Sermon: Building with our children – Va Yishlach 2011

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 16 December 2011

It’s a great privilege to be able to name a child.  Later this morning we will be declaring the Hebrew name of Joni Autumn Minter-Green – Rut bat Yaacov Yzochah v Yael.  When a child is this young and this tiny it can seem a heavy weight to bear all of these names.  But as she grows up they will accompany her and mean that she is always unique.

The names of all of the sons of Israel, whom Ben mentioned in his Torah portion were given at birth, each time because of a link that they had with the lives of their mother and her relationship with Jacob, their father or with the other people significant in their mother’s lives.    These names – given to a tiny baby then became the names of grown men and because of what would happen to Jacob’s sons in Egypt, the names of whole tribes of Israel, and even in the case of Judah, whose name in Hebrew Yehudah, became in Babylonian times the name for the entire Jewish people, the Yehudim – us.  He was given this name by his mother Leah because at the time of his birth she was overwhelmed by a feeling of thankfulness hodaah to God.

Some of Jacob’s sons names were lovely – like Asher, Zilpah’s son, whose name means happy – and Issachar, also Leah’s son, whose name means reward.  But if names are significant pity poor Naphtali, Bilhah’s son whose name means rivalry – the rivalry between sisters Rachel and Leah.  As Ben told us Ben Jamin – son of my right hand was originally to be called Ben – Oni – the son of my suffering by his tragically dying mother Rachel.

The names matter but even in the Bible where every word is measured and carries meaning, the names do not tell you much of significance about the future of their bearers.  When we give a child the name of a beloved ancestor, such as my daughters middle names which recall two of my treasured great aunts – Etta and Katie (z’’l), I am sure we hope that the positive aspects of their heritage will be carried with them.  But my daughter’s first names don’t tell you much – Alice, we hebraized to Aliza, meaning joyful – nice enough – but Miriam’s name means bitter sea – a nice sounding name but it’s meaning is best not mentioned.

Whilst giving a name to a child is among the first gifts we can give it, the remainder of the gifts that Jewish custom mandates that we should give to our children take decades to deliver.  And they are not delivered only by a parent, but by the whole community around that child, making everyone who knows them and cares about them part of circle of responsibility.  It means that people who do not have children of their own can join in building our children into great people.  Talmud Kiddushin (29a) sets out the responsibilities of a parent to a child, but its clear they will not be able to exercise these responsibilities properly without the participation of a community.

Every parent according to Talmud is required to circumcise their child if they are a boy, redeem their child from the priesthood if they are firstborn and not a Cohen (this gives rise to the 30 day ceremony for first born boys called Pidyon haBen), teach them Torah, find them a wife or husband, teach them a means of making a living and finally, although it may be best to do this one earlier, teach them to swim – which is why the Sobell Sports Center near Stamford Hill is full on Sunday mornings with Chassidic men teaching their kids to do just this.    You cannot do all of these things meaningfully or successfully without a community so, just as we are responsible for comforting the mourners of our community, visiting the sick of our community, doing Tzedakah as a community, so we are all responsible for raising the children of our community.  It’s the principle that Hillary Clinton drew upon for her 1996 book “It takes a village to raise a child.”

As a Synagogue it is a principle that we must take very seriously because our responsibility for the Jewish future in this country continues to grow.  Nearly 1000 children under 21 belong to this community and that is fully one in 50 of the Jewish children of this country.  In 2006, when I first began to serve Alyth as Rabbi there were 367 5-12 year olds who belonged to Alyth, now in 2011 that figure is 466.   Our Synagogue community is becoming more and more responsible for passing on the meaning and actuality of membership of the Jewish covenant to the next generation.    We must do so effectively and positively.

People can create a terrible legacy for children to bear.  This week, when I was able to take a few days off work, I went to the Imperial War Museum.  It is a very striking place to see what an awful heritage we can make our children bear.  The Holocaust exhibition, which includes the narrative of a number of members of this synagogue and their family members, shows you how people can destroy children as if they are nothing but vessels to contain their hatred – one and a half million children were murdered by Nazi Germany and their allies in just six years.

The terrible Crimes against Humanity exhibit at the museum shows us in such an effective way that hatred continues to lay upon our children a terrible heritage.  It begins with the striking statistic that there are upwards of 5000 peoples in our world with a distinctive ethnicity.  There are only 200 nations in the world, which means that ethnic diversity is not only the norm but has to be liveable with in every country.  The story of the twentieth century – and in countries such as Sudan and Congo still the story of the twenty first century – is that it is all to easy to stir up hatred for other ethnicities and pass it on to our children so that they join adults in murder.   In Rwanda a survey was undertaken a few years after the genocide between the Hutu and Tutsi peoples in the mid 1990’s.  It found that 60% of Rwanadan children had personally witnessed a murder taking place in front of them, and that for the majority of these children it was a family member’s murder that they had seen.  The worst possible heritage to give to a new generation.

Last Shabbat I went to experience the service at New North London Synagogue.  There Rabbi Wittenberg spoke about his experience attending the unveiling of a statue to the kinder transport children who left the Hoek of Holland for a new life in England – much like the statue at Liverpool St Station with children with suitcases looking out to an uncertain future alone.  When you are Kiev on a trip to our twin community in Kerch you see the memorial to the children killed in Babi-Yar – three children dolls with their heads lolling.   A village, a community, can destroy our children and burden them with our worst struggles as well as build them.

We have to be very careful that we don’t do this in our homes and families.  We must not burden our children with our struggles with each other.  Parents, however difficult their relationships with each other must never make their children bear their resentments and their unhappinesses. Their children are given to them pure and full of every potential.  Our tradition demands of us that we give them every tool for a positive future and not the prejudices and disappointments which we may even justifiably bear.  In our Torah portion today even Esau and Jacob, who suffered an upbringing of jealousy and manipulation from their parents still came together to bury their father Isaac in peace   witnessed by their children, as their father Isaac had done before when their father Abraham had died.   Rabbi Elazar said (Berahcot 64a) that when Isaiah said that “all your children (banyaich) shall be students of God so that the peace of your children will be abundant” (Isaiah 54:13)” you could just as well read banayich (your children) as bonayich (your builders).   Our children build the world of the future – they determine what our heritage will mean.  As individuals, as families, as communities it is our responsibility to ensure that our children build a world closer to what God intends, that we can be proud of and never to influence them in such a way that they will learn to destroy and to hate.  As we celebrate the Bar Mitzvah of Ben Mizrahi and welcome Joni Autumn Minter-Green to the world let us give them the tools to build and never burden them with the means to destroy.