Category Archives: Baltimore

Summer Stillness

A gentle breeze was blowing when I found Rabbi Loeb sitting on the wooden bench outside of our chapel.  It was late on a Shabbat afternoon, at the end of a gorgeous summer day, not too hot, not too cool, just exactly right.  In a short while the evening service would begin, the Torah would be read, havdallah chanted.  But in some magical way time seemed to stop.  Rabbi Loeb, always running, always with a next thing, always with a deadline, was relaxed and peaceful.  He looked at the flowers, the green grass, the leaves in the trees, at the edifice of the building that housed the congregation he had served for decades.  He looked up at the blue sky, just beginning to darken to a deeper shade in the east.

I sat down on the bench next to him.  We didn’t say a word.  Just took pleasure in the sharing of that moment, each with our own thoughts.  Spring was behind us, and the fall with its demands seemed a long ways off.  It was summer, the slower pace, the reverie, the subtle astonishment at the beauty of this world when it is in full bloom.  Somewhere a baseball game was being played, a lawn mowed, neighbors were sitting on a porch and discussing the events of the day, drinking iced tea or lemonade, listening to music playing on an old radio.  Somewhere.  But in our moment it was all stillness.

There is a beautiful midrash about the giving of the Ten Commandments, one of my favorites.  It imagines the precise moment before God spoke the words of Torah at Sinai as a moment of profound silence and stillness.  A moment when the world became soundless.  When even the endless waves of the sea stopped their incessant murmuring.  When the entire world paused to listen.

Sometimes there are no words.  That is a hard thing for a rabbi to admit.  In some ways we are paid talkers.  Our job is to speak, to teach and counsel and preach and bring meaning and context and comfort using words.  What is the old joke?  ‘Before I speak, I would just like to say a few words.’  That is a joke made for rabbis.

But sometimes silence is better.  Sometimes stillness gives us the opportunity to think and feel, to understand more deeply, to sense more profoundly, to experience more fully. In our increasingly busy and noisy world, those moments are few and far between.  But we should look for them, search them out.  Often they are right there, waiting to be discovered, waiting for us to be still, waiting for us to listen.  Like on a summer afternoon, on a wooden bench, under a clear blue sky.

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Not by Might

There will be close to one thousand Jews gathering tonight at my congregation to light a menorah, nosh on some typical Hanukkah fair, and watch fireworks (what could be more appropriate for the Festival of Lights?!).  We share this evening with another congregation just a stone’s throw away, and over the last few years it has developed into a much anticipated communal celebration of the holiday.

It is true, it can be a bit of a ‘ballagan,’ a crazy scene.  Imagine 1,000 Jews trying to make their way to a few tables piled high with latkes and you’ll have the picture.  To paraphrase Woody Allen, it is sort of like kiddish after Shabbat  services, only more so.  Bu despite the logistical challenges, despite the crowds, despite the difficulties in terms of parking, people come, and they truly seem to enjoy the evening.

I wonder why?

Certainly it is a striking Jewish identity moment for everyone.  Simply stated, there is a power to numbers.  Lighting a menorah at home with your family can feel like a sacred moment.  But lighting a menorah with a thousand people, everyone chanting the blessings, all those voices raised together enacting a ritual that is two thousand years old, that experience has its own particular power.  You know you are part of something significant, something serious, something that others – many others – feel is worthwhile.  The experience also connects in well with the theme of the holiday, namely that Jews can be powerful and can control their own destiny.  That is something Jews in America rarely celebrate in such a public way.  The experience is connective in an ethnic kind of way, even a bit tribal in feel.

There is also the light of the menorah.  Maybe it doesn’t mean what it once did.  After all, in our day and age we can turn lights off and on with ease, flicking a switch, or even just speaking a word to our ‘smart’ bulbs.  But there is something about real flame, something ancient and almost arcane, magical and mystical.  We gather around as the candles are lit and the flames flicker, insistently pushing back against the darkness during some of the darkest and longest nights of the entire year.  The light of Hanukkah is a light of the spirit, the flame  bringing us back to an earlier time when our ancestors gathered around their camp fires to listen to stories of hope and fate and God.

