by Rabbi Yaakov Menken
"And [Yaakov] sent Yehudah before him to Yosef, to guide before him to
Goshen, and they came into the land of Goshen" [Genesis 46:28]
Why did Yaakov send Yehudah on ahead? The brothers had been down to Egypt
and back, twice. Yehudah didn't need to hail a camel driver for
directions. So what, then, did Yehudah need to accomplish in order to
prepare the way for Yaakov?
The Midrash provides the answer, quoted by Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi)
in his famous commentary: Yehudah went to prepare a House of Study for the
brothers and their families. [The word "Torah" actually means "guide" or
"instruction," from the same root used in "to guide before him to Goshen."
Furthermore, the verse is written with a missing Vav in "to guide,"
leaving the same four letters as "Torah," rearranged.]
Individuals knew the laws of the Torah even before it was given at Sinai,
says the Midrash, naming Adam, Noach, and others -- including our
forefathers. Concerning Avraham in particular, G-d says that he "listened
to My voice, and guarded My safeguards, My Commandments, My decrees, and
My Torahs." [Gen. 26:5] This knowledge he then passed to his children and
Yehudah went down to Goshen to set up a House of Study, to ensure that the
brothers never lost not only that knowledge, but the lifelong pursuit of
Jewish learning. Through his efforts, learning continued throughout the
exile. This was why Yehudah had to go first.
The Iturei Torah writes: "the first thing which must accompany the
founding of a Jewish community is that there be a place for Torah study,
for it is impossible for it to stand even a moment without it. There
cannot be a Jewish settlement without a House of Study, from which
"Maaseh Avos Siman L'Banim." "The stories of the forebears are signposts
for the children."
Nothing has changed. The Iturei Torah does not mean that the people will
mysteriously die or suddenly lose all vestige of Judaism. He does,
however, say that a community not founded upon Jewish studies cannot
stand; it sews the seeds of its eventual collapse. Without Jewish learning
as a communal focus, without the House of Study at the center, the result
is not really a Jewish community at all -- rather, it could better be
defined as a community of Jews who are losing their attachment to the
Jewish people. What the Midrash told us thousands of years ago, we see
This is not merely the rant of a traditionalist zealot. Reform Rabbi Eric
Yoffie, President of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, called
this the most Jewishly ignorant generation in our history. It also sports
the highest rates of assimilation and intermarriage ever recorded. Even
without a Midrash to spell it out for us, it would be hard to call this
Anyone active in the Jewish community has heard about the "continuity
crisis." Because of assimilation and intermarriage, the Jewish community
in the United States is alleged to be in danger of dying out. The UJC just
spent $6 million on a new survey of the Jewish community, but now --
because of allegations of lost data -- cannot deliver the latest grim
projections of a dwindling Jewish population.
It's the most widespread myth in Jewish life today.
A myth? What a foolish statement! Am I ignoring basic demography?
No, just the opposite. One need only look at the intermarriage and birth
rate statistics for Jewish Day School graduates to envision a bright
future. Every year, multiple new first-grade classes are created in day
schools across the country -- not only because more parents are choosing
Jewish education, but because alumni are marrying other dedicated Jews and
having more Jewish children.
We don't need to grope in the dark, searching for solutions. We possess an
ancient medicine that never lost its power.
Arthur Hertzberg, the noted Conservative Rabbi, author, and historian, is
more blunt: "I am almost totally contemptuous of the present programs for
the Jewish community, because they are about ethnic schmaltz,
togetherness, let's rally against our enemies, and let's fight for Israel.
Where's the beef? The beef is Jewish learning."
Right now, it is claimed that national Federation funding for Jewish Day
School education stands at roughly two weeks per child. I cannot verify
this; what we know for certain is that the median income of a Jewish
family cannot withstand two Day School tuitions without major compromises.
We, the Jewish community, can afford to prioritize Jewish education in the
coming years. Can we afford not to?
Rabbi Yaakov Menken