Tuesday, February 18, 2020

A Glimpse of the Future, Here in Synagogue Today A Sermon Given for Parshat Beshalach 2020

At a pidyon haben in 1982, Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik offered a dvar Torah that was later published under the title “The First Jewish Grandfather".

Rav Soloveitchik notes that in the Tanakh the Jews are only referred to as Beit Yaakov (The House of Jacob) or Beit Yisrael (the House of Israel), but never as Beit Avraham or Beit Yitzchak. The Rav wonders: why is it that Yaakov is the only patriarch given this distinction? Why is it that only Yaakov, rather than his father and grandfather, is seen as the foundation of the Jewish people?

Rav Soloveitchik makes a remarkable claim. He says that Jacob is given this distinction because he is the only one of the patriarchs who established a direct relationship with his grandchildren, when he meets with Ephraim and Mennasheh.

But why is that so important? Rav Soloveitchik explains that the greatest challenge to the future of Judaism is the possibility of a generation gap; and when a grandfather can connect to his young grandchild, that generation gap disappears. Yaakov found the secret of Jewish continuity, and for this reason the nation is named for him.

Worries about continuity are foundational to the Jewish worldview. We are reminded each day to teach the Torah to our children, and each year dramatically retell the Exodus story to our children. In medieval Europe, children were brought to synagogues and even Rabbis would sit with children on their lap. Rav Yitzchak of Vienna, in the Or Zarua (2:48), records a 13th century custom to have all the children go up and kiss the Torah after gelilah; this he says will inspire these children to connect to Torah for the rest of their lives.

The elders of the community have always carried the responsibility of reaching out to the younger generation. And this is the crux of Rav Soloveitchik's idea: the future of the Jewish people depends on our ability to bridge the generation gap.

This idea is particularly relevant this morning. We are honored to have with us the members of the Kesher minyan, our young people's minyan. The challenge for the rest of  us is how we will receive them.

Unfortunately it has happened too many times in this synagogue that a younger member is pushed from place to place, because it is someone else's “seat”.

It has happened too many times in the past that when children come to synagogue, the parents are shamed by others for bringing in children who might make noise.

But that needs to stop. And it needs to stop now.

Not just because it is rude. But because it actually undermines the Jewish future.

Our ability to survive, not just as a synagogue but as a people, depends on how we reach out to the next generation. When they come to synagogue are they welcomed? Are they given a seat? Do we receive the children that come to KJ with joy or with annoyance?

Today is a day to erase the generation gap and bring our tradition into the future.

To reach out to the next generation is not an annoyance, is not a nuisance, and is not even a hardship.

It is our responsibility.

And it is not just a responsibility, but a joy.

And it is not just a joy, but actually a miracle.

Let me explain. The Talmud in Sanhedrin (91a) makes a homiletical remark about the Song at the Sea. It notes that the first words of the song, “az yashir”, could be understood in the future tense, as if they are referring to a future song. The Talmud says that when Moses sang the Song at the Sea, he was also looking forward to the future Messianic redemption. I’d like to offer a homiletical  interpretation of my own to this Talmudic passage; perhaps when Moses sang the Song at the Sea, he was looking forward to every future song of redemption. And at those moments, we hear echoes of Az Yashir, and hear the sounds of triumph.

I just saw a moment of “az yashir”, right here on this bimah, just over a week ago. We just had the Ramaz Chagigat Siddur right here, the week of January 27th.

I told the parents at the siddur celebrations that it was particularly moving that the celebrations took place during the week in which the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz took place. To see Jewish children, our Jewish future, holding siddurim high 75 years later is nothing short of a miracle.

At the end of the week there was a particularly moving moment. At the last chagigat siddur, the entire first grade came up to this bimah to sing the prayer for the soldiers of Israel. I had tears in my eyes, but I was not the only one. Everybody in the audience had tears in their eyes.

We had tears in our eyes because it was an “az yashir” moment of redemption, when we all could catch a glimpse of the Jewish future. And that is what all of us are experiencing today, as the Kesher Minyan and their children are in the Main Sanctuary.

Right in front of us is the Jewish future; and that is a miracle. Please cherish it.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

See Different and the Ramaz Story

See different.

This is not just a catchphrase, but a foundation of Jewish identity. Jews are called upon to see the individual, society, and our mission differently.

A perfect example of this is Moses. When God appoints him to liberate the Jews from Egypt, he refuses, and refuses again. He actually refuses God seven times.

Many wonder: how is it that Moses could refuse so many times? But in actuality, Moses is correct; he looks at his resume and recognizes that he is unqualified. Moses has been completely disconnected from the Jews since he was a little child, and he is at that moment married to foreign woman, and living in a foreign country. He is a shepherd, not a politician. Shepherding is a caring and nurturing profession, but a poor background for the realpolitik of confronting a powerful tyrant. And then of course Moses stutters, which makes him wonder how he can persuade anyone of his mission.

