This week I was inspired by the Chief Rabbi’s document addressing the wellbeing of LGBT+ pupils in Orthodox Jewish schools. It is such an important and groundbreaking piece of work, which I hope will make sure that all pupils in our schools can feel safe and secure.
The Chief Rabbi said powerfully at the end of his introduction ‘I hope that this document will set a precedent for genuine respect, borne out of love for all people across the Jewish world and mindful of the fact that every person is created B’tzelem Elokim – in the image of G-d.’ Amen
This Shabbat is the final Shabbat of 5778 and we read Moshes final speech to the entire nation.
אַתֶּ֨ם נִצָּבִ֤ים הַיּוֹם֙ כֻּלְּכֶ֔ם לִפְנֵ֖י ה׳ אֱלֹֽקיכֶ֑ם רָֽאשֵׁיכֶ֣ם שִׁבְטֵיכֶ֗ם זִקְנֵיכֶם֙ וְשֹׁ֣טְרֵיכֶ֔ם כֹּ֖ל אִ֥ישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל:
טַפְּכֶ֣ם נְשֵׁיכֶ֔ם וְגֵ֣רְךָ֔ אֲשֶׁ֖ר בְּקֶ֣רֶב מַֽחֲנֶ֑יךָ מֵֽחֹטֵ֣ב עֵצֶ֔יךָ עַ֖ד שֹׁאֵ֥ב מֵימֶֽיךָ:
לְעָבְרְךָ֗ בִּבְרִ֛ית ה׳ אֱלֹק֖יךָ וּבְאָֽלָת֑וֹ אֲשֶׁר֙ ה׳ אֱלֹק֔יךָ כֹּרֵ֥ת עִמְּךָ֖ הַיּֽוֹם:
‘You are all standing this day before the Lord your G-d. The leaders of your tribes, your elders and your officers, every man of Israel. Your young children, your women, and your convert who is within your camp both your woodcutters and your water drawers, that you may enter the covenant of the Lord your G-d and His oath, which the Lord, your G-d, is making with you this day.’ Devarim 29:9-11
The brit – the covenant is with all of us – the entire Jewish people. It is an inclusive covenant.
However, I want to focus on just one of those groups and link it back to the Chief Rabbi’s document.
The pasuk says that he spoke to tapchem, the small children. Next week we are commanded in hakel – for the king to read the book of Devarim to the entire nation including – hataf – the small children.
In both sidrot, normally double sidrot, the Torah stresses bring the children.
The Gemara says in Chagigah ‘and the children come to bring a reward to those who bring them.’
The simple reading of the Gemara is that there is in fact no inherent purpose for the children to come.
If, in fact, there is no purpose to bring the children, then what reward should be granted to those who bring them?
There is a practical answer given. All the Jews from throughout the Land of Israel came to Jerusalem for Hakel. So, who was left home to watch the kids? Where would they find baby sitters!? Obviously, the adults had no choice but to bring the children. Since the children had to be brought anyway, the Torah commanded that they be brought, so that there would also be a mitzvah and the associated reward involved in bringing the children.
However, the Sfat Emet interprets this Gemara in a slightly different fashion. When the Gemara states that the children are brought “to grant reward to those who bring them”, the intent is not that there is no inherent value in bringing children to Hakhel. In fact, there is something to be gained from bringing them even if they do not have the intellect to learn or the patience to listen. Merely being present at an event like Hakel — has a positive effect on the children, not necessarily immediately, but in years to come.
What I believe the Sfat Emet is saying is that the effect that positive experiences can have for children in terms of their relationship to Judaism is huge. Conversely, a negative experience can drive a young person from the Jewish community. Whether it is a negative Jewish experience or a feeling of alienation or bullying within a Jewish context.
It should be that the experiences of coming to shul or school, being part of a community, seeing your friends – these experiences need to be positive and are crucial in engendering a love of Judaism in the souls of our youngsters.
Our job as a community is to take them by the hand and lead them through the years of community life to Bar Mitzvah and beyond – the Chief Rabbi has shown the way this week.
On Sunday night we will celebrate Rosh Hashanah 5779. We will say in our davening on Monday and Tuesday, ‘Hayom Harat Olam’, ‘Today is the birthday of the world’. The Rabbis explain this phrase to mean that Rosh Hashanah does not celebrate the day of the creation of the world, but the day of creation of the human race. There is a lesson to be learnt here. The idea is that the purpose of the creation of the world by G-d is us, that we are the pinnacle of His creation. That should imbue within us a sense of mission and motivation. All of us – no matter our gender, sexuality, religiosity or stage in life.
As Rabbi Nachman of Breslov once said, ‘The day you were born was the day G-d decided the universe could no longer exist without you’.
We all need to realise our innate worth and how our Creator wants us all to realise our potential and strive to reach that in the days, weeks, months and years ahead.
Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom and a Shana Tova,
Rabbi Andrew Shaw