Monday, October 10, 2011

Gevalt! A new generation / Sukkot and V'zot ha-berakhah

Sukkot arrives in a few hours, with shabbat on its tail. Rain is threatening. Irony: We don’t add the prayer for rain until Shemini Atzeret because rain doesn’t fall in Israel until then. Here we might be inclined to pray for a cessation of rain for a week so we can enjoy our sukkot. Another irony: Living in a sukkah for a week reminds us of the fragility of our lives, but when it rains tonight (according the weather report) we’ll be inside effectively denying that. One is not required to sit and suffer in a sukkah, the Jewish light bulb joke aside. In the 21st century it helps us appreciate the warm, snug homes we live in the other 51 weeks of the year. We have just finished the High Holy Days, which impressed upon us our mortality -- life is the ultimate deadline -- and now we make our homes in temporary huts, which remind us that even while we are alive, we are so very vulnerable. All this helps us readjust our entitlement meters. Life is a gift, a blessing, and we have a limited amount of time to use it well.

If the High Holy Days and Sukkot are not sufficient reminders of our mortality and fragility, on shabbat we read Zot ha-berakhah - “and this is the blessing” - the last parashah of Torah. The first cousins to mortality and fragility are change and transition. This parashah is largely about transition. Moses reaches his “deadline.” He dies on Mt. Nebo, is buried by God, and Joshua ben Nun takes the reins as leader of a new generation. The generation that came out of Egypt is leaving this world. A new generation, born in the Wilderness, with an entirely different perspective on themselves and the world, has come of age.

Every generation expresses trepidation about turning the reins of leadership, and indeed the world, over to the next generation. Each generation seems to find the next generation lacking. Quite frankly, it’s tiresome, especially this round of kvetching about Generation-X and the Millennial Generation. What is true for Star Trek is true today: the next generation is terrific.

Heraclitus of Ephesus (c. 535 BCE - 475 BCE) recognized long ago that change is the only constant in the universe: everything flows; nothing stands still.

In the very last chapter of the Torah, Moses climbs to the top of Mt. Nebo, the last hike he will ever take.
Moses went up from the steppes of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the summit of Pisgah, opposite Jericho, and the Lord showed him the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan; all Naphtali; the land of Ephraim and Manasseh; the whole land of Judah as far as the Western Sea; the Negev; and the Plain -- the Valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees -- as far as Zoar. (Deuteronomy 34:1-4)
Moses will never reach the Promised Land. What was he thinking as he scanned the horizon and gazed at the Land he would never enter? Did he consider Joshua ben Nun competent to take over the mantle of leadership? Did he believe the generation born in the Wilderness would succeed in the Land? With his last words, Moses blesses the people, each and every tribe, his people, his children, his successors:
This is the blessing with which Moses, the man of God, bade the Israelites farewell before he died... Torah tziva lanu Moshe, morashah k’hilat Yaakov. When Moses charged us with the Teaching as the heritage of the congregation of Jacob, then [God] became king in Jeshurun, when the heads of the people assembled, the tribes of Israel together. (Deuteronomy 33:1, 4-5)
We know that Moses was distraught that he would never enter the Promised Land, but nowhere does Torah tell us that Moses doubts the competence or integrity of the next generation. He delivers stern warnings and exhortations precisely because he knows they will carry on. He has confidence in them to carry the Covenant forward. He believes in the next generation.

We should do no less. I have heard many of my contemporaries bemoan the “next generation” and describe them as narcissistic, selfish, materialistic, and uncaring. Utter nonsense. Nothing could be further from the truth. We have every reason to bless the next generation and have confidence in them.

No doubt there are Gen-Xers and Millennials who will not succeed in making a life for themselves. Some will be toxic for society. This happens in every generation. But those who will lead and innovate are far more knowledgeable and informed, and know how to navigate the world far better than my generation. They are socially aware, their moral commitments run deep, and they get involved. They keep themselves informed about the events and issues of the day. They do a lot of volunteer work, here and around the world. I have met many whose career plans are to go into medicine not to enable a certain lifestyle, but to work with underprivileged populations, or pursue research on a particular medical condition and thereby alleviate, or at least mitigate, suffering. I have met many who want to go to law school not to strike it rich, but to insure that justice is dispensed to the have-nots. Many are concerned about the environment and plan scientific and entrepreneurial careers with this in mind. They have a global perspective and strong sense of social responsibility.

