Dec 09 2012

Jewish Continuity : Ensuring Our Children Follow the Home Team

Published by at 8:04 pm under Uncategorized

The story is told about the woman who is driving slowly down the highway. All of a sudden she hears the blare of a siren behind her, and she sees a police office who is pulling her off to the side of the road.

“Maam”, says the policeman, “do you realize that you were doing 22 Miles per Hour on this highway. The minimum speed limit here is 45 – you were driving at a very dangerous speed “.
“But officer”, says the woman, the sign over there says “22”, as she points to a marker on the other side of the Road..
“Maam, you are mistaken “that sign means that you are on Route 22, it does not mean that the speed limit is 22 Miles per hour.”
“But since you made an honest mistake, says the officer, I’m going to let you go without a ticket”
As he prepares to go back to his car, the policeman notices that the woman looks a bit shaky, and that she is quite pale.
“Maam, he says, are you ok in there?, you look a bit shook up “
“No, that’s ok…I’ll be fine in a little while.”
I only look this way because I just came off  Route 125 !

In this week’s Torah reading, the Torah tells us the story of Sarah Eemainu – Sarah our Matriarch’s death, and the search for her successor, the woman who would build the new generation of the Jewish people. During the recounting of these events, there seems to be an emphasis on the importance of signs, and how to properly interpret them. Sometimes in life, we are presented with two similar situations, yet there is a need to be able to correctly decipher each one’s signals, and to act on each accordingly.

The portion begins with a remarkable insight into Sarah’s character, and that of similar righteous people. The narrative is all about Sarah’s death, yet the portion is entitled, “Chayei Sarah” – “The life of Sarah.” Our sages tell us that righteous people keep on living through their legacy even after they are no longer physically on this earth. Although Sarah was gone, anyone who knew how to read the signs was able to grow and reap the benefits of her legacy.

The Torah continues that Avraham goes to find a burial spot for his departed wife, and he decides upon the Mearat Hamachpela, the cave which would eventually be the resting place of most of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. Abraham comes to Efron Hachiti, who seems to graciously offer him the cave for nothing. “What is 400 hundred shekel between you and me? Efron proclaims. Not wanting to cast any doubts on his proprietorship of this burial ground, Avraham reads the sign loud and clear, and promptly hands over the best of the currency that Efron alludes to.

As we move on in the story, perhaps the ultimate sign is employed. Avraham’s servant Eliezer is entrusted with the monstrous task of finding a Shiduch for Yitzchak. Eliezer approaches his mission, which he knows is vital to the perpetuation of the Jewish people, by appropriately turning to Hashem for a sign. He arrives at the conclusion, that the girl who shows compassion and hospitality to both himself and his animals, she will be the one that God has chosen. The fact that Eliezer’s top priority was to find a girl full of Chesed, or kindness, above all other traits, is a fascinating insight into what qualities are essential in the service of the Almighty. We will try to address this extensive topic in a future class or email.

And finally, at the end of the Parsha, the Torah shares with us yet another, example of the importance of signs. The verse reads, that Yitzchak brings Rebecca into his mother’s tent, and he is then comforted over the loss of his mother.

What seems strange, however, is why the Torah points out to us the fact that Yitchak is only consoled when he enters his mother’s tent. Surely he should have had some gladness that God had undoubtedly shown Eliezer his true Shiduch. One would think that just getting to see and to know Rivka, would have given him some consolation. Why does the scripture emphasize that it was only after he brought her into Sarah’s tent, was he consoled.. And to strengthen the question, why was it specifically Sarah’s tent that consoled him, and not any other address?

The great commentator Rashi seems to address this enigma, by noting that there were three special signs that were present in Sarah’s tent that ceded to exist upon her death. The first was “Brocho Shebaisa “– a special blessing in the Challah. The second – “Ner Doalaik Mishabas lshabas” – that the Shabbos candles stayed lit the entire week – as everyday was infused with holiness, and finally, “Anan Kasher Al Hohel”, the protective cloud of God’s spirit, hovering above her domain. When Sarah died, says Rashi, these special signs stopped, and it was only until after Rivka took up residence in the tent, that the signs reappeared.

