I exited the library last week with a tall pile of books, many of them classics I had read as a child.
As my own children become seasoned readers, I want to encourage them to read the writings that had touched me; that I read over and over again.
This led to me myself revisiting these beloved worlds.
And I marveled at all of the new dimensions that jumped out at me; perhaps because it’s been so long…I think it might be more because we ourselves change over the years.
Chanting the repetitive words of Good Night Moon now with my 3-year-old, I see the appeal of the repetition — pleasurable, predictable, comforting.
Looking at the familiar pictures in The King’s Stilts now in my 30s, I notice the skill in the nuanced drawings.
Reading about Fantine’s plight in Les Miserables now as a mother, makes me understand more the pain in the depths of her soul.
The nostalgia…and the newness of these old books got me thinking about all the different aspects of our childhoods — places, people, friends, foods, music, scents, anecdotes…spirituality…that we might experience years later in a whole different way.
For a lot of Jews, being Jewish growing up meant enjoying the rich cultural aspects of the holiday seasons- sizzling latkes and menorahs on Chanukah, family seders with crispy matzah and horseradish on Passover, crunchy apples dipped in honey on Rosh Hashanah, creamy cheesecake and synagogue on Shavuot.
If reading a children’s book as an adult can give an increased appreciation, let’s surely make a commitment to re-examine Judaism, a deep, spiritual way of life that has worked in sustaining our people for 2,000 years.
There is paramount importance of studying the know-how’s of the traditions, because for any mitzvah/value to be sustained, it must be bound to an action:
How do we testify and stay present in G-d’s protection of the Jewish people? We build a sukkah on Sukkot.
How do we bring spiritual and physical light to the world? We light Shabbat candles.
How do we remember what our mission is for ourselves, our family, and the wider world? We read the Ten Commandments, which encompasses all of the mitzvot, on Shavuot.
The actions feed the soul, and then the deeper dimensions satisfy the mind; we want and need to explore the why’s, too:
Why is a sukkah relevant today?
Why was the mitzvah of lighting candles given to the women?
Why eat the Kabbalistic, mystical hand-made matzah and not the machine-made?
Are we capable of the fiery faith the women projected in Egypt 2,000 years ago?
What does freedom mean to a Jewish woman in today’s world?
Is the traditional Torah still relevant in contemporary times?
For many of us, our Jewish education ended at bar/bat mitzvah and we were not exposed to these deeper messages and ideas behind the practices, behind the very holidays themselves.
Messages and ideas that are directly relevant to the way we think and feel and act…to day-to-day life.
Without the inner meanings as an adult, we might perceive much of Judaism as “kids’ stuff” or solely as a way to stay connected to our families and our past.
Especially today- we know a sophisticated amount about nutrition, psychology and exercise- why should Judaism be any different?
In the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s words, “Being that we live in a more sophisticated world,” we need a more “sophisticated Judaism.”
A Judaism that draws on chassidic and kabbalistic, mystical traditional texts that are deeply satisfying and comforting and a powerful, unchanging prism through which to see our ever-changing world.
I invite you to revisit the holidays and traditions — with the wisdom of our sages, and the wisdom of our personal experiences and years behind us- and take a deeper look at the Judaism that has held billions of Jews in times of happiness and sorrow.
Perhaps through the wealth of learning sites online, or better yet a Torah class with a live teacher.
So we revisit and learn more…then comes the often challenging part: Acting more.
This is why when G-d offered His Torah to the Jewish people, the mystical commentaries tell us that each Jew was gifted with two crowns, for their proclamations in unison: One crown for “We will do,” and another for “We will hear [learn].”
“We will do,” they said first, to establish their commitment to do Judaism; keep its mitzvot even when it’s hard, even when it hurts; and on that firm foundation of action, then, “We will learn,” we will spend a lifetime learning, going deeper and deeper into the teachings and mitzvot, which ripen in the mind with age and further understanding.
(I remember learning this as a child, comprehending it on a purely factual level. As I get older, I increasingly see the importance of this idea of committing to doing before completely understanding. We accept that planes get us safely to our destination without knowing exactly how their huge engines work, and we eat blueberries without verifying under a microscope that they are laden with antioxidants. Because if we did, we’d spend more time trying to understand than traveling or eating blueberries. And Judaism is no different- if we wait until all of Judaism makes perfect sense and all of our questions are answered, we will delay the urgency of action. Of making Judaism- a proven system- a reality in our lives and in the lives of our children).
So Judaism is ultimately adult stuff.
But it’s kids’ stuff too!
In fact, when G-d asked the Jewish people to find guarantors that the Torah will be kept, they immediately offered Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but G-d rejected this idea.
The Jews’ second choice was the prophets…G-d nixed that.
Finally they offered the children, and G-d was satisfied.
As with so many stories of the Torah, this one reflects the story of today.
Our children are still our guarantors.
Untainted and unjaded from decades of challenges and struggles, the sparkle in their eyes as they kiss a mezuzah, and the unbridled enthusiasm as they sing the Shema reflect their wide-open hearts and promise a vibrant future as they embrace the Judaism of their parents and grandparents, enhanced by their individual personality and flavor.
So if you have children, bring them with you to shul on Shavuot for the time-honored tradition of reading the story of how we gathered at Mt. Sinai to hear the Ten Commandments — so that they — and we — can affirm how we can have a relationship with our Creator through His Torah; how we can feel close to one another.
And who knows what new revelation and understanding might jump out at you?
In a favorite song from my childhood, “The Place Where I Belong,” by Abie Rotenberg, a Torah that was discovered in a Poland basement after the Holocaust “sings” of its haunting and beautiful memories, bearing witness to centuries of love and dedication. The Torah talks of its feelings on now being displayed in a sterile case of glass in a museum, and beseeches us to bring it back to its true home, to a shul, where it is actually cherished and read and lived by.
To never let it go.
In its final lyrics:
No matter if you’re very young or even very old
Live by the words you’ll find inside my scroll.