This was the main subject at a recent luncheon hosted by the Jewish Federation for the First 36 Project, a pilot program geared to “the first 36 months” of life developed by the Simms/Mann Institute, in partnership with Builders of Jewish Education (BJE) and the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.
The project’s mission, according to its brochure, is “to provide a select group of parent-and-me instructors with an exclusive professional development experience designed to amplify their ability to support parents as they build strong, meaningful bonds with their children.”
In short, the program uses the professional expertise of the Simms/Mann Institute to help babies thrive.
From testimonials and other sources, it’s apparent that the initiative has made a significant impact since it launched in 2013, spreading throughout our community and elsewhere. This is a classic case of the right groups partnering to fill an important community need.
But as much as I enjoyed hearing about the project, what I found unusually refreshing about the luncheon was that the keynote speaker, Rabbi Donniel Hartman, did not restrict himself to the theme of the day. This was a welcome break from events that focus too obsessively on only one agenda.
Hartman, who runs the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, engaged a group of local leaders with a verbal jazz session on the philosophy of being Jewish. He kicked off by wondering why Jews are so small in numbers.
Why, indeed, are we outnumbered by more than 100 to 1 by the two monotheistic faiths that came after us?
One reason, according to Hartman, is that Judaism doesn’t provide easy answers.
“The way our tradition thinks,” he said, “is that when someone asks you is it A or is it B, more often than not, the Jewish tradition’s answer is ‘Yes.’”
To illustrate, he riffed on the “complicated dance” between the state of “being” and the state of “becoming.”
What gets most of the attention in a world that glorifies achievement is the state of becoming — the restlessness to always want to do more.
“I haven’t slept in over 15 years, truly, because I’m constantly worried about what I haven’t done,” he said. “I always felt that to be a Jew is to be the enemy of mediocrity. … To live a Jewish life is to recognize that who you are is not who you ought to be.”
And yet, in the Torah, the “covenant of becoming” comes long after the “covenant of being,” which is represented by the story of Abraham and occurs many centuries before the Divine revelation at Sinai.
“Because of Abraham’s tests,” Hartman told us, “we are accepted and loved by God, before Torah, before we believed, before we did, before we kept kosher or Shabbat or anything.”
God chose to bless the Jews merely because they are the children of Abraham, merely because they’re part of the family. That is the covenant of being — a covenant of unconditional acceptance and eternal love.
“To be a Jew is to be challenged to become, but to know that you’re loved unconditionally,” he said. The sequence is crucial: “You only come to the covenant of becoming if you have a strong foundation in the covenant of being.”
Among the many ideas Hartman shared, that dance between being and becoming stood out for me. I imagined a dance where God’s unconditional love is the music that moves us to do more, to repair the world and ourselves, to reach higher levels of holiness.
This was Hartman’s way, perhaps, of connecting to the theme of the day. After all, a baby, as much as anyone, needs that strong foundation of unconditional love as it starts to “become.”
A good beginning, though, is no guarantee of success. Life has become too complicated. When we look at the growing ills in our community, it’s no wonder we have so many programs for the first 36 years of life and beyond — for grown-ups who have difficulty coping and finding meaning in a stressful and lonely world.
Hartman spoke to that group. God loves you no matter what, he told us. Now go and become.
David Suissa is editor-in-chief and publisher of Tribe Media Corp and Jewish Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com.
This column first appeared on the Jewish Journal website.