Sermon: Toldot: Safety and Care for Young People
Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 30 November 2014
Our Synagogue has always been a great place for young people. Beginning with the Alyth cubs, scouts, guides and brownies in the 1930’s, at least one young member of which is with us today. On through the junior membership, to youth clubs and the legendary Alyth discos in the scout hut in the 70’s and 80’s, the Alyth Youth Singers, the Academy of Performing Arts, nearly a quarter century of the Sukkot sleep out and not far off twenty years of our yearly summer camp which Sam and Oliver have enjoyed, Summer Madness. This Synagogue is a great place for young people to start their lives as Jews and will continue to be so.
But not by chance. At Alyth the secret is passing on the skills of enabling children to have a great time in a Jewish environment and to be safe and secure while they are doing so. Every year our professional youth leaders train a new group of teenagers to become youth leaders, or Madrichim. They teach them how to plan engaging activities, how mix great fun with Jewish learning and community building and above all how to make sure that young people feel and genuinely are safe at Alyth in the Shul, on trips, often very ambitious ones and away on camps. We are very proud this week that the NSPCC chose Alyth this summer to make a film to help other religious communities to learn how safeguard children. You can see this film after Shabbat directly from the front page of the Alyth website, it also includes a sequence filmed at the Talmud class to show how the Synagogue works as a place for all generations. The NSPCC also made films in a Mosque, a Hindu Youth Centre and a Church and it is great to see the faiths of Britain sharing concerns and techniques for making a religious community a safe and fun place.
For me one of the most moving features of our youth leader training, which today we call by its Hebrew name Hadrachah, is the wonderful surprise of some of the young people who go into it and are transformed by it. Many of them are already responsible and mature in the way they behave, but there are always young people who learn to be youth leaders here who were almost impossible to work with when they were younger. These young people often turn out to be the very most effective Madrichim, because not a single trick can get past them – they once did it themselves.
This is because many of the best youth leaders in the Jewish World as elsewhere are essentially poachers turned gamekeepers. The horror of twelve is so often the one who can really communicate with and empathise with the children at the camp when he or she is nineteen
How then, as we read today the portion of Esau and Jacob was Isaac to know which of his sons was the ideal person to take on the mantle of the patriarch and lead Judaism forward into what was, we must remember only its third generation since Abraham? On the face of it he chose the oldest – expecting Esau to be in front of him ready to receive his blessing in the story that we just heard. On the surface when Jacob jumps in ahead of Esau to receive his blind father’s blessing, Isaac was duped, deceived by Rebbekah’s stratagem to replace Esau with Jacob – in which Jacob was a willing accomplice going along with his mother’s plan.
Many of the Midrashim, in which the Rabbis of old gave their understanding of the narrative, do not take it this way. Since Jacob was later to play such an important role as the father of the twelve tribes of Israel, the Rabbis clearly felt uncomfortable with any idea that Isaac’s blessing of him was obtained by chance deception. They did this by interpreting the story that we heard in such a way as to suggest that the events were part of a divine plan or alternatively that Isaac was a willing accomplice as well to his own deception – having decided some time ago that Jacob rather than Esau would be his ideal successor.
Those who take the divine plan line suggest that Isaac’s blindness was brought about by God so that Jacob could stand before him at the proper time and receive the patriarchal blessing. One midrash has the angels crying tears of dismay at the point that Isaac was bound upon the altar by Abraham in the Akedah story which we heard last week. The Angel’s tears fell into Isaac’s eyes as he looked upwards from the altar and prepared his eyes for later blindness.
Those who suggest that Issac knew very well what was going on hang their suggestion on hints they discover in the text. For example Jacob refers to God having helped him to hunt quickly when he brings what is meant to be game for his father to eat so quickly. Esau was meant to have spurned God and so surely, these Rabbis argue, Isaac knew at the mention of God’s name that it was Jacob not Esau who stood before him. With his other senses perhaps sharpened up due to his blindness – its rather odd that Isaac fails to recognise through his sense of taste that Rebeccah has substituted young goat for gamey Venison, that he thinks that he hears Jacob’s, not Esau’s voice but allows himself to be convinced that it is not so, that he touches Jacob but allows himself to be fooled into thinking that goat hair is the same as human hair, finally as Rashi says Isaac smelled Jacob – and there is no smell more offensive that that of washed goat skins – but Isaac let himself be persuaded that it was a pleasant smell that he was smelling – that of a field on a Spring day. Surely Isaac knew that it was Jacob and not Esau before him.
So perhaps indeed it was given to Isaac to know who his best successor as Patriarch of the proto Jewish people was going to be – though, as we will see in the coming week’s Torah portions – Jacob will be presented as a deeply flawed character who, when he is presented to Pharaoh by his son Joseph, will say to him “few and evil have been the days of my life.”
But this is not how it turns out when you are trying to bring up good Jews in our world beyond the stories of the Torah. I no more know than anyone who out of the many many children that I have and continue to be privilege to know and teach and lead in my work will be among the true, sincere and active bearers of the Jewish heritage. I cannot be like the Rabbis of old suggested Isaac was, and be able to create circumstances in which I can guarantee to pass on the mantle of Jewish leadership to the next generation.
For example it can be that the children who put in the most polished performances on the Bimah at their Bar or Bat Mitzvah turn out to be the ones who then take little interest in Judaism from then onwards – whilst the faltering reader can be the one who really carries Judaism in his heart and soul. North London is strewn with ex-Hasmonean Grammar boys – brought up to know Judaism inside out who have cast our religion off as an irrelevance to their lives whilst Jewish girls brought up with a convent education have remained secure in their identity and are among those who make Judaism effective in their lives and the lives of their families.
As a Rabbi and as a community we can only give of our best to each of the young people who are Jewishly educated through our hands. We cannot know who will be the committed Jews, the one’s who help to forward the Jewish mission to bring about a better world through participation in community according to our Jewish forms of observance and ritual. Perhaps the poachers will turn gamekeepers and the jewels will lose their lustre. Because of this it is absolutely crucial to my mind that we as a community and I as a Rabbi do our best to keep, develop and deepen our relationship with those who have grown up in our community well beyond religion school age and well beyond Bar and Bat Mitzvah. We need to ensure that there is an open and welcoming door here for those who have grown up here built from great memories and a love of the Alyth community and many different ways for them to find their way back in.
We have to keep thinking about our future. We need to plan for the future of all of our young people as Jews. Like Isaac who dug wells to ensure that water flowed for his family and who blessed his son who could carry forward his tradition we need to create the conditions which will enable our children’s Jewish lives to grow beyond our own.
We have to experiment and not everything that we try will succeed. We need to keep old favourite programmes going but be prepared to leave them behind when they no longer work for young people. We need to build with vision and celebrate our successes. Above all, we must never write off a young person’s participation in the Jewish community. You never know where the next Jacob will be found.