terrible Holocaust of the previous century, to reach the respectable age of 3,600 years old, and still going strong. Now that’s success!

Many people have wondered at this astonishing statistic. Some ascribe it to DNA and good genes; some go ahead and call it God’s blessing. There are others, however, who see more sinister forces behind our success.

But there is really nothing mysterious here. The truth is that when the Hebrew Nation accepted the Covenant with God, we took upon ourselves more than a religion, more than a set of customs, rituals and beliefs. We became an eternal people, a community that transcends time and space. In accepting the Commandments, we became a nation defined by our values: Law, justice, compassion, freedom and hope.

The Jewish People accepted the Ten Commandments on faith, but we did not become blind followers of the law. Part of our success is due to our having learned to examine the law, to cast aside irrational opinion and ancient prejudice, and instead adapt the law to the times and conditions we live in.

Once, on a visit to the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, MA, I was astounded to see a copy of Darwin’s The Origin Of Species, translated into Yiddish. The Jewish People, while obstinately holding on to our ancient customs and way of life, have always also kept pace with new discoveries and new knowledge. We explore; we question and inquire; we imagine and we create. We never stop our quest for truth and knowledge.

The secret of our success is two-fold: It’s in the values we uphold, and in the ways we reach our goals.

The values come down to us through our prayers and through our ancient texts, where we learn what it is that God wants from us: To extend a helpful hand to the needy; to feed the hungry, to heal the sick, to bring light and education to benighted cultures and civilizations.

And we reach these goals by also following the guidelines the Torah teaches us. There’s no magic there. Our success isn’t the result of cheating, lying or some other illicit behavior. Rather, it’s because we do not belittle others or mock them. We do not take advantage of the weak—we help them instead. Recognizing the Image of God in every human being, we enable everyone to help the community in any way they can. Seeing God’s hand in every living creature, we take care of the world around us and make it better for all.

That is the secret of our people’s success through the past three and a half millennia.

This, then would be my advice to today’s graduates. I would tell them that success isn’t only measured by how much money you make or by how many possessions you accumulate. I would quote the passage from Pirkei Avot, the tractate from the Mishnah that in English we call “The Chapters of the Fathers.” There we learn:

Who is wise? The one who learns from every person…
Who is brave? The one who controls his or her passions…
Who is rich? The one who appreciates what he has…
Who is honored? The one who honors others…

Measured by these standards, we all actually can succeed. It isn’t luck, only perseverance. Stay on the right path, but be willing to make corrections along the way. Life ahead may yet be uncharted, but using the guidelines our people accepted so long ago will help you navigate through the storms, through the wilderness.

There is a traditional blessing we say whenever we finish studying a book of the Torah, and today we address these words to all our students, both those who are graduating this year and those who are still on their exciting path of discovery and exploration: Chazak chazak v’nitchazek—“Be strong and of good courage, and we shall all be strengthened together.”

Congratulations, and may you go from strength to strength.

Posted on

Ge’ulat Yisrael: The Redemption of Israel

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

D’var Torah for Parashat B’har

This week’s Torah portion, B’har (“At Mount Sinai,” Lev. 25:1—26:2), refers to a concept called ge’ulah, commonly and most often translated as “redemption.” In a religious setting, Redemption refers to spiritual elevation, perhaps following a moral fall and divine forgiveness. However, in context of this Torah portion, ge’ulah is more than a theological-philosophical term. Bound to very specific and complex laws regarding land ownership, here ge’ulah means “restoration,” in the sense of a return to an original state of being. In this parasha, ge’ulah occurs every 50 years, during Jubilee Year, and involves the restoration of all properties in the Land of Israel to their first Hebrew owners, the original tribes of Israel, each according to the portion that was assigned to it by God and Moses.

In the Torah’s view of ge’ulah, the Land of Israel, no matter how many transactions it may have endured, no matter how many times it exchanged hands and landowners, is intrinsically bound with the history of the People of Israel.

In the eyes of the Rabbis, however, the concept of ge’ulah refers to more than just land. Throughout the Jewish prayer book, the siddur, we find prayers praising God as Ga’al Yisrael “the Redeemer of Israel.” No matter how close we have come to being destroyed—whether by the ancient Egyptians or Babylonians, the Greeks or the Romans—throughout history and down to our own time, God has redeemed us, the People of Israel, restored us, and brought us back to the land of our ancestors.

I was thinking about this miracle of survival recently, while studying about an influential Jewish author who went by the pen name of Ahad Ha-Am (“One of the People”). Writing 150 years ago, Ahad Ha-Am, an important pillar in the newly born Zionist movement, diagnosed well the social ailments that afflicted the Jewish people of his time. He criticized the cultural, spiritual and educational decline that he saw all around him and called for a national awakening. Yet even he could not foresee the extent of the ge’ulah, the cultural renewal, that was about unfold throughout Europe and find culmination in the Land of Israel.

At the time of Ahad Ha-Am, the State of Israel was still a dream, a dream that over the next hundred years would take shape and form and then become real.

And now, Israel just celebrated its 69th Independence Day, a hallmark no one could imagine in the 1870’s. And some of us were even there to take part in the commemorations and celebrations.

