Sunday, January 22, 2012

Parashat Va'era Drash 5772

In this week’s parasha, we learn of the first seven of the 10 plagues.
The following question is often asked on these verses: OK, one can understand how Pharaoh might dismiss the first three plagues. After all, his own magicians and sorcerers conjured up similar miraculous feats. But from the fourth plague onwards, especially after he is forced to humble himself before Moshe to beg for respite from the plagues, one wonders how Pharaoh could have been so deep in denial that he failed to recognize Gcd’s hand in events overtaking his empire? How could he be so blind as to permit the utter destruction of his land? Apparently, in this case, ‘denial’ actually IS a river in Egypt.
I would answer this question with a question: what standing have we to even ask such a question, when we are guilty of the same degree of self-deception as Pharaoh?
Let me explain.
I have to tell you about an incredible Federation meeting I once attended. It was billed as dedicated to exploring ideas to make the Lehigh Valley Jewish Community a more, caring, sharing, learning community. A noble aspiration, to be sure.  But let’s face facts: the unspoken predicate of the meeting, and indeed of all of the current communal strategic planning efforts, is that Jewish life in the Lehigh Valley is ebbing away. It’s dying. As in so many smaller communities across America, synagogue attendance is in decline, the median age of synagogue goers is skewing to the 60s and the 70s, most of the JCC membership is not Jewish, etc. So the unspoken agenda, based on the unspoken predicate, was how to think about reversing that trend.
I participated in a breakout session on childhood and teen education.
In this discussion group, it was stated that 80% to 90% of the Valley’s Jewish kids do not attend the Jewish Day School. So it quickly developed into a forum exploring ideas on how to improve Supplemental Jewish Education Initiatives, which is Jewish bureaucratic double-speak for Talmud Torah programs run by the respective synagogues/temples. (It will not surprise you to learn that Temple educators/educational administrators were heavily over-represented at the table.)
About halfway through this discussion, someone (ahem) pointed out that multiple studies have demonstrated that the Talmud Torah educational model doesn’t work. Period. They fail at conveying even the most basic tools of Jewish literacy; they fail at encouraging continued participation in Jewish communal life; and they fail to transmit the values framework necessary for continued Jewish learning and to marry a Jewish spouse and build a ‘Bayit Ne’eman B’Yisrael,’ a faith-filled house among Israel. Talmud Torah educational system is an epic failure and a waste of resources. Talmud Torah is part of the problem, not a part of the solution.
This person (ahem) continued that the only educational model that has proven successful in the diaspora is the Hebrew Day School/Yeshivah model. Therefore, common sense dictates:
1. that communal educational funds should be diverted from failed institutions and funneled instead to support the successful educational model;
2.Talmud Torah, to the limited extent that it must exist, should take place at the JDS campus, and should be seen as a feeder program to encourage JDS enrollment; and
3. Communal resources should be prioritized to provide a JDS education to every Jewish child in the Lehigh Valley.
No one responded. No a one. Not a ‘Hey! Great idea!' or ‘that’s an awful idea, and here’s why.’ Nothing. [Cue the chirping crickets.] After a momentary and conspicuously uncomfortable silence, the discussion moderator quickly re-directed the conversation back to clever ideas to revitalize Temple Talmud Torah programs.

Huh? Did I lapse into ancient Greek and not realize it?
I wish I could say that I am stunned, but I am not. “Al eleh, ani bochiyah.”
We are in a mode of denial far deeper than Pharaoh’s.
Jewish life in the United States is indeed dying, and local federations are right to be concerned. The golden goose in the “Goldeneh Medinah” is showing its goosey wrinkles and laying far fewer golden eggs. While no one seriously questions the point, the question remains: what to do about it?
A model for successful Jewish living in the diaspora over successive generations already exists: it is called a life of Torah and Mitzvot.
We are Bnai Brit – contractual partners with the A-lmighty. To the extent that we uphold our end of the contract, Gcd upholds His end. To the extent that the Jew embraces the mitzvoth, deepens his or her study of Torah and commitment to the Covenant, is the extent to which the A-lmighty will protect and nourish us in both good times and bad. “Because He is our Gcd, and we are the People he shepherds, the flocks of his hands – today! – if we only hearken to His voice. [Psalm 95]
As covenantal partners with Hashem, we are able to fulfill our historic mission as the People of the Book, the Nation of Teachers, helping to perfect the world. In that way, we can be a Nation that both lives in the world and yet lives apart from the world.
But we can’t repair the world until we repair ourselves. Tragically, then we abandon His mitzvoth, we are left to fend for ourselves, and the results thus far are not encouraging.
So what do we do? Do we possess the intellectual integrity to choose life, or do we dither? Pharaoh thought it inconceivable that he could be on the losing side of history. Pharaoh, with his fabulous wealth, his power, and his vaunted army, by far the most fear-inspiring military machine in the ancient world, considered himself invincible. Many Jews today put as much faith in their failed synagogues, trendy reform and renewal movements, and Sunday schools as Pharaoh did in the Egyptian Army.  For at least three generations, most American Jews have abandoned the Covenant. Shabbat observance is a dim memory. Kashrut is passé. Mikveh – what’s a mikveh? We American Jews have transcended the need to keep the mitzvoth; we are uber-sophisticating ourselves out of existence.
The answer to the original question, about Pharaoh, is about the heart of the individual. Pharaoh begs Moshe to pray to the Jewish Gcd to halt the plagues, using the hif’il form of the Hebrew verb to pray (Ha’atiru)[Ex. 9:28]. Rashi teaches us that this implies quantity – as if Pharaoh says to Moshe, “say 100 prayers, 1000 prayers, a million prayers if you have to – just get this plague to stop!” Moshe tells Pharaoh, “Unlike you, the King of all Kings doesn’t desire quantities, vast amounts of tribute. He wants our hearts. I can get the plague to stop without uttering even one prayer – I will turn my palms upward and give my heart to Gcd. And by that you shall know that unto Gcd belongs the Earth.” [Ex. 9:29] And so he does.
Gcd wants our hearts. If the question on the table is, ‘how does Judaism survive to successive generations,’ we have that answer. When we love Hashem with all of our hearts, our souls, our very essence; when we take our obligations to the mitzvoth seriously, then Jewish Life in the Lehigh Valley will thrive. Again, logic demands that communal efforts must be channeled into re-connecting Jews to the treasures of their heritage. And by that I mean Torah, not Zumba. “Ki hem Chayeinu, V’Orach Yameinu. – For the Mitzvoth are our very lives, and the length of our days.” [evening prayer]
Pharaoh ignored self-evident facts because the conclusions he must perforce draw from them were uncomfortable, and it led to his destruction. We will share his fate if we persist in seeking answers to the question, “how do we stay ‘Jewish’ without doing all those meddlesome mitzvoth?”
Today, I issue an open call to everyone to adopt a mitzvah. Just one. A small one, even. A mitzvah that you grandfather or grandmother did that you don’t do anymore. Maybe start by saying thank you more. Make a brachah before you eat. Put spare change in a pushkah. Pester a rabbi with questions. Start lighting Shabbat candles. Play Scrabble with your kids. Hug your husband/wife for no apparent reason. Call your mother. Spend five minutes a day on YouTube studying Torah. Whatever you decide on, commit to it every day. Start there. Together, we will do more to ensure the continuity of Jewish life in the Lehigh Valley than all the demographic studies, and focus groups and dazzling marketing campaigns combined. Because at the end of the day, it’s all about the heart.
Shabbat Shalom.

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