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Stepping Out From Our Past (Eikev – 08/24/19)

Rabbi Neil Schuman

Stepping Out From Our Past
In Parshat Eikev, we read what has become the second paragraph of the Shema prayer in our siddur. We are adjured to love God and to fulfill the commandments. Compliance will bring us bountiful rainfall and harvests. Non-observance, though, will lead to sparsity and eventually exile from the Land.
Most modern Jews take these words symbolically. Certainly, there are positive benefits to loving God and sanctifying our lives through the performance of mitzvot. It’s also fair to say, repercussions to our actions occur for the good and the bad on a regular basis.
Yet some people take these words literally: there is a reward and punishment system from the Divine, and if we don’t heed the mitzvot, calamity is around the corner.
This past Thursday, I received a letter from my Rosh Yeshiva (the principal of the yeshiva that I studied in) urging me to contact the State Assembly. In my twenties I attended Yeshivas Chaim Berlin, an ultra-orthodox, “Black Hat” yeshiva.  It seems that the NYS education board is dissatisfied with the quality of secular education in private and parochial schools and is mandating new requirements, which, if not met, will mean the closing of the schools.
Now this decree is for all private schools, secular or religious Christian, Islamic or Jewish schools. I’m sure its goals are to foster greater education that will lead to better occupational opportunities for all New York State residents.
My Rosh Yeshiva sees the changes as a threat. He writes, “It is no secret to us, and unfortunately no secret to our enemies too, that our survival as the People of the Torah, indeed as the Jewish People, is wholly dependent on our ability to teach our children in the ways that we have received throughout the ages. Recognizing this, when seeking to obliterate our identity as the People of God, our enemies have set their sights on tampering with our education process, correctly recognizing that this is the most effective way of achieving their nefarious goals.”
Personally, I don’t believe the Board of Education are anti-Semites with the goal of destroying the Jewish people. I’m sure they are sincere people who simply want to raise the education levels of parochial school students. My rabbi, though, views the tainting of the young Jewish mind with non-Jewish studies and the lessening of the hours available to learn religious texts as a threat. If you take the reward and punishment system of the Torah literally, the new guidelines could create a serious problem for maintaining the devotional levels of the yeshiva’s student body.
While my religious outlook and understanding has changed significantly from my yeshiva days, I still don’t want to divorce myself from my teacher. My rabbi did teach me how to think and analyze. He allowed me to follow my own separatist ways even when I was in Yeshiva, and that enabled me to continue questioning and searching when I left (It just took me about 20 years to get things really straightened out!). I wouldn’t be who I am without my rabbi’s kindness and the education my yeshiva provided me in my youth.
How does one move forward without severing ties with the past?
Fortuitously, in a movie I saw earlier last week, I heard something beautiful that illuminates this issue.
“Blinded by the Light” is about a Pakistani teenager growing up in small blue-collar town in England in the mid-1980s. There’s recession, there’s discrimination and, since the boy is from a traditional religious Islamic house, he’s being forced to maintain a separate lifestyle. All he really wants is just to be a normal British teenager and to leave town and go to college.
The problem is that he’s a meek young man suffocating from tremendous external pressure and he doesn’t know what to do.
Then a friend introduces him to Bruce Springsteen’s music, and the young lad sees his life mirrored in the Boss’s lyrics. Stirring songs about the downtrodden and broken-hearted yearning to reach the Promised Land inspire him to be bold and change his life.
Spoiler Alert!
At the end of the movie, he has a choice of leaving his family and going to college (totally antithetical to his parent’s religious values) or staying home and having all his dreams smashed to smithereens.
Upon receiving an honor at his school commencement, he reflects upon Springsteen’s song, “Blinded by the Light.” He says that he originally thought the words meant that we become blinded and seduced by the light of our goals. The allure of our desires and their fulfilment blinds us to all other matters.
But he then understood a deeper interpretation, that one becomes blinded by the light of those goals to the detriment of the other people in our life. We become so blinded by our goals that we forget to appreciate those that got us here. He says, “I know that having dreams doesn’t make me a bad son.
I also know that everything I am is because of the sacrifices my mom and dad made.”
I see this teaching shedding light on my situation. While I have pulled away from many of the dogmas of my yeshiva, I’m only a rabbi because of the time, effort and sacrifices they made for me. As I broach new vistas of spirituality and Judaism, I realize that I do so with the skills they have implanted in me.
This insight though, relates to all of us. As grow into our selves, whether in our teenage yours or later, we shed the remnants of our past. Even marriage is a form of this, as the Torah says (Genesis 2:24): “Therefore, a man shall abandon his father and his mother, and cleave to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” The two individuals become a new entity, but each is still rooted in their families.
May we all strive for our dreams, for enlightenment, even if that means stepping out from our roots, while still recognizing that what all we have is because of the sacrifices our families (or educational institutions).

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