By David Cohen, Director of Congregational Learning
This past weekend, Rabbi Cohen and I had the pleasure of taking our wonderful 10th grade students on this year’s Confirmation Class retreat. We stayed in an amazingly quirky adobe style home in the middle of the desert near Joshua Tree National Park – where we had the benefit of beautiful surroundings and a night-time sky full of the brightest stars you can imagine. Our Shabbat was spent hiking in the spectacular San Jacinto State Park mountains just a short ride away. In many ways, Parashat Lech Lecha served as our context for the trip. God speaks to Avram and says “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you.” This group of teens will soon be going forth into the world, and leaving their parents homes. In the spirit of Gods command to Avram, One could say that how they go out and leave their mark on the world has been a major focus of their time in our TBS Religious School.
As we looked into the night desert sky, Rabbi spoke to the group about the original meaning of the word “Mazel Tov”, a congratulatory phrase now used in secular culture as well as for Jewish simchas. Taking one step back from the “Congratulations” it is commonly known by, it is more appropriately a term that means good luck. But literally and originally, it was a phrase used to wish desert travelers well on their journeys. A wish that this nomadic people gave to one another to find bright constellations in the heavens that would guide them on their way. This was a wish that they would successfully navigate their journey and arrive at the destination of their choosing safely. As we spoke under the stars, we reflected on these ideas of navigating, of being guided, and of how exactly we get to the destinations we choose in life. We talked about what it is exactly that can help illuminate both our path and our eventual destination. These 10th grade students are three years removed from being a B’nei Mitzvah. The have been shown much of our tradition, but now, as they are older, there are bigger questions they will be facing. Many have already begun looking at colleges and many already have an inkling of what they may want to “do” with their lives. As students about to re-dedicate themselves to the community as confirmands, we talked about the very nature of this year of study and what they could take from it. We framed the year as a chance to re-examine, in a much more adult way, the guidance our tradition has to offer and the illumination it can provide.
Parashat Lech Lecha has much to say about the guidance our tradition can offer and what it means to “Go out – and be a blessing!” Teens are often thinking about what they get from the world and not always about what they give. What better time could there be to ask them to take a step back, and really think about what it means to be a person you can be proud of, a person who does not just take – but gives – of themselves, from the heart. This is of course at the core of the Mitzvot that would be later codified in our Torah. This was the covenant – the honor and the responsibility – that started with Avram and Sarai, who would become Abraham and Sarah as they were transformed into much more mature versions of themselves. These next few years for our teens are critical – in transforming into much more mature versions of themselves. We read in this week’s Parasha of Avram’s young selfishness in dealing dictatorially with his wife Sarai. When he transforms into a man who “listens” to his “wife’s voice” – he becomes the man he wants to be. These are the years when we can most help our teens become the people they want to be. These will also be years when they decide if our tradition has any relevance for them. This weekend was an attempt to “illuminate” that relevance – using the desert, the mountains, and Parashat Lech Lecha.
Rashi has commented on this Parasha in this way: “To be a blessing” is to be entrusted with a power once reserved for the Divine: the ability to bestow blessings upon others. In other words, our reward [for the covenant] is that which Avraham and Sarah so deeply desired: the knowledge that we are links in an unending chain of social responsibility and community building that links us right back to the Divine. And even when the progress is difficult, together we are creating the foundation for bringing this Divinely inspired blessing into the world.
We shared some of these insights with the group and added something additional. It is interesting to note that in the biblical narrative the Torah is given to the Israelites in the wilderness. It is not given in the land they were promised – in Israel. It is given in a place that is both wild and barren, a land that is apart from the land they will go to but essential to the story they will tell. In our travels this weekend, we asked our teens to go out. We asked them to go out into the wilderness and look at the stars, look at the wonders of nature and think about their place in this story, their place in the universe. These opportunities to leave the complexities of daily life behind and contemplate their true nature are rare. To be able to breath differently, to see differently, and to think more deeply about things – this is what we wanted to give them as a gift this weekend. And while we know that one can’t always run away to a place like that when times get tough, we showed them how they could travel there spiritually. Once you have been to a place like this you can always go back – in your mind. Many of us try to do it every week when we try to breath differently and think differently during Shabbat. And there again is another connection to our tradition that they just might find relevant and meaningful. But for now, this weekend apart from their usual world (Lech Lecha) was our attempt to show them that sometimes disconnecting was the best way to re-connect with themselves, their friends, their community, and their world.