A very old man with a beat-up portfolio knocked on the door of a world-renowned art professor. “Please,” he begged, “Please spare a few minutes to humor an old man and give me some honest feedback on my drawings.”
The master studied the man’s sketches and said gently, “I’m afraid these drawings are not very good. However, since your artwork brings you pleasure, I would encourage you to continue.”
The old man sadly thanked the expert for taking his time; then, as he was about to leave, he asked, “Would you be so kind as to look at some other drawings I have here, from a young boy?”
The old man produced more sketches, and the master immediately knew that he was looking at the work of a genius, perhaps a future master. He looked up at the old man and said, “These drawings show a rare genius I have never before seen in a child. Is he your grandson?”
The old man hung his head. After a minute he looked up at the professor and said, “Sir… you’re looking at that talented artist. Those drawings were mine when I was a young child, but I never had a chance to hone my craft in an academy, I had no one to teach me - and so I did nothing with it. Had I only been given the chance to learn!”
I have personally witnessed the Jewish equivalent of this scene, many times. Women in their seventies who tell me that when they were growing up, their parents didn’t think it important to send them to cheder with the boys. Men of the same age who did go to cheder, but were taught by mentors whose English was poor and whose pedagogic skills were non-existent. Men and women whose Jewish education consisted primarily of knowing how to sit in shul for a few hours at a shot, not understanding the words of the siddur and not seeing any connection between those words and their daily lives.
These are our talented young artists, sixty and seventy years later - they could have been talmidei chachamim, students of Torah and great scholars, with a real Jewish education from the start. With Hebrew language. With davening, knowing what the davening means. With chumash, with Jewish law, with Jewish history, with mishnah and gemara and mussar.
Tonight, Simchat Torah, we will celebrate and dance and sing, celebrating completing another year of studying the Torah. I hope we will ask ourselves: What elements of Torah should all of those frustrated artists, those would-be talmidei chachamim, have learned? In Torah, we never say it’s too late - so how can they catch up, what’s the curriculum?
The answer is logical enough: Our ancestors took four steps when they stood at Sinai, the same four steps a non-Jew takes today when converting to Judaism, and so those four steps, which go far beyond text study to a holistic educational experience, are the necessary elements of our own education as we grow into our Judaism, whether as children or as adults.
Those four steps are circumcision for males, immersion in a mikvah, acceptance of mitzvot and bringing a korban, and each step comes with its own deeper lesson.
The first part of this holistic educational experience is ברית מילה, circumcision. According to Sefer haChinuch and others, circumcision represents our responsibility of tikkun, of mending our broken world in the service of HaShem. One might assume that the world was created as HaShem wanted it, but circumcision, in which we are told that HaShem created the baby one way and we are responsible to make him whole, in another way, teaches us that we can improve the world around us.
Similarly, then, every Jew must learn this lesson of repair for the world - of חסד, generosity toward others, of צדקה, giving of our own wealth for others, of קירוב רחוקים, reaching out to those who are distant from religion or community and drawing them closer.
The second stage is immersion in a mikvah, representing purification from tumah, and, on a deeper level, purification from sin, distance from committing spiritual wrongs.
Purification is not only some mystical process; it’s a practical reality, extending beyond the mikvah and into our daily lives. Purification is our determination to cleanse ourselves of traits which encourage error. We learn perishut, separating ourselves from activities that might lead to wrongdoing. We develop anavah, humility, as well as tzniut, privacy. We are careful with rabbinic laws which act as a boundary for the Torah, preventing accidental violation of its laws.
In the third step, we at Sinai and the ger today formally accept the mitzvot and commit to practice them.
This stage includes learning Torah on a practical level with an eye toward understanding and implementing its mitzvot, and fully accepting the binding nature of those mitzvot.
And finally, at Sinai and in the time of the Beit haMikdash, the ger brings a korban, an offering to Gd. This korban represents building a relationship with HaShem, willingly giving of ourselves in order to draw closer.
In our Jewish life we give our connection to HaShem the highest priority, and turn everything we have toward that goal. This includes mitzvot of prayer, like תפילה and קריאת שמע, and mitzvot of dedicating our property to Gd, as we do in Israel with the terumah and maaser tithes, and the laws of shemitah.
A Jew who has progressed through these four stages emerges a truly educated Jew:
• Committed to repairing the world through the mitzvot of kindness toward others,
• Committed to traits which will protect him from going astray,
• Committed to learning the mitzvot and practicing them, and
• Committed to a relationship with Gd that includes both prayer and practice.
This is what so many of our parents wanted for us. Those words I recite as part of the formal beginning of our Yizkor are, I hope, more than a trite tribute, describing “dear parents whose desire it was to train us in a good and upright way, to teach us Your statutes and commandments, and to instruct us to do justice and lovingkindness.” This has been the mission of Jewish parents ever since Har Sinai, ever since the Torah instructed us to pass its teachings along to our children. Through Yizkor we express our gratitude to those who taught us, and the fact that we are here today is proof that they did well.
We are fortunate to have, here in our community, the Jewish Day School, an institution committed to ensuring that the next generation of Jewish children will receive the education and training that the seventy- and eighty-year-old frustrated talmidei chachamim in my office did not. We have great teachers, including _______________________________________.
If we truly embrace, and celebrate with, the Torah on Simchat Torah, if we truly wish for our children to have the chance to develop their religious genius, if we mean it when we say those things about our parents at Yizkor, then we will commit ourselves to supporting JDS - by sending our children when they are of school age, and by supporting the school financially even when we don’t have children at the school.
This derashah was not prompted from the school; absolutely no one affiliated with the school even knew I was going to speak about this. I chose this topic for today because Simchat Torah must be more than a day to alternate between dancing and looking at our watches with bored stares. Simchat Torah is a day for us to make sure we are doing the learning we need to do, ourselves, and a day to make sure we are helping others learn.
If we are going to create Jews, we had better be ready to educate them. We promised it to the next generation at Har Sinai long ago, and we have sustained that promise for some thirty-five hundred years. Even in the Great Depression, and worse times before that, Jews sustained that promise. Today, even in our own tough economic times, it is a promise we will continue to fulfill.
The running joke in Jewish communities is that we believe all of our children are above-average - but they are. Our children are all gifted. Some have academic talent - math, music, art, creative writing. Others have social talent - empathy, influence, leadership. But all of them have a gift in their neshamot, their souls - the ability to grow as Jews and mentchen, to become Gd-like people - all we have to do is add the Torah.
Just one note here - I wanted to go on at length about the importance of day school education vs. the Hebrew School substitute, but (with the great counsel of my Rebbetzin) I cut out that section. There are people, including some in my shul, who would love to send their children to full-day Jewish school, but they cannot because of their children's special needs. I will not make them feel worse than they already do.