In the Torah portion for this week, Bo, Pharaoh offers Moses a deal. The adults, the grown-up Israelites can leave Egypt, but the children, the kids-they must remain in bondage. Moses refuses the offer and three more devastating plagues follow in quick succession. The Sages are intent on parsing every bit of meaning from this episode. They decide that the key to understanding this passage is the focus on the children. Without the children, without the next generation, liberty is meaningless. Unless “we bring the children with us” (as one commentator says) the future of the Jewish people is lost. Hence, our three thousand year focus on education as the key to Jewish continuity and survival.
I serve a very large congregation. But- I treat every child that comes across my path no differently than those with whom I worked when I served a tiny congregation of several dozen families. Every child I help prepare for Bar and Bat Mitzvah gets my individual attention and concern. Every one. When it comes to offering words to that child on their special day-I sometimes prepare for hours about how best to make that moment special and unique for that child-even though I may speak to 100 children every year.
In this, I think I am no different from most of my colleagues. We all care deeply. Yet I wonder-did my work, my effort make a difference? When the Bar or Bat Mitzvah is over, and the memories begin to fade, did my effort to connect with that child as a unique individual make any sort of impression? Our lives are impossibly busy, almost pathologically busy, and many parents do not have the time or the opportunity to share their thoughts or feelings about that day. The kids themselves quickly go back to the endless round of homework, sports, music, dance, etc. Did anything I said or did on that day, or on the days spent in discussion and study make any mark that is lasting? I don’t know. I rarely get feedback.
The leaders of the American Jewish community now speak almost entirely in the language of marketing, communications, and selling. We are taught at seminars that we are supposed to be trying to create “meaningful moments” and build a “relational Judaism”. In the 90’s we were told we were to be “change agents”. Now we are to be rabbinic entrepreneurs, using the techniques of the marketplace to teach and inspire. We are taught that a family that leaves the congregation has been “un-inspired” by us. So be it. I fully accept that if a child loses interest in Judaism following their experience with me, it is partly and unequivocally, my fault.
But, still, I’d love to know if my efforts are helping to “bring the children with us”.