Tora Thoughts: Parashat Vayigash 5778
Rabbi Rami Pavolotzky
The Most Important Task: Educating our Children
The parasha for this week begins with the famous speech by Judah to his brother Joseph. At that moment, Joseph’s brothers (including Judah) had not recognized him as their long-lost brother, and only saw him as the second most powerful man in Egypt. Joseph was accusing his youngest brother Benjamin of theft and claimed that he wanted to make him his slave. The brothers knew that Jacob would not withstand losing his son Benjamin, so they found themselves in a very distressing situation. In his long and moving speech, Judah tries to convince Joseph to let him go back to his father. Judah offers himself to remain as a slave instead of his brother Benjamin.
The last verse of Judah’s speech reads (Genesis 44:34),
“For how will I go up to my father if the boy is not with me? Let me not see the misery that will befall my father!”
Rabbi Meirl of Premishlan (Ukraine, 1783–1850) was the “Second of Premishlan”, the son of Rabbi Uren Leib, and the most famous rabbi of the dynasty of Premishlan. This rabbi reflected on our verse and gave a wonderful interpretation, although completely out of context (be prepared to leave Joseph’s story for a while!). According to him, the phrase, “For how will I go to my father if the boy is not with me?” can be understood as, “how can a Jew go up to his father in heavens after his life in this world if the younger generation didn’t go along with him in the way of the Torah and the mitzvoth?” And Rabbi Meirl added “every Jewish generation is judged regarding its success on passing on our tradition to the next generation.”
Rabbi Meirl reminds us of a decisive goal in Jewish life, the transmission of the tradition to the next generation. And please pay attention to Rabbi Meirl’s words: It’s not just an “important” part of being Jewish, it’s actually the central task of every Jewish generation! In fact, he believes that every generation is judged by the way it educates the next generation and how successful it is in this regard.
Of course this can be taken as a lesson for Jewish parents. But it is also a key principle for Jewish institutions, including of course Jewish congregations like our own Temple Beth El. We should never forget that our most important task as a congregation is to educate the younger generations and pass on the Jewish tradition to them.
As a congregation, there is no doubt that we need to deliver on vital goals regarding adult Jewish life, like meaningful religious services, attractive learning opportunities, welcoming social programs, etc. However, we can never forget that the most important goal is the education of children, teenagers, and young adults. Paraphrasing Rabbi Meirl of Premishlan, we will be judged by this goal as a congregation.
These days, after hopefully having celebrated Hanukkah with joy, and with many of us preparing for some days of relaxing and vacation, could be a good opportunity for us, as a congregation, to reflect on this point. Are we fulfilling our supreme Jewish duty in educating our children? Are we doing it properly? Could we do it better?
As Judah, son of Jacob, cared so much for his young and tender brother Benjamin, we too must always care for the Jewish future of our children. As a congregation, it is our most important task to take care of the Jewish life of our younger members. Our future depends on this!