Less than a month ago, a group of Temple B’nai Israel members drove through, hiked, climbed, swam, dug, learned about and explored the Land of Israel. We were moved and amazed by how modern and advanced it is, as well as by how much it has achieved in the short span of its existence.

The paradox of Israel isn’t only in the fact that, despite all odds, it is here. Nor is it only in the wide scope of its achievements. To look at Israel and Israelis today, it’s hard to grasp the reality that 70 years ago the Jews were not only a people without a land, but also a mere remnant of who and what we were just a few years earlier.

But I was born and raised in Israel. I saw it grow. And what never ceases to amaze me is that no matter how many times I visit, how long I stay and where I go, I see two Israels: I see the modern state, with its technology, museums, universities, culture and high-rises, and at the same time, underneath it all, I see the history embedded in its antiquities.

Wherever you go in Israel, you are reminded of the past. It isn’t only in Jerusalem, where the past lies right alongside the present, where transition from ancient to modern is smooth and polished. There’s En Gedi, one of my personal favorites. En Gedi is an oasis not far from the western shore of the Dead Sea. Hiking up the cliffs, you find refreshing waterfalls and pools, home to an amazing variety of wildlife. Here you can see the caves in which, three thousand years ago, the young David—in the years before he became king—hid while escaping the jealous wrath of his predecessor, King Saul. Today En Gedi is not only a culture and nature reserve, but also a thriving kibbutz whose assets include an animation studio, a cosmetics factory, a bottled mineral water plant, and an important field school.

Qumran, site of the famous Dead Sea Scrolls, is just a short drive up from En Gedi, as is Sde Boker, the kibbutz where the first Prime Minister of the State of Israel, David Ben Gurion, chose to live out his remaining years and where his grave is today.

Yet another kibbutz we visited was Sde Eliyahu, a modern Orthodox kibbutz whose focus is on organic agriculture. Here ge’ulah means ridding the Land of poisons and pesticides and reverting to a simpler, more natural system of farming. Here the span between old and new, between ancient and modern is so seamless as to be almost invisible. It’s a miracle of survival and transformation that one has to experience to believe.

The colored cliffs of Machtesh Ramon are a natural wonder that draws geologists and topographers from all over the world. Our nature guide, while explaining how the site had formed over the ages, showed us a few of the finds he had managed to collect in this barren wilderness. These included not only minerals of all colors and shapes, but also shell fossils and even shark teeth (!) indicating that ages ago, this desert was the floor of a vast ocean.

Of course no tour of Israel is ever complete without some understanding of its modern struggle for existence. In the Golan Heights, we stood on the rim of an extinct volcano that overlooks one of the bloodiest battlegrounds of the modern State of Israel, the well-named Valley of Tears. Here, in the Yom Kippur War of 1973, sheer persistence and courage turned a near catastrophe into a victory, but not without self-sacrifice and the highest price paid by some of Israel’s finest and bravest defenders.

In Safed, the Galilee home to generations of Kabbalah mystics, and still to this day a pilgrimage site for many believers, we visited modern art galleries where ancient spirituality combines with new art forms and techniques to found a new language and a new idiom. A truly splendid moment here will remain etched in my memory: a bar mitzvah procession, winding its way through the narrow and ancient alleys of the city. Walking under a chuppa, a tallit canopy, as befitting a new bridegroom of the Torah, was a 13-year-old boy, who looked a bit discomfited and yet also thrilled to be led to the synagogue where, in a few moments, he would be chanting from the Torah for the first time. Surrounding the young man was his jubilant family as well as a band of musicians—and of course the inevitable videographer and soundman. While this group turned onto a side alley, we modern visitors from a new world went to say a prayer at the synagogue where The Ari, the sainted Rabbi Isaac Luria, founder of modern Kabbalah, used to worship in the mid-1500’s.

For me personally, the Land of Israel is filled with memories. I grew up here; I served in the IDF here. Here I developed a love for our people, our land, our history and our culture—a love that matured as, many years later, I assumed the title and role of rabbi. For me to return here with a group from my congregation was a highlight of my life.

On Shabbat, in Jerusalem, I marveled at this amazing juncture of time and space. After morning services in our hotel, and after a sumptuous Israeli breakfast, I was fortunate to spend some time with members of my family who came up from Tel Aviv to spend the day with us. Sitting around the rooftop pool were my brother (who had served in the Golan Heights during the Yom Kippur War and for a year and a half afterwards); our mother, a Holocaust survivor; and several of my brother’s seven grandchildren. Looking from one to the other, I realized that past, present and future all intertwined at that moment. I couldn’t have felt more fortunate, more blessed than I did that Shabbat morning in Jerusalem.

Only at that moment did I understand the full meaning of ge’ulah. Call it “redemption” or “restoration,” in Israel this spiritual concept is as real as the land itself. It refers to the existence of the Jewish People, some 3600 years after its birth, once again thriving in its restored, revived and reinvigorated Land. Despite all odds, against all predictions, Israel today is a true miracle, one for which we can yet once again say the blessing: Baruch ata Adonai, Ga’al Yisrael—We praise and thank you, Adonai our God, the Redeemer of Israel. Amen.