For the children
Parshat Re’eh, Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17
We’re at the start of another year: or are we? The civil year doesn’t begin till January. But the Jewish year begins in just about a month, and the public school year begins next week.
Like other synagogues, Tree of Life Congregation in Morgantown, W.Va., serves many constituencies. For those without small children, the religious school may seem marginal to the enterprise. But to the rabbi, the religious school is a critical piece of the puzzle. If we’re serious about Judaism, we want to transmit it to the next generation. It may be hard to articulate just what it is that we want to pass along. But I encourage you to give it some thought.
If you cross the state line at Mt. Morris on US-19, you’ll see a sign on a house: “Drive like your children live here.” How would we drive if our children lived here? Carefully, of course. More than carefully: mindfully, purposefully, significantly. We’d drive in such a way as to give meaning to the journey.
How would we teach Judaism if our children lived here? We’d teach in such a way as to give meaning to the journey. And Judaism is all about journeys. The trek to the Red Sea and Sinai and Canaan, the voyage to the Rhineland and Spain and Eastern Europe, the trip to the big city and the modern economy and the New World, the discovery of fresh goals and visionary causes and the state of Israel: this is what we’d impart to the Jews of tomorrow. We want to give them our momentum, our sense of adventure, with a little caution thrown in. The journey has its dangers.
This week’s Torah portion offers starkly different predictions depending on how we treat our children: God’s favor if we prioritize our children’s needs (Deuteronomy 12:28), God’s wrath if we sacrifice our children to other objectives (Deuteronomy 12:31). We have no future without the kids. We don’t even have a present without the kids. If not for the young people to pose the basic questions, we wouldn’t know what we stand for. We’d forget our commitment to inquiry, industry, and integrity. The kids keep us honest.
We all have our own ideas of what it means to be Jewish. Something ethnic, something spiritual, something political, something cultural. Something culinary, perhaps: for my late father, Judaism was all about pastrami and chopped liver. This Torah portion contains a rehash of the dietary laws, for your reading pleasure. It’s fine for all these different concepts of Judaism to coexist. But if the kids ask what Judaism means, we’re forced to resolve all the different notes into one chord. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It turns chaos into order, confusion into clarity.
We have many kinds of people working in our religious school. We have teenagers and college kids, youngish parents and older adults. We have born Jews, Jews by choice and people who aren’t actually Jewish but support what we’re doing here. Sometimes a reluctant teacher says they don’t have the depth of knowledge or firmness of faith to serve in our religious school. I tell them they’re no different from anyone else.
Deuteronomy, the book we’re reading now, is basically a preview of the Promised Land. The journey is implicit in the document. This week’s portion introduces a catch phrase: ha-makom asher yivchar l’shakken sh’mo sham, “the place where God will choose to establish God’s name” (Deuteronomy 14:23). God’s name becomes attached to the places we travel with righteous intentions. Wherever you go for the sake of your kids is the house of God.
Rabbi Joe Hample is rabbi of Tree of Life Congregation in Morgantown, W.Va. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.