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Yitro 5767-2007

“Will Our Children be Our Guarantors?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Yitro, the glorious Revelation takes place at Mt. Sinai, at which G-d delivers the Torah to the Children of Israel.

Pyrotechnics aside, at least according to the Midrash, the process of giving the Torah to the Jewish people was not a simple one. The very idea of giving the Torah exclusively to the Jews was troubling to the rabbis, implying that G-d favors the Jewish people over all the nations of the world. The Midrash responds to this apparent blatant discrimination by stating that G-d went from nation to nation offering them the Torah, but each nation rejected G-d’s offer due to something objectionable they found in the document.

The rabbis assert that the children of Esau could not abide by the Torah commandment of not murdering, since it was said of Esau that he would live by the sword. The children of Amon and Moab would not accept the precept of not committing adultery. After all, their entire existence was based on an incestuous relationship. The children of Ishmael could not live with the commandment of not stealing, because theft was their ancestral “heritage.” After offering the Torah to all the nations, each of whom rejected it, the Al-mighty went to the Children of Israel who responded enthusiastically (Exodus 24:7): “Na’ah’seh v’nish’mah,” We will do and we will understand!

In this manner, the rabbis of the Midrash assert that G-d did not unfairly reject the nations of the world, but rather the nations of the world rejected G-d. Similarly, the Al-mighty did not unfairly choose the Jewish people; it was, after all, the Jewish people who chose G-d.

Another Midrashic text found in Midrash Tanchumah, parashat Vayigash number 2, similarly underscores the difficulties that G-d encountered in the process of giving the Torah to the Children of Israel:

When G-d wanted to give the Torah to the People of Israel, He said to them, “Accept my Torah.” They responded: “Yes.” He said to them, “Give me a guarantee that you will fulfill the Torah.” They said, “We give you Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, they will be our guarantors.” G-d said to them, “The patriarchs themselves need guarantors” [after all, each of them expressed doubts at one time or another in their lives]. The Jewish people responded, “Take our children. They will be our guarantors.” G-d immediately accepted the children as guarantors and gave the Torah to the people of Israel. That is why, when the People of Israel neglect the Torah, G-d holds the Children of Israel accountable.

Because of their story-like quality, Midrashim are often perceived of as fairy tales. But despite their fantasy-like nature, Midrashim always communicate profound messages. Clearly there really are no more significant guarantors for the Jewish people than young Jews. Children represent the future, the posterity and eternality of the Jewish people. The Midrash even implies that children are more reliable guarantors than the great patriarchs themselves. That is why educating Jewish children properly must be the number one priority in Jewish life.

As one who has dedicated his life to reaching out to non-committed Jews, which is of course an important priority in Jewish life, I, nevertheless, unequivocally state that educating Jewish children is the number one priority in Jewish life. Certainly one of the significant causes for the breakdown of Jewish life in America and the sweeping assimilation, is the fact that most Jewish children in the United States receive only a minimal Jewish education, and far too often, receive no Jewish education at all.

It is hard to believe that the wealthiest community in all of Jewish history does not have a “Mega Fund” to guarantee an intensive Jewish education for every Jewish child in America. It is hard to believe that teachers and pedagogues in Jewish schools are often not paid reasonable living wages. It is hard to believe that our educators and principals are looked upon with disdain and disrespect, that our Jewish school buildings are neglected and that our teachers often do not have proper health or life insurance. If our children don’t have quality teachers and receive a quality education, how can they be guarantors of a Jewish future? How can the Jewish people say, “We will do and we will understand” if there is no one to teach them how to properly do, or how to understand even the most fundamental aspects of Jewish life.

It’s almost pathetic to see what issues outrage the American Jewish community. Mel Gibson’s movies, Jimmy Carter’s books or a holocaust denial conference in Iran are intolerable! But there is nary a whimper when our local Jewish federations cut subsidies for Jewish education, almost entirely. There is no outrage when our teachers can’t afford to pay their own children’s tuition. There is no dismay when our leaders spend millions of dollars on holocaust centers, but can’t find the funds to develop proper curricular materials for our schools.

It’s time for our leaders to take stock and acknowledge that unless we guarantee quality educators for our children we will be unable to guarantee Jewish posterity in North America. As long as the best and the brightest, even among the committed, knowledgeable and traditional Jewish community do not see a career in Jewish education as a viable option because the profession is so widely disrespected, then we will have no real future.

May you be blessed.