Scout Sabbath Sermon

Scout Sabbath Sermon

By Rabbi Jack Bemporad

Every synagogue, as you know, is a beit tefillah, a house of prayer; a beit midrash, a house of study; and a beit knesset, a house of assembly. Our service on this Sabbath combines all three, for we are here to celebrate a movement that combines all three.

I, for one, have a great fondness for Scouting and the Scouts. I think that no one can read the great tragedy of World War II without noticing that one of its great, great moments was the role that Scouts played in trying to save Danish Jewry. I don't know how many people here fully know that story. The Nazis had basically decided to destroy every Danish Jew. The King put on the yellow star and said we are not here to destroy, we are here to build. And it was the Scouts who made the effort to carry the message to every Jew in the country, and through them, most of the Jews were saved. That is one of the great moments in a very bleak and dark period.

I was also personally able to witness the important work that the Scouts were able to do when I, for 6 years, was a chaplain at a school for emotionally disturbed children. There I saw the work that the Scout troop did, not only with the psychiatric staff, but also with those young boys, giving them a sense of meaning in their lives, a sense of purpose, a sense of achievement, a sense of accomplishment.

And I believe that if there is one way that we could catch the meaning, the essence of what Scouting is, it is to say that Scouts have learned this great lesson: that even in a world where many want to destroy, Scouts are interested in building. Even in a world where it is easy to despair, Scouts want to bring hope. In a world where people are very quick to judge one another, and to condemn one another, and to blame one another for all the things that ail us, Scouts are concerned with building the bridges of hope and faith, and love, and commitment.

Let me tell you what I think is so basic to Scouting and to Judaism and all true religions. It appeals to the strengths of human beings and not to their weaknesses. Most of us don't seem to understand that blood can't be squeezed from a turnip and that people can't be forced to be what they are not.

Too much of our education and too much of our human relations are built on demanding things that people simply can't deliver. One thing I really appreciate, one of the things we are celebrating at this service, is the idea implicit in Scouting that everyone has capabilities and that our task is finding a way of approaching and educing those capabilities. Then we can feel good about what we do and our ability to do it. In fact, we can make a difference in our little world and, perhaps gradually begin to make a difference in the larger world.

What I think all genuine teaching must do is educate for responsibility. Isn't it interesting that if we look at our midrash (legends), we find that with respect to Moses and David it specifically says that one of the reasons that they were shepherds is because God was concerned with giving them very small tasks, even insignificant tasks; and by doing those small insignificant tasks, they would learn to be responsible. They would learn to do things right, they would learn to do things carefully, and they would learn to complete their tasks. When they were able to take on small responsibilities, larger ones would follow. The small tasks would become greater, Moses would be able to lead an entire people, and David would become king over Israel.

I think that this education for responsibility, encouraging responsibility, expecting responsibility, not taking over for the individual is one of the great achievements that any good education and any good educator must strive for. The easiest thing is to "take over." I have seen many times teachers and leaders get so exasperated, that they say, "Oh, let me do it." It's always easier for you to do it, but it's always more dangerous and more damaging. The better way is to give the opportunity to make mistakes, to experience, to encourage experimentation. It's only if you begin to flex your muscles in small things, have the capacity to control small things, and have the recognition that one can do these things in an area that is circumscribed, that one can build the confidence, that one can build the sense of capacity to accomplish larger things. Too often we tell our children what to think, we tell them what to do, we tell them what to believe, and we tell them how to act. We don't encourage them to experience their own life and take on the tasks for themselves, until at a certain age we say "you're on your own now."

But how do we educate for responsibility? One of the things that I've always said that our religious school should do is something the Scouts have done for years. It is this: when an individual has learned something in Scouting, he knows he's learned it! Not only is he told what he is supposed to learn, he is told how he is supposed to learn it, and he's told when he has learned it so that he can use it. One of the wonderful things about learning something is that when you know you know it (unfortunately most of us learn a lot of things we don't even know that we know) you use it. You begin to feel that the knowledge has some meaning and some significance and some application to the world in which we live. If we don't feel that it is applicable to the world in which we live, what good is it?

I like the idea that you're told what your goal is, you're told how to reach that goal, and you are given some recognition and even a little symbol to indicate that you've achieved that goal. Then you feel, "Well, I've gone one step further toward knowing and being and doing." That's a wonderful thing. I think we should incorporate it in our religious education and in our general education as well.

Another aspect to Scouting that I really like is that the group supports the individual. Individuality is not crushed. The individual is dedicated to, but not lost in, the group. What you have here is a vital balance wherein each is important and each individual feels that he or she contributes to the whole, yet the whole somehow nourishes the parts. There is an organic balance which is so essential to feeling good about what you do.

A third feature I like about Scouting is the absence of negative criticism; it's all positive reinforcement. When someone does something good, you reinforce that good. When someone does something bad, you dwell on the positive, not on the negative. Ben Azzai put it very well: he asked, "Who is wise?" and then answered by saying, "He who can learn from everyone and everything."

Fourthly, I really like the fact that Scouting tries to direct ambition. Scouting recognizes that ambition is necessary. Although part of you might say, "Well, I probably didn't deserve such-and-such an award," another part of you might say, "I really did deserve it." Without ambition, no one would achieve anything. One has to be clear, of course, that there is a difference between a selfish ambition and a responsible ambition. The responsible ambition is wanting and being and achieving so that you can help others. One of the highlights of this service tonight is the degree to which the whole group felt proud when an individual received and honor. Everybody shared in that award, everybody shared in that honor. It wasn't just the individual being honored, the whole troop was honored. This is the "organic community" of which I spoke, a community that is very important.

Finally, I think that Scouting is important because its members are interested in educating young people for change, yet with a sense of permanence. Change, in the sense that there is no question but that we need to have change. Someone said to me the other day: "Young people have their feet on the accelerator and old people have their feet on the brakes." In other words, the young people are sort of chafing at the bit, they want to get ahead, they want to do new things, they want to do different things, they want to experiment, they want to just rush headlong into life while older people have their foot on the brakes. They say wait a minute, have you thought about this, have you thought about that, keep this in mind, keep that in mind.

But there has got to be a balance between the accelerator and the brake. There has got to be some balance between this drive to go forward and yet this concern, this cautiousness, which says wait, let's be clear that we are going in the right way. Scouting advocates this balance. There is a tremendous amount of experimentation, but there is always the context, the context of tradition, the context of individuals there who have had more experience and thus can direct and can guide and can teach. And that's so important.

Today, as always, it is important to take these values and to take these basic methods that the Boy Scouts of America use and to apply them.

Scouting has given our children an opportunity to feel useful, an opportunity to feel valued, an opportunity to feel needed. Scouting has presented us with a teaching model, a model of educating for responsibility, a model for encouraging all that is best in our world. If only we had more Scouts and if only we made better use of the Scouting program, I think this world would be a much, much better place in which to live.

Thank you.