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Ki Tisa 5782 - For Your Generations

February 19, 2022

Last week, we focused on the words l’dorotam - for their generations, in the context of this synagogue space. We read God’s commandments to the children of Israel to keep a ner tamid (an everlasting flame), to sacrifice a lamb every Pesah, and to bring a yearly offering on Yom Kippur. In a different sense in each generation, we have kept those commandments for thousands of years; so too, our ways of practicing Judaism and maintaining this congregation today will affect endless generations to come. 

Last night, we spoke about l’dorotam - for their generations - in the context of mitzvot. Every mitzvah we do, positive or negative, affects both our lives and endless lives to come. That assertion is highlighted by the prayer we just sang, one that comes from our parashah - V’shamru v’nei Yisrael et ha-Shabbat, la’asot et ha-Shabbat l’dorotam b’rit olam. The children of Israel shall keep Shabbat, doing Shabbat for their generations, as an everlasting covenant (Ex. 31:16). This morning, we are back onto the topic of generations. This time, we’re bringing God’s Thirteen Attributes. From our Jewish text and personal experience, we know that our individual deeds, legacy, values, and daily practice all have the power to shape our world l’dorotam, for the sake of their (our) generations. 

Every High Holy Day season, we repeat the attributes that God proclaims to Moshe as both recover from the horrors they witness when the children of Israel build a golden calf: 

Adonai, Adonai, a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and wrongdoing; [here’s where the High Holy Day version ends…] yet God does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations (Ex. 34:6).

While God can extend kindness to infinite generations, God can also extend punishment to three or four generations. Any of us who have families know these lovely attributes of God to be true. We inherit our relatives’ strengths and weaknesses, and we inherit the resulting fallout. Where and how we were raised was affected by where and how our parents and grandparents were raised. If we are lucky, those of us with children or students will see our values passed down to them and those they teach. Accordingly, each generation’s suffering and success has been aided by and will always be aided by the deeds of previous generations.

As we have discussed the past few weeks, we have the power to shape how our future generations will live, whether they will inherit the kindness or consequence we have earned from God. In our respective occupations, the way we treat co-workers and clients will affect the culture of our industry in the distant and not-so-distant future. The discoveries we make, the speeches we give, and the articles we write will change the minds of infinite learners to come. In our relationships, the respect or lack thereof that we lend to the stranger will affect how that person treats others, and so on and so forth. When we support policies that benefit our local, state, or national economy, healthcare, or education, we shape not only the way we live, but the way people will live for years to come. The amount of times we forget to bring a water bottle or reusable bag and take plastic instead will make marks on our planet in ways that both we and our children can witness. Most directly, the lessons we teach to those who will live longer than us, either through clear instruction or through our modeling, will morph into the lessons they teach their children and the ways in which they live their lives moving forward. Through our actions and their consequences, we shape our world and the lives of its inhabitants for infinite generations to come.

What might it mean, then, for us to treat our every word and action as a moment of great potential? Whenever we make a statement or take a step, what would it mean for us to ask ourselves whether our words and actions support the world we want to see for those who come after us? What will be the consequences of our words and actions, not just in our own lifetime, but in numerous lifetimes to come? With the food we eat, the people we acknowledge, and the ideas we promote, we have thousands of daily opportunities to shape our vision for the lives of our loved ones and their loved ones after them. 

This morning, I challenge you to think about the legacy you, personally, wish to leave behind for generations to come. The next time you find yourself teaching a child, say the words and perform the actions you want to see them emulate. The next time you find yourself in conversation with someone with whom you disagree, model the kind of conversation you know will work towards peace in time to come. And the next time you have a choice between the good and the easy, choose the good, not just for your own benefit, but for the benefit of your great-great-grandchildren.

While the Rabbis who shaped our liturgy may have been frightened by the prospect of their misdeeds affecting the next three or four generations, I find hope in the full version of Exodus 34:6. While we may have the power to incur God’s anger for three or four generations, we also have the power to incur God’s favor up to the thousandth generation, a whole lot longer. Our victories have the potential to impact a whole lot more people than the wrong we will inevitably perform. Even when we are handed a fate we cannot fully reverse in our own lifetime, we can use the good we have also inherited to make sure those after us do not suffer the same consequences that our grandparents handed down to us. With every word and action, whether we like it or not, we are choosing the legacy we leave for our children, our grandchildren, and endless generations to come. Shabbat Shalom.

Wed, February 21 2024 12 Adar I 5784