We are pleased to share with you Rabbi Dr. Michael Berger’s remarks to the graduating class of the Pardes Educators Program, an AVI CHAI funded program since 2000. While directed to the graduates, his words of inspiration and appreciation are truly an expression of how AVI CHAI, its Trustees and staff, feel towards those who dedicate themselves day in and day out to educating the next generation of the Jewish people. As the school year comes to a close, we hope you will find Michael’s words inspiring, spurring us all to work together work to ensure a strong and vibrant Jewish future.
PEP graduation, Wednesday, 27 Sivan 5773
It is an incredible privilege for me to bring greetings to you this evening from AVI CHAI. In many ways, Pardes and AVI CHAI are “kindred institutions” for we are both animated by the same core values. We both want to see the next generation of Jews highly literate in our tradition’s texts; committed to living religiously purposeful lives; and who are deeply connected to the Jewish people, passionately committed to the state of Israel and its people.
From that shared vision, it was a very small step to connect students at Pardes who embodied these ideals, and The AVI CHAI Foundation, that wanted to see such talented, inspiring young men and women teaching Jewish kids in North American day schools. Indeed, AVI CHAI’s founder, the late Zalman Bernstein, and his wife, the Foundation’s current chairperson, Mem Bernstein, had for years been hosting Pardes students in their home for Shabbat meals, and always spoke so highly of them. Arthur Fried, AVI CHAI’s chairman from 1998 until this past January, and long-time PEP project trustee, had for years been similarly impressed with these young men and women. So it was natural that Pardes and AVI CHAI would work together to birth the Pardes Educators Program back in 2000 to prepare Judaics educators who would teach and inspire America’s young Jews.
PEP is truly one of the foremost jewels in AC’s crown, and I have had the privilege to work with Pardes’ first rate and dedicated staff these last 12-and-a-half years. Thank you for that genuine privilege, and yasher koach to Pardes for so consistently running a sterling program that has provided well over 100 Jewishly knowledgeable, caring and committed teachers to Judaics classrooms across USA and Canada.
This coming Shabbat we will read Parshat Korach, and I find it one of the most depressing parshiyot of the Torah. Let me tell you why. Sefer Bemidbar, the Book of Numbers, has such an auspicious beginning – the people are counted, the camp is set up with the mishkan at its center, the princes give their gifts to dedicate to the mishkan, the trumpets are fashioned – everything is ready to begin their journey into the land and start what portended to be their glorious national life.
But as we read two weeks ago in Parshat Beha’alotekha, things begin to go wrong. First, lust for meat and rejection of manna ended up with a gluttonous food orgy followed by a plague. Then, the disease spreads to the “royal family” with Miriam and Aharon speaking ill of Moshe, and Miriam being punished with tzara’at, leprosy. Then last week, we read about the meraglim, the spies, who caused the collapse of confidence in the entire national project, and the people wanting not to enter the land – a wish G-d grants the current generation. This week, the spiral downwards continues with open rebellion against Moshe and Aharon by a motley group of malcontents. Even after they are sent to a fiery death, the complaining continues, as does the trouble. “Atem hamitem et am Hashem! You killed G-d’s people!” – the people shout, defending the rebels over Moshe and Aharon, and a plague spreads amongst nation, killing 24,000, and arrested only by Aharon taking ketoret, incense, through the camp. Even Aharon’s staff being the only one to blossom among the staffs of the other princes does nothing to quell the complaining.
And here’s when we hear the people utter the shocking statement:
“hen gavanu avadnu kulanu avadnu” – “Behold we are lost, we are all lost!”
“ kol ha-karev ha-karev el mishkan Hashem yamut” – “anyone who comes near to G-d’s Tabernacle dies”
“ ha’im tamnu ligvo’a?” – “when will the dying end?”
Is there a more upsetting, dreadful arc in Jewish history? In the space of a mere seven chapters, we went from a confident, hopeful nation of over 2 million souls with G-d’s tent literally at our center, all eyes fixed upon the mishkan to know when they should encamp and when they should travel, to a people that now sees the divine precinct as a place of death, a source of unending destruction, from which they seek to flee, to distance themselves as far as they can!
Why did this precipitous descent in the people’s spiritual posture take place?
