Reserving Our Seats: A Shabbat Message from Rabbi Kobrin

The more things change, the more they stay the same: in this week’s parasha of Vayelech, Moshe, like all good Jewish parents and teachers, was extremely worried.  He was about to bid his final goodbye to his people, and he feared the worst: that they would ignore the mitzvot he had taught them and that they would go “off the derech.”  Moshe had good reason to fear: Hashem pretty much promised him that this was going to happen.  Hinecha shochev im avotecha, “you are going to pass away,” God said, ve-kam ha’am ha-zeh ve-zana acharei elohei nechar ha’aretz… ve-azavani, “this people will rise up and follow the idols of the land… and will abandon me.”  

We all fear that our children will not hold on to our values and practices.  We know that our own parents had (and still have) the same fears about us. Is there any way to ensure that our kids absorb all the right things from us?

Of course, there is no guarantee.  But the parasha hints to a good piece of advice earlier when it mentions the mitzvah of hakhel.  Every seven years the people of Israel would gather at the Mikdash for a public reading of Torah and a reminder of the values they were all supposed to hold dear.  Even the little children are told to come.  The Talmud in Chagigah explains that little kids were invited to bring reward to those who brought them.  (Anyone who has ever tried to hold onto a small child in synagogue — and to do so quietly — knows that this is certainly deserving of reward.  BIG reward.)  

I have written about this idea before, but was reminded of it again this week when I saw the stickers on the back of the seats people had reserved for the holidays.  Many were clearly the seats of generations of fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, who planned to sit and pray together.  Bus some stickers were singletons, people whose children or parents would not be sitting with them.  This made me sad, if only for the lost opportunity to pray together.  The hours spent together in bet kenesset are precious moments — not always easy or fun, but precious — and allow us to tell and to show our children just what we really think is important.  

In the second chapter of Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai praises the mother of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananiah.  The commentators explain that she deserved this praise because she would park the cradle of the infant Yehoshua in the Beit Midrash to absorb the sounds and the rhythm of Torah learning taking place there.  An atmosphere can have an impact.  

This Shabbat Shuvah and Yom Kippur offer us two more days and two more chances to connect with our children (and to rack up some reward points for ourselves).  If we can, let’s sit with them, pray with them, talk with them, and share with them.

Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova.

Rabbi Jeffrey Kobrin