Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Behar-Behuqqotai 5770: Shemittah and the Jewish Child

(Originally delivered on May 8, 2010.)

Shabbat shalom!

Some of you may have noticed that during the past year my appearances in this space at this time have been few and far between. It has been somewhat difficult for Rabbi Stecker and I to find opportunities for me to give a sermon on Shabbat morning because of my other commitments, specifically the Machon Alone service, which is for 5th-7th graders, the Shabbat HaMishpahah program, which is for all the students in our Religious School, and the Adult Learners' service, which is for anybody else who wants to learn some of the history, meaning, structure, and mechanics of the Shabbat morning service. All of these things are important - they each serve a group of learners. And learning, my friends, is where it's at, Jewishly speaking.

Why, after all, do we celebrate Bar or Bat Mitzvah? It is not merely about the party, or even about the Saturday morning demonstration of a child's abilities. It is about acknowledging that the Bar/t mitzvah has achieved enough learning to join the ranks of Jewish adulthood.

Amy, who has learned a few things from me and a few things from her other teachers, has learned the most from her parents, and that is how it should be. Her family is committed to Jewish learning more than most, perhaps exemplified by her mother Moji's many years of teaching at the Waxman Youth House, which is a truly unique learning environment located just across the parking lot.

Amy told us this morning about the shemittah year, the Shabbat for the land. With her permission, I am going to use her devar Torah as a jumping-off point for a slightly different discussion.

But first, here is a piece of ancient wisdom about fertilizer:

Mr. Cohen retires and moves south. He buys a home in rural Alabama, adjacent to farm land. One day, as he is sitting on his front porch, one of his neighbors drives by in a tractor, pulling a cart full of an unpleasant-smelling brown substance.

"Howdy, Mr. Cohen," says the farmer. "Hello, my friend," replies Cohen. "Tell me, what's in the cart?"

"That's cow manure," says the farmer.

Says Cohen, "Oh. And what do you do with it?"

"Well, Ah spread it over the strawberries."

Cohen replies, "My friend, you should stop by our house one Sunday morning. We use sour cream."

Some of you have no doubt seen me working in the garden in front of our house (not on Shabbat, of course!), as you are driving by on Old Mill Rd. Like Amy, I too love to garden.

When we moved in, three summers ago, that garden was full of cherry tomatoes. They were completely untended - no water, no cages to climb on, the vines were crawling all over each other. It looked as though they had seeded themselves from tomatoes that had grown there the previous year. I picked as many as I could, but the vines were full, and many were falling off and moldering on the ground. It was an unexpected bounty of what my father (also an avid gardener) likes to call "volunteers" - they simply appeared.

Back for a moment to the point that Amy made. For six years, says the Torah, we tend the land. We work it hard, and we harvest its bounty. In the seventh year, we do not work the land, and yet we are still able to eat what grows naturally, the "volunteers." OK, so you're thinking, that doesn't sound so bad, right? Well, in today's world of refrigeration, factory farms, and produce shipped from all over the world to keep supermarkets stocked with out-of-season items year-round, it might be difficult to see this as a hardship. But in ancient Israel it must have been quite a challenge. One midrash tells us that the shemittah year is the great economic equalizer. That is, in the seventh year of the cycle, rich and poor alike must scavenge for food, eating whatever they can find.

Farming is, undeniably, a difficult way to make a living. (Are there any farmers here? Virtually all our ancient ancestors were.) Farmers know that agriculture is a business of very slim margins, very demanding schedules, and a precarious lifestyle that rises and falls with the amount of rain.

I am going to propose the following: that raising a child to be a decent human being is not unlike raising a successful crop of tomatoes, or corn, or soybeans. In each case, constant care and attention is required. The environment must be continually monitored, and adjustments must be made when necessary. Proper amounts of nutrition and other supplies must be purchased and applied correctly.

And all the more so for raising a Jewish child to be a Jewish adult, a knowledgeable, self-aware Jewish adult with a strong identity, who seeks out Jewish friends, Jewish activities, Jewish institutions, and ultimately raises Jewish children of his/her own - this is far more complicated than growing cherry tomatoes. And I'll tell you why - because, unlike tomatoes, Jewish children do not seed themselves. Or, more properly, in today's world, Judaism does not seed itself in your child.

If Jewish education functions like the shemittah year, then we will never produce Jewish adults. Rather, parents, teachers, and rabbis must function like farms during the other six years of the cycle: watering, pruning, fertilizing, and so forth. It takes time and commitment. Sometimes, it even takes cow manure.

