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A Bissel Torah – 03/25/2020

The whole world is a very narrow bridge; the most important thing is to not be afraid.

Kol Haolam kulo, Gesher tzar me’od – VeHayikar loh l’fahed klal

I believe many of us have sung this song around a campfire, or in a Jewish retreat, at some point in our lives. The lyrics are attributed to Reb Nachman of Bretslov, one of the central figures of the Hassidic movement. This song reflects the importance of recognizing the difficulties of being a part of this world that sometimes can be a narrow, fragile, constraining bridge. Many feelings bubble up as we contemplate our lives in this world, yet the song recommends: the most important thing is not to be afraid. One may have many feelings, experiences, moods, yet the song advises against being afraid. I can think of many emotions that the song could advise against. Why can I not feel fear? It is an emotion, and sometimes it can be quite helpful, since it can make us vigilant, and force us to be more attentive.

It turns out, though, that this song is based on the writings of Reb Nachman, not his words, verbatim. In the Likutei Moharan, Reb Nachman’s beautiful book of spiritual teachings, he writes (II, 48:7):

“Know, too! A person must cross a very, very narrow bridge. The main rule is: Do not be frightened at all!”

The Hebrew expression that Reb Nachman uses in his writing is yitpahed Klal. This is a little different from the song, which uses the expression l’fahed klal. Rabbi Elizabeth Dunsker calls our attention to this different version. She said: “Reb Nachman did not write, “lo l’fahed klal” “don’t be afraid at all” rather he wrote “lo yitpahed klal” which to an ear not familiar to Hebrew might not sound so different, but it makes all the difference in the world. It turns fear from an active verb to a reflective one. It says, the world is a narrow bridge, but the main thing is not to freak ourselves out. Not to “enfear”. It’s not about having no fear, rather it is about operating within the fear without letting it stop us from moving forward.” 

Reb Nachman does not advise us against a feeling, per se. Reb Nachman is advising us to not exacerbate the feeling of fear to the point that it will debilitate us, it will sack our energy, and leave us unable to see but one solution to our problems. Fear narrows even more the already narrow bridge. We feel helpless and paralyzed when we have only one solution, especially a solution that is motivated by our intensified, self-inflicted fear.

I learn from these different versions that the most important thing is to keep a cool head even as I feel an emotion as powerful as fear. I have the ability to cross the narrow bridge, as long as I can see different paths, different solutions to a problem. As we sail the uncharted waters of COVID-19, we can follow Reb Nachman’s teaching. We might be afraid (some say, we should be afraid). That fear will make us vigilant, washing our hands many times a day, observing physical distancing, making us alert to the ways in which we can diminish the effects of the virus. Yet, this does not have to be a debilitating fear.  We should not, as Rabbi Dunsker teaches us, “enfear”, or freak out completely. Fear that will help us solve a problem is a good emotion to have. Fear that will stop us from finding creative solutions is to be avoided, lest we stay stranded on that bridge.   

Kislev is for Kindness

Once a month, I leave just before noon and drive to Rockville for a meeting with my fellow preschool directors. These meetings are a great way to connect with peers and offer an opportunity for personal, professional and spiritual growth. Each meeting starts with a d’var Torah (word of Torah) followed by a text study and discussion. It is a wonderful way to prepare ourselves for what we consider to be sacred work: work with children.

But lately, I’ve been dreading meetings because Pittsburgh… or swastikas on the JCCNV…or fill in the blank tragic event. Our precious time together has been hijacked by responding to this tragedy or that act of violence or hate. Yesterday was no different, but the discussion took a different turn.

One of my colleagues stated, “We all want to feel better, but I don’t want to. I want to keep this hurt and pain with me.” She was saying that keeping the hurt and pain put her sacred work into a different and clearer context. This led to a deeper discussion on our roles as teachers.

How do we reach the troubled child? Am I doing everything to meet his needs?

Am I giving this child a voice? How can I help her find her voice?

Am I creating a stable and routine environment for children in unstable world?

Am I creating a community mindset of caring for the children in my care?

We can and do have a hopeful response to tragic events. We can teach our children Derech Eretz (common courtesy), Chesed (loving kindness), and Tikkun Olam (repairing the world). We teach them in the ways that we treat them and others. And when complacency creeps in, we hold onto the hurt and the pain, so hopefully one day they won’t need to.

The month of Kislev began on Thursday, November 9th, and Facebook gave us Kislev is for Kindness at just the right time. Every day this month, you can practice a random act of kindness. Each of us has the capacity for kindness and is deserving of kindness. How many acts of kindness can you do this month? For more information on #kislevisforkindness, please visit

-Alexis Joyce, Preschool Director

Bar Mitzvah Speech by Benjamin Bass

The following D’var Torah was delivered by Benjamin Bass at his Bar Mitzvah on Saturday, June 9, 2018. 

Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Sh’lach. In this week’s Torah portion there is the well-known episode of the spies. Moshe sends 12 spies, 1 spy from each tribe except the tribe of Levy. After a good forty days the spies come back. They say that there is a lot of fruit, but they say that there are giants and that Israel could never win.

There were two spies that were true to God’s promise to Israel; that was Caleb and Joshua. They reported the same, but with a positive outlook. Did I really think the Caps would win the Stanley Cup? No way, but I had a positive outlook and they ended up winning.

