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Teaching the World #802

11/10/2023 12:30:09 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashat Chayei Sarah

“Will you go with this man?" And she said "I will." (Genesis 24:58)

Teaching the World

Recently, I was discussing current anti-Semitic demonstrations on campus with a first-year university student, who voiced a regret. “Growing up, I wish my parents would have guided me more on religion and Judaism,” she said. "Maybe I would know what to say."

These days, so many parents seem reluctant to “impose” religion. I’ve heard many say, “I just want my child to be happy. Let them make their own religious decisions when they get older.”

But does that provide our children with the tools and foundation not only to embrace Judaism, but also to combat anti-Semitism in this increasingly hostile world? Over the years, experts have shared with me, “Many children want and need to be guided by their parents when it comes to religion.”

Today, the term “organized religion” leaves a bad taste for many, who consider religion outdated, autocratic and ritualistic. But perhaps we have been teaching religion incorrectly. Too much ritual and not enough spirituality. Experts tell us that these days, so many young people are “spiritually ravenous, but institutionally suspicious.”

That is why parents and grandparents must become more involved in teaching—no so much rituals and customs, but Jewish history, ethics and values. And, for that, we need not look further than this week’s Torah portion.

As parashat Chayei Sarah opens, we learn of Sarah’s death. After Abraham buries his beloved wife, he then turns his attention to the future of his family and of Judaism.  

He addresses an important question, which ultimately will change the course of humanity: “Will Judaism become a one- generation movement, or will it carry forward into the future?”

Abraham devises a plan to ensure that Judaism’s principles pass to the next generation. He dispatches his chief servant, Eliezer, to search for a wife for his son, Isaac.  Eliezer loads 10 camels with gifts and provisions, and travels the 418 miles from Jerusalem to Charan, Abraham’s hometown, located today, in southern Turkey. When he arrives, parched, he approaches the communal well, and there he sees many women drawing water.

How will he know which woman is Isaac’s beshert (destined partner)?

Prior to his departure, Eliezer envisions that one woman will distinguish herself from the others. She will not only offer to fill his water jar, but also volunteer to quench his minyan of camels. And this is how we are introduced to Rebecca, Judaism’s second matriarch.

Eliezer quickly realizes that Rebecca is someone special. Just as years earlier, Sarah prepares a meal for three visiting strangers, Rebecca exhibits that same characteristic central to Judaism: Hospitality.

“Caring for the stranger” is one of Judaism’s core values—mentioned 36 times in the Torah.  And over the next few hours, Rebecca impresses Eliezer even more. In ancient times, the father or brothers strongly influenced who a women would marry. But Rebecca establishes herself as the author of her own story.

When her family asks whether she would like to leave with Eliezer, Rebecca replies, “I will.” And in doing so, she says, “Yes” to the possibility of love—engaging in the ultimate blind date.

As Rebecca approaches Jerusalem, Isaac notices her in the distance and is smitten. Rebecca returns the gaze. The Torah says, “She alighted” and lowered her veil to conceal her blush.

That act later inspired the ritual of a Jewish bride wearing a veil before her wedding.

And so, this week, the Torah introduces us to the Bible’s first true love story, founded upon kindness and hospitality.  It’s a biblical story—among many others—that we need to teach more.

As some of you are aware, I’m currently writing a book inspired by my late mentor, Rabbi Joseph Ehrenkranz, who passed away almost 10 years ago. In 2011, I visited him in Tel Aviv and began recording teachings which inspired him over almost-50 years as a pulpit rabbi in Stamford, CT.

During his career, he forged meaningful relationships with many religious and world leaders—from Pope John Paul II to Anwar Sadat.

But that is not what he initially wanted to share with the world. Rabbi Joe was troubled by the stiffening of Orthodox Judaism, and the widespread assimilation among more liberal denominations.

As he shared some of his initial thoughts 12 years ago, he stared off into the distance and reflected, “You know we should place in the middle of this book a pamphlet of words, lessons and stories to help parents teach the true meaning of Judaism to their children.”

In his last days, rather than continuing to voice his concerns about Jewish denominations, he instructed that the “pamphlet"—of guiding stories, ethics and principles be expanded into a book.

We never finished the project. He died in 2013 but I am left with about 25 hours of conversations and discussions, which during the past decade I have been working on.

Over the next few months, I plan to complete this sacred project. It will not be my book—it will be his.

During these times, where students on campus—and perhaps all of us—are being lectured to by others about what Judaism truly is, I believe it is time to take control of our own narrative.

Indeed, raising our children “Jewishly” is difficult. Often our parents and grandparents did not know, or take the time to explain these traditions to us. But Judaism is more than a series of rituals. More importantly, it is about teaching our children Derech Eretz—the proper way to pursue our life’s path.

And each of us can do it. For that is true Judaism. It is a system of living.

It comes in part through characters like Rebecca, modeling care, kindness, compassion, and looking after the “other.” As for letting our children figure out their own religion—I’m really not that sure.

There can be nothing wrong with teaching our kids to tip our water jar to a stranger, to pursue justice and kindness, and to take a chance on love.

As for the current challenges we face as Jewish people, we must teach the world that we are neither occupiers nor persecutors. Rather we are healers—pursuers of justice and peace.

Most important, before we can educate the world about who we really are, we must educate ourselves. This requires as well that we actively guide our children "Jewishly." For as Rabbi Joe taught in his years on the pulpit, the pursuit of Judaism does not begin and end in a synagogue. It is a journey, guided by parents, that begins at home.

Shabbat Shalom, V’kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Tue, November 28 2023 15 Kislev 5784