Frederick L. Klein

Shavuot Our Children are our Greatest Guarantors

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This year has been a year of deep uncertainty for Jews around the world.  Yet, if we can speak of any silver lining in such a dark time, it is that Jews have experienced a resurgence in Jewish identity.  This evidence is not simply based on anecdotal evidence.  A recent study commissioned by the Jewish Federations of North America with support from the Diane and Guilford Glazer Foundation, uncovered what they called “The Surge.”  Of those 83% who identified as ‘only somewhat’, “not very,” or “not at all engaged, “ a full 40% are now showing up in different ways.  This trend includes all ages and demographics, and while many want to learn more about Israel, the most important thing these people seek is powerful community.  Of those 64% who do not belong to synagogues, a full 37% now express an openness to joining.[1] The trend among the 17% of what the study called ‘The Core’ is even more pronounced.

It is clear that the motivating factor driving this renewed identification is the rising antisemitism and the realization that the fate of the Jewish people is more intertwined than we might have thought, what Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik famously called, brit goral, the covenant of fate.  While our Israeli brethren directly experienced the shock and horror of October 7, the reverberations quickly consumed the entire Jewish world. As one Israeli thought leader said to me, “Before October 7, we faced and very divided and splintered Jewish community- Israeli Jews and diaspora Jews, religious Jews and secular Jews, Ashkenazi Jews and Sephardi Jews, Jerusalem Jews and Tel Aviv Jews, right-wing Jews and left-wing Jews.  After the indiscriminate murder and brutality of October 7, we learned that these differences on a larger canvas meant little.  To many in the world, we are simply Jews.”   Especially for many American Jews, whose primary story has been one of integration and acculturation, if not assimilation, recent events have shaken many to the core.

Thus, the renewed interest in Jewish life and Jewish community affords us a special opportunity.  However, today I want to address the notion of engagement as it pertains to each of us- individuals and families.  Indeed, the primary metaphor for speaking about the Jewish people is not a sociological category, but a biological category.  We are a family- whether one was born a Jew or has decided to join the family through conversion, becoming the children of ‘Abraham and Sarah.”  In truth,  the challenge of October 7 impacts each of us on the most personal level.   As such, each of us individually must face a question: how will we capitalize on this moment for ourselves and those who inhabit our sphere of influence?   What kind of community should we build that will provide Jews with the resilience required for the coming years ahead.  As before, Jews seek meaning, and more than ever our community needs to respond.

This week, Jews celebrate Shavuot, which for many Jews is sadly celebrated in its complete neglect.  Shavuot lacks the pageantry of sukkot or the rich rituals of Passover, but this nondescript holiday makes up for this lack in the significance afforded to it by the Rabbinic sages.  Shavuot marks the day of the revelation of the Torah at Sinai, the day that the entire people gained a sense of mission and direction.  In other words, a sense of meaning.  The daily Shema asks us that the words of the Torah ‘commanded today,’ should be upon your heart.  Of course, the commandments were not commanded today, but centuries ago.  The Rabbis tell us that every day must be ‘as if’ they were commanded today.  Perhaps we do not have elaborate rituals on this day because we are not asked to recreate an event in the distant past but use the day to express a truth for us in the immediate present.  Revelation, Torah, the creation of our holy purpose is a project from generation to generation.  Thus, the challenge of Shavuot is in truth the challenge of creating a sense of holy purpose and meaning which ennobles each of us.  Furthermore, if the Torah is the inheritance of the Jewish people, and not simply each of us as individuals, we need to find ways to transmit it to the next generation in powerful ways.

The rabbinic tradition often compares the Torah to God’s most precious possession, so exalted and beautiful that some midrashim describe God struggling to bequeath it to mere mortals.  The upshot of the image is that the Torah conveys infinite significant to the Infinite One, and thus by us receiving the Torah we are the stewards of this truth.  Will the people care for it appropriately? God is so enamored by His Torah that in one midrash, attributed to Rabbi Meir, God demands that the people provide guarantors that they will fulfill it.  If this is true, than the Torah is not really given to the Jewish people, but rather they become the Torah’s guardians.  The Torah is not a gift as much as a responsibility.