I cannot tell you how many times in recent years I have found myself truly saddened while sitting here in this sanctuary as I observed benei mitzvah families wherein the parents are singing along with Cantor Frieder at appropriate times, and the children are not, because they do not know the words or the melody. Sometimes, these are families for which the Shabbat morning of the child's bar/t mitzvah is the first (or perhaps the only) time that I see them in this sanctuary. Occasionally, there are parents whom I see regularly in services and around the building on various committees, but the children who live with them I do not even recognize.

My daughter Hannah, whom many of you know correctly as the cutest thing on earth (beli ayin hara), is not yet three years old. She cannot yet read or write, and can barely put together a grammatically-correct sentence in English. She has never set foot in Religious School. But she knows many prayers in our siddur by heart. Not because I taught her, mind you, but because she has heard them over and over and over, because she comes with me every Friday night to Temple Israel, and goes to Morah Ronnie Katz's Tot Shabbat service every Shabbat morning. And that is really all it takes!

Sure, you're thinking, but he's a RABBI. Of course his daughter knows how to pray at age 2. Well, let me tell you something. If you brought your 2-year-old to Temple Israel every Friday night for a year, she or he would soon know all of those prayers. And learning it that way is far more effective than any Religious School can possibly be. Every hour spent in the synagogue in your child's younger years will make her or him that much better prepared for Bar/t mitzvah and beyond. That great rabbinic sage Woody Allen said, "80% of success is showing up." Well, you do not have to be a rabbi to give your children the gift of Judaism, but you do have to show up.

Jewish children do not seed themselves. Amy's family is exemplary in this regard - they show up, they bring their kids. They are not leaving Jewish education to chance. They are not metaphorically counting on the volunteers of the shemittah year, like our ancestors did.

OK. So here is the idea. Take your kids to the Temple. As often as possible. Come Shabbat morning. Come Friday night. And don't let them run around outside, playing with their cell phones (which, by the way, are better left at home on Shabbat). Make them sit with you. Show them the pages in the siddur. Encourage them to sing along.

The parents and grandparents in this room are equipped with tremendous potential for producing Jewishly-knowledgeable, strongly-identified children. Merely having Shabbat dinners every Friday night and showing up for benei mitzvah and particular holidays will never be enough. You must bring your family to the synagogue. You must bring them to the Tot Shabbat services with Morah Ronnie Katz, and Junior Congregation, and Shabbat HaMishpahah. If you do not do so, your children will never feel comfortable in this room, never feel comfortable with the rich tradition of Jewish learning, wisdom, music, and liturgy; never feel truly comfortable among their own people. The default today is not "Jewish," as it was in the shtetlakh of Eastern Europe or the homes of Kashan; the default today is "unaffiliated." And just one generation after "unaffiliated" is "not Jewish."

We cannot ensure Jewish grandchildren and great-grandchildren simply by dropping off our children at Religious School and expecting them to learn. We must model for them. And fertilize, and water, and prune.

And furthermore, we cannot tell them that they are done with Jewish learning after the Bar/Bat Mitzvah. The adolescent years are critical to your child's development as a Jewish adult. This is the time when they begin to question the lessons that they have learned, to knit together their own identity, to ask the tough questions about God, about tradition, about family obligations. Think back to your own teenage years, whether you attended a Hebrew High School or not; you will surely remember this as a time of great change and development, and your external influences at the time had a strong impact that has, most likely, lasted until this day.

Just think about the pop music of your adolescent years - what was playing on the radio when you were in high school? Those songs became the soundtrack of your life.

We all want Judaism to be a part of that picture, that adolescent stew. We want at least a few of those songs to be Jewish songs.

Well, the best way to do this, in addition to bringing them with you to Shabbat services regularly, is to enroll your children in the Youth House, and make sure that they show up. Many of you know that I will be the director of the Youth House next year, and Moji and I have already planned an exciting, vibrant year of learning and fun. By showing up at the Youth House, your teenagers will not only have a good time socializing with their peers, but will also come away with lasting attachments to Judaism that will be with them for the rest of their lives as well-informed, strongly-identified Jews. We will cultivate that Jewish soundtrack.

Let me conclude by saying that sometimes a child needs to be given his or her own freedom to develop organically, and sometimes more direct involvement is required. The proper proportion that we can glean from the mitzvah of shemittah is 6/7ths of careful, labor-intensive fertilizing, and 1/7th of laissez-faire.

I know that I will see Amy and her family here in this sanctuary and elsewhere at Temple Israel in the coming years, metaphorically watering, pruning, and weeding. Let me see more of everybody here doing the same thing.

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