On the Shabbat of Hanukkah we read the words of the prophet Zechariah in the text of the haftara:  “Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, said he Lord of Hosts.”  It is the light of that spirit that Hanukkah still brings into our lives – and our world – today.

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Immigration Reflections

Following is a text version of my sermon from Shabbat services on 6/30/18 – some reflections about the current immigration debate –

     It has been a rough season for the Orioles, with poor play on the field and loss after loss piling up in the standings.  But this week, for a brief time, there was a ray of light on the field at Camden Yards.  Those of you who are still watching the games probably know that on Thursday afternoon the Os fell to the Seattle Mariners 4-2.  What you may not know, unless you tuned in to the game very early, is that the best moment of the afternoon happened before the game even started, with the singing of the National Anthem.

     A young man named Nicholas Nauman – 18 years old – was wheeled out onto the field by his mother in his wheel chair.  He has a host of serious challenges that he wrestles with every day, among them cerebral palsy and cortical vision impairment, which essentially means Nicholas is blind.  He was adopted from eastern Europe and raised by his parents in Maryland, and grew up rooting for the Orioles.  With his mother holding a microphone at his mouth, he leaned his head back in the wheel chair and sang the National Anthem.  When he finished singing the crowd burst into thunderous applause, the umpires came over and shook his hand, and a number of the players and staff from the teams came by to say hi and thank him.  

     It was a heart warming moment, and in many ways struck me as being quintessentially American.  It wasn’t just the setting – Camden Yards, still to this day one of the most beautiful ballparks in the Major Leagues.  It was the spirit of what happened on the field Tuesday afternoon.  The sense that we are all equal, all human, regardless of the severity of the challenges we face in life.  That we all deserve to be treated equally, and that we all deserve – again, regardless of the challenges we face – to have every opportunity to live our lives fully and with meaning, with the support not only of family and friends, but of the very society we call our home.

     Those are classic American values – freedom, opportunity, equality, and of course baseball.  As the young man sang the Stars and Stripes was waving gently in the breeze of a summer afternoon.  The crowd stood, many putting their hands over their hearts, doffing their caps, feeling a joined sense of identity and common purpose.  They all came together in one beautiful moment Thursday afternoon at the ballpark.  

     And it seems so odd to me – such an incongruity – that that moment happened in our present time.   That moment that was so much about our shared humanity, and the capacity we have to recognize in the struggle of our others our own story, and the sense we so often have that there but for the grace of God go I.  I guess maybe that is precisely why Nicholas’ singing of the National Anthem stood out so starkly in this dark and disturbing time.  

     I guess what seems so jarring to me is this:  how can we, on the one hand, as a nation, create that kind of moment – so beautiful, and pure, and uplifting – how can we create that on the one hand, while on the other hand we have been forcibly separating parents from children, or figuring out ways to close our doors to those who would wish to join with us in common purpose?  Which of these things reflects what America truly is?  Which of them reflects what and who we are, as Jews, as members of a community, as human beings?

     Perhaps the answer is that always we are some balance between those two poles.  That within our society – and within our selves – there is always the capacity to create that Camden Yards kind of moment – a sacred, uplifting, that celebrates our humanity.  But also, within our society and within ourselves, there is the capacity to create moments when we give in to fear of the other, when our baser instincts get the best of us, when we focus on what makes us different, not what makes us the same, and when we fail to live up to the promise of our tradition, our national values, or for that matter ourselves.  And sometimes, as Lincoln said it, the better angels of our nature prevail, and we find ourselves celebrating a young man who is somehow, almost miraculously able to sing our national anthem.  And other times we lose the battle, and we give in to our fear and paranoia, and we suddenly find that we have separated thousands of children from their parents.  

     I say ‘we’ because in a sense we are all responsible.  Rabbi Loeb would often say that there are sins of commission and sins of omission.  With sins of commission we participate in the wrong that is done.  With sins of omission we don’t lend a hand, we just look the other way.  But our tradition is crystal clear on this – whether we actually participate in what is wrong, whether we look the other way and pretend it is all fine, or whether we decide to speak out for what we know in our hearts to be true and right and just – what ever our decision, it is OUR decision and we alone are responsible.

