Youth represent future of Jewish life


Early into the reading of this week’s Torah portion, a number of plagues descend upon Egypt. Moses and Aaron are brought before Pharaoh and ask that the Israelites be given leave to worship God. Pharaoh, already furious and hard of heart, asks mockingly, who he will be letting go, Moses replies, “We will all go, young and old: we will go with our sons and daughters, our flocks and herds; for we must observe God’s festival.” (Exodus 10:9)

Why is it that Moses insists on the entire community being present to observe God’s festival? What is it that he, as well as Pharaoh, in his subsequent, unsurprising refusal, understand? Both leaders realize that a community is nothing when it is not multigenerational. Both Pharaoh and Moses understand that without the presence of children at a sacred festival, the very experience itself is lessened. The presence of young and old together raises the level of kedusha of our holidays. Without our youth the sanctity of our festivals just isn’t the same. Our joy is diminished and our teachings fall in silence. The chains of tradition have always liberated us from the chains of bondage.

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In our community today, we must reevaluate the importance of our youth. Many of our holidays revolve around youth oriented experiences; we seek out the Afikomen and ask the four questions on Pesach, dress up on Purim, play dreidl on Hanukkah, and we bless our children on Shabbat. We ensure that young people play a focal, and often fun, role in our most important and most sacred times. In many parts of our community, we find that some Jews drift away from synagogue membership and Jewish communal involvement when they leave their families’ homes as young adults. Yet once they marry and have children of their own, these individuals begin to seek out the inspirational Jewish moments of their youth. Many wish to have their children experience the same joys of Jewish life that they did growing up. We know how to help children connect to their Judaism, and each of us, from Moses unto the modern day, realize how important those early connections are.

We forget however, that Moses stressed not only the importance of youth participation; he knew that the entire community young and old, needed to be involved in order to observe God’s festival properly. Our holidays and sacred times may be kid-friendly, but they are intended to be accessible to all ages; these things need not be mutually exclusive.

Most importantly though, we have come to learn that the vision of children experiencing, enjoying and questioning Judaism is one that can open all of our eyes to the child within. We must remind ourselves that Judaism has a depth and an exuberance that strikes us at every age. The destruction and alienation of our youth was the very implement that Pharaoh used to ensure our undoing. Childhood is the ultimate symbol of limitless thought and unending curiosity. In order for the Jewish community to remain healthy and whole it must maintain its maturity but carefully retain its sense of imagination and wonder as well. It was our imagination that allowed us the opportunity to escape the slave mentality and narrow mindedness of Egypt. It was our imagination that gave us the hope to push on another day, that much closer to revelation. As we bring our children into the fold of Judaism and teach them all that we know, we too must be sure to look, learn and listen. Only this will allow us to regain the sense of spirituality, wonder, and redemption that we all long for in our lives.

Rabbi Michael Alper of Central Reform Congregation provided this week’s Torah Portion.