This week we begin the book of Shemot. What is fascinating about how most students learn this narrative is that before even reading the text for the first time, they have already been taught the outcome. Inevitably, the tragedy of Jewish enslavement seems less severe, because the student understands slavery is the first step towards redemption. The Torah intentionally devotes little time to the hundreds of years of Israelite enslavement--by chapter 14, the Israelites are already crossing the sea. Yet, it devotes more than three and a half books to the mere 40 years in the desert. The way that the story is told forces the reader to see the pains of slavery as the first step towards deliverance.
Today is a difficult day for our Jewish community. An institution that for years has nourished mentschlekite (integrity) and yiddishkite (Jewish being) in young students has closed its doors, for a variety of unfortunate reasons. At the end of this year, Jewish children will no longer be blessed with the gift of study at Reuben Gittelman Hebrew Day School. The school that was a staple of Jewish living and Jewish learning for so many, unfortunately, is no more.
When I heard this news, though not surprised, I was terribly saddened, and nearly brought to tears. It felt as though I was losing a piece of my childhood. But, I quickly realized that the real tragedy is not a building shutting its doors. The real tragedy, rather, will be if the morals that Gittelman so wonderfully cultivated became cheapened.
A well known teaching from Mishlei (proverbs) suggests that if you teach a child according to his way, he will never depart from it. The commentators disagree about the word “his.” Should it, in fact, be read “His”? The first reading teaches that each child is special, and nourishing that uniqueness will ensure faithfulness to his identity. The second suggests that to keep a child true to his identity, a child must be taught in G-d’s ways.
The beauty of RGHDS was that it never understood there to be a choice between these two models; rather, it saw both as nonnegotiable elements of a strong Jewish education. Each child was given personal attention and love, while simultaneously being challenged to think as a community—to imagine how to repair the world in Hashem’s image. From our adolescence we were taught to love both man and G-d; to respect both the transcendent and the imminent. To paraphrase Pirkei Avot, Talmud Torah (education) was married to derekh eretz (strong character).
It is a shame that such a remarkable institution is closing down, but the real shanda (shame) will be if we neglect its messages. The Gemarah, in Berachot, teaches that the righteous never die, and I have often suggested that this is because their impact lives on for generations. Such is the case with institutions as well; its legacy must never burn out.
A famous Israeli folksong, Mah Evarech, depicts an angel deliberating on how to bless an unborn child. At the end of this beautiful song the songwriter cries: “the child is now an angel; if only G-d had blessed this child with life, these blessings would not have been in vain” The childs blessings seem useless without a body to house them. We have been given the blessings, and now it is our task to actualize them; it is our duty to be the body. Redemption from Egypt blossomed out of years of servitude, and a rebuilt and reinvigorated Jewish community can emerge from this time of difficulty. Moshe alone could not take the Jews out of Egypt; it took the participation of each Jew, packing their own bags, and heading on their own journey. Journeys entail a collective participation, so let us all work diligently to ensure that our heartbreak ends as positively as the Israelites—with Torah, once again, being given to the children of Israel.