Honor your father and your mother, that you may long endure on the land that Eternal your God is assigning to you. (Exodus 20.12)
A conceptual observation and a personal reflection, if I may, both of which you have probably heard from me before. But I would ask your indulgence, as both seem to be quite apt at this moment in history.
The Hebrew the word for “parent” and the word for “teacher” derive from the same root, y-r-h (י-ר-ה), which means “to point.” It derives from a reference to an arrowhead – an object that clearly comes to a point, and generally is aimed in a specific direction. And indeed, is this not one of the most fundamental roles of any parent, and any teacher? To point the way; to guide our children in the right direction, whether our students or our own kids. Ultimately their decisions must be their own, and they need the leeway to possibly make mistakes as they navigate their own paths. Of course, allowing leeway sometimes can be agonizing, and as a parent, I can testify to that. But at least we try our best to set them on the right path, so that they will figure out how to live a good life when they’re on their own.
Today I am marking the 20th yahrzeit of my mom, Jeanette Henry, z”l. From the time she was a little girl, Jeanette wanted to be a schoolteacher. She would line up her dolls in her room, and “teach school.” When she became an adult, and a teacher for real, she did not line up her students. In fact, they often flocked around her in what some may have interpreted as an occasionally chaotic atmosphere in her classroom, at PS 64, on 9th Street/Ave. B in Manhattan. But I assure you that it was expertly controlled chaos. My mom had studied the art of teaching. Throughout her life, even as she was lauded as being at the top of her profession, she continued to take courses and workshops, to continue to grow and expand her skills. Yes, teaching is an art. Not everyone can do it, nor should they.
Some of you with whom I am connected on Facebook have likely read a comment I posted in response to the Senate confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. While it may be a bit presumptuous to speak on behalf of someone who is not here to speak for herself, I strongly suspect that my mom would have been utterly scandalized by this decision. From very early on in the American Jewish experience, our community has been in the forefront of embracing, supporting, and fostering public education. It’s no accident that three of the past four presidents of the American Federation of Teachers have been Jews: Albert Shanker, z”l, Sandra Feldman, z”l, and Randi Weingarten. All three were advocates for children’s education both here and around the world, and as well, advocates in all areas of social justice. Even from the Talmudic period, Jewish leaders have been proponents of public education. We learn from the Talmud that technically the responsibility for educating one’s child rested with the father. But suppose a child had no father, or had a father that was simply not equipped to teach his children? Thus, even the earliest Jewish communities of the Common Era supported systems of public education, for the benefit of all children. Modern Jews inherited this deeply held tradition, and have been committed to high quality public education. Of course, the dynamics of contemporary society have changed significantly, and many Jews, liberal Jews included, have chosen to send their children to Hebrew day schools, or, in the case of Orthodox Jews, yeshivot. A number of Orthodox Jews see the voucher system as a way for them to help pay for their children’s yeshiva attendance. But the contention of the community for the most part is that private education, whether religiously based or not, should not be the responsibility of the community. Rather, our community should be laser focused on improving the quality of public education for all the children in our country. And this commitment remains an important Jewish American value.
As American Jews, it will be even more critical in the next few years for us to stand up for quality public education. We will have to do this in the spirit of all we have learned about our responsibilities as parents and teachers, which, as we have seen, are really one and the same.
One additional word derives from the root y-r-h (י-ר-ה), “to point.” That is “Torah.” Ultimately our Torah teaches us the values of justice, fairness, and educating our children. If we do this, hopefully they will understand the implications of the fifth commandment, so that they “will long endure upon the earth.”
I have told many of you about a close friend of mine in the Rabbinate who is a collector of antiques. Among his collection are a number of gorgeous menorot from different places and time periods. One was an 18th century German menorah. Just before the pogrom of Kristallnacht, someone who had an inkling of what was about to happen brought the beautiful menorah to the Bishop of Ulm, a German city on the Danube. The Bishop hid it in the church crypt. At the end of the war, the menorah came into the possession of Otto Frank, who survived the war, though his wife and daughters (Anna and Margot) did not. Otto Frank went on to become quite active in the Reform Movement of Europe. My friend was interning for a time in Europe and spent an evening in Frank’s home. Frank saw him staring at the menorah and understood that this was someone who appreciated the value of good art. Frank decided to give him the menorah on the condition that he would see to it that Kaddish would be recited for his daughters in the United States. My friend agreed, and the menorah found a new home.
Another piece in my friend’s menorah collection was black, fashioned out of shrapnel that was collected from one of the battlegrounds in the aftermath of the Six Day War in Israel in 1967. (“And they shall beat their swords into plowshares….”)
One Chanukah a number of years ago, I sat in my friend’s apartment in New York, along with a several other friends. The apartment was ablaze with light from the vast menorah collection. This time he focused on another incredible piece in the collection. He shook his head and opined, “If that thing could only talk!”
