I know you’re not supposed to leave your cell phone by your bed. It pings, chirps, vibrates and pulls you out of your sleep, and forces the world into your room, often at the most inopportune of times. My alarm went off early this morning, and while my cobwebbed brain was trying to wake up in the dark, I reached for my phone and decided to check my Facebook feed. Which, when you consider it, is really a pathetic thing to do as your first waking act, and a bad, bad idea. One of my friends had shared a link to an article called Coming to Terms With Death of the Jewish Mainstream, and reading it ruined my morning. Written by Jay Michaelson, a contributing editor at the Forward, the article was the author’s depressing, troubling take on the current state of Judaism. It’s been bothering me ever since.
I encourage you to read the article, because, more than the content, the tone of it is the most jarring part – it struck me as so patently defeatist and so negative (to be fair, Michaelson does try and balance it out a bit towards the end). And while you may or may not agree with the article, it’s an important one to read, because there are dozens like it all the time, written from every side of the Jewish spectrum, bemoaning the state of Judaism because of (insert your favourite Jewish bogeyman here: intermarriage, neo-chassidim, chareidim, mitnagdim, secular Jews, liberals, Zionists, leftists, rightists, LGBT Jews, 3-day-a-year Jews, bagels & lox Jews, etc).
Here’s the issue – our children (our students) are growing up in this Jewish world, one that is only too quick to circle the wagons, and disown and disassociate from Jews who are not like “us”. While it’s a dark, unforgiving way of looking at the Jewish world, and there may indeed be some really good and valid reasons why some Jews are beyond the pale for “us”, it’s decidedly counter to the spirit of Judaism, or at least the Jewish values that we try and teach and/or impart as parents.
A few timely teachings will illustrate this point, the first from my father and Yeshivat Simchat Shlomo on this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Vayeishev, which tells the story of the awful division between Yaakov’s (Jacob’s) sons.
When Yosef (and his famous technicolour coat) left home to go and find his brothers, as Yaakov has commanded him, a man [the angel Gavriel in disguise] found him lost in the field. He asked him ‘what are you looking for?’ and Yosef answered ‘את אחי אנוכי מבקש- ‘I am looking for my brothers, please tell me where they are pasturing’.
In response to Yosef’s looking for his “brothers” the man (the angel Gavriel) said נסעו מזה they have parted ‘from here’ [מזה –mee-zeh]. Rashi further explains that angel Gavriel was warning Yosef of an impending great danger: Your “brothers” have parted from the brotherhood – they no longer see you or want you as their brother.
And what was Yosef’s response to the threat of danger? He proceeded with even greater determination ‘I seek my brothers!’ Instead of following the warning to stay away from his brothers, he heard Gavriel’s words in the depths of his heart, and went to go and find his brothers, his family.
Of all the brothers, Yosef is the only one with the designation HaTzadik, the Righteous One. While his brothers were holy and righteous in their own right, had the story unfolded told their way, Yosef, who was so different than them, would have been thrown into the pit, never to be seen or heard from again. Yosef was called HaTzadik because he could have harboured the same feelings about his brothers – You threw me into the pit? I’ll do the same to you! Yet he didn’t, and ultimately, his way of choosing to see the Jewish world (and acting on it) is what wound up saving it.
The second teaching that we need to internalize, comes from the wonderful world of YouTube, and a little seen 1995 clip of the Israeli singer Shlomo Artzi collaborating on a recording of a Yiddish/Hebrew version of Modeh Ani with a group of Chassidim. I came across it while researching material for one of my classes on Tfilla/Prayer a few years back.
The fact that Artzi, the secular Israeli artist is working with Chassidim to add his touch to a classic liturgical song is one thing. It’s what he is singing that is even more powerful – listen to the words:
“כל זמן שהנר דולק, (באמת ש)אפשר לתקן” – “Kol zman she-haner dolek, b’emet she’efshar letakein” – “As long as the candle is still burning, it is still possible to accomplish and to mend”.
The song (at least the yiddish lyrics) is based on the story of Rabbi Israel Salanter, the great mussar master, who one night, as he walked past the home of a shoemaker, noticed that despite the late hour, the shoemaker, was still working by the light of a dying candle. “Why are you still working,” he asked. “It is very late and soon that candle will go out.” The shoemaker replied, “As long as the candle is still burning, it is still possible to accomplish and to mend.” Salanter spent that entire night excitedly pacing his room and repeating to himself: “As long as the candle is still burning, it is still possible to accomplish and to mend.”
In the spirit of the light of Chanukah, as long as the candle burns, we can’t give up, and we have to work to fix things. Between family members. Between Jews. However much time goes by, however much pain has been inflicted or disappointment experienced… our tradition teaches us that there only way out of the proverbial pit – together.
That’s what we have to teach our children.