"Through Their Hands, We Receive the Torah"

Miriam Lichtenberg

Tuesday, June 27, 2023

These remarks were delivered by Miriam Lichtenberg at the Capstone Celebration of Hadar's Advanced Kollel on June 26, 2023.

When God gave us the Torah, what did we give God in return?

The Torah refers to the way we orient our lives, the communities we build, the history we inherit. The Torah is not only the literal Sefer Torah, but also our whole lifestyle. So when God gave us the Torah, what did we give God in return?

Rabbi Meir offers one answer through the following midrash:

At Har Sinai, God says to bnei yisrael: Am I just supposed to give you the Torah? You need to bring me good guarantors,  ערבים טובים, so that I know it will be kept. As in, God did not want only to give us the Torah, but also wanted assurance that we would observe it. And God needed to know who would be responsible if the Torah was ignored.

 The people of Israel respond, our forefathers will be our guarantors! But God rejects each one of them as inadequate guarantors. 

They then offer the prophets as guarantors! God dismisses them too.

Rejected, yet resolute, Israel offers בנינו, our children, as guarantors. To this, God responds הא ודאי ערבים טובים, על ידיהם אתננה לכם. These are surely good guarantors, through them I will give you the Torah.

So when God gave us the Torah, we gave God our children. 

Why are our children the right guarantors to ensure the Torah will be kept and cherished? 

In another version of this midrash, bnei yisrael offers the sky and earth as guarantors. God rejects them, wondering, עסקין הן? Do the sky and earth engage themselves with the Torah? Our children, therefore, are the right guarantors because they can – and perhaps, must – be engaged in the Torah.

Children are better guarantors than even our most revered ancestors. Though we are grateful to our ancestors for bringing us to where we are, this midrash tells us that we can not rely on them. We have to put our faith not into our teachers but into our students and children.

But placing the mantle of guarantorship on our children enters us into a potentially  unstable agreement. After all, how can we ensure that our children will want to play this role?

In its conclusion, the midrash offers an answer to this question:

לְפִיכָךְ צָרִיךְ אָדָם לְהַכְנִיס בְּנוֹ לַתּוֹרָה וּלְחַנְּכוֹ בְּלִמּוּד
"Therefore, a person must engage their child in Torah, and train them in study.”

That is: we have no assurance. The best we can do is introduce our children to the Torah we love. 

And, even if we might find beauty in this Torah, we have no guarantee that our children will. All we have is hope that by modeling and teaching the Torah that brings us fulfillment and represents our relationship with God and each other, our children will embrace it too. Our work will never end. 

I am the child imagined by this midrash. I am the child of my parents and my family, the home they built and the institutions to which they sent me, where I developed an excitement, curiosity and love of Torah. I am the child of Hadar, where I have learned that to live a Torah life means to live a life of patience, humility, gratitude, and awe. 

And, as an aspiring educator to young students, I am also bnei yisrael, committing to raising the next generation of guarantors, a generation who will continue to approach the Torah with an open heart, a patient mind, and an excitement to learn. Though I can not be certain how the Torah will continue to be received, in my time at Hadar I have grown in my conviction that this challenge is what drives the vision of my life. 

When God responded that our children were the right guarantors, God meant: I know you, the people of Israel, will forever invest in the next generation. We will model as best as we can the myriad ways there are to live a Torah life, to be immersed in the texts and communities. When God gave us the Torah, we gave God our commitment to raising our children in a life of deeply held values; a life of Torah.

Standing on the shoulders of the Torah life from which I come and drawing on the deep well of wisdom I am surrounded by through my colleagues and teachers at Hadar, I will be honored to serve as a rabbi, and educator. And by engaging the next generation, I will play a part in our continual process of receiving the Torah.