Rabbi Meir said: When the Israelites stood before Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, the Holy One blessed be He said to them: ‘Am I giving you the Torah without assurance? Rather, bring Me good guarantors that you will observe it, and I will give it to you.’….’ They said before him: ‘Master of the universe, our ancestors [the Patriarchs] will become guarantors for us.’ The Holy One, blessed be He, said to them: ‘I have [claims against] your ancestors. Abraham, I have [a claim] against him, as he said: “How will I know [I shall inherit the Land]” (Genesis 15:8). Isaac, I have [a claim] against him, as he loved Esau, and I hated him, as it is stated: “And Esau I hated” (Malachi 1:3); Jacob, who said: “My way is hidden from the Lord” (Isaiah 40:27). Rather, bring me effective guarantors and I will give it to you.’

… They said: ‘Our children are guaranteeing for us.’ The Holy One blessed be He said: ‘They are certainly good guarantors, I will give it to you on their account.’ That is what is written: “From the mouths of infants and sucklings You founded strength” (Psalms 8:3), and strength means only Torah, as it is stated: “The Lord will give strength to His people” (Psalms 29:11).

This is an incredible midrash.  It is clear that God doubts whether the people will guard His precious possession, so the people invoke the Patriarchs as the guarantors.  How precisely do the dead patriarchs serve as guarantors?  The implied assumption is that the Jewish people are the descendants of the righteous founders of the family, and even if they err, they carry within them the righteous spirit of the past and ultimately will return to God.[2]

However, God’s response is instructive.  In each of the patriarchs, there are moments in which they prove themselves faithless to God!  The midrash has God replying, “I have claims against them!” If so, how can they guarantee the Torah’s observance any more than the people right now!  The midrash continues (not quoted above) with the Jewish people appealing to other prophets of the past, and God replies in the same way.  Like the patriarchs, they too will have moments of faithlessness.  In both cases, appealing to the past, assuming that what has already passed will ensure the future observance of the Torah is rejected.  Every generation- even the righteous patriarchs of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob- have moments when they were unworthy and therefore could not serve as its guarantor.  The upshot for us is that we cannot depend on our past traditions to carry us forward into the future.  Our Torah will not simply survive because we are loyal to a real or imagined past. That idyllic past in truth is an imagined past; the past also had challenges, and thus the true spirit of the Torah even in the past was never fulfilled either.

The people then say their children will vouch for the Torah.  They will serve as its guarantors.  Unexpectedly, God accepts the children, “the infants and sucklings” as guarantors that the Torah will be cherished and fulfilled appropriately.  The proof?  The midrash instructs us that from mere mortals, from mouths of babies, God founded ‘strength’ in this world (Psalms 8:3), and the word ‘strength’ is an allusion to the Torah in Psalm 89.  Thus, it is based upon the children- the unrealized future and not the distant past- that God agrees to bequeath God’s greatest gift.

The second half of the midrash also warrants deep reflection.  In what way can an infant be a guarantor of anything?  Here, I believe the implication is that children are born pure, sinless, with the Torah inside of them already.  However, that Torah is only a Torah in potential, a Torah which has yet to been realized in the world of action.  If I am correct, the implication of the midrash is that every generation- including ours- has the seeds to bring the entire Torah to fruition.  Our children, the future, is the key.  When we look at the next generation, we see within them the potential to truly bring the ideals of Torah to actuality.  We should not wax romantic about the past, but be forward looking, seeing in the next generation the key to redemption.  This notion, that our children become our own guarantors that the values of our Torah will be realized, empower us to take action in the present to ensure our children aspire to lives of deeper spiritual value and meaning.   Thus, as parents and as communities, we need to create thick Jewish personalities, Jews that are rooted in our spiritual mission.

Many Jews take pride in the achievements of their children- whether they are intellectual or professional.  However, do we take pride in the spiritual achievements of our kids- their moral development, their sense of compassion and righteousness, their connection to Jewish life, their spiritual journeys?  On the day that we mark the revelation at Sinai, it is important for each of us to ask a fundamental question.  How central is that value to our own lives, and how important is it that we transmit this great spiritual heritage to the next generation?