     We read from the Torah this morning the sad tale of Bilaam the prophet, called upon by the Moabite King to curse the Israelites.  Three times Bilaam steps forward to utter those curses demanded by the King, and three times, instead of cursing the Israelites, he blesses them.  Tradition has long understood that Bilaam’s sudden reversals are caused by God.  That is to say, his true intention is to curse our people, but God forces him to bless them.

     But what if Bilaam’s blessings came about not because of an external force – God – but because of his own internal struggle.  That is to say, it wasn’t God that forced Bilaam to do the right thing.  Instead, in his own heart and soul he came to an understanding of what was right and what was wrong, he managed to conquer the fear and the suspicion of the Israelites that was driving him, and then he made a choice – HE made the choice.  Instead of cursing these foreigners, (he said to himself) instead of wishing them harm, I am going to bless them, because I see myself in who they are, I see in their struggle a struggle that I may have had, I see in their humanity my humanity, and also simply because it is the right thing to do.

     Please note, by the way, this is not an argument about who should or should not be allowed into the country.  It actually has nothing to do with that.  Bilaam does not invite the Israelites into Moab.  It is obvious that our immigration system needs a serious overhaul, and it goes without saying that there must be a system in place, and that it has to have restrictions and guidelines.  And the politicians will have to figure that out.

     But this argument is about something different – it is about how we treat people, whether we say yes or no to them.  Because how we treat them says a lot more about us than it does about them.  And in every case, in every interaction, we can choose to treat them with respect and dignity.  And when we don’t, it is our own respect and dignity and values that are diminished. 

     A moment like that young man’s singing of the national anthem reminds us all of what we aspire to be, as a nation, as a community, as individuals.  Let us choose that path, let us fulfill those aspirations, let us reaffirm those values, remembering that we are all children of God, whether wheel chair bound or walking free, whether black or white, whether stranger in a strange land, or long time resident.

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Houses of Study, Houses of Prayer

This the text of a sermon delivered on the first day of Shavuot, 5778 –

     Traditionally in Hebrew a synagogue has two names.  On the one hand, we call the synagogue the Beit Keneset, the place of gathering, and on the other, we call it the Beit Midrash, the House of Study.  If you come to Beth El with any frequency you know that we do quite a bit of both here.  Obviously we pray here regularly.  Today we are here in prayer celebrating the Shavuot festival, but of course we gather for prayer every Friday night and Saturday morning for Shabbat, and a dedicated group of congregants even comes together on a daily basis to pray in our weekday minyanim.  And of course in the fall thousands of people come to pray during the High Holy Days.

     But Beth El is also a place of study, a Beit Midrash.  It is hard to imagine it right now, but when I first came to Beth El there was no adult education programming.  None.  Not a single class, not a single musical program, not a single movie.  And slowly, over time, first under the leadership of Allan Lipsitz of blessed memory, and more recently under the guidance and vision of Dr. Eyal Bor, the adult education programming has blossomed, becoming one of Beth El’s most important initiatives. Every year thousands of people come through our doors to learn and study, and through that process, to grow Jewishly.

     And it is that sense of the importance of study that makes Shavuot different from any of our other festivals.  I would say that for all of our other holidays, when we come to synagogue, the emphasis is on the Beit Keneset, the synagogue as the place where we gather to pray.  But on Shavuot it is different.  On Shavuot, particularly the eve of Shavuot, we come to the synagogue thinking of it as a Beit Midrash, as a place where we gather together to study Torah.

     There is actually an old tension in the tradition between the values of prayer and study.  Both are understood as being important, both crucial to living a full and meaningful Jewish life.  But by and large, when prayer and study conflict, the tradition prefers that we leave prayer aside and focus on study.  No question in my mind the Talmudic sages understood study as a higher spiritual exercise than prayer, and they believed that through study one could come closer to God than one could through prayer.  There is a Talmudic story of the sage Rava, who lived around the year 300 in the city of Pumbedita in Babylonia.  He once found a student late for class because the student was saying his prayers slowly.  We might expect a Rabbi to be pleased that one of his students was taking prayer so seriously, but Rava reprimanded the student, saying to him ‘מניחין חיי עילם ועוסקים בחיי שעה’ – you are forsaking eternal life to busy yourself with the here and now!  In the rabbinic mind prayer is the ‘here and now,’ almost  mundane.  But study?  That is the gateway to eternal life.  The Sages believed that it was through study, not prayer, that a Jew could find true salvation and meaning.

