Generation Sinai, a Torah learning campaign initiated in 2011, has been taking place for the last two years on Rosh Chodesh Sivan, just a few days before the holiday of Shavuot. In Jewish day schools throughout South Africa – in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Pretoria, and Port Elizabeth – parents and children have come together to learn Torah. The response in the last two years has been overwhelming; parents and children have been so inspired from discussing Torah ideas and what is important to us as Jews. It is a community-wide initiative, done in a spirit of unity. That sense of unity, as well as the strengthened bond between parents and children, has made this event truly memorable. It has become an annual event on the South African Jewish community’s calendar.
On Friday, 10 May 2013, please G-d, the third Generation Sinai event will take place. But what makes this year’s event so special is that for the first time Generation Sinai is taking place on a global scale. Over the last few months Jewish day schools around the world have been approached to join us. Next Friday, on the first day of the month of Sivan, parents and children will be coming together to learn in cities such as London and Manchester; in Sydney and Melbourne; in Los Angeles and San Diego; in Elizabeth, New Jersey; in Montevideo, Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro; in Moscow and Odessa; and in Berlin. The material has been translated into Spanish, Russian and Hebrew. Parents and children around the world will be learning the same section of the Torah – the Shema.
Generation Sinai is something in which we as the South African Jewish community can take tremendous pride; what began right here in South Africa has now gone global. This is a tremendous opportunity for all of you who have children in school and I encourage you to take part in this initiative. It’s something in which all our schools are active partners and it’s an event that we are all looking forward to.
I would like to take this opportunity to reflect on the power of this occasion, on the power of parents and children coming together to learn – and particularly about the Shema.
The centrality of the Shema in the Jewish psyche
In May 1945 Rabbi Eliezer Silver of the United States and Dayan Grunfeld of the United Kingdom went to Europe as chaplains, to assist the survivors who had just been liberated from the concentration camps. They were told that in a monastery in Alsace-Lorraine there were many Jewish children who had been taken in after their parents had been deported. The rabbis went to the monastery and asked the priest in charge to release the Jewish children into their care. The priest refused on the grounds that it was unclear whether any of the children were Jewish and that without proper proof of Jewish identity he could not release them. Due to the chaos of the war years it was impossible to obtain the necessary documentation and the rabbis asked to see a list of the names of the children. They recognised many Jewish names on the list but the priest persisted in refusing to release the children without any further proofs.
The rabbis made an unexpected request: they asked if they could return in the evening, at the children’s bedtime. That evening the rabbis walked down the aisles between the beds calling out Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our G-d, the Lord is One.” Many children burst into tears and cried out “mommy” in the various languages they spoke. Many of the children had been in the monastery since 1939; they were still very young when they had been taken in, and they had been raised as Christians. Yet the Shema which their mothers had said to them each night was so deeply ingrained in their minds that they had not forgotten it. And that is how the chaplains were able to identify the Jewish children.
The history of the Shema
It is indeed powerful that the subject matter being learned by parents and children in the first global Generation Sinai event is the Shema. The Shema actually goes back to the beginning of our history as a people. These immortal words which declare our faith and are so central to Judaism were said at a very important moment in history, when our Forefather Jacob was on his deathbed and he gathered his children with the intention of revealing to them what would happen in the End of Days.
Jacob had prophetic vision; he was able to see all the trials and tribulations that lay ahead as well as when the Final Redemption was going to come. According to the Talmud, Jacob wanted to reveal to his children what would happen at the End of Days; but G-d did not want him to reveal how history would unfold and how it would end, and so Jacob’s prophecy was taken away.
At that moment of darkness and uncertainty, when his prophecy was taken away, Jacob was filled with fear and anxiety about the future. He looked to his sons for comfort, and his sons said this verse in unison: Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our G-d, the Lord is One.”
As we know, our Forefather Jacob’s other name was Israel, or Yisrael in Hebrew. And so, one of the meanings of the verse Shema Yisrael is that Jacob’s sons were addressing him: “Hear, O Israel.” In other words, “Listen, father; the Lord our G-d, the Lord is One.” They thus declared to Jacob that they had perfect faith, and this allayed his anxiety and uncertainty about the future.
