י״ד בשבט ה׳תשע״ג (January 25, 2013)
And the L-rd went before them by day in a pillar of cloud… and at night in a pillar of fire to give them light – Ex 13:21
Little Abe turns to his teacher and asks, “I don’t understand … we always hear about the Children of Israel leaving Egypt, the Children of Israel crossing the desert, the Children of Israel getting the Torah – but what were all the parents doing!?”
Anyone familiar with the Pesach (Passover) seder is well aware of the primacy of the youth in Jewish tradition, and the urgency parents and educators are meant to feel about the transmission of the baton of Jewish faith and history from our ancestors to our descendants. In the Exodus story, children were not just unpaid extras on set … they were a key component in the whole saga. The goal of the Exodus was not simply the breaking of the shackles of slavery … the goal was receiving the Torah at Sinai, and the settling of the Holy Land. The midrash relates how at Sinai G-d demanded guarantors for His most precious gift — the Torah — and the only guarantors G-d accepted were the little children, not the patriarchs and matriarchs, because the children were the future guardians of the Torah.
It is this historic focus on the younger generations which explains why in the Jewish world such a strong emphasis is placed on education, for educating the youth is our insurance policy that the Torah will never be forgotten.
Pharaoh knew how to destroy the Jewish people, his orders were to throw the newborns into the “Nile” i.e. to immerse them in the Egyptian life source, in their deities and passions. To change their focus so that instead of excelling in Torah study, the youth should excel in playing computer games; instead of learning Tanach off by heart, they learn rap lyrics, and instead of competing for Jewish knowledge they compete for the latest gadget, iPhone, iPod or iPad.
In last week’s Torah reading, Pharaoh asked Moses whom exactly he wanted to take from Egypt to worship G-d in the desert. Moses replied “Binaraynu u’vizkenenu nelech – with our youngsters and with our elders …” – indicative of how important the children were to the Exodus.
In Chicago there is a school called the Seymour J. Abrams Hebrew Day School, directed by Rabbi Yitzchok Wolf. In 1989 the school was working with many Russian immigrants, desperately trying to instill Jewish traditions and values in those who had been denied access to Jewish education behind the Iron Curtain. Their problem, as with many schools, was a lack of funding for this important task.
One day, Rabbi Wolf was chatting with a local philanthropist, Seymour J. Abrams. Abrams had a large private Judaica collection and was looking for some items from Eastern Europe. He specifically wanted to salvage Torah scrolls from that part of the world, and add them to his collection.
Quick as a flash, the Rabbi said he knew where to find Torah scrolls from Eastern Europe, and he could get them in just a few hours; Abrams was surprised, but delighted.
When the rabbi returned he had with him two young Russian boys, just arrived with their parents from the Soviet Union. He showed them to the philanthropist and said, “Here they are.” When all he received was a blank look, he explained: “Here are the Eastern European Torah scrolls that you wanted, these boys are living Torah scrolls!” Mr. Abrams understood. He understood the desire these children had to study what they had been denied all their childhood, to learn what it means to be Jewish. With tears in his eyes he agreed to sponsor a full scholarship for the two boys. Only a few years passed, and seeing the success of his “Torah Scrolls,” in 1992 he generously sponsored the dedication of the entire school, which now bears his name.
Today we celebrate Tu Bi’Shevat, the New Year for trees. Our Sages compare young children to trees, which must be supported and nourished, given the right shade and the right nutrients when young, if they are to grow tall and strong, put down stable roots and give shade, shelter and good fruit.
Not for nothing did G-d agree to take the children as guarantors. Our responsibility is to ensure that no Jewish child lacks a good Jewish education. Our responsibility is to ensure that our children and teenagers are “fed and watered” with strong values and traditions, whether at home, at school, or in their daily social interactions.
That is our charge, the rest is up to us. Shabbat Shalom.
Rabbi Zalman Lent
Rabbi Zalman Lent is a Community Rabbi in Dublin and director of Chabad of Ireland.