And so, my friends, I bring this story to you now, and hope you will take the opportunity to make it your own. If Your Menorah Could Talk, What Would It Say? Maybe it has been passed through generations of your family. Maybe it is brand new. Maybe it has a child-centered theme, or came as a gift from a special person in your life. Whatever it may be, the story of your menorah is ultimately a story about you; about you, your family, and your relationship to Jewish life.
This Sunday, during our Chanukah celebration, instead of lighting all our menorot (because it isn’t actually Chanukah yet), our menorot will tell their stories to all to come to celebrate with us. Bring your menorah, and we will provide a card and a pen for you to write your menorah’s story to share with all of us. And we look forward to sharing ours with you.
This week we begin again our yearly cycle of Torah study. The Torah portions of this week and next week concentrate on primordial history: the creation of the world and human beings, and the nature of human beings and their potential to do both good and bad (the yetzer hatov – the good inclination, and the yetzer harah – the evil inclination). These parashiyot (Torah portions) also attempt to provide an etiology for why things are the way they are. For instance: Why do snakes crawl around on their bellies, and seem so repulsive and dangerous to most humans? According to our text, the snake originally stood upright. But it manipulated the first man and woman (Adam and Eve) to give into the temptation of eating the forbidden fruit, and thus its punishment was that it was condemned to crawl around on its belly throughout all time to come. Whatever the real evolutionary reason, this is a satisfying story nevertheless, and teaches us an important moral lesson.
Along with the punishment of the snake is the punishment of the humans for giving into temptation. The Torah appears to ask: Why is it that we have to work the earth for our nourishment in this life, and why is it that women experience pain in childbirth?
The Torah’s response:
Genesis, Chapter 4
16) And to the woman, [God] said, “I am doubling and redoubling your pains of pregnancy; with pain shall you bear children, yet your craving shall be for your man, and he shall govern you.” 17) Now to the man, [God] said, “Because you hearkened to your wife and ate of the tree about which I commanded you, saying, ‘Do not eat of it,’ the soil is now cursed on your account: Only through pain shall you eat of it, as long as you live. . . 19) By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread, till you return to the earth – the earth you were taken from. . .’ (and then one of the most well-known statements of the Torah) ‘for dust you are, and to dust you shall return.'”
I am always fascinated by this section of our text, because it could be construed, and has indeed been throughout much of history, as a justification for the subordination and condemnation of women, particularly with regard to their reproductive lives. But it is particularly painful to read now at this time, in light of the recently ramped-up battle against Planned Parenthood. During the Congressional hearing last week, featuring the intense grilling of PP President Cecile Richards, the baggage of centuries upon centuries of misogyny was fired at Richards during the entire day, by mostly male members of Congress. The age-old specter growing out of this Biblical tale as it has found its way into the human psyche, which portrays the woman as the “evil temptress,” who must bear the burden of her ability to reproduce, reared its ugly head during this hearing in a way that I can only characterize as openly hostile and outrageous. Richards said in an interview after the hearing: “In this coming presidential election, Roe v Wade is on the ballot. The battle lines were drawn last week. This isn’t about Planned Parenthood or fetal tissue. . . . it’s about whether abortion is going to be legal any more in this country.”
While there is a great deal more to say on this subject, I offer this brief commentary as food for thought during this rather painful time in American politics.
Union Temple’s participation in the fantastic and popular PJ Library program will be continuing through 2017 due to a generous grant from the UJA-WRJ YES Fund. Library mails free, high-quality Jewish children’s literature and music to families with young children across the continent on a monthly basis. PJ Library is a program of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, made possible through partnerships with philanthropists and local Jewish organizations.
Union Temple received funding for Religious School Camp/Retreat programs for the 2015-2015 and 2015-2016 school year from I*Express a program of the Coalition of Innovating Congregations which is funded from UJA Federation and The Jewish Education Project. I*Express is designed to propel congregations forward in their practice of engaging children and their families in meaningful Jewish learning. Congregations are provided with full access to the blueprints of a variety of new learning models, along with the process to generate change, funding, and consultation and peer group support. I*Express is designed for congregations who are interested in and have demonstrated a readiness to experiment—within a matter of months—with a high impact, non-classroom-only model of Jewish learning. Please visit The Jewish Education Project for more information.
The Youth Group has shared so many fun activities, visited some amazing places, and built long-lasting friendships during this last and memorable year. Building DIY kites and flying them in Prospect Park, making hamantaschen in the 3rd floor kitchen, bowling in Times Square, and creating a complete Hanukkah feast. It wasn’t only about having fun; it’s also about giving back to the community and helping those in need. We’ve gone on Midnight Runs to cloth and feed the homeless and helped out at the Temple on Martin Luther King Jr. day to prepare food and goods for the elderly. Some places we visited this year include the Museum of Jewish Heritage and two different cemeteries along the Jackie Robinson Parkway. Thank you to everyone who helped make this year so special.
We are excited to announce that as of May 2015 UT is now part of a cohort of 6-10 synagogues participating in the UJA-Federation Synagogue Inclusion Project “House of Learning for all People: Opening Our Synagogues to Include People with Disabilities. Read more →