     But the importance of study is also understood as working on a national level, and that is what Shavuot is about.  The moment that symbolizes that is this morning’s Torah reading and the 5th aliyah, when we stand together to listen to the words of the 10 commandments.  In one sense we are re-enacting the moment when God spoke the words and the Israelites, standing at the foot of Mt. Sinai, heard God’s voice.  But in an other sense we are symbolizing in that moment our continued dedication – as a people – to the Torah, to our sacred book.  We are in effect saying ‘we will continue to study the book that You, God, have given us.’  And it is because of that dedication to Torah, to the values of study and education and intellect, that we are called the People of the Book.  

     And I would argue that it is that dedication to study that has enabled the Jewish people to survive for thousands of years.  The Talmud (Shabbat 30b) tells of a conversation between King David and God.  It seems that David was worrying about the end of his life, and he wanted God to tell him when he would die.  God tells David that information like that is something a human is not allowed to know.  And David pushes God, saying ‘at least tell me on which day of the week I will die.’  And God says, ‘you will die on a Shabbat.’

     Now David was a smart guy, and he knows, according to tradition, that if you are engaged in the act of study, the Angel of Death is unable to take your soul away.  So David begins to spend every Shabbat studying for 24 hours.  When the appointed day of David’s death arrives, the Angel of Death has a problem.  But he has an idea, the Angel of Death.  He’ll distract David.  And that is exactly what he does.  According to the Talmud, the Angel of Death climbs a tree near David’s window, and shakes the tree.  David is startled, and for just a moment he looks up from his book, and stops his study.  And at that instant the Angel of Death is able to take his soul away, and David dies.

     On the surface, that story might sound like an old wives tale.  But read between the lines with me for a moment.  In the course of the narrative David is transformed from a warrior king to a rabbi, spending his days engaged in the study of the tradition.  The great palace that he lived in has been transformed into a Beit Midrash – a House of Study.  And in that transformation, David has become a metaphor for a new way of Jewish life, and for a new means of Jewish survival.  Jews would not live in palaces, they would not have armies, they would not have kings, the Temple would be destroyed, and there would be no more sacrifices.  

     But what Jews would always have was the Torah, given to Moses, transmitted to the people, and studied ever since.  The Torah can go anywhere.  It can go to Babylonia and the Academy of Rava, it can go to Europe, it can be carried here to the United States.  Anywhere there is a Torah there is a Beit Midrash, a House of Study.  And anywhere there is a House of Study, there is Jewish life.  In the Talmudic story as long as David continued to study he continued to live.  We might say the same about the Jewish people.  From one generation to the next we have dedicated ourselves to the study of Torah, and by doing so we have ensured the survival of Jewish tradition, and the Jewish people.  Shavuot is the holiday when we rededicate ourselves to that process of study and the role it plays in the continuity of our people.  May we continue to do so again and again, for many years, through many generations.

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Welcoming Interfaith Families

This the text version of my sermon from 5/5/18, reflecting on the upcoming bylaws change for the congregation in terms of the membership status of people who are not Jewish.

     Just a couple of days ago we posted a link to our FB page of a blog post that has now been clicked on and read more than 3000 times.  The post explains a change to the synagogue by-laws that the congregation will vote into effect Wednesday evening May 16th at our annual meeting.  The by-law change has to do with the status of non-Jews at Beth El and membership.  Up to this point, someone who was not Jewish could not technically be a member of the congregation.  For years and years there have been many non-Jews in our community, playing meaningful roles in the life of the synagogue, making sure that their children are at Hebrew school every week, sometimes even attending services regularly, involved with committees.  But until now, technically they were not members.  

     But the recommended change in the by-laws will formally grant membership status to non-Jews for the very first time in Beth El’s 70 years history.  There will still be some caveats in place, and for the time being people who are not Jewish would not be asked to chair committees or to serve on the board.  But at next year’s annual meeting, folks who are not Jewish and who are members will have a vote and will be fully counted in the required quorum for the meeting.  

