For years, a rabbi would give every bar mitzvah boy a siddur as a gift. But after many years, he decided to change this custom. Instead, he began presenting the boys with an umbrella. When people asked him why, he said, “The umbrella they may open one day.”
Then there was the wealthy businessman who presented his nephew with a siddur for his bar mitzvah and the nephew was disappointed. He was hoping for a substantial monetary gift from his rich uncle. When the uncle passed away, it turned out he had left a note in his will for his nephew. “I know he is disappointed with my bar mitzvah gift,” it said. “Otherwise, he would have opened it and cashed the $1,000 check inside.”
I know this sounds cynical, as many bar mitzvah boys have made genuine transitions to maturity and earnestness. The sad reality, though, is that your average bar mitzvah boy is only too pleased to be done with his work and preparation, and isn’t necessarily back in shul next Shabbat.
This is sad indeed, because the Jewish people are utterly dependent on the next generation taking their place in our ongoing destiny. If they won’t, who will? As the Talmud puts it very bluntly, “If there are no kids, there will be no goats.”
This thought comes to mind as we read in this week’s Parsha Bo of a fascinating conversation between Moses and Pharaoh. It is after the first three plagues have struck Egypt and Pharaoh’s servants are urging him to let the Israelites go before all of Egypt is lost.
So, Pharaoh calls back Moses and Aaron and says to them, “Go and serve the Lord your God. Who exactly will be going?”
And Moses tells him they are all going: “With our youngsters and our elders shall we go; with our sons and with our daughters, with our flocks and our cattle shall we go.”
Let me paraphrase Pharaoh’s reply: “No way, Moses! Don’t be ridiculous! There’s not a chance that I will allow the children to go. You can take the adult males. Now, get out of here!”
Pharaoh and every antisemite in history have known that our children are the key to our survival as a nation. Stop the children from participating in Jewish life and you will suffocate and stifle the growth of our people.
Think back to the bad old days in communist Russia when Stalin and his successors closed down Jewish organizational life throughout the country. The Jewish schools were high on the agenda of the KGB. Yeshivas and Talmud Torahs were barred from operating, and many religious teachers were arrested, imprisoned and even executed. My wife’s own grandfather was a mohel. One day, he was taken away by the Soviet police and never seen again.
Yes, they allowed the big shul in Moscow to remain open as a photo-op for foreign visitors. But who was there? Ten old men who made a minyan? That was no threat to the atheist authorities. The old men would soon die out. But a school for children? Out of the question!
Sadly, the communists were successful in destroying Russian Jewish life, which is only now being revived and rebuilt. There certainly was stiff resistance, however. I know of numerous stories of underground cheders that operated clandestinely, chiefly under the direction of Chabad Hasidim. These brave men and women were inspired by the supreme sacrifice of the previous Rebbe, Rabbi J.I. Schneersohn, who in 1927 was himself arrested and sentenced to death by the KGB. Miraculously, he survived, fled to Riga and Poland, and eventually made it to the U.S. in 1940.
And it wasn’t only the communists. Earlier, in czarist Russia, they would draft young Jewish boys into the Russian army for 25 years in an effort to “Russify” them and prevent them from living Jewish lives. They were known as the Cantonists, and many of them clung courageously to their faith and their people.
In the Hanukkah story, the Greeks ban Torah education. That’s how the dreidel developed, as a ruse to show the Greek soldiers that Jews weren’t teaching their children Torah but just playing harmless games. Rome and other oppressive regimes throughout history were no different.
The antisemites understood this all too well. Pharaoh may have been the first, but he certainly wasn’t the last of our enemies who knew that, if you stop the children from learning about Judaism, you will wipe out any hope for a Jewish future.
I make no apologies for promoting Jewish day schools. And the more Jewish the better. We need the next generation to open the siddur and know how to use it.
Rabbi Yossy Goldman is Life Rabbi Emeritus of Sydenham Shul in Johannesburg and president of the South African Rabbinical Association.