Perhaps with this explanation can sharpen our understanding of the events as they happened. I would like to suggest, that from the time that Sarah died, a tremendous burden fell onto the shoulders of every one of the players in the Patriarchal dynasty. Sarah was gone, Abraham was aging, and it was clear that Yishmael was not going to be the progenitor of the Jewish people. There had to be a worthy successor to Sarah, in order to perpetuate God’s promise of the continuity of the Jewish people forever and ever.

When Eliezer returns with Rifka, there is no doubt that Yitzchak feels gladness, But the ultimate test of her worthiness, comes only after she enters the tent. When Yitzchak sees that she restores the special signs that were present only when Sarah was alive, so then and only then, is he truly comforted. It is only at this point, says the Chumash that he realizes that the chain of the Matriarchhs remains in tact and that Jewish continuity is alive and well.

This concept of ensuring Jewish continuity is nothing new to the Jewish people. In an age where Kosher food is abundant, and there are laws that prohibit employers from coercing their staff from working on Shabbos; in a time where it is much easier to function as a Jew, we are losing more and more Jews than ever, and the statistics are staggering.. Clearly, we must do everything in our power to ensure the transmission of our heritage to future generations.

I’d like to conclude with a simplistic, example of what I think to be an example of the concept of Jewish Continuity, one that I share with our Hebrew School students, and other youth groups that I am involved with. I trust that you will forgive me for such a rudimentary illustration.

Imagine for a moment that I am fanatical Yankees fan. I  own season tickets, watch all the games, and keep up with the team on a daily basis. When my nine year old son becomes interested in baseball, I continue with my devotion to the team, and serve as an example to him. Is there a guarantee that when he grows up that he will also love the team? Certainly not, but most would agree that the chances are fairly high for him to follow in my footsteps, being that I have demonstrated such loyalty to the club while he was in his formative years.

But what if, however – I slip in my devotion. I only take him to three games a year – we only talk about it occasionally. So even if he remains a fan, chances are that he will be a weaker, less committed one that I was. His son, my grandson, may still go to an annual game, out of respect for his granddad. Until we get to the next generation – where the devotion is now really watered down, and Great Grandpa has taken his traditions with him to his grave. Then, comes the worst blow of all, tragedy of tragedies, the great grandson becomes a dreaded Red Sox fan!!

My friends, this simplistic analogy, in fact, tells the story of the Jewish people. I began my writing this article about the concept of signs, not only that they need to exist, but of the need to read them correctly. So many of our rituals are built into Jewish Law, to keep us on the “road”, to continuity, so to speak, and not let us veer off it. It is no coincidence that Passover, for example, is from the most celebrated holiday among our people. This is no doubt, because we celebrate with so many established traditions that have served to concretize the holiday within our collective psyche. We remember how Bubbe prepared the Charoset, how we used to steal the Afikomin, and how dad, always wound up with wine stains on his Kittel. The holiday has lasted because it contains tangible actions that can be passed from father to son and from mother to daughter. Judaism cannot be transmitted through osmosis. It is not enough to be a “Jew at heart” , a.k.a. “ A cardiac Jew” Just as with no tangible show of commitment, the family will eventually turn toward the Red Sox, so too, the story of our people, with a 52% intermarriage rate, has undoubtedly developed because we have not lead by example and brought concrete Judaism into the home. The words Bar/Bat Mitzva indicate that it is time to be a full fledged Jew and learn more about one’s heritage. How ironic that this milestone has come to represent the exodus from Hebrew School, and usually the conclusion of any meaningful commitment to study.

We can, however, stem the tide, simply by reading the signs. By learning from our mistakes and successes, we can rejuvenate ourselves, our families, and ultimately, through example, the myriad of Jews that surround us. A Rabbi of mine used to say “Pick one Mitzvah, and make it yours.” We don’t need to start with everything, but we mustn’t sit and do nothing. Pick a mitzvah that appeals to you. Out of 613, one must strike a chord. Study up on it, Google it, look at  or contact our office for book suggestions. So whether you start with Shabbat candles (even though you may not  be at the point of observing every aspect of Shabbos.), uttering a prayer, which can be in your own words and in English, or taking the laws of Tzedaka more seriously, the signs that we will be demonstrating, will not only be pleasing to the Almighty, but will help ensure the transmission of these actions, and the ones we will eventually add to these, throughout the generations for Years to come.

Shabbat Shalom!