I would like to suggest that if we look at the verses right before the slippery slope began in chapter 11, we read of the two famous verses, set off by the backwards “nuns,” of what Moshe said as the ark left the camp and then returned to it. But right before these psukim, the Torah states that the aron went out in front of the people three days “latur lahem menuchah” – to seek out and identify a resting place. The intent was good – to find a good location for the people’s next rest stop – but it did have a terrible cost – it meant the people lost contact with the Torah for days.
As long as the people camped with the mishkan and the aron at their center, they were fine. Their ‘center of gravity,’ their central axis, was intact. But once the traveling started and they left Har Sinai, the aron we are told was gone for days. When journeying brings about a loss of immediate connection with Torah, what follows is a loss of priorities – why endure discomfort? – followed by a loss of respect for authority – on what ground do they claim their standing? – and ultimately mission drift: we don’t know why we travel, or for what we sacrifice!
Interestingly, the Torah’s response is not to have Moshe re-state the mission, or have G-d chastise the people once again. Instead, G-d offers an antidote to reverse the downward spiral: chapter 18, with its list of priestly and levitical gifts. Through these obligations, the average Jew is brought into required contact with the kohen on a regular basis. In other words, HAVING SOMETHING AT THE CENTER IS NOT THE SAME THING AS HAVING REGULAR CONTACT WITH SOMEONE WHO EMBODIES THE CENTER AND ITS VALUES.
Your daily life as a farmer or shepherd will now require you to bring gifts to Jerusalem, but you won’t be able to deposit them on the Temple’s floor and run away – no, you will have to interact with the kohen. And more importantly, if you won’t come to the mishkan, we will bring the mishkan to you, as the kohen comes to visit Jewish homes to receive his terumah from the produce harvested throughout the year. Chazal call this mechazer al be-petachim – the kohen goes “door to door.” So just imagine it – you worked hard over the last few days in your fields, and then you hear a knock on the door. You answer it, and it’s a local kohen. You invite him, offer him something to drink, and he asks you about your family, and he says “I have a great dvar Torah on the parshah!” This is what the prophet Malachi meant when he says “ki siftei kohen yishmiru da’at ve-Torah yevakshu mi-pihu” – “for the kohen’s lips preserve wisdom and people will seek Torah from his lips.” And the passuk ends “ki malakh Hashem tzeva’ot hu”- for he is like an angel of Hashem. The kohen is now the source of life, the conduit to the divine source of blessing.
The nimshal, the analogy, is obvious. You, our six Pardes educators graduating today, are our generation’s kohanim.
For several generations now, many Jews tragically see in Torah a source of death and destruction. For many historical, social, and cultural reasons, the Jewish people and its Torah have not traveled together; for thousands upon thousands of American Jews, ignorance – a distance far greater than three days – separates them. In the 21st century, many young American Jews – and their parents – see living a rich, committed Jewish life as limiting, as depriving them of freedom and cutting off all that modern life has to offer them. They believe studying Torah makes them narrow, preventing them from appreciating the great products of Western civilization. They assume that living Jewishly means denying themselves the endless opportunities of American culture; and that passion and support for one’s fellow Jews and Israel seemingly negate the importance of the lives and conditions of our fellow human beings.
But after studying at Pardes, with its unique blend of textual study and openness, you now know that these either/ors are false – ALL false. They are both/ands – one can be steeped in classic Jewish texts and engage Western ideas and ideals with greater depth and nuance; a life of mitzvot allows one to sanctify one’s enjoyment of both nature and time through deliberate and discerning choices; and human care and compassion must be nurtured first within our own distinct Jewish family, whose national story of reborn sovereignty after centuries of painful wandering and uncertain fate is among the most remarkable and inspiring among the annals of national histories.
Each and every one of you has been given the priestly tools to go out among America’s young Jews, to tell them – in the classroom and by your personal example – that Torah is not a source of death but of life; that mitzvot do not deprive but enhance their encounter with the world around them; that adoring one’s fellow Jews and Israel is not provincial or ethnocentric but provides a deep and highly textured sense of belonging and responsibility. With AVI CHAI’s support, Pardes gave you the rare and distinguished opportunity to have the mishkan at the center of your lives the past two years. Now, like Aharon ha-kohen before you, take the precious gifts you’ve been given and go – RUN! – to be among your fellow Jews. Show them, tell them, touch their souls and inspire them each and every day that to live rich Jewish lives is to be connected to that pulsating, divine source of ultimate vitality, spirituality and morality.
Mazal tov and behatzlahah!