My sermon for Shabbat Naso:
Today we celebrate our teachers, and our students. We have just finished celebrating Shavuot, the giving of the Torah at Sinai, and there are some important midrashim about how we all stood at Sinai, even those yet unborn. So all of us, even our children, and their children-to-be and their children-to-be. We learn that G-d created different sounds, different voices, even one for young children so they would not be frightened. We learn that when G-d was looking for a nation to give the Torah the Divine went to all the nations first. Then G-d went to the Israelites and asked what they would offer as their guarantor. What is a guarantor? Something that guarentees the promise. If you do x I will do y, but if you don’t do x as you promise then you will guarantee it with something worthwhile. Let’s listen in on this conversation:
Rabbi Meir said: When the Jews stood before Sinai to receive the Torah, G‑d said to them: “I swear, I will not give you the Torah unless you provide worthy guarantors who will assure that you will observe its laws.”
The Jews responded, “Master of the world, our forefathers, our ancestors, will be our guarantors!” “Your guarantors themselves require guarantors!” answered G-d.
“Master of the world,” the Jews exclaimed, “our prophets will guarantee our observance of the Torah.” “I have grievances against them, too. ‘The shepherds have rebelled against Me’ (Jeremiah 2:8),” G‑d replied. “Bring proper guarantors and only then will I give you the Torah.”
As a last resort, the Jews declared, “our children will serve as our guarantors!”"They truly are worthy guarantors,” G‑d replied. “Because of them I will give the Torah.” (Midrash Rabba, Song of Songs 1:4)
Since our children are our guarentors, we have an obligation to teach them, to teach them diligently as we just read in the V’havata. V’shinatam l’vanecha, literally to set our children’s teeth on edge.
That is what our teachers do here, day in and day out. They make Judaism interesting and fun. They take an ancient tradition and make it relevant. They set our children’s teach on edge so that they ask questions. Much of Judaism is set up so that we will ask questions. My father’s definition of a Jew, you’ve heard me say this before—even as recently as last night is someone who questions thinks and argues. There is the old joke about the Jewish kid who comes home from school and the question the mother asks is not “What did you learn in school today?” but “What good question did you ask.
Children do this naturally. Why is the sky blue? Why do I have to go to bed? Why is this night different from all other nights? Why? Why? Why? There is a child-like innocence to what they are asking. They are naturally curious and want to know more. They accept the answers they are given. We as teachers, therefore, need to be very careful to give them answers that they won’t later need to reject.
We want them to understand their tradition. To learn about the range of religious observance. How to light Shabbat candles and make Kiddush, for sure, but also why we set Shabbat aside and make it holy. Why in this 24×7 culture we need a day for rest. That G-d worked very hard to create the world and then G-d rested. Even G-d needed rest.
We want them to learn to be ethical people, to be mensches. To not be mean. To not bully. We want them to be kind. In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man (Pirke Avot). To welcome the widow, the orphan, the stranger because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. To feed the hungry, clothe the naked, rejoice with the bride and groom, to console the bereaved. To become lifelong learners.
Another story teaches us about the role of Moses as teacher:
Rav Yehuda quoted Rav: When Moses ascended to the heights [to receive the Torah] he found God sitting and drawing crowns upon the letters. Moses said to God, “Master of the Universe, what is staying Your hand [from giving me the Torah unadorned]?”
God replied, “There is a man who will arise many generations in the future, his name is Akiva ben Yosef. He will interpret mound upon mound of halachot (laws) from each and every marking.”
Moses requested, “Master of the Universe, show him to me.” God said, “Turn backwards [and you will see him].”
Moses [found himself in R. Akiva's classroom where he] sat at the back of the eighth row. He didn’t understand what they were talking about and felt weak. Then, they came to a matter about which the students asked Akiva, “Rabbi, how do you know this?” He told them, “It is the [oral] law given to Moses at Sinai.” Moses felt relieved. (Talmud Menachot 29b)
The children aren’t the only guarantors of the Torah. The adult who dedicates himself or herself to teaching the Torah to our children, to figuring out the answers to their questions, complicated questions like, “Who was Noah’s wife?” “What happened to the fish on Noah’s ark?” “Why is G-d so mean?, in asking about why G-d was willing to flood the earth or destroy Sodom and Gemorah. “What is the meaning of life?” “Why did the Holocaust happen?”
Last week our students looked at Pirke Avot, the Wisdom or the Ethics of our Fathers. It is traditional to study this between Passover and Shavuot, on Shabbat afternoon during the Omer. For some it is the first peace of Talmud we learn. Each student picked a verse that resonated with them. One of our students picked, “Acquire for yourself a friend, make for yourself a teacher.” Each student had to explain why what they found was important to him. This student looked up and said, because that is what we do here. Mr. Sternfeld is my teacher and these are my friends and my mother passes down this legacy to me, l’dor vador. I had planned to teach this verse if no one else picked it. I couldn’t have said it better. It is a great example of another piece of Talmud that I quote often: Much I have learned from my teachers, even more from my colleagues and the most from my students. (Ta’anit 7a)
In the service there is a special Kaddish d’Rabbanan, the Scholar’s Kaddish said after a rabbi, a teacher, teaches something new. Open your siddurim to page 74. It is right there, early in the service. Debbie Friedman set it to music. I offer it on behalf of all our teachers, and their students.
“For our teachers and their students
And the students of the students.
We ask for peace and lovingkindness.
And let us say: Amen.
And for those who study Torah, Here and everywhere, May they be blessed with all they need, And let us say: Amen. We ask for peace and lovingkindness, And let us say: Amen.”
Today in congregations around the Jewish world, we read Birkat HaCohanim, the priestly benediction. We said it last night for Anthony our newest member of the tribe. We say it on Friday nights as we bless our children. We use it at weddings, at B’nei Mitzvah. Some congregations use it as part of the Shabbat amidah. Some congregations let the hazzan do it. Others have a tradition of allowing the cohanim present to duchen, to bless the congregation with these important words. Some congregations don’t do that because it can make for more stratified congregation. There are two competing teshuvot by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards carrying equal weight. That leaves the decision up to the rabbi, the mara d’atra, the master of the place. As far as I can tell, this congregation has not had the cohanim duchen, but in the spirit of life-long learning, I call up all of our cohanim to offer this special prayer together. A blessing is a reward. Something we receive if we’ve done well. Our teachers have done well, very very well. It is also a hope, something we hope for in the future. There could be no better blessing for those who we entrust with teaching our children, our precious legacy.
Yivarechecha v’yishmarecha. May G-d bless you and keep you. Guard you and watch over you.
Ya’er Adonai panav elecha v’chunecha, May G0d cause divine light to shine upon you and be gracious to you.
Yisa Adoani panav elecha v’yasem l’cha shalom. May G-d turn towards you and grant you peace. Now and forever, amen.