     On the one hand the change is symbolic more than anything else.  For many years – going back at least two decades – Beth El has been one of the most progressive synagogues in the Conservative Movement in terms of opening our doors to non-Jews and interfaith families.  People who are not Jewish have been welcomed to our bimah, to stand with their children at the ark during a bar or bat mitzvah and read a prayer, or to stand with their Jewish spouse at the Torah during a baby naming.  Some ten years ago or so we expanded the roles a non-Jew could play during services, creating opportunities for someone who is not Jewish to stand before the congregation and lead us in prayer during responsive readings, both Friday nights and Shabbat mornings.  We have an interfaith havurah here, a group that meets multiple times a year to talk about interfaith issues and to explore together the interfaith journey.  The Beth El clergy, from Rabbi Agus to Rabbi Loeb to the present day, have always made interfaith dialogue an important part of their communal work.

     But this is something that is different.  It is a formal embrace of those who are not Jewish, and by extension it is a formal embrace of the interfaith community.  You probably know that the intermarriage rate in the non-Orthodox Jewish community these days is hovering around 60%.  When I spoke about this issue a couple of months ago I said that it is time for the community to stop thinking about this issue as one that we need to solve.  It is not solvable.  The Jewish community has top notch leadership, bright minds, and deep pockets, but despite worrying about intermarriage and working on the issue for decades at this point, we have only watched the rate grow higher and higher.  Are there things that increase the chances of a child marrying Jewishly?  Yes!  Home observance is one, and Jewish camping is another, day school can help too – but by and large this is not something that we are going to have a lot of control over and in all likelihood in the years ahead the intermarriage rate will continue to rise.

     If so, I would argue that we should worry less about the number, the percentage of Jews intermarrying, and we should worry more about how we connect with these Jews and their families so that they feel welcome in the Jewish community in general and in synagogue life in particular.  Because if the intermarriage rate is at 60% and we don’t figure out a way to welcome those families then we are saying to 6 out of every 10 Jews we can’t help you.  And it is hard for me to understand how that is good for us, or how that is good for them.  After all, if we are saying we want the children and grandchildren of intermarried families to be Jewish, doesn’t it make sense to open the door as wide as possible so that those families might be able to find a Jewish home.  Without a Jewish home, we will certainly lose them.

     So the by-law change is one of the ways  – just one – that we are trying to say to interfaith families you can find a comfortable, meaningful, and welcoming spiritual home at Beth El for your family.  

     By and large as news of this change has spread the reaction has been very positive.  Last I looked there were close to 130 likes on the FB post, and a number of positive comments.  But I also understand that there will always be those who are uncomfortable with change, and I would like to say a word or two about that.  

     Because the truth is Judaism has always embraced change.  This morning’s Torah portion happens to be an excellent example of that.  I don’t know if you had a chance – or the inclination – to read through the entire portion, but if you did you might have noticed some of the following things described in the text.  Passover falls in the first month of the year.  A fair number of the verses deal with physical imperfections that in ancient times disqualified a priest from serving the congregation.  The system of religious worship that is described is based almost exclusively on animal sacrifice.  The celebration of Passover is mentioned in the portion, but a seder is not part of that celebration.  And at the end of the portion, there is an Israelite who publicly curses using God’s name, and that person is taken outside the camp, and everyone who heard what the person said helps to stone that person to death.

     So if you wonder whether Judaism changes or not, all you have to do is read this morning’s portion to know that – yes! Judaism changes.  And that in fact it sometimes changes radically, dramatically.  Passover now falls in the 7th month of the year, not the first, and it is celebrated through the rituals of the seder.  Our system of worship does not involve the sacrifice of animals any more.  The idea that we might tell someone they can’t serve the congregation because they have a physical disability is abhorrent to us.  And forget about the idea of taking someone who has cursed using God’s name and stoning them to death.  Were that law still practiced in modern times Rabbi Loeb wouldn’t have made it past 10 o’clock in the morning most days.

     And I would only add this.  All of the changes that have been made in the tradition, that we can see by looking in this morning’s Torah portion, and the hundreds and hundreds of other changes made in the course of our 3500 year old history, have made Judaism stronger, wiser, more tolerant and more humane.  And these changes have also enabled the Jewish people to survive, century after century after century.  

