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Nowhere Without our Children  #812

01/19/2024 04:52:00 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashat Bo

Nowhere Without our Children   

There are, perhaps, no four words within the Passover story as powerful as those uttered by Moses when he demands religious freedom for the Jewish people.

“Let my people go.” (Exodus 5:1)

I quote them once a year when I preach about Passover and slavery each April at one of the local African American churches.

These words were captured in the pre-Civil War spiritual, “Go Down, Moses,” published in 1872. Originally, the work had 24 verses; later it became the signature song of bass baritone Paul Robeson.

Many of us have added that song to our Passover Seders, acknowledging that the Israelites were not the only people through history to have endured slavery.

But like many assumptions these days, the full context of “Go Down, Moses”—as expressed for hundreds of years—is not completely accurate.

How does the Bible’s full sentence actually read?

“Let my people go, that they may celebrate a festival for Me in the wilderness.” (Exodus 5:1). No mention of ultimate freedom. No reference to a Promised Land.

There was only one request: That—away from the tortures of daily labor—the Israelites be permitted to temporarily sojourn to an open space in the wilderness and, supposedly, replenish their souls by observing an unspecified holiday.

While Pharaoh said, “Yes,” there were conditions – major ones. He agreed to let only leaders, elders and officers go.

Noted the 13th century commentator Nachmanides, “Pharaoh became angry at Moses’ insistence on bringing along boys and girls.” For Moses, going without the children was unacceptable, and it was the basis for his refusal to accept Pharaoh's proposal. The plagues began soon after.

Indeed, while we treasure the guidance of our ancestors and elders, in the words of one commentator, “No celebration is complete without children.”

Another Sage adds, “A child without parents is an orphan, but a nation without children is an orphan people.”

Too often, these days, I hear parents reflect, “I just want my child to be a good person—a mensch. Let them decide their religion when they get older.”

On the other hand, one parent, now in her mid-40s, once told me, “I wish my parents would have guided me in religion instead of letting me figure it out for myself. It is why it is so important to me to send my children to Hebrew school.

“I now light candles every Friday night, and make sure I bless them as much as I can.”

We are commanded in the Shema prayer to “teach these words to our children—day and night.” Pirkei Avot, our 2,000 year old collection of wise rabbinical sayings directs us to begin educating our children at age three.

At age 13, through a ritual known as a bar or bat mitzvah, young people declare their intention to carry these values forward. We believe that Jewish continuity begins with our children.

In my travels as a rabbi, I have seen many congregations falter because they insist on imposing many outdated traditions, rituals and even superstitions upon a younger generation.

And to a significant extent, many young people have reacted by walking away. That is why I believe that every congregation, in every generation, needs to engage in a process of renewal.  Because for many, stagnation is a kind of slavery.

We can accomplish this renewal by adding new readings to our Passover Seder, or by identifying the plagues that today afflict the Jewish people—and all humanity.. And more importantly, to identify the antidotes to these modern plagues.

And we must exhibit the courage to look at Judaism through an enhanced lens—considering gender fluidity and equality, more interfaith outreach and deeper dedication to Tikun Olam —the repair of this broken world.

That is why Moses said, “No.” Because a nation that does not include its children and the elderly—the bookends of our people—is no nation at all.

Now more than ever, when too many leave their children to navigate this complex world alone through the unregulated world of social media, we must embrace the idea of L’dor Vador—from generation to generation.

Writer Mark Twain noted that this has been the key to Jewish survival.

In an 1857 article, he wrote: “He (the Jewish people) has made a marvelous fight in this world, in all the ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him (them).

“The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone...All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains.”

And as Moses reminds us in week's Torah portion, read months before Passover, we advance Judaism through our children, not just by letting them pick up ideas from others, but also guiding them in and out of today’s wilderness.

For in this new world, there are many sanctuaries beyond our pews. They can exist online, within nature, in homes, and other places where God dwells among us.

Therefore, the answer to Jewish continuity may not be to double down on outdated practices, but rather to breathe life into new Jewish generations.

It is admittedly a daunting task. Noted one writer. “This younger generation is more than ever spiritually ravenous but institutionally suspicious.”

The answer therefore lies within our homes—at our Sabbath or Passover tables—and through the behavior we model.

Moses sets the standard this week, as he rejects Pharaoh’s refusal to exclude our children.

And in so doing, Moses inspires us to consider our future, perhaps through the other half of that Biblical verse that has provided comfort to so many for centuries..

And to never leave our children behind.

More accurately, we must empower ourselves through a process of ongoing renewal, “to let our people go.”


Shabbat Shalom, v'kol tuv

Rabbi Irwin Huberman.

Wed, February 21 2024 12 Adar I 5784