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YOUTH SERVICE

by Rabbi Lee Jay Lowenstein    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

If you will allow me to flash back to Parshat Bo, Moses has just proclaimed before Pharaoh that should he continue his stubbornness and refuse to release the Jewish people, Hashem will smite Egypt with a plague of locusts, the likes of which have never been seen before.

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If you will allow me to flash back to Parshat Bo, Moses has just proclaimed before Pharaoh that should he continue his stubbornness and refuse to release the Jewish people, Hashem will smite Egypt with a plague of locusts, the likes of which have never been seen before. Without waiting for a reply, Moses turns and exits. Pharaoh has Moses summoned back to the palace, whereupon Pharaoh declares, "Go and serve Hashem, your G-d; which ones are going?" (Exodus 10:8). Moses responds that the entire nation, young and old, will be needed for this celebration. Pharaoh rejects this offer, insisting that the children remain; "After all, you wish to sacrifice to G-d, and children do not partake in this form of service," at which point Moses is ejected from the royal chamber.

It seems that Pharaoh perceived that Moses was changing his mind. Before Moses had been asking for only the men, and now he had recanted and was upping his demands. Was this true?

The Talmud (Tractate Megillah 9a) relates a fascinating episode: The Greek king of Egypt, Ptolemy, gathered seventy of the greatest sages of Israel and asked them to translate the Torah into Greek. To ensure the veracity of this work, each sage was to be secluded separately and their versions were to be compared one to another to detect any discrepancy. Miraculously, all of the versions matched perfectly. The Talmud proceeds to list a number of verses that contained statements which could not be translated accurately for fear that Ptolemy would use them to ridicule us and our Torah. One of those statements is found in the depiction of the revelation at Mt. Sinai. The Torah describes how the "na'arei Bnei Yisrael - the youth of the Children of Israel" were commissioned to offer the sacrifices in preparation for the revelation (Exodus 24:5). When the sages translated the Torah, they changed it to read "zatutei - the prominent men" to avoid possible condemnation: "You sent your least prestigious members to greet the King of kings?!"

The problem with this passage is two-fold. If there is indeed a question as to how could the children represent us, how do we reconcile this to ourselves? Additionally, whatever answer we have, why wouldn't it suffice for King Ptolemy?

There exists a fundamental difference between the Jewish approach to divine service and that of the rest of the world. They perceive their relationship with G-d as give and take: "G-d has graciously granted me life and goodness, therefore I must return His kindness by acknowledging His sovereignty. He expects this from me." We, however, believe that even the ability to serve Hashem is, itself, a gift from Him. He has no need for any of our service. Hashem's only motivation is to give us the opportunity to grow by connecting to Him through Torah study and mitzvot. Our connection to Hashem is not an "arms distance" relationship of benevolent Monarch and humble serf; rather He is our loving Father who gives and gives and gives in order that we may have the necessary means to become as great as we possibly can.

If the focus of one's service is, "What can I do for the King?" then one's lineage becomes of primary importance. Prestigious ancestors reflect upon one's capacity for greatness. Who better to appreciate and respect nobility than one who is, himself, a "blue-blood"? However, if the focus is on what is best for the servant, it is not ancestry that is important. Ancestry dictates little regarding what one actually will be. What is truly important is what kind of children and grandchildren one will have. "Who I am" is not determined by where I come from, but on what I will do that has a lasting effect and contribution for all generations. The key to a Jew's identity, the very basis of our nationhood and special relationship with Hashem, is that we define ourselves by what our next generation will be. Their degree of commitment reflects directly upon the relevance of Torah in our own lives. King Ptolemy cannot understand this. "Of what importance is youth?" he wonders. "Only a mature adult who comes from a long line of royalty can adequately serve the King!" However, we ourselves know that unless one makes his service into an experience that binds parent and child into an eternal link, it won't make any bit of difference how great one's ancestors may have been.

Moses never actually changed the terms of the agreement. He had been asking from the start that the children should also come. Of what purpose would the whole exercise be if the children could not be active participants? Pharaoh, however, never entertained the possibility that Moses could have wanted the children; "Of what use are they in divine service?" Pharaoh therefore suspected Moses of duplicity when the children's card came into play.

Perhaps this explains a difficult sentence structure in the beginning of Parshat Bo. "I have placed My wonders in Egypt so that you may relate in the ears of your children and your grandchildren that I made a mockery of Egypt. . . and then you will know that I am Hashem" (Exodus 10:2). Shouldn't the order be reversed? Shouldn't one himself have to know who Hashem is before relating this knowledge to his descendants? No. Only if one is committed to securing the continuity of the Jewish people will he sense the unity of Hashem and his own unique mission in life. The extent that religious practice remains a private affair which does not involve and excite our children is the extent that true fulfillment and value remains elusive and hidden.

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Based on a lecture give by Rabbi Yochanan Zweig, the rosh yeshiva (dean) of the Talmudic University of Florida.

Rabbi Lee Jay Lowenstein, who grew up in Atlanta and is an alumnus of Yeshiva Atlanta, is a member of the Kollel at the Talmudic University of Florida in Miami Beach.

You are invited to read more Parshat Yitro articles.

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