Tapestry #9 Sivan: V’SHENANTAM L’VANECHA: Creating Life Long Jewish Learners

SivanThe first tapestry our artists Bracha and Menachem Lavee designed for us was this Shavuot/Sivan tapestry, number nine in the order of the entire commission of twelve, and in many ways it, more than any other, embodies the essence of Temple B’nai Shalom for the past twenty years.  From the very beginning, our core value as a congregation has been passing the Torah on to our children, while pursuing lifelong Jewish study for ourselves, as adults, and for those who wished to study Judaism.   We are, above all else, a community of learners.   Everyone may joke about my mantra of “going on to Confirmation and post-Confirmation” but that value is the cornerstone of everything we do at Temple B’nai Shalom.

In the upper left-hand corner of the tapestry we have the words of the V’ahavta, “V’shenantam l’vanecha.”   When B’nai Shalom began, my sons were newborn and a little more than one-year old.   This verse from the Shema, “And you shall teach your sons” which we have expanded to include daughters, has been the foundation value of my parenting of my own children and the children of TBS.

I take it literally, that I personally must teach our children.   In a day and age where fewer and fewer rabbis actually teach Bar/Bat Mitzvah and high school, I teach more teens than anyone I know in the rabbinate.   Over 120 students come into my classrooms over the course of any given year, because I truly believe that these are critical times in Jewish identity building.

But, I am not alone in teaching our children and parenting them.  We value the education of our children so much that we hired a second rabbi rather than an educator to provide the finest quality education for our religious school.   Our program is second to none in instilling a love for Jewish learning with standards and integrity, a desire to come to and enjoy religious school, and the overwhelming percentage of students who continue on to Confirmation and post-Confirmation (as our Sara, our Bat Mitzvah this week, is committed to doing), in addition to our record number of students at HUC-JIR on all four of her campuses starting this fall.

As Reform Jews, we gave the Jewish world Confirmation celebrated at Shavuot time, over 150 years ago, as a statement that Bar and Bat Mitzvah is just the beginning, not the end, of Jewish learning.   Our love for Jewish learning does not end with our children.   The Torah and Jewish adult study has always been a congregational priority.   Our greatest Jewish value is creating a community of lifelong Jewish learners.

Many of you will stay here until 11 pm with me tonight studying, and those late night sessions began when we were meeting at Abiding Presence Church.  Our adult education program is packed with programming every year that begins on Yom Kippur and goes on twelve months of the year.  Leaders of worship and teachers of Torah within our congregation learned all they needed to know here at TBS, and by taking advantage of conventions and kallot of our Reform movement.

Our Adult Hebrew program births our Adult B’nai Mitzvah program which begins the final leg of their journey with me on Thursday night, culminating in their B’nai Mitzvah in November.   And our Intro to Judaism classes run and taught by the rabbis of our congregation have brought more people to Judaism than almost any other congregation of our size and history.  In record numbers we have partners in marriages with Jews, and seekers of meaningful spiritual life, who were raised in other faiths or with no faith, discovering and studying Judaism, leading to lifelong Jewish participation and so often to conversion.

Our tapestry reflects this reality in the beauty of simplicity.   As I have explained before, each of the three biblical pilgrimage festivals when our ancestors traveled to Jerusalem are depicted on our walls – Sukkot, where we also celebrated the value of welcoming the stranger, Pesach/Passover and here Shavuot. The animals (see the ram for sacrifice) and fruits and grains of the harvest to the left of the path, and the wheat to the right of the path (for the wheat harvest takes place in Israel at Shavuot – or it could be barley to symbolize that Shavuot is the end of counting seven weeks of the omer.  Shavuot means weeks, as we have seven between Passover and Shavuot).

Unlike the paths of the first two pilgrimage tapestries which are filled with people going to Jerusalem as in days of old, we partnered with our artists to make this pilgrimage path  a celebration of the journey to Judaism and conversion. Instead of people, the words of the book of Ruth light the path:  “Amaych ami, v’elohiyich elohai”  — “Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”

Welcoming new Jews has been a sacred privilege that many of us treasure here at TBS.   I cannot count the scores of people who have taken the Torah on our bimah to embrace Judaism for life.  Two members of our Board, quite a few committee chair, teachers in our religious school, and countless weekly service attendees and faithful volunteers have walked this path. They are our Jewish pilgrims and on Shavuot, as we read the Book of Ruth, which reminds us that King David is her great-grandson.  We, too, have so many wonderful Jews who are, or are descended from, Jews by choice, including three of our five rabbinic students.

The open book reminds us that Jews are called “the People of the Book.”  We publish more books per Jew than any other people and learning is the ultimate value for our faith.  This book says Shavuot on the top right, and the other name for this holiday, Chag Matan Torah, the holiday of the giving of the Torah, and Sivan on the top left.  The words Torah from the bottom right and Orah on the bottom left of the book, Torah Orah—the Torah is our light, for as Torah guides us our lives find meaning and we are able to be a “light unto the nations”.  The blue water at the bottom is also a Torah symbol – Torah being “Mayim Chayim” , our life waters.   And we see the golden, red, and yellow rainbow of light shining over Jerusalem above as we sing the Biblical parallelism at every Torah service, “Ki mitziyon tatzay Torah, u’dvar Adonai m’Yerushalayim” – From Zion goes forth the Torah and the word of God from Jerusalem.

The contrast with the blue and purple hills on the left and the night sky, reminds us of the words of the Shema, “when we lie down and when we rise up” – we love God and live Torah, day and night.

And the final Torah symbol, yet another tree, or perhaps a vine.. you can see it either way… gives forth pomegranates and grapes —  the pomegranate being the fruit woven throughout so many of the tapestries starting with Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot, because it has, according to the rabbis, an equal number of seeds to the commandments in the Torah.  An open pomegranate awaits us to study and savor to taste Torah and tradition for ourselves.   With wine our symbol of joy we welcome this holiday, hence the grapes.

We strive to be guided by Torah in every encounter and transaction.   In order to be guided by Torah we have to know it and in order to know it, we have to study it.  Our Board members write divrei Torah for each meeting, sharing their study with one another.  At B’nai Shalom, Torah doesn’t belong to the rabbis, Torah belongs to the people who read and study her words, and follow her commandments and precepts with all of their hearts, souls and might.

It is a member of this year’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah class who decided to raise the necessary funds to buy our congregation the fourth Torah we desperately need.   This amazing thirteen year old is joined by some of her fellow classmates in the raising of funds to purchase a Torah.  In addition, our Confirmation students have decided to give their tzedakah money toward the buying of our new Torah.   I mentioned that we needed a smaller, more liftable Torah for smaller B’nai Mitzvah students and elderly grandparents and the response has been amazing.   Very soon, there will be a fourth Torah for us to love, as we love, maintain, and cherish the three we already have.   Our Torahs are treated and cared for with love, respect and Jewish knowledge.  Our newest Jewish adults have learned their lessons well.

On Thursday night, we will begin our Shavuot journey which will culminate in Confirmation a week from this Sunday.   For us Shavuot is Chag Matan Torah – the holiday of the receiving of Torah, but not just at Sinai. We open our arms and our hearts to receive Torah, each and every day of our Jewish lives.

May this tapestry which embodies our sacred values of  V’Shenantam l’vanecha (teaching our children) and Torah Orah (Torah as the light guiding our lives) be a lasting reminder of the commitment of Temple B’nai Shalom to always be a community of lifelong Jewish learners.

Shabbat shalom.