Los Angeles Jewish Home's Blog

What Values Do We Pass On? — Letter from the Rabbi

I’ve been asking this question in synagogue and in classes over the last couple of weeks, for we have just started reading Deuteronomy, the last book of the Torah. Moses knows that he is very close to the time of his death, and that the Israelite people will then cross into the Promised Land without him. In a series of speeches, Moses reminds the people of the major events of their travels, goes over many of the laws he has taught them, and implores them to walk in God’s ways when they are in their new land. He is making a gift to them of his values.

Moses is impassioned in his teaching and in his pleas. He fully recognizes that the people, naturally endowed with free will, are prone to choosing to go their own ways, rather than follow the spiritual and ethical path he has taught them.

We all have a sense of what is good and worthwhile, and what is not. Just as Moses urged his people to follow God’s ways and lead an ethical life, shouldn’t we give our children and grandchildren guidance based on the fruits of our own experiences? Of course it’s most important to teach by example; but many people, as they reach advanced years, quite rightly want to be more explicit in the values they pass on.

One resident surprised me by saying we shouldn’t try to teach the next generation anything, as they know more than we do. It is true that, in many cases, the children and grandchildren of residents have been blessed with more education that the residents had, and have gone further in the world of careers; but what the older generation has is a lifetime of experience, wisdom, and knowledge of what it means to live a life that is good and worthwhile.

As we get older, most of us have a clearer sense of what is really important in life. I remember someone approaching the end of her life who said that now she realized that what really mattered were relationships with family and with friends. This person now saw how nurturing our connection with others was a higher value than all the measures of success in the world, like money or fame.

At one class, when I asked what values residents would want to pass on to later generations, one said: Work for society. It was a call to pursue fairness and justice in society, perhaps the major theme of Torah. Another talked of kindness, another of generosity. We touched on gratitude. (In recent years, gratitude for the blessings in life has become for me one of the strongest aspects of what it means to be religious).

One resident spoke from the heart when she called out: Be forgiving. This is wonderful advice to pass on, and especially good to think about as we approach the High Holy Days.

Then there are values like honesty; or courage; or humility. As the story of Moses shows, even a strong leader can have humility. Or would you emphasize respect for all other human beings, and want to teach the importance of listening to people and seeking to understand them? There are residents who are very communal-minded, and stress the importance of love for the Jewish People and support for its causes and institutions.

A number of residents talked of faith in God as paramount; I know that such faith has been the essential support to many people in meeting life’s challenges, including surviving years in concentration camp.

Do you remember the values your own parents taught you? A resident spoke movingly of his parents’ last words to him when they put him on the kindertransport at the age of 11. His mother’s simple words to him were: Be good! He never saw his mother or father again, but those words have remained a guiding light to him his whole life.

Each one of us has had our own experiences which have helped develop our values. We all have much that’s worthwhile to pass on to the younger generations. Let’s take the time to do it.

Rabbi Anthony Elman Rabbi Anthony Elman is the Skirball Director of Spiritual Life at the Jewish Home and also serves as Rabbi of the Home's Grancell Village campus. His professional background is multifaceted, encompassing the fields of law, social work, and psychotherapy. Rabbi Elman has been with the Home since his ordination and graduation from the Academy for Jewish Religion-California in May 2007

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