Thursday, August 30, 2012

A Dvar Torah for membership season!

Parashat Vayeshev
Years ago, before Rabbinical School, I was at a conference with a friend of mine who was working for Ramah as a recruiter.  We had a great time at the conference and we met some very interesting people.  I remember there was one girl who we met who had tattoos and body piercings all over her, and she talked to my friend and became interested in Ramah.  Dani gave her some information, we both told her about our experience at Ramah, and we went on our way. 
About a year later, my friend Dani called me and she told me an interesting follow up.  She told me that she was at another conference and she saw that girl again, and the girl looked at her and started crying.  She told my friend Dani that meeting her at that conference brought her to Ramah and changed her life.  She told Dani that Dani was an angel.  When Dani told me this, we both started laughing.  One of us, an angel?!? 
Has anyone met someone, you don’t even have to know their name, who later turned out to be someone who led you to be the person who you are today? 
This week’s parashah, Va-Yeshev, is the next chapter in the story of our forefathers.  Jacob’s children are now the focus of the story, especially the story of Jacob’s most beloved son:  Joseph.  As soon as we are introduced to Joseph and his background, we see a very interesting scene that is all too familiar.  The text states: 
“And a man came upon him – here, he was roaming in the field; the man asked him, saying: 
What do you seek? (Mah Tivakesh)?
He said:  I seek my brothers, pray tell me where they are tending sheep.
The man said:  They have moved on from here, indeed, I heard them say:  Let us to got Dotan.”
What continues, the story of Joseph in Egypt, is one of the most intricate and interesting narratives in the Torah.  The language is rich with commentary, but before we get to that, we have to look at this scene.  Why even look at this scene when basically Joseph receives directions?  Can you imagine if you were telling a long story about a trip that changed your life and you spoke about getting directions at a gas station?   The Rabbis look at this scene as vital to Joseph’s narrative because the Torah does not contain extra and unimportant information.  It’s a very strange story and it involves an unnamed, anonymous man, an איש, much like the man who wrestled with Joseph’s father, Jacob when his name was changed to Israel.
Visualize this, Joseph is roaming around in the field and an anonymous man approaches him.  Joseph does not begin the conversation, rather, the man does.  Rashi and Ramban, two medieval commentators, claim that this was not a man, rather, an angel, in other words, a divine messenger. 
This angel asks a question that can have so many answers, what do you seek?  Joseph seems to be focused only on the task at hand:  finding his brothers.  The angel points him in the direction of Dotan where Joseph’s life and the life of his family, and his people for the future, changes.  It is in Dotan where Joseph is brought as a slave to Egypt, which led to Joseph becoming a leader in Egypt, which ultimately led to the settlement of Jacob’s family in Egypt, which led to the slavery of the people and the Exodus from Egypt, the seminal story of the Jewish people.
But let me ask you something:  what would have happened had Joseph continued to roam the field and just come home to his father?  Would the story ever have occurred? 
It makes you wonder about your own life.  How many people here found their way to Judaism because they were roaming aimlessly and a person approached them asking:  what do you seek? 
So many of us have found our future we could not have imagined in Judaism, and in this synagogue, but did we know at the time what we were getting ourselves into.  We could have been searching for something small – an afterschool education program for a child, a place to pray for the high holidays, a class on prayer that seemed interesting.  Many of us entered the gates here not thinking that it would lead to anything life changing, but so many of us have found a greater destiny. 
But someone directed you through that gate that led you on a path, and that someone was an angel.   In Judaism, an angel is considered a messenger of God, so if you think about it, there are times in our lives where we have been angels, where we have brought the message of Judaism to those who have yet to hear it. 
Ramban, the commentator I mentioned before, brings up an interesting idea.  That “איש” that man who directed Joseph to Dotan, even though a divine being, did not know the ultimate result of the directions he gave. 
Sometimes, you may think you know the path that someone should take, but the truth is, you can only point them in the right direction.  The path that they take is between them and God, just like Joseph’s path. 
You have the ability to be that “איש”, that person, you have the ability to be the angel, the messenger, that directs someone on the path of their Jewish journey.   
Every time you speak to someone who is unaffiliated, someone who is roaming in the field unsure of what they are REALLY looking for, you can show them the way.  You can approach them and ask them a vital question:  What do you seek?  Maybe you will show them a path by inviting them to services, maybe inviting them to come to a Shabbat meal, or even join us as members of Shaarei Kodesh, but each little interaction you have can change history. 
The truth is, you may not be remembered by this person, but your reward is knowing that you have made our congregation and our people are stronger because of your actions, your directions. 
The commentators say Joseph’s story was in order to fulfill the prophesy that God gave to Avraham, “your seed will be brought to a far away land.”
Much history has passed, and we have had many prophecies, both positive and negative, and it shows something:  the future is yet to be written.  I have heard on many occasions that the future of Judaism is bleak, assimilation is too strong, the birthrate is too small, intermarriage is too pervasive, the list goes on and on. 
But we have the power to change our destinies, as did the Maccabees did when they ensured that Judaism would survive despite the overwhelming force of Hellenism and a great empire.  It was something that seemed impossible at the time, but God was with them, just as God was with Joseph through his trials in Egypt, and just as God is with us today.  
The Sefat Emet wrote that Hanukah is a special time that Israel merited by their own actions.  This holiday is a witness that Israel chose God and created a new sacred time because of their actions.  Because this holiday was brought about by Israel’s own actions, their own deeds, every Jewish soul can be restored through this holiday.
That “איש” was a small light in the darkness that led Joseph to his destiny.  You too can be that “איש,” a small light to lead others to their destinies to restore their Jewish souls. 
Be a Malach, an angel for us, be a messenger for this shul.  You are an angel of God.  Find someone who is roaming and bring them here so they can find their destiny.    

