Roots and Wings

Shalom Chaverim (Dear Friends),

A couple of weeks ago, on Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, my youngest daughter quietly interrupted my first Zoom meeting of the day to put a sticky note on my desk.

“Will you be free in 15 minutes?” the note asked. She was reminding me that she was leading one of the rituals of a virtual ceremony for her whole school. I walked to the nook in our kitchen where she has set up her “home office” for daily remote learning and was inspired by what I saw.

She was standing in front of her laptop, dressed in black and white to honor the solemnity of the day, and holding a siddur (Jewish prayerbook) in her hand. In full voice, she sang the traditional memorial prayer, E-l Maleh Rachamim (God Full of Compassion) in its haunting minor key, as a screen full of faces, students, and teachers, watched her while standing in their respective homes.

I was obviously proud of my daughter, but also deeply moved by the scene. Most of us hear this traditional prayer recited by rabbis or cantors in formal settings like synagogues, funeral homes, or cemeteries, in the presence of a physical community. And for hundreds of years this prayer was probably recited primarily, if not only, by men.

But here was a young girl who is part of a pluralistic Jewish day school community, using 21st century technology to recite medieval liturgy in the presence of a virtual community while standing in her kitchen!

This moment filled me with gratitude for my daughter’s school and to all our Greater Boston Jewish day schools, which are doing an extraordinary job with remote learning during challenging times.

Along with so many other educational, cultural, and spiritual institutions across our community, they have shifted, adapted, and innovated to ensure that our children and families can stay connected and keep learning.

Thank you to the educators, administrators, clergy, social workers, information-technology specialists, volunteers, and others who are making this proliferation of innovative virtual learning opportunities possible.

The image of my daughter reciting this prayer also captured a timeless paradox of continuity and change in Jewish life. So many elements of that scene would have been unimaginable even to my grandparents, just two generations ago. Yet, the words she recited were in language that is incomprehensible to most contemporary American Jews and written in a prayer book that goes back thousands of years. Was this an illustration of the old or the new?

This week we conclude the third book of the Torah, Vayikra (Leviticus) with a double Torah portion. While we combine them for practical calendar reasons, I have been reflecting on the relationship between them. The first is called Behar (on the mountain) because it opens with God teaching Moses a new commandment while reminding him that all the commandments and teachings were received “behar Sinai,” on Mount Sinai. It’s as if God is saying, “Don’t forget where all of this comes from.” Mount Sinai represents the original moment when the Israelites became a community bound together by a transformational experience and collective responsibilities.

The second portion is called Bechukotai (according to My laws or ways) because it opens with a different reminder to the Israelites: “Im bechukotai telechu” — “If you go according to my laws, if you walk in my ways, then good things will happen for you.” Here, we are told to look not back, but forward, and to aspire to walk in God’s ways and live out our traditional values and teachings as we walk into the future.

Embracing the juxtaposition of these two messages is the challenge of every generation. How do we live out the timeless, unchanging teachings and wisdom of our tradition as we, and the world we live in, are in a state of constant change? If we forget where we come from, we are cut off from our past. If we do not keep moving forward, we get stuck in the past. If we find a way to combine the two, we have both the roots and the wings that we and our children need to fly.

I know that finding the balance between these two paradoxical truths is an imperfect process for me and my family. But especially during these challenging times, I am grateful for moments like this one, when it feels right and when I get to watch my child fly.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Marc Baker

Marc Baker

About the Author

CJP President and CEO Rabbi Marc Baker is an educator, writer, and leadership mentor who is devoting his life to Jewish learning and building Jewish communities.