D’var Torah: 11/19/16 by Daniella Pressner

Shabbat Shalom.

On behalf of our Executive Director, Tony McLarty, and the Akiva faculty, I want to thank Rabbi Kullock, Rabbi Joshua, Morah Paz, Moises Paz, and the entire Akiva family at West End Synagogue. Your support in words and in actions shows us how committed you are to making the Akiva experience a reality for as many families as possible…
We thank you.

This morning, I would like to dedicate the Dvar Torah in memory of Sandy Averbuch z”l…a committed member of West End Synagogue and long-time believer in Akiva. Her honesty, her integrity, and her soul was at the forefront of every conversation she had and there is no better Shabbat to dedicate than the Akiva Shabbat at West End Synagogue.
The last time I spoke with Sandy was a little over a month ago. I reached out to share a recent experience in the Kindergarten classroom. I knew she would be particularly interested as the activity centered around learning through play. This was a focus of one of her most recent donations to the school through the Jonathan Averbuch fund. After a brief discussion about a book we had both read, she said, “Tell me…how is everything at Akiva?” I said Sandy—You should have seen the Kindergartners engineering 5 foot ramps in teams of two to figure out which ramp could make the marble travel fastest. Sandy asked, “What did they do to figure it out?” I shared the conversation that I had observed between partners. One child who may have been losing stamina said to the other, “How we can make this ramp longer without breaking? It’s really good right now. I just don’t want to break it… The other replied, “Hmm… maybe we should tape around the edges to make it really strong. His partner quickly went for the tape….but then said…wait!….we can’t use all of it …because they also need some tape- He was pointing to another group nearby….The boy paused holding the tape, looked at his partner and said, “…maybe they could build with us…”
Excitedly, I said… Sandy- our children are not only playing as physical scientists or engineers—“I know…” she said… “they are mensches.”

And that was exactly it. As an educator, I have to ask, what is it about our children’s surroundings that help them think about their own success in the framework of their community’s success?
“Maybe THEY can build together with us.”
What makes a mensch?

… Sandy always looked for the Jewish connection. What values were the children learning and what were we doing to increase their understanding of what it means to be a Jew?
When this first child looked out for his friend and said, “They also need some tape,” I couldn’t help but think about the value of tzedakah. From a very young age, we teach our children that taking care of those who may be less fortunate is not just a nice thing to do, it is a commandment.
And in some ways…this part is easy because children are empathic and easily connect to the world around them.
But the children’s conversation did not stop with the tape. The children realized that there was another possibility… that of hachnasat orchim– of welcoming others into our space, into our homes, into our lives.
And this mitzvah may be a bit more complicated.

This week, we read parshat Vaeira…the story of Avraham and Sarah and the 3 angels.. Avraham is recovering from his recent surgery, “Vayera elav Hashem.” And God appears to him. Vayisah Einav..and Avraham lifts up his eyes…vehinei shlosha anashim nitzavim alav…. And there are 3 people standing by him. Avraham shares water and food and a place to rest and moves quickly to make it all happen. The obvious question is how could Avraham walk away at the moment that God is present? Who walks away from God? But the Talmud teaches us that Hospitality to strangers is even greater than welcoming the Divine Presence. After speaking to God, Avraham does not make an altar or give offerings. Instead, he welcomes strangers into his home, a symbol of the pivotal role of hachnasat orchim in our lives as Jews.

In the 1880’s, the chief Rabbi of New York, Rabbi Yaacov Yosef was the leader of a dynamic Jewish community with thousands of Jewish immigrants rich and poor coming in every year. Together, the community had to face serious questions about which institutions to build, what to teach in the schools and how they would care for those less fortunate.
Potentially responding to the issues plaguing his people at the time, Rabbi Yaacov Yosef asks a poignant question with regard to this week’s Torah portion: What value is higher? The mitzvah of tzedakah or the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim.

I could only think back to the conversation I had recently observed in the Kindergarten classroom.
Rabbi Yosef explains that often, when we think about acts of loving kindness, we think of actions that respond to a need… Providing shelter for the homeless, or a scholarship to a family in need.
But when Avraham welcomes these anashim, these people, into his tent, he does not respond to a need. In fact, the three individuals described may have been perfectly content to have continued on their journey.
We learn that when we compare the mitzvah of tzedakah- to the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim- we have a stronger picture of our capacity to serve in this world.

We must continue to teach our children to look out for those in need ….but we also have a bigger and more complicated message to teach our children…

The message of stepping up EVEN when there is no specific stated need. … of welcoming others in EVEN when they are not lonely or hungry because this action builds a different type of community, one that is proactive. And it may be easier to teach our children to donate clothes after a natural disaster or to attend an Israel rally but the real challenge is how and when we teach our children to be like Avraham and Sarah…to stand up even when they are NOT specifically called upon.

Because this is what our Kindergartners were doing…. How can we, as a community, take this vision beyond our kindergarten classrooms?

Will we think of community and opportunity – even at times of weak hope and faith? Sandy and our two kindergartners are 3 of of many individuals who come to mind.

Last Thursday, Saul got a call from his best friend Adam- the Rabbi of the Orthodox synagogue in Montreal. He said Saul—I need to tell you something that nobody knows tonight but everyone will know tomorrow… Leonard Cohen passed away and tomorrow, I will be performing his funeral. Sure enough- the next morning, the world found out that in fact, Leonard Cohen had passed away and of all of the places in the world that he could have been buried, he decided to be laid to rest in the cemetery of the synagogue in which he was raised. Cohen once shared that it was at the synagogue where he first learned about the power of words, because – in synagogue – every word is said with meaning. And truly the words Cohen put into his own songs had deep meaning.

And even though
It all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

Cohen championed the idea that even when the world around was dim, there was an appreciation of God’s wonder…. This is what it means to see beyond tzedakah …beyond distress. This is what it means to see the world and to hope with depth and conviction.

I was about to get off the phone with Sandy and I said, “Sandy…You sound really good. She said…You know. I can’t believe I’m saying this but today I feel good. I’m not perfect… but we just do the best we can… I take every day one day at a time.

There’s a blaze of light
In every word
It doesn’t matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah

There is a crack, a crack in everything and that’s how the light gets in. … This ability to see that even in a fractured world, we have an obligation to continue to believe and to have faith….and this belief cannot survive if it comes out only in moments of response…

The message in Avraham’s proactive response to the strangers is that we must always view the cracks of light in every moment as opportunities.

When will we respond with tzedakah to PROVIDE opportunity?
When will we respond with hachnasat orchim to CREATE opportunity?
As we enter into the week of Thanksgiving, I am thankful to be able to learn from each of our children every day…their innocent yet strong words ringing in my head…
They also need some tape…and
Maybe they can build together with us.
How will we help our children keep these words alive not just today …but every day?
Shabbat Shalom