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Teach Your Children…© Parashat Eikev by Rabbi David Baum

Teach “Your” Children…© by Rabbi David Baum written in August of 2009

A lot can change in just one week.  One week ago, I had only one exemption on my tax forms.  One week ago, I was cooking for two.  One week ago, my house was an adult’s playhouse, no toys to be seen. 

But two days in the hospital, and Alissa and I drove home with a new addition to the family, formerly Baby Boy Baum, now Avraham Yaakov, or as we call him, our little Avi. 
One week ago, when I read the V’ahavta paragraph of the Shema, I focused on the idea of my personal relationship with God.  It is no coincidence that the first paragraph of the Shema was read last week in parashat V’etchanan and it is written in the singular tense.  I would often times gloss over certain parts of the Shema because they did not pertain to me.  “V’shinantem Levanecha” – instruct your children about them (these words). 

Suddenly, as I read the second paragraph of the Shema, I see the mention of guiding your children again.  This time, it is “v’limadetem otam et benechem l’daber bam…”
“Teach them to your (plural) children, using them when you sit at home and when you walk about, when you lie down and when you stand up; write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates – that your days and your children’s days in the land that Adonai promised to give to your ancestors may be as numerous as the days that the sky overlooks the earth.”

As a religious Jew, I put on tefillin and tzitzit everyday, I have a mezuzah on my door post to remind me of my role on earth everytime I enter and leave my house.  But now I have a new mitzvah, a new commandment – to teach my child. 

This text, the texts of the Shema, the central text of Judaism gives us very important mitzvoth.  Tzizit, tefillin, loving and serving God, but why is the mention of teaching your children so paramount to this text? 

I looked at Rashi’s commentary on the words, L’daber bam, to speak to them (Deuteronomy 11:19).  He states:  “When the baby begins to speak, his father speaks with him in the Holy Language (lashon hakodesh) and teaches him Torah.  And if he does not do so, see now, it is as if he buries him, as it says, “in order to increase your days and the days of your children.” 

This is a very scary thought for a new father.  If I neglect my duty to teach my son, it is as if I am burying him?  Given these consequences, it is important to know exactly what I am supposed to do.  What exactly does teaching him Torah mean? 

It got me thinking about a subject that I am quite familiar with:  Jewish education.  In the past, I used to read text books, books on education theory by thinkers like John Dewey.  But I turned to a new book that I was given called A Student’s Obligation, by Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, a famous Rabbi in Poland who eventually became the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto.

The book is quite long, so I cannot give a whole summary in such a short time, but I would like to share some lessons that I learned.  Rabbi Shapira explains the concept of Jewish education - CH-N-CH, Hinuch-  is a special word that implies the realization of one’s potential.  This potential will remain hidden unless we bring it out.  Our task is to cause the potential to emerge.”
He goes on to say something that I have just now understood:
 “Since a Jewish child has the spirit of God, the breath of the Lord, hidden and concealed within him from the very moment of his birth, it is necessary to raise him and educate him to bring out and reveal this godliness and allow it to flourish.”

As we hold our son, we realize that he depends on us to live, for food, shelter, and warmth.
But as Jewish parents, we have an added responsibility:  it is our job to educate our child – to penetrate his inner being and reveal the holiness of Israel that is within him. 

As I was researching my son’s name, I looked at different passages regarding Avraham in the Torah and I found Rabbi Shapira’s commentary on these quotes.  He commented on a line, “I have made Myself known to him in order that he command his children and his household after him to guard the path of God (Genesis 18:19).”  Every generation in Israel is a link in the chain of our heritage, a chain whose beginning stretches back to Avraham and whose end will reach our Messiah.  Every generation receives its faith, its Torah, and its sense of awe before God from the generation that preceded it.  They take what they have received, serve the Lord with it, and pass it on to the next generation.  “In order that he command his children” is the mainstay of our existence. 

I now realize the special job that I have as a father and why.  It is my job to transmit to my child what I have learned so that the breath of the Lord will emerge from him, just as it has emerged from me.  Were it not for my parent’s educating me, I would not be standing here today. 
All too often, we seem to shirk the responsibilities of personally teaching our children about Judaism.  That is why we have Hebrew school teachers right?  And who am I to teach them about something I know nothing about?  Yes, it is true that there are those with more knowledge than us who are paid to teach our children.  But this does not mean that we do not have the responsibility to teach them some Torah ourselves, to start teaching them the holy language and Torah as Rashi instructed us. 

As we have seen, the commandments of sharing the words of the Torah with our children from the Shema come in both the personal and the communal.  As a community, we have the obligation to teach everyone’s children.  We do this by supporting our schools and religious institutions.  But we also have a personal duty to teach our own children.  I dare say that this duty never ends – to this day, I still learn lessons from my parents.  My parents will always be my teachers. 

I want to give one message to each one of you reading or listening to this dvar torah: do not be afraid to take on the role of Jewish educator--it is your task in life.  Do not be afraid to teach your child Jewish values, to sing the Shema to them before they go to bed, to bless them on Friday night, or to share your stories with them. 

When we educate our children, we show them that we love them. 
This week, I have discovered as I held Avi in my arms that love is my motivation and education is my duty.