Recently, I heard a teenager tell an inspiring story after returning from the March of the Living in Poland.  While outside of Auschwitz, one of the rabbis had asked if he had put on tefillin that day.  The young man, a child in public high school,  responded that not only had he not put on tefillin that morning, but had never put on tefillin in his life.  He agreed to put them on and felt overwhelmed in a way he could not describe.  Perhaps the words of Hosea, recited when putting the tefillin on, spoke to him. “I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion.”  Perhaps at that moment he realized to be a Jew is not simply to be hated by the rest of the world, or even to wave an Israeli flag, but to be covenanted to be like God, to emulate ‘righteousness and justice, love and compassion.”  As a teenager, he did not say these words explicitly; I am sure he did not have the language to say this.  He did, however, feel that his life at that moment as a Jew forever changed.  He decided at that moment he would put on tefillin every day.  The rabbi raised the money and gifted him a pair of tefillin.  I am confident that for this young man, this is a beginning of a spiritual journey.  Clearly the story of the Holocaust and the present moment awoke him to the fact that he was different, but I believe what will keep him engaged ultimately is the tefillin, the binding of himself to an historic and spiritual mission.

Thus, it is not merely more engagement that is needed at this moment, but also the types of engagement required.  The most important engagements are not the ones that are ‘accessible’ or ‘low bar requirements’, but rather engagements that respect the truth that both we and our children seek spiritual meaning and mission in this world and seek a way of living which challenges us to grow.  We ultimately create an identification with the Jewish people when we have a sense that our lives make a difference, that our personal stories contribute in a fundamental way to the collective Jewish story.

To do this, we need to raise the bar for ourselves, our families and our communities.  Here are a few discrete ways:  1) We need to spend time every day in study or prayer, to carve out time to deepen our identification with our Torah.  For me, I make time to study with my children Torah every week, and this ritual has enabled me to understand them on deeper levels, as well as to impart to them what I believe is important in life.  I consider these times the holiest times of my week. 2) Shabbat is a critical dimension of Jewish observance, as for twenty-four hours we detach from our regular lives to engage in ritual, study, celebration and prayer, renewing our own sense of spiritual self which can be compromised in the chaotic world in which we live.  We can also carve out time to have conversations of meaning with our families and those we love.  3) Ironically, there are more Jewish resources today than ever before, but many Jews remain illiterate, especially as it relates to the Hebrew language.  Hebrew not only opens up deeper understanding within our tradition and Torah, but a better appreciation of our brethren in the State of Israel.  4) In the Orthodox community in which I live, almost all kids go to Israel for a gap year after high school, a year which strengthens their commitment to our people and our Torah.  In my estimate, this should be a goal for all our kids and institutions should be established that reflect all the values of our diverse community.  In gap year programs in Israel among all Jewish peers, Jewish young adults engage in immersive experiences which simply cannot happen in the United States.   5) We need to make sure kids after bar and bat mitzvah are in programs where they continue to study and learn Jewish values.  In truth, education truly begins after the bar or bat mitzvah, not ends.  High school and college years are the years of identity formation, where we establish our values in the world.  The understanding of Judaism conveyed to us as twelve-year-olds in no way will be able to deepen our commitments or even be meaningful.

Each of us, coming from different communities, will need to decide for ourselves how to engage ourselves and our families on a deeper level.  Shavuot is the day we did not ‘receive’ the Torah, but rather the day we became stewards of the Torah.  On Shavuot we became partners with God to bring about a holier and more just world. On Shavuot we promised God that our own children would be our guarantors. We believe in the future and we invest in this future.  Especially during the dark times in which we find ourselves, we need to remind ourselves that the real history of the Jewish people begins with Sinai and ends with the redeemed world.  May this time come speedily in our days and may each of us in our unique commitments play a role in bringing that about.

Chag Sameach



[1] See ‘The Surge,’ ‘The Core’ and more: What you need to know about the explosion of interest in Jewish life – eJewishPhilanthropy

[2] This is a variation of the theme of the merit of the fathers, zekhut avot, but in that case we appeal to God for forgiveness even if unworthy because of the merit of those who came before us.

About the Author
Fred Klein is Director of Mishkan Miami: The Jewish Connection for Spiritual Support, and serves as Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami. In this capacity he oversees Jewish pastoral care support for Miami’s Jewish Community, train volunteers in friendly visiting and bikkur cholim, consult with area synagogues in creating caring community, and organize conferences on spirituality, illness and aging. As director of the interdenominational Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami, Fred provides local spiritual leadership with a voice in communal affairs. He has taught at and been involved with the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, Hebrew College of Boston, the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, CLAL– The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is Vice President for the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America, former Chair of the Interfaith Clergy Dialogue of the Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews, and formerly served on the Board of the Neshama: the Association of Jewish Chaplains.
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