In the concluding chapters of Deuteronomy, Moses recites two poems to the generation of Israelites born in the 40 years of desert wanderings. The first poem is our Torah portion for this week, is known as Ha’azinu (“Give ear!”).
It is not easy for an older generation to convince the younger one that their lives should be based on what happened to their parents, rather than on what happened to them. Perhaps that is why Moses wisely emphasizes that God first found Israel “in a desert region, in an empty howling waste” (Deuteronomy 32:10), rather than hearkening back to the slavery of Egypt, the Ten Plagues, and the parting of the Red Sea.
For the generation born in the desert, the evidence of God’s protective care is indeed found in their own experience of God providing food (the manna), water, clothing, and other things needed for survival in the wilderness.
It is difficult for one generation to use its experience to inspire faith and fidelity in subsequent generations. What “works” for one generation of Jews may not necessarily be convincing or compelling to a later generation.
The experience of the Jewish people in the 20th century included events of tremendous historical, religious, and social significance. The massive Jewish immigration from Europe, the Holocaust, and the birth of the State of Israel were determinative factors in creating, reinforcing, and sustaining Jewish identity. Yet we cannot rely on any of them to convince Jews born in the 21st century that preserving the Jewish project in history remains their sacred task. Similarly, those who witnessed the Ten Plagues and the miracle at the Red Sea could probably not imagine that Moses having to appeal to the next generation based on a different set of experiences.
That younger Jews do not automatically reverberate to Israel or the Holocaust does not make them irresponsible or insensitive or “bad Jews.” Like the generation born in the wilderness to whom Moses addresses his poem, they need their own set of experiences on which to build.
Several generations of North American Jews defined Jewish identity as participation in patterns of ritual observance, or as joining organizations such as synagogues, JCCs, and federations. It can often be painful to see that such essential expressions of Jewishness may not mean to successive generations what they meant to us.
But rather than criticizing younger Jews, we might ask: How can we invest in helping them see how Judaism can be a part of their future and not just of our past? How many dollars and how much time do we as a community devote to creating opportunities for them to have their own positive experiences of living Jewishly? How do we teach them Jewish texts as sources that speak to the issues they live with every day? How do we help them find Jewish imperatives to work for the betterment of the larger world in which they live?
Each generation begins with the inherited experience of those who came before. We would be derelict in our responsibility if we failed to teach our children who the Jewish people have been, what the Torah tradition is, and what obligations derive from the covenant of Sinai. But this only tells them what has been; they will need to experience for themselves what the future might be. The job of each generation is not to substitute their experience for that of their children; it is to create opportunities for their children to have their own Jewish experiences.
In Moses’ words from this week’s Torah portion: “Were they wise, they would think upon this, and gain insight into their future…” (Deuteronomy 32:29)
Rabbi Richard Hirsh is assistant rabbi at Congregation M’kor Shalom, Cherry Hill.