It’s perfectly normal to have anxiety when your child makes the transition from being solely in your care to daycare or preschool. In fact, it’s not so different from the anxiousness Israelites might have felt as they prepared themselves for new leadership after Moshe.
One of my favorite shul memories from my childhood is going with my Zayde to services on Shabbat morning. He had a regular ritual that during the Haftorah he and his friends would disappear from services into the small kitchen for a l’chaim. I remember this was called the “key club” because someone from the group had to provide the keys to let them into the otherwise locked space. The men would enjoy a beverage and a chat during Haftorah, and return to sing their hearts out during Musaf.
Likewise, there was a group of women that had a special ritual too. Toward the end of the service I remember the women exiting to the social hall to set out kiddush.
And the children? We too had our special time, and of course it was the best ritual of all. During the Torah service, I was whisked away on a parade through the sanctuary to a special kids-only space where I could play, pray, and learn without having to be quiet.
What was great about the Shabbat mornings of my memory, and those just like it in synagogues all over, was the emphasis on the idea that Jewish ritual and practice are open to all. Everyone finds a way to connect.
This week we read from parshat Vayelech, which speaks of the difficulty leaders have in transferring over their power. We read of the final days of Moshe and the gift of life he had in living 120 years. The Israelites approach the land promised to them and witness the transfer of “power” to Joshua. Finally, Moshe writes the words of the Torah and passes down the commandment to the Kohanim to read the Torah. Moshe’s final moments with the Israelites are near, and he prepares for this by coming up with a transfer of legacy, tradition, and history.
The Torah teaches us in chapter 31 that as Moshe is going through this transition, he makes the following request to gather the people. “Gather the people, men, women, children and the strangers in your communities – that they may hear and so learn to revere the Lord your God and to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching. Their children too, who have not had the experience, shall hear and learn to revere the Lord your God.” Everyone is invited to learn, and everyone is considered to be an inheritor of our tradition. This also means that we are individually responsible for engaging and enjoying this rich tradition in a personally meaningful way.
Most notably, Moshe mentions the children “who have not had the experience.” It is commanded in the Torah that we bring children into our communities so that they can learn. Imagine Mt. Sinai as the world’s biggest Tot Shabbat. Noisy as it must have been, that idea is what Jewish learning is about.
Whether you come for the l’chaim, the kiddush, the d’var Torah, or the communal davening, the Torah’s lesson this week is that one need only show up to partake. Judaism is for us all, men, women, and children, and the job we share is to gather together to teach, to learn, and to listen so that our beautiful traditions live on.
Change isn’t easy. It has become cliche, but it’s evident whenever circumstances take a directional turn. Think about your last move or even your last spring cleaning. Did you pack up with dispassionate efficiency or did you reminisce as you looked at each piece of paper, book, or memento? Did you purge the old to make room for the new? What seemed like a straightforward process has now taken three times as much energy, and what’s worse, it feels as if you’ve taken steps back and not moved forward at all.
This week we read parshiyot Nitzavim and Vayelech, the two parshiyot that often surround the High Holy days. Parshat Nitzavim reminds us that we always have a choice in life and that the proper path is to repent, to follow the rules, and to generally be good people. Parshat Vayelech teaches us about Moshe’s process to transfer leadership to Joshua, and the final words he will share as the leader of the Israelite nation. Wedged within these words is the commandment of teshuvah, repentance.
The text informs us in chapter 30 that repentance is a mitzvah in its own right. God teaches that if we repent and open our hearts to understanding the wrong we have done and make actual effort to change, then God will bring us comfort, love, and wellbeing. The Torah presents repentance both as an obligation and as something innately human. But, it also understands that this act can be difficult. Chapter 30, verse 11 states, “Surely, this instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach.” The rabbis of the Talmud understood this verse as referring to the entire Torah. God is reminding us that while the laws might seem intricate and complicated, they are exactly within our reach.
The great Medieval commentator Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (RamBaN) narrows the focus of this verse to refer only to the laws of repentance. He teaches that it is difficult to break a bad habit, to fully repent, and to change one’s way of life. And yet, every day there are people who prove that it can be done. In fact, according to RamBaN, repentance is a lot like the give and take of packing. A midrash also offers us the metaphor of a mirror. The figure we see in the mirror seems to be twice as far from us as it really is. But with every step we take toward the mirror, the reflection takes a step toward us. So it is with repentance. Our goal seems so far off, but God says to us, “Take one step toward Me, and I will do the same and meet you halfway.”
In this season of repentance, we are reminded that life is a give and take. In order for this to work in any relationship, you must make the first move, the first step towards giving. Whether in regard to decluttering a space, mending existing relationships, or even getting through life day by day, meeting each other halfway can make all the difference in the world.