March/April 2018 * Adar/Nissan/Iyar * Volume 5778
An ancient legend teaches that when our ancestors stood at Mount Sinai, God said to them, “Before I give you my Torah, you must give me something precious that proves that you are devoted to it.” The Israelites thought long and hard. They offered their jewelry. But God did not accept it.
Then they thought harder about what was most precious, and offered the patriarchs and matriarchs – Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob, Rachel, and Leah – as proof. But God refused that offer, too.
Finally, the Israelites said, “Our children and all generations of children after them are what is most precious. We will teach them to love and honor God’s commandments.” (Song of Songs Rabbah)
We are commanded in the Book of Deuteronomy, “You stand this day, all of you, before the Eternal your God, tribal heads, elders, officials, all of the men of Israel, children, women, even the stranger within your camp, from wood chopper to water drawer.” (29: 9-10) That every single one of us, from the prince to the water drawer, adult to child, is literally standing before God to create a Judaism of meaning, depth, and seriousness.
And the Jewish way, the Jewish path towards this, is through education. “You shall teach these things repeatedly to your children, veshinantam levanecha, speaking of them when you sit in your house, when you walk on the way, when you lie down and when you rise
up.” (Deuteronomy 6:7)
Former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Lord Jonathan Sacks, points out that at the very brink of the Israelites’ walk to freedom from their Egyptian slave-masters, Moses, their leader, gathers them together and talks about their duty to pass on the memory of the Exodus to their children and to future generations. “And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this rite?’ you shall… explain to your child on that day, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt…’” (Exodus 12-13)
Rabbi Sacks asks, why this obsession with education that has stayed with the Jewish people throughout the millennia? And he answers, “Because to defend a country you need an army. But to defend a civilization you need schools. You need education as the conversation between the generations. Whatever the society, the culture or the faith, we need to teach our children, and they theirs, what we aspire to and the ideals we were bequeathed by those who came before us. We need to teach our children the story of which we and they are a part, and we need to trust them to go further than we did, when they come to write their own chapter.”
The Hebrew word for education is chinuch. The Talmud associates this word with the word chen, grace. That education, in the Jewish tradition, is the act of drawing-out, revealing the unique inner beauty, the chen, of each and every student.
And the Torah is called the Book of Life, Sefer ha’Chayim. That is something you get intimately involved with. It is a relationship. A meeting place. An organic process that weaves life and learning together. Where we meet God.
And so, at its core, Jewish education, and Judaism itself, from its very beginning, is based on the the exchange of a world of ideas. To seek that which speaks to our very souls.
Blessed are You God, King of the Universe, Who has sanctified us through His commandments, and commanded us to be immersed in the words and in a life of Torah.