Thursday, September 17, 2015

New Year's Revolutions - Reflections on Parashat VaYeilech 5776

(Deuteronomy 31:1 - 31:30)

Jewish Education. From the earliest age, our daughters came to expect one question at our weekly Shabbat dinner table, and woe unto the unfortunate lass who did not have a ready answer.

The question was always the same: "What are you reading?" Any answer was acceptable, so long as it wasn't 'nothing'. 

Over time, the kids were so excited about sharing their latest book that they began reading them aloud to the table. So it was that a simple pedagogical question developed into a charming element of our Shabbat feast that continues to this day. 

After we take turns sharing with the table the good things that have transpired in the course of the previous week, after the words of Torah, after the singing and the eating (and the ritual walking of Guinness the dog), we settle down to hear a chapter or two in the latest saga.

I have now been plugged in to The Sisters Grimm (ALL nine volumes), The 39 Clues (15+ volumes), The Mysterious Benedict Society (three), The Heroes' Guide to Saving Your Kingdom (three), Dear Dumb Diary (dozens), and many, many more. The giggles and smiles that fill our house from these stories have become an integral part of our Oneg Shabbat, the transcendental joy of the Shabbat experience.

This week's parashah is all about Jewish Education. Hashem commands Moses to assemble the Jewish People once every seven years to hear the Reading of the entire Torah. No one was exempt: every man, woman and child was required to attend. This mitzvah is called Hak-Hel, the Gathering.

But Moses quickly grasped that once every seven years wasn't nearly enough. Such was our love for Gcd's Torah that Moses ordained that we read the Torah, not once every seven years, but once every seven days. That is why about 1/50 of the Torah is read every Shabbat, completing the entire Five Books of Moses, from Bereishit/Genesis through Devarim/Deuteronomy, once every year.

But even that wasn't enough. Such was our love for Gcd's Torah that Ezra decreed that even three days shouldn't pass without reading the Torah. So every Monday and Thursday, on the ancient market days when Jews would gather, we read a few verses from the weekly Torah portion as well.

But even that wasn't enough. Such was our love for Gcd's Torah that anytime Jews assemble, a word of Torah, a nugget of Truth, a clever insight, is shared.
Rabbi Chananiah ben Teradion said: when even two people gather and a word of Torah is shared between them, the Divine Spirit rests upon them. (Avot 3:3)
Jews are perpetual learners, permanent students, and Jewish Education is at the heart of the secret of Jewish Survival. Show me a Jew who sets aside time to study Torah every day, and I'll show you a Jew whose children, whose grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be identifiable Jews decades from now.

Tragically, some forms of Jewish Education left a bad taste in the mouths of many people. Cheders and Talmud Torahs tried to give a sprinkling of Judaism to public school students, but multiple studies over several decades have shown that the Talmud Torah model of Jewish Education is worthless. In fact, Talmud Torah accomplished the opposite: this negative experience left many (otherwise) highly educated people with the impression that Torah study and Judaism were not worthy of their time and attention. 

There's a great clip from Woody Allen's movie Radio Days that captures the geist of supplementary Jewish Education:

Yet studying the Torah, is, as we say in our daily prayers, our very lives and length of our days. If we have abandoned our commitment to the daily study of Torah, is it any wonder that Judaism in America is rapidly dying?

As I have written elsewhere, I believe we are entering a period of great economic, political and social instability. The Talmud tells us the secret of surviving this turmoil:
The students of Rabbi Elazar asked him: What should a person do to save themselves from the birth pangs of the Messianic Age? He responded: be engaged in the study of Torah and do great acts of kindness to your fellowman. (Sanhedrin 98B)
In order to survive the coming maelstrom, we must do outrageous and unrequited acts of goodness for each other, and we must study Torah. Like two medicines, the effect is only achieved by taking both; one without the other won't work. 

Commit to sticking your nose in a book of the Torah for ten minutes every day. It doesn't matter what you study, find or discover an area of interest: the choices are endless and almost the entire 3,500 year-old treasury of Jewish thought and literature is available in English.

If the ossified Jewish Establishment was genuinely interested in Jewish survival, it would re-prioritize allocations to ensure a free, quality Hebrew Day School education to every single Jewish child in North America. The goal should be: not a single Jewish kid in public school. But since your feckless Federation leadership won't do it, earmark your Federation dollars exclusively for that goal. Or better yet, completely bypass the Federation and their scandalously high overhead, and donate directly to the Scholarship Fund of the Hebrew Day School of your choice.

Let's start a revolution, you and me, right here and now between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. Whatever you lose sleep over - injustice, hunger, sovereign debt, Iranian Nukes, ISIS, crumbling social morays, galloping inflation, police brutality - if you want to change the world, begin by changing yourself, begin by committing to a regime of daily Torah study. 

Rabbi Elazar had it going on. Get Jewishly educated, particularly (especially) if you think you know all there is to know Jewish-wise. Because as the saying goes, the more you know, the more you know you don't know.

He speaks the truth, my faithful Indian companion.

Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah!

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