Last Monday we sat in shul and welcomed in the New Year 5779.
At the same time, at the Oval, England were saying farewell to their greatest run scorer of all time as Alistair Cook retired from International cricket.
What we can learn from his retirement can shed some light on the challenges as a community we face in 5779 and beyond.
There was an excellent article written about Cook’s retirement by a former opening bat and England captain, Michael Atherton in The Times.
The article was titled ‘Cook’s exit breaks lineage of great England openers.’ He tells the story of Geoff Boycott’s chest pad, that had been passed down to various Yorkshire opening batsman until today (even though it is no longer used as it has long passed the date when it could protect batsman!).
Atherton then writes: ‘I’ve always liked the story of Boycott’s chest guard being passed down because it suggests a lineage stretching through an unbroken span of more than five decades…there was no doubt that Boycott saw himself as the keeper of the flame.’
Last Shabbat afternoon we just finished reading Pirkei Avot. It begins. ‘Moshe kibel Torah m’sinai v u mesorah l Yehoshuah’ – ‘Moses received the Torah from Sinai and gave it over to Joshua. Joshua gave it over to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets gave it over to the Men of the Great Assembly.’
The key word here is mesorah, the passing on of the Torah from the leaders of one generation to the next. That is our greatest achievement, how the mesorah has remained. However, our unbroken span is not five decades but almost 3500 years. The flame of Torah is far more than a game of cricket and it has been protected and nurtured throughout our long and difficult history.
However, the key to maintaining the mesorah in the 21st century for the majority of mainstream UK Jewry is found later in the article. Atherton says: ‘Quite how the learning process works and how knowledge is passed on varies…I can’t remember much of what Gooch (England batsman that was Atherton’s senior opening partner) used to say to me….but I know I learnt the game at the highest level by watching him.’
This is a crucial idea, the Mesorah is passed on to the next generation not simply by TEACHING it but by LIVING it. When children see parents living the Torah lifestyle and being role models, then they in turn internalise these ideals and practices which they will please G-d pass on to their children.
However, it has been shown that a Jewish child can be TAUGHT all the dates of the Chagim or the laws of Shabbat, but if he or she doesn’t SEE the beauty of a Shabbat at home or TOUCH the lulav and etrog that his father brings or SMELL the Yom Tov meal cooking in the kitchen then all it is, is just facts.
The final thrust of Atherton’s article was one of sadness that the cricket mesorah has been broken. There is no one to carry on after Cook, after a century of cricket mesorah from Jack Hobbs (1908-1930) through to Cook (2006-2018). ‘England will miss his example for others to look up to and the knowledge passed on to a new generation.’
We should fear a similar problem. The focus of all our education strategies have to be answering the question how can we strengthen the Jewish home and Jewish communities? That is where the mesorah is at its most powerful as that it is where it can be lived and loved.
Rabbi Andrew Shaw