So if Moses is unqualified, why does God choose him? Perhaps the answer is that Moses is specifically chosen because of his weaknesses. Moses will have to see himself differently, to take on a different mindset to become a leader; and in doing so, he will teach an entire people, by his personal example, that they too can change themselves.

Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology Stanford University, has done groundbreaking research on how one's mindset determines a student's success. In her book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,” she explains that there are two types of mindsets, a “fixed mindset” and a “growth mindset.” With a fixed mindset, you look at yourself as “what you see is what you get.” People with fixed mindsets see failure as the end of the road, and something that indicates the limits of their abilities. A growth mindset is very different; instead, each person sees themselves as capable of constantly changing and getting better. For people with growth mindsets, failure is simply another challenge to be overcome.

God's challenge to Moses is that he needs to see himself differently. The most important aspect of a person’s abilities, the ability to grow, will never be found on their resume. Moses needs to believe in his ability to transform himself, and recognize that with enough effort, even a stuttering shepherd can become an eloquent teacher and statesman.

Once Moses has seen himself differently, he becomes the perfect role model for a nation that needs to see themselves differently. The Jews were at that point had been enslaved for 400 years. The entire world accepted slavery as the norm; but now they could see a different path, a path to freedom.

With this begins a revolution; and at Mt. Sinai, the Jews are taught to see differently again. They learn to say no to paganism, no to slavery, no to selfishness, and instead bring a vision of ethical monotheism into the world. And this revolution still continues, 3,300 years later.

In our community, we are privileged to have an institution that has always seen things differently. The Ramaz School has been revolutionary from its very beginning.

When Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik gave a lecture at KJ in 1972, he said that building a Jewish day school on the Upper East Side in the 1930s was nothing less than heroic. And it truly was.

The synagogue was in debt. The board didn't want to start a school because America was just coming out of the Great Depression. And more important, why would a family who had achieved sufficient success to move to the Upper East Side leave well respected educational institutions and send their children to a Yeshiva instead?

And yet Ramaz opened. And it grew. And it flourished.

And through the years Ramaz has always seen things differently, and it has trained its students to see differently. In 1958, two 15-year-old students changed Ramaz’s curriculum permanently. At the time, girls only studied Talmud through sophomore year of high school. In their junior and senior years, they were to take typing and home economics.  Vivian Eisenberg (Mann z”l) and classmate Shira Naiman insisted they could learn typing and home economics on their own and said they wanted to continue their Talmud study. They saw things differently, and because of that, things changed.

In the 1970’s and early 80’s, students at Ramaz didn’t just study from books; they would learn what Jewish responsibility was by going to protests. Led by Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, the struggle on behalf of Soviet Jewry became part of Ramaz's mission. To quote the words of Natan Sharansky: “demonstrations were part of the Ramaz curriculum.” And with a curriculum like that, you see things differently.

In 1982, a group of Ramaz students, including Andy Lassner, Josh Rochlin and Lenny Silverman, asked for permission to organize a Minyan for Shacharit outside the Russian Consulate. They were allowed to go with a teacher. The first day there were 21 students, and then the next day there were 33, and the next day there were 50. On the 24th day, the students were praying with Avital Sharansky, the police came and arrested 67 students and teachers from Ramaz, including Rabbi Lookstein. These arrests were covered on the news around the world, and brought powerful attention to the cause of Soviet Jewry. All of this because a handful of students decided to see different.

This tradition continues each and every day. Former Ramaz students spearhead Israel programs on college campus, launch fundraising drives, and stand on the front lines of Jewish history. When the Chasidic Jews of Jersey City and Monsey are under attack, it is Ramaz that organizes rallies against anti-Semitism, and brings Chanukah presents to the grieving community.

Ramaz has been part of the Jewish revolution for 83 years, because it has always seen things differently. Perhaps it can best be summed up by the words of the founder of Ramaz, Rabbi Joseph Lookstein. In an article from 1960 on “The Goal of Jewish Education” he concludes with the following words:

"A beautiful Midrash describes Abraham walking with his son Isaac towards Mount Moriah. There are other companions on this journey.  Abraham turns to them and asks, “What do you see?”  Their answer is, “We see nothing but wilderness.”  He then asks of Isaac, “What do you see?” And Isaac responds, “I see a beautiful mount with a cloud over it.”  It is at that moment that Abraham abandons his companions and, clasping his son’s hand, they walk together toward Moriah.

There are those who, when they reflect upon Jewish education, see in their pessimism only wilderness and desolation.  There are those who see the beautiful mount beckoning in its grandeur even though enveloped by clouds of hardship and difficulty.  It is with such as these that we can walk towards the educational Moriah of our hopes.”

Ramaz has always seen the beauty on the top of Mount Moriah, and has always, and will always, see different.