Parashat Va'era: The importance of words

Last year, Shabbat Parashat Va'era was my grandson's bar mitzva, and I would like to take this opportunity to share with you what I said to him on that occasion, not as a rabbi but as a grandfather.

Last year, Shabbat Parashat Va'era was my grandson's bar mitzva, and I would like to take this opportunity to share with you what I said to him on that occasion, not as a rabbi but as a grandfather. In these early readings of the Book of Exodus, God chooses Moses as the liberator with the promise which includes not only the Exodus from Egypt but also the divine revelation at Sinai: "And God said, 'I will be with you and this will be your sign that I sent you: When I take you with your nation out of Egypt, you shall serve the Lord upon this mountain'" (Exodus 3:12). Clearly it is not sufficient that the Jews be freed; their freedom must lead to their being imbued with the mission which will express the manner in which God wants Israel - and ultimately all of humanity - to live. In effect, the Israelites are freed from Egyptian slavery that they may learn how best to serve God. And so even at the end of his life, Moses impresses upon the Israelites the crucial importance of that Torah which they received at Sinai, and he expresses it in a very special way: "But guard yourselves and guard your souls very carefully lest you forget those divine words which your eyes saw [at Sinai] and lest these words depart from your hearts all the days of your lives. You shall inform your children and your children's children concerning that day when you stood before the Lord your God at Horeb [Sinai]" (Deut. 4:9,10). Based upon this verse, the sages of the Talmud teach in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua Halevy, "Anyone who teaches his child's child Torah is considered as if he received the Torah from Mount Horeb" (B.T. Berachot 21b). It is fascinating how both the Bible and the Talmud emphasize the third generation, the relationship between grandparent and grandchild. The fact is that Abraham is the first Jew - not Adam and not Noah - because Abraham communicated God's teaching to three generations. The animal world recognizes its young but not its young's young. Only human beings have a relationship with grandchildren, with the third generation; the third generation begins historical continuity, and since God entered into a covenant with the nation, that third generation becomes critical. In modern times, an important literature has developed dealing with the question of "Who is a Jew?" On the basis of what we have just seen, I would argue that from a sociological perspective a Jew is that individual who has Jewish grandchildren. This theme of the three generations is iterated and reiterated throughout our religious literature. For example, the Book of Ecclesiastes teaches that "two are better than one... but only a thrice strengthened thread will not easily be torn asunder" (Ecclesiastes 4:9, 12), and in our daily prayers we repeat every day, "My words which I have placed in your mouth shall not depart from your mouth and the mouth of your child and the mouth of your child's child, says the Lord, now and forever." The Jerusalem Talmud takes this idea one step further: "Whoever hears a biblical interpretation from the child of his child, it is as if he has heard it from Sinai." (Kiddushin chapter 1, law 6) God's message at Sinai is not only meant for us parents and grandparents to communicate to our children and grandchildren; God's message at Sinai is an eternal one which has the ability to speak to every generation and has the potential to be interpreted in a novel way to meet the needs of every generation. Our ability to teach Torah to the third generation as well as to learn Torah from the third generation is the greatest expression of the eternity of our Torah. Built into all of this is the fact that what God gave to us was not skyscraping pyramids or treasures of oil beneath the earth. What God gave to us as the secret of our eternity was words, divine words which we must communicate to our progeny. This week's portion promises redemption, guaranteeing that God will bring the children of Israel to the land promised Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The key word in God's promise is that He will give the land " you as a morasha..." (Exodus 6:8). The Hebrew word morasha is usually translated as heritage and is found in the Bible only in the two contexts of the Land of Israel and the Torah of Israel. (Deut. 33:4). The usual word for inheritance in Hebrew is yerusha, not morasha. What is the difference between these two Hebrew terms? I would argue that an inheritance is an object, a house, a field, a diamond ring or a cash check. On the other hand, a morasha is a word, a lesson, a concept, a guide for living. The Jews did not have sovereignty over Israel, and in large measure did not live in Israel for close to 2,000 years; but the message of Israel, the dream of Israel, the goal of Israel was communicated from generation to generation. And needless to say our Torah is our inheritance of words, divine words which are seemingly of no substance but which have changed the world. As a grandfather, I have very little inheritance to leave my grandchildren; but I truly hope that I have given over a heritage, a morasha. Perhaps the best way I can say it is through a Yiddish song I learned from my beloved Cantor Sherwood Goffin: When I was young and fancy free My folks had no fancy clothes for me. All I got was words: "Thank God, God will provide, Let us live and be well." I wanted knowledge I yearned for college But all I got was words: "Have common sense, don't speak foolishly, Torah is the best merchandise." I wanted to travel far, My parents couldn't provide a car All I got was words: "Go in good health, drive carefully, Go with God." As we grew older, and our materialism grew bolder Once again - words!: "Tell the truth, give charity, Have compassion, be a mensch." What I really got, and the best that I can give, is words. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.