this a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 11/7/15 – I am hoping to address some of the issues raised in the sermon through this blog over the next couple of weeks –
It was in 1997, now 18 years ago, when Alan Dershowitz published a book entitled ‘the Vanishing American Jew.’ The book was Dershowitz’s reaction to looking around at the Jewish community of the late 90s and not liking what he saw. Fundamentally, he was worried about Jewish continuity – the ability of the community to maintain its distinctive identity from one generation to the next. When the book hit the stands Dershowitz joined a long list of Jews throughout the centuries who have bemoaned the state of the Judaism of their time, worrying that in one way or another, theirs would be the last generation to truly care about living a Jewish life and preserving that life for the next generation.
That list of Jews is so long that it goes all the way back to the Torah itself, and the ancient and unknown author who put together the text that we still read to this day. It is easy to argue that Jewish continuity, if not the central concern of the Torah, is one of its top two or three priorities. Think for a moment just in the book of Genesis that we are reading right now, with all of its stories about the birth of children and how difficult it is to bring children into the world. And why is that such a crucial issue? Because if you don’t have children, you don’t have a next generation to carry on the Covenant that God began with Abraham. At its essence Genesis is a story of continuity – of the difficulties and challenges of transmitting that covenant from one generation to the next.
Without question that is precisely the central concern in this morning’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah. Sarah’s death is recorded in the second verse of the portion, and it sets into motion a series of actions undertaken by Abraham that are all focused on the issue of continuity. The first thing Abraham does is to purchase land, to create a familial homestead, in and of itself something that establishes a sense of identity that can run through generations. But the second thing Abraham does is what? He goes about the process of ensuring that Isaac his son will be married, so that there will be a next generation – Abraham’s grandchildren – with the potential of carrying the covenant forward. And so the Torah tells the long and somewhat convoluted story of Abraham sending his servant out into the world, making him promise he’ll return with a suitable wife for Isaac.
God actually gives Abraham a promise of continuity five times in the Torah. In chapters 12, 13, 15, 17, and 22 of Genesis God tells Abraham, variously, that he will become a great nation, that he will be the father of many nations, that his descendants will number either like the stars of the sky or the sands at the sea, or both. Abraham seems to take God at God’s word, but the reader knows that the reality doesn’t quite match the beautiful picture that God paints. Abraham doesn’t have many children, he has two – Ishmael, the son of Hagar, who is estranged from his father, and Isaac, Sarah’s son. When Abraham dies, at the end of this morning’s portion, the question of whether the covenant will be carried into the next generation is very much still on the table. It will remain so throughout the rest of the Bible, with each generation facing its own particular threats, with each generation struggling to keep that covenant alive.
We might very well say that that question is still on the table today. Dershowitz’s book was an example, but anyone who spends any time in the professional Jewish community knows that ‘continuity’ is a buzz word that is constantly bandied about. The truth is much of what Dershowitz wrote in his book 18 years ago was prophetic – intermarriage rates have continued to rise precipitously, synagogue affiliation rates have dropped, and traditional Jewish behavior – like engaging in home rituals – has decreased. Arguably today we have the most poorly Jewishly educated population that we’ve had in modern times. And Jewish identity seems to be morphing into something that is based on ethnicity more than faith – if you will – on bagels more than belief. We might very well sit here today, looking out at the Jewish landscape, and wonder – like Abraham probably did so long ago – how will God’s promises of a Jewish community that is like the stars in the sky ever come to pass when instead the very opposite seems to be happening?
Abraham’s story and this morning’s Torah portion may give us at least one answer to that question. When he feels that the covenant is most threatened, when Sarah is gone, and Isaac is unmarried, and Abraham has no heirs, he does not pray to God, he does not remind God of the promises that God made, and ask God to fulfill them. Instead, he acts. He puts all of his resources into finding a solution to his problem. He sends his servant to find Isaac a wife. He even marries again, and has six more children with his second wife, just in case things with Isaac don’t work out. Normally when we read Abraham’s story, we think in our minds ‘Abraham was depending on God to make sure the promises of continuity came true.’ But I would argue that in fact it was the opposite – God was depending on Abraham to ensure that there would be a next generation, and a generation after that. God was depending on Abraham to plant the seeds so that one day the Jewish people truly would be as numerous as the stars in the night sky.
And I would say it is the same for us today. The question of Jewish continuity is not something that God will resolve. Instead, it is a challenge for each generation of Jews to face in their own way in their own time. And somehow, in someway, each generation has been successful, and Judaism has survived. Now it is our turn. And the responses to the challenge are all around us. The Jewish renewal movement is one. Growth in adult education programming is another. A process of reimagining what a synagogue might be, how services take place, what it means to have a bar or bat mitzvah, how Hebrew school is structured, a new focus on social action programming, the Birthright program to bring college age Jews to Israel, organizations like Makor in LA, or the Sixth and I synagogue in DC with its contemporary speakers and music series, the formation of a Healing and Spirituality Center here at Beth El – the list could go on and on, but you get the point.
Like Abraham so long ago, the community is putting all of its resources – not only financial, but its creative resources, its intellectual acumen, its passion for Judaism and Jewish life – all of these resources are being brought to bear on our generation’s challenge of continuity. What in the end will happen – what being Jewish will mean to young Jews, what synagogue life will be like, what the Federation world will be like – we really don’t know at this point. But that it will be – that there will be a next generation of young Jews, to take up their generation’s challenge of continuity – of that I have no doubt.
May the work that we are doing today build the foundation that our children and grandchildren can stand on to carry our ancient tradition far into the future –