It was back to school week this week. After two weeks of hanging out on the couch, or family vacations, or going with parents to work, our kids dragged themselves out of their beds and into our community’s schools this week. And the parents rejoiced. Don’t get me wrong- having my kids home with us for two weeks, spending time with grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins, getting away as a family for a few days was all wonderful. It was especially great for us to be with both sides of our family, and for my kids to see all of their first cousins. But seventeen days of all together all the time did fray some patience…a little too much of a good thing at times.
Despite that, I really did appreciate that the break from school gave us a chance to have the multigenerational experience that we don’t usually get. With family spread out in four states in three time zones, it’s not common that we get to be together. So, we know to savor and enjoy it when we do, just as our tradition suggests. Our tradition and our community certainly celebrate the multigenerational experience. Perhaps the familial climax of the Book of Genesis is Jacob blessing his grandsons, breaking the chain of disfunction and giving us a paradigm to follow of Shalom Bayit, peace in the home. A few weeks later, as we read from Parashat Va-era, the second in the Book of Exodus, our people are in a deeply different place. Generations have passed, the goodwill towards the Israelites that Joseph engendered from the Egyptians has faded into memory, and now our people are enslaved to a new King Pharaoh. They are crying out to the Holy One for redemption, and God has decided that time is right. God calls upon Moses to be the voice of the Holy One to the people and to the world.
In that call, God appreciates that Moses and the Israelites have felt abandoned. “Who is this God that has left us to suffer for all these years?” they could have been wondering. So, when God calls to Moses, the call includes a call back to those earlier generations. “Va-era, I appeared to Abraham, Issac and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make myself known to them by My name,” God says to Moses, before revealing the Holy Name (Ex. 6:3). Abraham, Isaac, Jacob…and now Moses and his generation. God relies on the confidence the Israelites have in the prophecies of earlier generations, that God would make of them and their descendants a great nation, and lays out the vision that Moses will help bring to fruition.
So it is with this callback to earlier generations that God begins what becomes our people’s quintessential story, the story of our redemption from Egypt. While enslaved to Pharaoh, crying out in pain and anguish, it must have felt impossible to the Israelites that the promise to Abraham, that his descendants would be a great nation, would ever happen. But with the outstretched arm, using the awful and awesome plagues and parting of the Red Sea, it does. So when our ancestors do walk free from Egypt, they take with them valuable lessons. One is to confront oppression whenever we see it, since we have a unique understanding of what it means to be oppressed. That message informs the later Prophets quite profoundly, who regularly remind their contemporaries of the moral judgment that comes from failing to protect those who are the most vulnerable.
Those Prophets often spoke to a community that had the political power and autonomy to take care of themselves. Later generations – most of the last two thousand years, our people did not have such a luxury. We too frequently were the targets of oppression, the vulnerable party moving from place to place in search of a modicum of safety and security. And that is where the second message of the Exodus resonated perhaps more strongly: that the future would be better.
We are an eternally hopeful people, perhaps naively so. Our national anthem, “Hatikvah,” is but one example of this. Throughout the exile he hoped to return to our homeland, and to a situation where we could fulfill our own destiny. The hope was often expressed through the lens of the generations, that perhaps not in this generation, but the ones to come, our children’s children, would be able to reap the fruits of our toil.
In our own generation, other songs brought this notion to life, and many of them came from the heart and voice of a single musician, Debbie Friedman, z”l. She wrote children’s songs like “The Alef Bet Song” and “I Am a Latke,” and prayerful pieces like settings of the blessings for Havdalah and “Mi Shebeirach.” Personally, the part of her catalogue that resonates the most with me are her pieces that bring Tanakh to life. “Sow in Tears, Reap in Joy,” based on Psalm 126:5, or “And The Youth Shall See Visions,” from Joel 3:1, are beautiful examples of this, and ones that capture that eternally optimistic nature of our tradition.
Debbie and her music brought so much joy to so many, and she personally maintained such a positive sensibility despite her well-known struggles. Her sudden passing thirteen years ago this week was mourned by many, but our spirits were lifted by the song she left behind. Tonight, we celebrate that song as we mark her yahrzeit and fill our synagogue with her words, her melodies, and her ruach, her spirit.
And we pray that our children’s children will too.
Rabbi Greg Weisman