B’nai Israel had a different view. They said no way. We can’t beat giants, they are big and strong and their cities are fortified. Maybe if I were an Israelite I would also think that Joshua and Caleb were crazy. But, maybe not. Because I am a Washington sports fan, with a positive outlook.

As the Israelites always said, they repeated, “Ohhh we were way better off in Egypt.” The Israelites are like me when it comes to taking out the trash — they just say that whatever is better than doing this. But God is always shaking things up. God threatens to abandon the people. Then God says: “Maybe I’ll give Moshe a new people to lead.”

Moshe says: “I understand your anger. You just have to understand that you are the big guy so just chill out. And if you do something like this, the other people will say that you weren’t able to handle them.” So, God just says the older Israelites can’t enter the land of Israel. And then God put in the wrong Israel on the GPS so that it took them forty years of walking around a desert and only the younger Israelites could go in.

The younger Israelites won’t only go in the land in style, they’re gonna conquer the land and be the coolest people around. In the Parasha there is also a description of the sacrifices that have to be brought to the sanctuary, and laws about how to treat the stranger (Ger). I have been a stranger (or ger) a few times in my life.

When I started at Gesher and JDS, the kids treated me as Moses instructs, like… nicely. At the end of the Parasha, B’nai Israel are told to attach blue cords on the fringes of their clothes. It doesn’t say anything about how the clothes have to look. I think I definitely took this a bit far. When the Rabbi and I sat down to talk about my tallit she asked: “What color would you like?”

I started naming 100 different colors for different reasons.  She said, “No, narrow it down.” So I narrowed it down to the few important things in my life. The red, white, and blue are for America, the Nats, the Caps, and the Wiz. The blue, green, white, and yellow are for Brazil. The green, red, and white is for Fluminense, our soccer team from Rio de Janeiro (Nense!). And last but not least, the blue and white on my attarah is for Israel. I feel a great connection to all of these teams and countries because they’ve all had an impact on me. America is where I was born so I guess that’s important. The Nats have been a part of my life since third grade. The Caps are probably my favorites because as many of you know from the story my mom has told you, I was two years old with a broom in hand and running around the house yelling, “Alex Ovechkin!” And then we became crazy fans. And the Wizards, like all of these teams, break my heart.

Brazil has been such a big part especially when it comes to soccer. There was one time that Brazil and the US were playing a friendly at FedEx Field. I came prepared to root for Brazil.

When Brazil scored a goal, me and my mom would go crazy but the rest of the crowd was silent.

Sticking with soccer, we have my favorite team Fluminense. My family, especially my grandpa (zichrono livrachah), brought me up tricolor … and that team is the biggest heartbreak of all.

Last but not least, Israel. Israel is where Judaism comes from and it’s just really cool to have gone there twice. I highly recommend it.

Thank you, Morah Laura, for always saying hi to me when I walk in and out of the office – again, and again, and again… Thank you, Marni, Ms. Marcy, and Edgar for doing so much for me, and having a big impact on my life. Thank you to all my teachers at Etz Hayim since the Chatool class – that’s preschool.

Thank you to the congregation, to all my shul grandparents, aunts and uncles – you are awesome! Thank you especially to the Sisterhood who have sponsored the kiddush for my brit milah, for feeding me breakfast every Shabbat and holiday, and for the wonderful Kiddush that we will enjoy shortly.

Thank you to the family and friends who came from near and far.  Muito obrigado a todos que vieram do Brasil e de Israel para celebrar este momento tao especial comigo!

Thank you to Tia Janet for always letting me hitch a ride or sleepover with your family. Thank you to Tio Henrique for kicking a ball around or playing foosball. Thank you to Beyla for always saying hi to me wherever we are and…I have more snapchat stickers than you.

Thank you to Manny for not beating me too bad at Mario Kart. Thank you to Avi for always being there, for bringing me back a Senegal jersey, and for always including me even if I was five and you were fifteen.

Thank you to Tia Bianca for always making me better when I have an injury. Thank you to Tio J for throwing a ball around and having talks with me when I can’t sleep and also wearing the Caps holy horns. Thank you Raphael for being a good kid and letting me play with you. Thank you Clara for being a good person to just hang out with and talk.

Thank you so, SO much to vovo (grandma) for being my personal chauffeur, ice cream buddy, and also being the coolest all the time. Thank you also for making brigadeiros, the chocolate caramel little things that we will have during kiddush.

Last but not least, thank you to my mom. She is the most loving mom ever. She is so nice to me. She is my sports go-to, my la liga buddy, and for being one of my favorite yids.

Nominate an Outstanding Volunteer for a Community Award

Congregation Etz Hayim is a warm, inclusive community filled with people who generously give their time and resources to make Arlington an even better place to live, work, and play.

Help us recognize those individuals by submitting an application on their behalf for a Volunteer Arlington Service Award.

From Volunteer Arlington’s webpage:

Volunteer Arlington Award nomination forms can be found here. Additional award nomination forms can be found here. All nominations forms are due to Volunteer Arlington by Tuesday, May 1, 2018 at 5:00pm.

Thank you to all of our volunteers – those who are formally recognized and those who do important work behind the scenes – for making Arlington the inclusive community Etz Hayim has been part of for nearly 80 years.