D'var Torah for Parshat Re'eh:
Back when I was a college student, I studied Psychology, so I’d like to take a minute now to play a little psychology game with you. When I say the following three things, I want you to think of the first thing that pops into your head. (You can certainly close your eyes if you think it will help you concentrate on your answer, as long as you promise that you won’t fall asleep during my talk!)
Raise your hand if the word Passover made you think of Matzah….Seder…Those Passover marshmallows covered with coconut?
We all have some shared associations that we make with the three big holidays in our Jewish calendar. Interestingly, the three holidays are mentioned in this week’s Parsha and yet in the Torah they look nothing like what we celebrate today. There is an entire section of the Torah portion devoted to describing the celebration of Passover and not once does it mention setting the seder table using your Bubbe’s finest china or crystal glasses. I could not find, in any of my research, whether Rashi approves or disapproves of putting sour cream on your blintzes or if hanging a garland of plastic fruits and vegetables in our sukkah is a law or a minhag/custom.
At the end of this week’s parsha, it talks about Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot--the Shalosh Regalim, —the tri-annual festivals when the Israelites made their pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem to worship, thank and praise G-d by bringing gifts from the yield of their fields and making animal sacrifices. We have maintained the observance of these holidays over the years, but since we no longer offer sacrifices and we no longer have the Temple in Jerusalem, our observances look very different from those described in the Torah. Over the years, these holidays have evolved and taken on a new form for us, while still maintaining the rhythm of the yearly cycle. The holidays are still relevant to us, but the practices have transformed. In this case, a lot of these variations are a result of societal changes. Sure, we may enjoy a good barbecue, but this is very different from the ritual sacrifice that our ancestors took part in. It is not acceptable or desirable to slaughter our own animals as a way of giving thanks to G-d, let alone the fact that this was all to take place in the Temple, which no longer exists. Also, the laws were based on the Israelites all living in the land of Israel. We obviously do not all live there.
6 years ago I realized that as an adult I was finding relevance in modern Judaism, but I was having some trouble finding age-appropriate literature which helps children find this relevance. And so my personal journey began. Believe it or not, it all began right here in this building (The old version of this building, anyway)--in the Victor Hall to be exact.
When my youngest son was in preschool here at the Aleph School, I was volunteering at the annual book fair. I had signed up to help set up the fair and I was asked to help put together the table of Jewish books. It was a round table and on one side of the table we were to put all the younger children’s picture books. On the other side of the table were the older-kid books. There were many, many wonderful picture books for the preschoolers that were bright, exciting, shiny and fun. There were books about Chanukkah, Passover and Rosh Hashanah. In other words, there was a wonderful selection for the younger kids. On the other side, there were a few Jewish cookbooks and a handful of chapter books for older kids. Almost all of those books were somehow related to our shared history: the shtetl, Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, including Anne Frank’s Diary. There were non-fiction books about Jewish Sports stars, what it means to be Jewish or biographies about famous Jews such as Albert Einstein. It was a far cry from the shiny, colorful books on the other side of the table. I did realize that it was a book fair at a preschool and I figured that that must be why there was such an imbalance in favor of the picture books. However, it set off a light bulb in my head and it led me to go to the library and the internet to see what sort of books there were for older kids that moved away from the non-fiction, information books and the books about our history and simply celebrated what is great about being Jewish today. What makes being Jewish relevant to today’s kids. I was looking for the bright, shiny, fun and exciting books for the post-picture book crowd. What I found was that there was a great big, cavernous void in our Jewish literary world for kids.
My wish for you as we embark on this new year, 5772, is that you continue to realize and create the relevance that our tradition offers us in your own life.