Many people bewail how fathers are absent from the black family in urban America. But when was the last time you heard someone bewail how not only white evangelical fathers but also Jewish fathers in modern urban America are absent as spiritual mentors to their children? Most Jewish parents, and here I am focusing especially on the fathers, off-load this mentoring responsibility by delegating it to the experts. While you can pay big money and send your children to expensive schools for education, transformation and and imprinting of spiritual identity can only be done in the home by the parents, and especially the fathers. But what happens if the parents are not conspicuous for learning God’s ways, studying the holy books, living the prescribed way of life? What happens instead if our children are being mentored by the professionals, rabbis, others we pay?
We are teaching our children then that when they are adults they should send their children for religious education, but that they won’t have to live that way themselves. We are teaching them that in the end, Judaism is for kids.
The beginning of Psalm 78 brings this relational and intergenerational component into sharp focus:
A Maskil of Asaph.
Give ear, O my people, to my teaching (torah);incline your ears to the words of my mouth!
I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old,
things that we have heard and known, that our fathers have told us.
We will not hide them from their children, but tell to the coming generation
the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might and the wonders that he has done.
5 (verses 5-6 – The content which the generations must transmit)
He established a testimony (edut) in Jacob, and appointed a law (torah) in Israel,
which he commanded our fathers to teach to their children,
that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and arise and tell them to their children,
7 (Verses 7-8 - The purposes of this transmittal)
so that they should set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments;
and that they should not be like their fathers, a stubborn and rebellious generation,
a generation whose heart was not steadfast, whose spirit was not faithful to God. (Psalm 78:1-8 ESV)
We fathers in Israel are charged with transmitting a holy legacy to our children which is more than simply a heritage or body of information. Rather, it is a remembrance of God’s works on behalf of our people which is seamlessly intertwined with a body of commandments (the text speaks of a “testimony” a “torah” which we are commanded to teach our children). And of course this Torah itself is not simply a history record but a covenantal way of life.
How will we know we have succeeded with our children? The Psalm provides an answer:
Living respectably is not the goal. Keeping your children from being goyish is not the goal. Living in ways that honor the God of our ancestors is the goal. The goal is for our children to grow up to be people whose actions and attitudes are clearly guided by an ongoing immersion in the biblical and in our case, Judaic world of God-honoring feeling, thinking, and doing.
Anything less is lip service, and God has never been impressed with that. Neither should we be.
Which bring us to the Shema.
The Shema has much to say to us about what it means to know the God of our ancestors, and what it means for us to honor him in our families. It come to remind us of our responsibilities to God, to each other, and to the world within our identity as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. It not simply a call to obedience for obedience’ sake or obedience for happiness’ sake. It is a call to obedience for the honor of God throughout the world but first in the family and among our people from generation to generation. All of this is not simply to be a discipline, but a manifestation of relationship and means of nurturing and protecting it.
4 "Sh'ma, Yisra'el! ADONAI Eloheinu, ADONAI echad –Hear O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. 5 You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. 6 And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. 7 You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. 8 You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. 9 You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
At Interfaithfulness, we have an Initiative known as HaB’er concerned with mentoring Jews and their families, including intermarrieds, in what is termed “the three stranded cord,” going deeper into Jewish life, relationship with God, and Yeshua faith. And while mentoring families, we seek to mentor parents, both mothers and fathers, in doing what our tradition expects of them: to be the primary spiritual mentors of their own children and grandchildren.
Our children will have many teachers: but (usually), only one mother and father. And it is the parents' joy and job to mentor these children in the ways of God. “These words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children.”
You, and not someone else.