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Rosh Hashanah 5773/2012 Rabbi Jill Perlman  


Rosh Hashanah 5773/2012 Rabbi Jill Perlman

Shanah tovah.

So I am in the middle of a major life transition right now. It began the day that my two two-year-old sons learned to swing their little legs over the side of their cribs. On that day, I knew that we were in trouble.

That’s right. We are in the transition from cribs to toddler beds.

After a successful catapult over the side, my son, Lev was thrilled. The second time, however, landed him with a goose-egg on his noggin and landed his mommy with an anxious soul.

“It’s time for big boy beds,” my husband announced.

And while I knew he was right, part of me just didn’t want to let go of my little babies.

But as has happened on numerous other occasions, they quickly remind me when it is time to grow up and get on with it. When I recently called my other son, Eli “my baby,” he responded resolutely, “I’m not a baby. I’m a kid.”

That’s right, Eli. You are not a little baby anymore. You are growing up and this mother needs to get on board – fast.

The transition to toddler beds has afforded me numerous opportunities to not only mourn my loss, but to anticipate with excitement their future.

As I sit in the dark in their rooms in an attempt to prevent their inevitable nightly escapes from their new beds, I imagine in the quiet moments their futures as boys, as men… as Jewish boys and men – my children as adults.

What will the future hold for them and what can I do to support them on this journey? What is it that we are handing over to our little boys and girls to prepare them to be men and women? Far more than their ABCs and how to kick a ball – what am I doing to help my children walk in this world as careful thinkers and responsible world citizens?

In the limited power that I have – for I know it is ultimately up to them to write their own stories – am I giving them all of the precious resources that I can to allow them to find meaning in this world? Deep, resonant, powerful meaning?

Certainly for me, but I hope for so many of us, I turn to our Jewish tradition for wisdom and guidance.

In this age of tiger mothers and helicopter moms and free-range parenting, what does our tradition have to share about making meaning in this world – and not simply as parents, but as one generation to the next?

I want my children, I want all of our children to have strong roots. Eleazar ben Azariah taught almost two thousand years ago to be careful of “the tree whose branches are numerous, but whose roots are few [for the] wind will come and uproot it and turn it upside down.”[1]

Our responsibility to our children is to help them sustain those roots, to give our saplings all of the resources they need to grow as far and wide and strong as they possibly can.

The rabbis taught that a father was obligated to teach his son torah, a trade and to swim.[2]

Why to swim of all things? To teach a child to swim is symbolic of teaching him the means with which he will be able to save himself. It’s about teaching our children survival skills for the swirling sea of life.

We could ask: instead of teaching our children how to swim, why didn’t the line more simply read a father is obligated to teach his son to avoid water in the first place? That would have been easier, right? Safer?

There are times when my own boys are climbing the play structures across the street and I’m right behind them, probably too close, afraid they’ll fall, wanting to pull them back. And sometimes they do fall and I think to myself: we should’ve just stayed home.

But I know – I know that it is my job to teach my children how to swim rather than how to be afraid of the water.

From our Lurianic Kabbalistic tradition, we learn in the beginning, the very beginning, God was everywhere and was everything and when God wanted to create humanity, wanted to create us, God found that there was simply no room for anything besides God for the divine presence was too powerful and too pervasive.

And so God, as avinu, as the good parent that God is, engaged in a process we know as tzimtzum: God retracted, removed ego and space and pulled back to allow humanity the room to grow and ultimately to flourish.

Our children, too, need room to grow and hopefully to flourish. Each of our children needs us to stay back and retreat at times even when we want to rush forward to offer help – even if it means that our children may get hurt along the way.

And the teaching of tzimtzum can and should be applied more broadly. Eventually, we must retract ourselves as a generation to allow the next its natural place.

I am reminded of the story of the rare, white tiger named Mohini that Dwight Eisenhower received as a gift while he was president. Mohini lived in the Washington Zoo in a 12-by-12 foot cage. After a number of years, the zoo built her a much larger space where she could run, jump, and explore.

But Mohini never adapted to her new home. When she arrived, she marked off for herself a new 12-by-12 foot space and never ventured an inch beyond it. She never explored or enjoyed or was changed by the opportunities just beyond her.

