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Ekev.  August 24, 2019

Rabbi Randall Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom

When I was very young, my family lived just over a half mile from our synagogue. We walked to shul every Shabbat and Holiday. We lived so close that when visiting speakers needed to be housed for Shabbat near the shul, we always offered our home. And yet, as close as we were to the shul, my grandmother’s apartment was even closer, just over a block away, you could see her apartment from the road in front of the synagogue. It led us to a very interesting custom.

On Yom Kippur, when it was time for Yizkor, my older sister, my little brother and I would leave the shul and go to my grandmother’s apartment and there break our fast. We didn’t need to say Yizkor yet so we would just leave the shul and kind of raid her refrigerator. When we got older and didn’t have to fast anymore, Grandma’s apartment was a place we could stop in that was away from our parents. My grandmother was in shul for Yizkor, but we were visiting her place.

This led to a long custom of leaving the Yizkor service all four times a year. Long after I moved away from home, I would still exit the synagogue whenever the time for Yizkor arrived. I would stay for the sermon but when the service began, I would head for the door. My Rabbi, when I was growing up, always asked us to stay. He told us that it was just a silly superstition to have to leave for Yizkor. It was ok to stay even if you didn’t have to mourn anyone. Of course, he didn’t have a grandmother’s apartment to go to. And for years I always left, even if I didn’t have a grandmother’s apartment to go to anymore.

When I was in Rabbinical School, I was with a group of students in shul when Yizkor arrived. I got up to leave. One of the other students looked at me and said, “You know, someday as a Rabbi, you are going to have to lead a Yizkor service. How are you going to do that if you have never seen one?” I thought about that and sat back down. I have never left for Yizkor since.

In our Parsha this week, we see the complicated relationship between God and the People of Israel. The Israelites have no idea how to live in freedom; they have been slaves for hundreds of years. The bulk of the Torah is about how God and Moses tries to train the people to live as free human beings. It is a rough road. The people are, at times, scared, unsure, terrified and stubborn. God does the divine best to show the people the way, but there is constant complaining and the ever-present desire to go back to Egypt where things were always easier.

With the second generation growing up in the desert, there is a new problem; they are so wild and free that Moses fears that they will come to expect God to make everything easier for them. Even if they were to be seduced by other gods, they would think that they deserve all the good that God does for them, taking credit themselves for a bounty that comes from God.

Rabbi Marc Gellman tells a story of Israel who always is looking to Moses to bring them another miracle when they need one. Moses insists that the miracles do not come from Moses, but come from God, but the people don’t listen. Moses does all kinds of things to show them he does not bring miracles; he ties himself up (Wow Moses, you can do miracles even when tied up); he hides under his bed (Incredible Moses, you can do miracles even when under your bed). God of course wants to cut the Israelites off from all miracles altogether but the people are in such need that Moses can’t cut them off. When Moses dies, Joshua tells God, that he, Joshua should be able to do a miracle since now the people will know that the miracles come from God not Moses. God does the miracle and the people say … “Joshua, you are almost as good as Moses when it comes to bringing miracles.”

There is a term for this kind of thinking today. It is called “snowplow parenting”. A snowplow parent is one that clears away all the obstacles that their child may face so that their path in life is easier. It is not enough to help a child with a science fair project or with an essay they need to write. Now parents write or pay others to write essays so their children can get into the best colleges. They call teachers and professors if their child does not get the grade they think their child deserves. These snowplow parents may even call up employers to convince them to hire their children.

We saw how this entire process ran amuck after the sting operation “Varsity Blues”; parents who paid proctors to give the answers to their children, and to make sure they got the best grades on placement exams for college. How they bribed coaches to get spots on obscure sports teams to get their children into a better university. How they paid others to insure the best college admission for their child. All it needed was enough money to plow away all the barriers to their child’s success.

It is hard to think of God as a “snowplow parent” for the Children of Israel. What can I say? God gave them everything: food, clothing, meat, and water. God gave them victory over all their enemies and cleared the way to the Promised Land. Still, in the end, the people forgot God and turned away from God’s law when it became too bothersome and burdensome to keep all those laws. God, I suppose, tries to teach the Israelites about hardship with the years of slavery and deprivation. God does try to discipline the people, as our parsha says, “as a parent punishes a child”. But clearly God does have, as most parents do, I suppose, God’s “snowplow moments”.

There are voices, even today, that warn us about doing too much to help our children. Julie Lythcott-Haims in her book “How to Raise an Adult”, and in Wendy Mogul’s book, “The Blessings Of a Skinned Knee” try to teach parents that as much as we might want to protect our children, we need to step back, to let them fall from time to time, to let them skin a knee and have their feelings bruised, so that they can become stronger and able to endure whatever stormy weather they will inevitably encounter. Without these smaller problems, our children will never develop a belief in their own selves.

Making mistakes is part of living. Character is developed when we learn to face up to our mistakes. When we have to apologize to someone else. When we have to do all we can to seek the forgiveness of others we may have hurt, and we must also learn to forgive ourselves for our errors of judgement. As the Yamim Noraim approach, we need to turn inward, look at the mistakes we have made and find the blessings in the skinned knees and the bruised ego. I never see pain as blessing from God, but I do see how overcoming our pain can bring kindness and forgiveness to others and into our lives. Compassion grows when we have already lived through what we see others facing today.

I am sure that children were once sent out of Yizkor Services hundreds of years ago in a snowplow moment. Parents did not want their children to see them cry for parents, siblings and spouses who had died.  I guess parents thought it was a sign of weakness to be caught crying in public. They wanted to make sure that their children never had a reason to cry. So, they sent their children away lest they see their parents in a moment of weakness. Only when the tears had dried could the children return.

I believe that our children need to see us grownups cry. I think that the key to success in life is to know that anything is possible and to be prepared for whatever life may bring. Do I want anyone to suffer? Of course not. But the suffering will be worse if we don’t give our children the tools to help overcome the pain and hurt.

There is a sense of pride and joy when we come through the darkness and emerge into the light. Children who only know the light, will not understand that no matter how dark the world may be, there will always be a dawn that follows. I have taught many times that obstacles that seem to be taller than all the mountains, are just an optical illusion. With experience, we learn that they may look big, but they are only speed bumps in life.

We hide too many things from our children, we clear away too many problems. I don’t know what makes me happier: when my children call me for my help with a problem, or when they call each other to see how their sibling handled a similar challenge. I am proud that we gave our children the resources to solve problems on their own. Not every problem demands parental intervention, nor divine intervention. Sometimes we need to let our children figure things out for themselves. This is how we teach them to be independent and to know the real joy that comes from experiencing all that life has to offer.

May God protect us from the real disasters of life but also give us the space to learn from our mistakes. May God give us the courage we need to never be afraid to fall and then pick ourselves up again as we say …. Amen and Shabbat Shalom



Sermon given by Rabbi Randall Konigsburg at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel on Saturday, August 24, 2019.

Sat, July 2 2022 3 Tammuz 5782