From Heart of Jerusalem

Speaking the language of each new generation


We all love getting those cute three-minute video clips during the day that give us a laugh or a smile. Recently, someone sent me a clip that got me thinking. In it, a fellow gives his two sons a challenge: they have four minutes to call the number he has written down … using an old rotary phone. Their comically unsuccessful attempts are instructive.

At one point, realizing that turning the dial was not accomplishing anything, one of them realizes they need to turn the phone on, so he lifts the receiver and puts it back down with a triumphant look! And throughout the video, as they figure out how to use the rotary dial, they continuously miss the detail that makes it all irrelevant: they keep putting the receiver back down.

It never ceases to amaze me how our children seem to be seeing the world through completely different lenses. This week’s portion, Behaalotecha, is a fascinating commentary on this idea.

At first glance, it seems our portion contains a completely disparate group of stories that have no connection with each other. What do Jewish people complaining over an absence of meat have to do with the mitzvah to blow trumpets in the Temple, and what do either of these ideas have to do with Miriam and Aaron slandering Moshe’s decision to move out of his home, seemingly abandoning his wife and children?

A friend of mine, Dr. Baruch Sterman, shared an idea he heard in the name of former Chief Rabbi and Holocaust survivor Rav Yisrael Meir Lau, which helped me to unlock the common theme.

Hashem commands Moshe (Bamidbar 10:1-10) to fashion two trumpets of silver which will be used to gather the people for public declarations, signal to break camp, or gather them in times of distress (such as war) and celebration (such as festivals). The Talmud (Menachot 28b) shares an interesting detail regarding these trumpets: unlike all the other vessels Moshe made, the trumpets were valid for use in his generation only. 

The Talmud bases this conclusion on the fact that the verse (ibid. v. 2) repeats the word “lecha,” for you, twice; these trumpets were specifically for Moshe and the generation of the desert. One wonders why these trumpets specifically were meant only for his generation, as opposed to say, the Ark for the luchot (Devarim 10:1-5).

Explains Rav Lau: These trumpets were all about communication; they were used to speak with the people in various circumstances. Each generation needs its own language, and leaders need to understand that each new generation needs to be communicated with in its own way.

This is why the Ark Moshe fashioned was forever, because it represents the written Torah it holds. The Tablets, literally engraved in stone, are never meant to change. They are representative of ideas and principals that are eternal and remain true for each generation, like honoring one’s parents, an ethical code that proscribes theft, murder, and adultery, and the need for Shabbat, a weekly day of introspection and rest.

And that is the theme of this entire portion of Behaalotecha.

Behaalotecha begins with the lighting of the candles in the temple every day, representative of the Torah being lit for each generation. If we don’t pass on our Torah and the essentials of faith to each generation, then we cease to matter as a people. Then the Torah describes how the Tribe of Levi, now that the Mishkan is dedicated, will assume their positions as role models. Every generation needs its teachers, and the firstborn participated in the sin of the Golden Calf. We deserve a leadership that can be role models.

The portion introduces the mitzvah of Pesach Sheni: the opportunity for those who were impure or unable to offer the Paschal lamb to have a second chance at the mitzvah a month later. As parents, educators, and leaders, we need to know when to give the opportunity to start over.

And we see this as well in the story of the desire for meat (Bamidbar 11), which as Rav Soleveitchik suggests reflected the need for a fundamental change in Moshe’s leadership style, because the next generation needed something different (See Teaching with clarity and empathy; Reflections of the Rav pp. 150-158). Indeed, this may have necessitated Moshe giving himself over completely to the people, which may be why Miriam and Aaron, seeing Moshe neglecting his wife and children, took issue with him.

Behaalotecha is all about the need to communicate appropriately with each generation according to its needs, while not losing the essentials that need to remai n constant.

As I was writing this article, our daughter, who is 22 and entering her final year of university where she recently made the dean’s list (meaning she scored in the top one percent), walked in the room and saw me watching the video of the two boys figuring out the rotary phone. After watching for a moment she smiled and said, “So dumb, they can’t figure it out.”

I asked her what they were doing wrong. She said they needed to dial the rotary all the way around for each number. As the screen showed the boys putting the receiver back down yet again, I again asked what she thought they were doing wrong, and she still thought it was in the dialing … completely missing the need to pick up the phone and listen.

Our children see the world through completely different lenses.

“Bechol dor vador chayav adam lirot et atzmo ke’ilu hu yatza miMitzrayim.” This seminal idea of the Passover Seder — that in each generation, a person must see himself as though he himself exited Egypt — is discussed by many commentaries, who generally focus on the fact that recalling the Exodus from Egypt must be personal.

But there is a different way to look at it: Perhaps the Haggadah alludes to the fact that in each generation, we need to find our own place, our own way, to feel and experience our part in the unfolding magnificent story of the Jewish people.

What worked for our parents does not always work for our children. And as teachers, we need to know when it is time to pass the torch to a new generation of leaders who can continue to impart a Judaism that is inspiring and relevant, in the language our children need to hear.

It is perhaps instructive to note that in next week’s portion of Shelach, the people rebel, resulting in an entire generation losing the opportunity to enter the land. They wander in the desert for 40 years before a new leadership takes the next generation, born free and with an entirely new perspective, into the land of Israel to finally conquer it and bring the Jewish people home.

Previously published in 2019.