I don’t want our children to live in a 12-by-12 foot space whether it’s one created by us and our expectations and fears, or one of their own making. The story of Mohini starkly illustrates the fears that hold us back, the burdens that hold us down. We keep ourselves isolated because we can be so very afraid of change.

I pray – I pray especially on this day, on Rosh HaShanah, the day of new beginnings – that as my children grow, they will be open to change; I wish it for all of us.

We’re taught that “growth is the key to happiness.”[3] In this season of self-reflection, I pray that we teach our children to grow well beyond the spaces that have been provided for them, to dream much bigger that any 12-by-12 foot cage could possibly contain.

To help them along the way, to enable them to explore and to dream big, I also pray that my children will develop a relationship with God.

There’s a theory in developmental psychology about mothers who are available and responsive to their child's needs early on in life. Since these children already have an established bond and sense of security through their attachment to their mothers, they feel freer to roam farther away from their parents than a child with a less secure bond. They know that if they were truly threatened, their mothers, their safe haven, would be there for them and so they take the risk to move a bit further. They have little fear of being abandoned.[4]

As parents, we are this safe haven and home base for our children. As Jews, we can teach our children, all of our children, of the home base that is both symbolic of us and transcends us.

It can be hard to “teach” God in this way or frankly in any way. I am sure that many of us struggle with the notion of God: who God is, what kind of God we mean… if there is a God.

Talking about God is all the more difficult in today’s culture. In an age when so much information is readily available to us, we have been trained not to engage with a subject unless we know all of the answers. Don’t know something? You just google it. Or you find an expert to teach and train you. But when it comes to God, the experts can help you, but ultimately, it’s a personal journey.

With God, none of us have all of the answers. And we need not have all of the answers in place to begin to talk about God with our children. It’s okay to say, ‘I’m not sure,’ ‘I don’t know,’ ‘I’m still struggling,’ ‘I hope so.’

Yisrael, our people’s namesake literally translates to wrestle with or to struggle with God. We are God-strugglers however we might choose to understand that term.

When we refuse to even engage in talk of God, we are not preparing our children to be fellow God-strugglers; instead, we are merely opting them entirely out of the conversation, stripping them of the language to begin to articulate their questions and beliefs.

I find I can most easily help my children access God in those dark moments before sleep, those vulnerable moments, which for a child can be terrifying or alternatively, a time of profound security. I love those right-before-bed moments with my kids. It’s the time of hugs and kisses and as long as they’ll let me, cuddles.

We reflect back on our day together. When they’re older, I imagine the conversations will be deep and divine. We’ll count our blessings and maybe do a little hard thinking, a little bit of teshuvah about the ways in which we could have acted better that day.

We sing the shema and my boys sing softly (and sometimes really loudly) along. The words of the shema - our central text about God’s unity - and its tune and the way we’ve ritualized it, I hope, communicate to my children their place on this earth and that they are safe and protected even in the darkness.

I am their parent and I am there for them; the analogy to the presence of God in our lives is so easy in the dark.

When they’re still sleepy, but the sun has come up, we sing the traditional line said upon waking: Modeh ani l’fanecha melech chai v’kayam shechezarta b’nishmati b’chemlah rabah emunatecha. It means: “I thank you everlasting source of life for in your compassion you have given me back my soul; great is your faith.”

At two and a half, they don’t quite get the wisdom of these words just yet. The truth is that I’m still fathoming their depth, but I sense that this text speaks to perspective. Modeh ani – I am grateful – this is a mantra that begins the day from a place of gratitude, gratitude that we have one more day to live, gratitude in God’s faith in us, not only our faith in God.

I pray deeply that my children, our children, that we come at this world from a place of gratitude. I pray that they are grateful every day for the life that they are able to lead. If we instill a sense of wonder at life and work hard to maintain and sustain that wonder, that radical amazement[5], then every day will be lived like a gift.

I hope they will be grateful for the heritage that we are passing on l’dor vador and I hope that they, too, will be appropriately concerned about the future of Judaism and the Jewish people… but not and never to the extent that they sell their own Jewish journeys short, that they focus more on the future than on the present, absurdly more on the next generation than their own.

I say this because sometimes I worry about the state of Judaism today. I get worried about creating what sociologists have warned us about for decades now: that American Judaism is morphing into something that has been called pediatric Judaism, a Judaism that is focused solely on the next generation and fails to address the real needs, spiritual and otherwise, of Jewish adults.

Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman (who will be our Scholar-in-Residence in the spring) writes, “In our understandable anxiety to pass on Judaism [to our children] as their heritage, we neglected its spiritual resources for adults, leaving ourselves with no adequate notion of how we too might draw sustenance from our faith as we grow up and grow older… Seeing no models of religious Jewish adulthood, we learned that Judaism is for children… [We] devot[e] all our institutional efforts on their childhood education, while ignoring our own adult needs, so that now, as we are grown, we have little understanding of Judaism as an adult faith, with adult consciousness, adult intellect, and answers to the challenges of adult life. [Synagogues are] largely if not wholly driven by children.”[6]

Well… with this fear so blatantly on the table and named so honestly by a teacher and mentor of mine that I greatly admire, I’m beginning to wonder if the entire premise of my sermon tonight has been misplaced.

Perhaps instead of worrying about the Judaism our children will have, we need to worry more about our own Judaism. Instead of worrying about what will feed our children spiritually, we should be focusing on what will feed us spiritually. By focusing primarily on our children, are we teaching that Judaism is something that we eventually outgrow? Or worse, that the purpose of Judaism is merely to pass it on and not something to be lived? What will their purpose be when they are Jewish adults? To create more Jews? To pass on Judaism to the next generation? If that is all there is, then we are doing something very, very wrong.

It makes sense: our concern for passing Judaism on, especially in an age of alarming statistics, especially when the memories of the Holocaust are still so fresh. We want to ensure the future of our people. But just as much as we can’t live in the past, we also can’t live in the dreams for the future. Instead, let us live our dreams today. This is not a dream too high in heaven to reach, too far across the sea to grasp; this is the dream here and now.

We can dream of a Judaism for the next generation, for our own children that encourages a deep abiding faith in God.

We can dream of a Judaism that encourages change, that recognizes that Judaism has never been static, that it has always been and will always be in flux.

We can dream of a Judaism that gives us the tools to swim not just to gasp for air in the swirling sea of the majority culture.

We can dream of a Judaism of roots and resources.

We can plan for that Judaism for our kids… but is that not also the dream for ourselves? This dream we dream in the dark is big enough to encompass us all.

The famous words of Hillel are ringing in my ears: “If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?”[7]

We are not in this only for ourselves.

However, we must not be in this only for those who came before us and for those who will follow. If not now for ourselves, then when?

By truly living an intellectually honest and a spiritually compelling Judaism, we will naturally inspire the next generation to live their own meaningful Jewish lives.

As flight attendants so cleverly remind us just before we take to the air, we must first secure our own oxygen masks before we can assist others.  

As I sit in the dark beside Lev and Eli’s new big boy beds, their eyelids slowly lowering, I reflect on the most important and precious of all of my dreams for them – and I imagine (or, at least, hope) it’s what we all dream for our children. I want them to be authentically themselves, to always feel okay in their own skins.

I don’t want them to end up like the Chasidic master Zusya who in his vision of his death appeared before God.  Zusya’s anticipated worst fear was that God was going to ask him, “Why weren’t you more like Moses, the great Moses?” But, instead, God asked a question to Zusya that cut even closer to home. God asked: “Zusya… why weren’t you Zusya?”

My children, I hope and pray that you do not spend your days wishing that you were something that you are not, but instead celebrating the amazing you that you are.

As we imagine the new year ahead, I pray the same for all of us gathered here today and for all of our collective children.

I pray: may our children be strengthened by the wisdom and guidance of our traditions – and so may we.

May they have strong enough roots to not be blown over by the weakest wind – and so may we.

May they know how to swim and how to make room for others to grow; may they be open to change, be willing to step into the unknown; may they encounter this world from a place of gratitude; may they feel safe and known and may they discover meaning in this world – deep, resonant, powerful meaning – and so, I pray, may we all.

Ken y’hi ratzon. May it be God’s will.

Shanah tovah.


[1] Eleazar ben Azariah, Pirkei Avot, 3:22.

[2] Paraphrased from Kiddushin 29a.

[3] Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin

[5] Radical amazement is a concept employed by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, spoken about in great detail in his books, Man is Not Alone and God in Search of Man.

[7] Pirkei Avot 1:14