The Eternal One said to Abram, "Go forth from your land, your birthplace, your father's house, to the land that I will show you."
Life is a journey, full of twists and turns, planned and unplanned, each of which adds up to the lives we and our children are so blessed to be given. Certainly, we want to do everything in our power to enjoy the ride each and every day. In addition to our enjoyment of the here and now, we have a Jewish tradition of honoring our history by remembering the journeys of those who came before us.
As Jews, we recount our journeys through the yearly Torah reading cycle and through the celebration of holidays, festivals and life-cycle events. Whether we are retelling the Passover story or recalling our own childhood or the lives of our parents (our children's grandparents), we celebrate our history both ancient and modern. All of these journeys are important in their own right, as well as in their ability to help us place ourselves in the timeline of Jewish history. Although the concepts of history and chronology are not necessarily part of a young child's developmental profile, the images and stories that make up these concepts certainly are. Essentially, when we share the stories of these journeys with our children we are giving them a rich cast of characters and events to help build their future understanding of their journey.
The concept of journeys figures prominently in the Torah portion, Parashat Lech L'cha. In the opening verse, God instructs Abram to "Go forth from your native land and from your father's house to the land that I will show you." (Genesis 12:1) His name is changed to Abraham, his wife's name is changed to Sarah (from Sarai), and their journey is a part of our Jewish history, our Jewish story that we tell, l'dor v'dor, from one generation to the next. We also read of another journey in Parashat Lech L'cha-that of Hagar. Initially, Sarai (Sarah) was unable to conceive a child. She was distraught and suggested to Abram (Abraham) that he "consort" with Hagar, Sarai's maidservant, in an attempt to have a son. When Hagar did conceive a child, Sarai was not happy and did not treat Hagar well. In turn, Hagar ran away from Sarai, beginning another journey. Hagar is an Egyptian, but her story is still part of Jewish history. While at a spring of water, an angel appeared and asked Hagar "…where have you come from, and where are you going?" (Genesis 16:8) These two questions give us pause to think again about our journeys. They are not independent of each other. This statement seems to say that we must know where we have come from in order to figure out where we are going. Recalling our personal histories, those of our own families, is as much a Jewish concept as is recalling our general history as a people.
I would like to share a personal example (This is Ellen speaking.): When I was a little girl, my grandmother Sadie lived with our family. She told me and my sisters stories of her childhood in Russia, of her being able to attend a school called the "gymnasium" (pronounced "geem-nah-zee-um), usually not attended by Jews, let alone women. But because she was so smart, she told us, she was allowed to study at this special school. She told us that she learned to speak seven languages during her time as a student at the gymnasium. This story of my grandmother has stayed with me my entire life, to a large extent influencing who I am as a Jewish woman. I've always remembered her perseverance, her determination, her fortitude. Knowing this about her, combined with the stories my mother told us about Grandma Sadie when she came to America, has given me the strength to navigate through my life's journeys. Her history plays like a ticker tape in my life, always there, always quietly reminding me that I can do anything I want to do and be anything I want to be. And from my grandmother to my mother to me and now to my two daughters, that same determination continues to play a significant role in how each of us lives our lives. God willing, those same stories and many more will continue to be told, for many generations to come.
The ancient journeys of our people are the ones about which our children will learn through encounters with our texts; the personal journeys of your family are the ones that only you can share with your children. Both are significant components of the development of children's Jewish identity. Both will help them see from where they have come and ideally help them on the path to where they are going. It is never too early to start introducing the cast of characters, both biblical and personal, that is a part of your children's journey.
Questions and Ideas for Parents:
1. Can you remember any specific stories that your parents told you about the journeys of previous generations in your family?
2. Do you feel that you know the general stories of the journeys of the Matriarchs and Patriarchs of Jewish history?
3. Do you know the story of how your family first arrived in North America?
Questions for Children:
1. Do you have a favorite story about something that happened to you when you were a baby?
2. In what city were you born? Did your parents always live in that city?
3. Where do your grandparents live (or did they live)? Where were your grandparents born?
4. Do you know the names of some of the people in the Torah?
Pages 91-117 in The Torah: A Modern Commentary Revised Edition, by W. Gunther Plaut.