Planting the Seeds of Who We Are and What We Value: A Reflection by Rabbi Gil Steinlauf

I remember when I was a little boy, my grandmother would tell me stories.  Amazing stories of when she was a little girl back in Russia at the turn of the 20th-century.  Most of her stories were really just pieced together from fleeting childhood recollections:  seeing the long shiny Russian boots her father wore as he prepared to leave their small village for America; stealing across the border into Germany, running through  a wheat-field late at night with the bright light of a full moon blinding her eyes as she was held by the running adults; the memory of travelling to America in steerage, clinging fearfully to her mother and older sister as they went through Ellis Island.  She was a wonderful storyteller, and her imagery was so vivid, I cherish her memories as if they are my own.

In a very real way, they are my own memories now.  My grandmother has long since passed away.  But through her love and her stories, always peppered with Yiddish, she shared her neshama, her soul with me–the experiences that shaped her, her hopes and dreams, and those of her family before her.  And while she and the world she once inhabited are now gone, the man I am today is shaped by her and all that she experienced and valued.

My grandmother’s story of coming to this country, bringing with her the language, traditions and hopes of our people, is a common one for so many of us in the Jewish community. Whether or not we have the stories of our immediate ancestors to tell, so many of us can feel the connections, leDor vaDor, between the generations of our people.  And these connections call us to preserve our traditions, our values, and our hopes and dreams for future generations.

But we all know that our modern world is so different from that of our ancestors, or even that of so many of us when we were kids.  Younger generations face a barrage of new stories, narratives, identities and ideas through social media and the internet.  How can we best ensure that the chain of our generations, and the world our people have longed for, will continue in this crazy modern world?  Luckily, our Jewish tradition has the answer:

One day, [Honi HaMe’aggel] was walking on the road and saw a certain old man who was planting a carob tree. Honi said to him, ‘How many years until this [tree] will bear fruit?’ The old man said to him, ‘It will take seventy years.’ Honi said to him, ‘Do you really think that you will live [another] seventy years?’ The old man said to him, ‘… In the same way as my fathers planted for me, I will also plant for my descendants.’ (Ta’anit 23a)

In this wonderful Talmudic story, we find the essence of what has preserved our people through thousands of years:  we are a people who plant the seeds of who we are, what we value, what we long for–not necessarily for ourselves, but so that our children and our children’s children might benefit.  Put another way, our tradition has long survived on multi-generational philanthropy!  One way or another, our ancestors told the stories, taught the Torah, preserved the traditions, helped the needy, built the shuls and the many other institutions and organizations that have held us together and preserved us.  They accomplished this not just for themselves, but for us, their descendants.  In other words, at the heart of Jewish culture since time immemorial, we have been a people of generosity, of selfless giving, of philanthropy.

So many of us nowadays enjoy access to resources and material blessings that our ancestors could scarcely imagine.  If we want to ensure that the next generation of Jews maintain their links in the chain of our people, the way to do that is to engage in investing in any way we can – in ways big or small – in the future of the Jewish people.  We may not all have stories to tell or deep religious knowledge to convey, but we have the power to plant the seeds–we can invest in Jewish schools, synagogues, programs and organizations, so that our descendants–whether they are biologically our children or not– may enjoy the fruit of our plantings.

Our younger generations may have a dizzying array of identities and values to choose from, but when our families create within themselves a culture of multi-generational Jewish philanthropy–where older and younger generations join together to give–that culture of generosity itself educates and conveys our most important values.  When our Jewish parents teach their children to plant the seeds and invest in our people–no matter what else changes in our world, our children and their children can learn to value Jewish continuity.

When my grandmother shared her stories with me, this was a kind of philanthropy.  She was teaching her grandson to value where he came from and, ultimately, to commit to a life of service and justice among the Jewish people and beyond.  But whether it be stories or talents or wealth, the act of investing and teaching our generations to value the investment of heart and soul that is Judaism itself–this makes everything else possible.  Judaism promises a better world—a world of justice, compassion and hope for all human beings.  And that promise is something that all generations can learn to share through the commitment of Jewish philanthropy.  As the ancient prophet Malachi taught, redemption of the world can only come “when the heart of the fathers [turn to] their children, and the heart of the children [turn to] their fathers.”  May our generations, indeed, through the blessings we have been granted, turn to one another in generosity and wisdom, and together heal this world!