13 May 2011
9 Iyar 5771
Yesterday we welcomed approximately 120 grandparents and other friends and relatives to Gann for our annual Grandparents and Significant Friends Day, one of my favorite days of the year. I always have a sense of wholeness and completion when I see the mutual respect and admiration between our students and their grandparents. It is as if the grandparents can see their legacy living out in their grandchildren, and the children can see the history, journey, life’s experiences, and accumulated wisdom of their family in their grandparents.
This week’s Torah portion, Behar, teaches us various laws about how we should treat the land and other people when we eventually seek to build a community in the land of Israel. It gives us instructions for establishing a just society and, as in many other places of the Torah, this week’s parsha links many of these mitzvot to the common refrain, “I am the Lord who took you out of Egypt.” Why does the Torah repeatedly connect rules about how we should treat the other who is less fortunate than we are with reminders that God took us out of Egypt?
One explanation is that the Torah does not want us to forget why God freed us from Egypt. This is a message about the relationship between freedom and responsibility. God freed us not just for us, not so we can recreate and serve ourselves. Rather, God gave us freedom so we can serve a higher purpose in the world, so we can take responsibility for our actions and our lives, for the people around us, for the society we build, and for the world we help to repair.
Another explanation is that the Torah teaches us that our history and the stories and experiences that we and our ancestors have experienced shape our identity, our values, and our aspirations. By internalizing our people’s story and, more specifically, our own families’ stories, we learn the wisdom and values by which we will live our lives.
One of the students in my sicha (discussion group) suggested that the Torah reminds us that God took us out of Egypt to teach us humility. “We remind ourselves that we did, in fact, walk in the shoes of the less fortunate other, and, in doing so, we try to remember that life is not all about us,” she explained. I also think that the presence of grandparents and other significant friends in our lives keeps us humble by reminding us that we are part of a story that begins before us and will end after us.
Both this week’s parsha and Grandparents Day emphasize that we can educate a next generation of Jews who are not, as Paul Cowan wrote, “orphans in history,” but rather who know who they are, what they value, and how they aspire to be in the world because they have reverence and appreciation for where they come from and for those who have come before them.
Rabbi Marc Baker