According to the Midrash, Jacob was also concerned as to whether his sons were truly loyal to Hashem and the Jewish mission. Jacob knew that his grandfather and his father had other children who had gone off the path. His grandfather, Abraham, had Ishmael who left the path, and his own brother, Esau, had left the path of their father, Isaac. Jacob thought that perhaps his sons were deficient in some way, and that that was why his prophecy had been taken away. He was concerned about whether his sons were loyal to G-d, and consequently he was concerned about the future of the Jewish people. Their response to him was: Shema Yisrael, Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad, “Listen, our father: the Lord our G-d, the Lord is One.” They were saying, we are loyal, we are committed; we are with you, and we are dedicated to Hashem and to our Jewish destiny. Jacob was so gratified at their response that he responded Baruch Shem Kevod Malchuto l’olam va’ed, “Blessed be the Name of His glorious kingdom forever and ever.” We say these words immediately after Shema Yisrael, to recall what Jacob said in response to his children.
The Shema symbolises the link between generations
The Shema is powerfully symbolic of the connection between parents and children. Every parent wants to know that their children are going to be alright. Every parent wants to look into the future and know that things will be okay, that their children will follow the right path in life and will do the right things. We all want to know what tomorrow will bring; this unknown is one of our deepest insecurities. We want to know for ourselves, for our children and for our children’s’ children.
Jacob had these concerns and anxieties, not only for his children, but for his children’s children – all the Children of Israel, and all future generations of the Jewish people. He was gravely concerned when his prophecy was taken away from him and he couldn’t see into the future. What comforted him in the end was his children’s assurance that they would continue to live by his values. Once he knew that his children would live by the values of the Shema and that they would be loyal and committed to Hashem and to His mitzvot, he knew that the future would be alright. As long as they would remain connected to G-d’s eternal vision and His principles of right and wrong, his children and their descendants would be able to meet and overcome whatever challenges, obstacles, trials and tribulations lay ahead. They had a moral vision founded in G-d’s principles, symbolised by the immortal words of the Shema.
The key to Jewish continuity
The first paragraph of the Shema contains the key to Jewish continuity. In that paragraph of Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our G-d, the Lord is One,” it says Veshinantam levanecha, “You shall teach your children.” Throughout the ages this has been the foundation for a strong and vibrant Jewish community. As we strive to build such a Jewish community here in South Africa, we are cognisant of the fact that we do so based on the values of the Shema, and the connection between the generations. As long as each generation is handing over those values of the Shema to the next generation – Veshinantam levanecha, teaching the children – then there is a future. No matter what lies ahead, we have the strength, inspiration and certainty to pass our heritage on to future generations, with the knowledge that we are linked to generations of Jews before us.
When parents and children around the world come together to learn, we all become part of one global Jewish family. At that moment we are united not only with our brothers and sisters throughout the world, but also with generations of Jewish parents and children throughout our long history, going all the way back to our founding fathers and mothers, to that moment in Jewish history where Jacob’s children said Shema Yisrael, thereby telling their father that he need not worry about their future.
Jacob’s sons said those words almost 4000 years ago. Who could have predicted then that thousands of years later we would be gathering and saying those very same words? They were right: no matter what lay ahead, we are part of an eternal Divine destiny. When we are connected and committed to the values of the Shema, we have the fortitude to embrace whatever the future may bring.
The verse in the Shema, Veshinantam levanecha, “You shall teach your children,” is central to our continuity. This is the amazing power of parents and children coming together to learn Torah. Many people have not experienced this, and this is what Generation Sinai is about – giving people the opportunity to experience what it’s like to learn Torah with their children.
Veshinantam levanecha, “You shall teach your children,” underscores how Judaism is transmitted from one generation to the next. We might think that teaching is done only in schools, that it is the teachers’ job. But in truth we, as parents, have the primary responsibility to teach our children, not only in a formal sense, but also to imbue our children with a love of Judaism. Teaching is not merely about giving over information to the child; rather, it is a dialogue, an exchange between generations. The magic of Torah learning is that it is not a lecture, but a dynamic conversation between parents and children, who grow together from the experience.
This is why there was such an outpouring of emotion at Generation Sinai in previous years. Parents got to feel the electrifying experience and inspiration of learning Torah with their children. It was not simply a lesson; there was a special dialogue taking place. The key to the Jewish people’s future is Veshinantam levanecha – parents and children learning Torah together. We are all part of the eternal bond linking generations of Jews.
Parents and children gathering together the world over to learn about the Shema is the ultimate vindication of what Jacob’s sons said to him 4000 years ago. That same Shema said thousands of years ago is still being said today. What other nation in the history of civilisation can carry the same badge of honour with the same words and the same values as it did so many years ago.
As Jewish parents and children gather across South Africa and around the world to reaffirm our eternal Jewish values and recommit to the awesome Divine vision for our future, let us be proud; we are privileged to play our part in Jewish destiny, going forward with strength and confidence.