    May the change that we are embracing as a congregation on May 16th do the same, for Beth El, for our community, for our families, so that we can continue to move from strength to strength – 

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Praying With Feet

A famous phrase, attributed to Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the most influential rabbinic teachers and mentors at the Jewish Theological Seminary in the 60s.  He reportedly used the phrase when asked what it felt like to march with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the now famous Selma protest walk which took place on March 21, 1965.  Asked about the experience by a student in class, Heschel simply said ‘it felt like I was praying with my feet.’

I am not sure the thousands of students who participated in today’s school walk out, organized to raise awareness about the problem of gun violence, would have used exactly the same phrase.  But I suspect that many of those students felt like they were, in some way, engaged in holy work.  From Maryland to Connecticut to Indiana to Florida, from the west coast to the east, all across our great land, students rose from their seats at 10 o’clock this morning, walked out of their schools, and observed 17 minutes of silence, one for each of the recent Parkland shooting victims.  It was a powerful national moment, the like of which I do not remember in my adult life.

These young students remind me of the great prophets of old, the Jeremiahs and Isaiahs who set up their pulpits on the street corners of ancient Israel, and with eyes blazing and a profound sense of righteous indignation spoke truth to power.  With the NRA trying to muzzle them, with their local politicians treating them with a condescending sweetness, these students have been fearless, and full of faith – faith that they can make a difference, that the world can change for the better, and that ultimately wisdom and reason can prevail over anger and the old back room pay and wink system that creates fertile ground for the NRA’s lies.

The adults around them are weighed down with the cynicism and hopelessness that comes with age, the sense expressed in Ecclesiastes that there ‘is nothing new under the sun,’ that nothing will ever change.  We’ve witnessed the Columbines and Sandy Hooks, we’ve been angry and we’ve raised our voices, briefly.  But I wonder if all along we felt nothing was going to happen, that there was no real chance for real change.  You can’t win when you step out on the field expecting to lose.

Which is why we need these young people to step forward, to speak out, and to be the leaders we evidently cannot be on this issue.  Will they succeed, do they have the fortitude for the long haul, the marathon, that this surely will be?  We have no idea, and won’t know the answer for some time.  But they took a first bold step today, and they think they can win.  And that may be all the difference.  May they teach their parents well.

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Transmitting Tradition

This appeared in today’s (1/19) Baltimore Jewish Times –

A central concern of Jewish life has always been the transmission of the tradition from one generation to the next.  This is clear from the Torah’s narratives about the patriarchs and matriarchs, and their struggle, in each generation, to bring children into the world.  The Torah seems to be telling us that the creation of a next generation of Jews, that group that will carry Judaism’s torch into the future, is enormously difficult.  And yet it is the central mission of the Jewish people, for without that next generation the covenant between God and Israel will be broken.

That same challenge was still on the table in the time of Moses, some four hundred years after Sarah and Abraham lived.  At the beginning of Parshat Bo Moses and Pharaoh engage in a series of negotiations about when and how the Israelites might leave Egypt.  Pharaoh has been pushed to the breaking point by the first plagues, and he is ready to give some ground.  “Go, worship the Lord your God!,” he says to Moses and Aaron.  But then he asks an interesting question, almost as an after thought.  “Who are the ones to go?”  Moses’ response is clear:  “We will all go, young and old, our sons and daughters…!”  And suddenly Pharaoh pulls back from his promise.  “You must be crazy if you think I am going to let the children go with you!”  (Exodus 10:8-11, with my own paraphrase translation).

So it seems the real struggle of the Exodus is not about freedom alone.  It is also about continuity, about whether a next generation of Jews will be included in the Exodus moment.  Pharaoh has no trouble letting the Israelite men go, because he knows without their children the ideals of freedom and common dignity they espouse will die out in the wilderness.  But he also knows that if the Israelite children leave Egypt with the adults there is a chance that Judaism and its ideals will be around for a long time, something Pharaoh finds threatening and unacceptable.

Of course we know the end of the story.  As the plagues rain down Pharaoh is forced to acquiesce, and the Israelites leave Egypt en masse, men, women, and children.  In this way Moses averts yet another crises in Jewish continuity.  There will be a next generation of Jews in the wilderness to learn the laws from Moses, to remember the history of the Exodus, and then, when their time comes, to transmit the richness of our tradition to their own children and grandchildren.  Our challenge, from one generation to the next, is to make sure that process of transmission continues.

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