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.

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