I’m sick and tired of the characterization of this generation as plugged into their devices and tuned out to everything else. More nonsense. This generation has taken to modern technology as fish to water and birds to air. When you grow up with a mouse in your hand that comes as no surprise. They use technology well. They stay in touch with one another and support one another because they know what’s happening in one another’s lives in real time. They value their relationships. They use their 24/7 internet connection to keep informed and to research issues they care about. (For what it’s worth, I plug in and listen to podcasts and music at the gym, in the supermarket, and while folding laundry. I think if it weren’t for podcasts, I might never fold the laundry because it’s so mind-numbingly boring. Why shouldn’t they during the downtimes in their day?)

I spent the High Holy Days in Ann Arbor where I had the joy and privilege of helping to lead the High Holy Day services at the University of Michigan Hillel. I split my time between Conservative and Reform services, affording me the opportunity to meet and work with a great many students. I’m not easy to impress (ask my kids). I was blown away by these students: they are intelligent and interesting to be sure, but even more, they are kind to one another, respectful of adults, and brimming with ambition wedded to idealism. Most importantly, they are menschen with loving, caring hearts. Yet another confirmation of what I have been seeing in this generation of years. Yet the moment I stepped on the plane to head home, I overheard the pilot and a passenger discussing how going to work is great because you get away from your kids (based on their ages, they both had grown kids) because this generation... bla, bla, bla.

Pirke Avot begins:
Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua; Joshua to the elders; the elders to the prophets; and the prophets handed it down to the men of the Great Assembly. They said three things: Be deliberate in judgment, raise up many disciples, and make a fence around the Torah. (1:1)
We are accustomed to seeing in this mishnah the Rabbis’ claim that Oral Torah (the Talmud) has the same authoritative status as Written Torah (the Five Books of Moses). But let’s look again. For the Rabbis, Moses is Moshe Rabbeinu (“Moses our rabbi”). In this mishnah Joshua is Moses’ successor in Torah. Masechet Sanhedrin envisions Joshua studying in the bet midrash as the Rabbis did. The Rabbis were not projecting themselves back to the generation that stood at Sinai; they were advancing Moses and Joshua forward to the rabbinic period. Perhaps being closer to Sinai was deemed more spiritually powerful, but novelty and innovative thinking were what the Rabbis truly prized.

The first mishnah in Pirke Avot exhorts each generation to “be deliberate in judgment, raise up many disciples, and make a fence around the Torah.” No doubt this advice was meant for the rabbis -- much of Pirke Avot is rabbis talking to rabbis -- but we can also understand this teaching in a broader sense as being directed at us. We have been deliberative in how we raised this generation -- and we are often criticized for our “excessive” involvement in their lives (sometimes rightly so). The result is that this generation is also deliberative in their judgment and, I hasten to say, far less judgmental than their parents. We have raised up many disciples.

Intermarriage and assimilation are neither new nor the only news. If you’re concerned that Judaism will dissolve with this generation, set your worries aside. (Simon Rawidowicz pointed out in "Israel: The Ever-Dying People," an essay written in 1957, that every generation thinks it is the last.) Gen-X has been at the forefront of an explosion of Jewish learning and Jewish spirituality, not to mention progressive and innovative practice. There has been an explosion of independent minyanim among this generation in the past decade. Check out what they’re doing on the internet. They share it with everyone. Take a look at the blogs they keep on Torah, Zionism, social justice, and more. (A few links below.) Their fresh and insightful interpretations of Torah are bubbling, sparking, flowing. They are taking on Torah seriously, doing just what God intended R. Akiba to do when putting the decorations on the letters of the Written Torah: generate new torah. (Menachot 29b)

It’s not that “change is coming.” The universe evolves continually. Change is the way of the world.

The generation entering the Promised Land was born into freedom and enjoyed a broader perspective than their parents who knew only servitude in the tar pits of Egypt. Gen-X and the Millennials were born into a high-tech global world; they too enjoy a broader perspective than their parents. Different generations. Different experiences. Different perspective on the world and their place in it. For what generation is that not true?

Each generation will surely inherit the world. Should it be entrusted to them? The fact that we are here more than 3500 years after Moses turned his staff over to Joshua speaks to the qualifications of the Wilderness generation. In time, Gen-X and the Millennials will have the opportunity to prove themselves. I have every confidence in them. They have my blessing.

May our time in our sukkot help us appreciate the many blessings in our lives, including the next generation.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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