By Rabbi Simcha Weiser
We enter the holiday of Shavuot with visions of several million Jewish people gathered at the foot of Mt. Sinai, hearing the Ten Commandments spoken from on high. They then returned to their tents and for the next 40 years as they traveled through the wilderness, occupied themselves by studying and teaching Torah full-time. The only institution was the Tent of Meeting, around which they lived. These homes, when viewed from afar by Bila’am, whose goal was to curse them, elicited his famous “How Good are Your Tents, O Jacob.’
These past two months of quarantine have brought us back to those times, minus the Tent of Meeting. Through technology lessons have flowed from teacher’s homes into our own, while the yeshiva, beit midrash, and synagogue remain closed and off limits. Torah has been transformed into a cottage industry, emanating from the dining room tables of the rabbis and teachers, and delivered directly into the home of the child, who studies under the supervision of parents.
What a remarkable time!
At the weddings of our children, we bless them to build a “bayit ne’eman b’Yisrael” – an abode of holiness. Yet early on we help them remodel the kitchen, redecorate, and make their bathrooms luxurious. In the wilderness, there were no such diversions. That generation was known as the “dor de’ah” (generation of knowledge) infused with inspiration. Parents ran their home around one vocation and avocation: na’aseh v’nishmah (we will do and we will hear all that G-d has spoken).
Today the homes of our Torah teachers, many of them filled with school-age children as well, become both producers and consumers of this cottage industry. At times this can be maddening for child and for parent/teacher alike, but at other times each experiences a transformational moment, sharing together the fullest measure of inhabiting a “bayit ne’eman.” Historically, such homes have solidified a foundation which can permanently raise one’s standard of living.
Let’s consider the Levine family, who arrived in New York in 1890 from Poland and moved into a tenement apartment at 97 Orchard Street in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. In their 325-square-foot home, which they occupied from 1890 until 1905, they added four newborns to their one child born in Poland. In the front room (100 square feet, with the only window) Mr. Levine became a successful garment maker. Each day, except for Shabbat, three additional workers arrived and together the four produced women’s dresses in 10-hour daily shifts. After 15 years of this life, they were able to move further into the “goldena medina” (land of opportunity) and settled in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. (More on this episode can be found on the Tenement Museum website.)
This is an opportune moment to look ahead and envision what the new normal will be. We begin the fourth book of the Torah, Bamidbar, on the Shabbat prior to Shavuot. We follow the Jewish people embarking on our historic mission – actualizing and practicing the systems of justice, kindness, and holiness revealed at Sinai. Our children belong back in classrooms, rubbing shoulders with one another, learning how negotiate their wants, practicing acting as societal contributors ready to show love to a neighbor and offer care for the stranger. Such an experience cannot take place via Zoom.
I look forward to greeting children at the entry of the institution I lead, Soille San Diego Hebrew Day School, with a warm smile – and to seeing our students reciprocate. I so enjoy hearing the sound of classes mixing in the hallways and watching both Torah and human values put into action on the playground. It is coming soon.
Perhaps American Jewry should celebrate this Shavuot as a throwback to our origins, embracing Torah as “the best merchandise.” Then with great conviction we can take our homemade Torah out into the world once again, and it will shine even brighter.
Rabbi Simcha Weiser is head of school at Soille San Diego Hebrew Day School.