George Benson, in 1978[i], sang about how children are our future. They need someone, who they could look up to, like a parent, to teach them well and show them the beauty they possess inside. He encapsulates, in lyrical form, an ethic that is an integral part of Judaism.
The Torah reading[ii], last week, speaks about the Hakhel (gathering), which occurred at the end of every seven-year Shemita cycle, during the holiday of Sukkot. Everyone, including men, women and even young children, gathered together at the Temple in Jerusalem.
The Mishna[iii] describes this gathering. It was an event full of pageantry. It featured the king, who was accompanied by dignitaries. Trumpets, sounded throughout Jerusalem[iv], heralded the assembly. A stage was erected in the Temple courtyard. The King appeared on it reading from a Torah scroll. It was an amazing sight.
Rashi, in his commentary on a verse[v], in the Torah reading, asks why bring young children to the ceremony? He reports the answer stated in Talmud Chagigah[vi] that the purpose was to provide reward to the parents, who brought them to the gathering. Tosafot, in his commentary on this Talmudic text, reports that this is the basis for our custom to bring young children to Synagogue.
Nachmanides, in his commentary on the same Biblical verse, provides another rationale. He notes that the young children were toddlers, too young for school, but old enough to be impressionable. They could listen and ask about what was going on around them and their parents could then answer them. The Ibn Ezra shares this point of view. It was a teachable moment that was not to be missed.
Maimonides, in his Mishne Torah[vii], provides a deeper understanding of the commandment of Hakhel. It is not just about the substance of the observance; it is also about the feelings it engenders. The Hakhel ceremony is awe-inspiring. There’s electricity in the air that can be felt by everyone in attendance. It’s about seeing, hearing and feeling, even if there is a lack of understanding.
Maimonides, in his Guide for the Perplexed[viii], applies this profound insight to how we celebrate the Holidays, generally. He notes the Holidays are times when family and friends gather together. They are not only religious events; they are also social occasions. The feelings and emotions engendered at these gatherings serve to renew attachment to the religion. He points out that this is the purpose of Hakhel.
This conceptual approach adds further meaning to our inclusion of children in the observances of the Holidays. The sights, sounds, feelings and, dare I say, tastes and smells of the Holidays are most compelling. They are foundational elements in our formative years. It’s the Shofar blasts on Rosh Hashanah. It is also about participating in the preparations of the special foods for these occasions. The old school way was to make these foods at home from scratch, based on recipes passed down within the family. It’s not like today when you can buy stuffed cabbage in a take-out store, any day of the week. The preparation and cooking of these special delights was an extensive process and, hence, they were reserved for the Holidays.
I remember well, coming home from school the week of Rosh Hashanah and mom telling me to wash up. I began to take a bath and noticed a fish was swimming in the bath with me. I shouted there was a fish in the bath with me. She didn’t miss a beat. She said hit it on the head and bring it to the kitchen. It’s time to prepare the gefilte fish.
Who can forget the smell and taste of Kreplach on erev Yom Kippur? Who can forget the overwhelmingly wonderful smell of stuffed cabbage on Simchat Torah? They are an integral part of our memory banks. Smelling them today at Holiday time brings back all those wonderful feelings.
The Talmud[ix] views these Holiday moments as extraordinary teaching opportunities. Thus, Rabbi Akiva closed the Academy on the day of Yom Kippur eve and told the fathers studying there to go home and make sure the children were fed before the fast began. The Talmud also reports that the Academy was closed on the day of the eve of Passover so that fathers could go home and assure their children napped in order to be up at the Seder. Indeed, the entire Seder experience is about inspiring children to see and ask.
The Bible commands parents to teach their children the Torah[x]. The Talmud states that parents must teach their children Torah, a trade or profession and, some say, how to swim[xi]. Interestingly, Maimonides, in his presentation of the 613 positive and negative commandments in the Bible does not list the study of the Torah as separate Mitzvah. Rather, he views it as implicit in the obligation[xii] to teach Torah to the children. After all, a person must know Torah in order to teach it.
However, it is suggested that a parent’s duties go well beyond just knowing and communicating to the children in words. We study the Torah in order to perform the commandments, properly. Educating children is also about setting a good example.
Do as I say, not as I do; just doesn’t cut it. Children have ultra sensitive hypocrisy meters. They can detect any insincerity. Perhaps this is a basis for reconciling the perspective of the Talmud Chagigah text and Rashi, on the one hand and the Nachmanides and Ibn Ezra, on the other hand. The extra burden of bringing kids to the Hakhel ceremony, to Synagogue or other religious observances is the need to be on our very best behavior and to study so as to know the answers to the questions they pose.
Sending kids to Yeshiva, bringing them to Synagogue and celebrating the Holidays with them are an essential part of our parental responsibilities. It’s how we perpetuate our traditions from generation to generation. In this regard, I can’t help but note that growing up, my dad, of blessed memory and mom worked very hard to provide us with these basic building blocks. We did not go to the very best schools; there were budgetary constraints. There were also no frills like private lessons. However, we did obtain the very best educations. We were inculcated with virtues like self-sufficiency. Victimhood was a banned concept in my parent’s home. It was about facing and overcoming challenges. There were no excuses. Given their sacrifices, we were enabled to have a Torah education, graduate college and professional or graduate school and learn to swim. We were dedicated to making their sacrifices meaningful. We could do no less than take these opportunities seriously.
Today, in our community and many others, there is no reasonable excuse not to afford a child a Yeshiva education. I can’t say that every school will accept a child, tuition free, even if that is what the parents’ finances dictate. However, there are schools that will. Many more will work out a financial plan, which couples some appropriate level of tuition payment by the parents with a scholarship. In our community, we have a charitable organization that, among other things, is dedicated to achieving this purpose and provides the financial assistance needed.
Of course, parents have to do their part, too. My parents almost never took a vacation and we didn’t go away to a hotel for the Holidays. The family also didn’t go out to eat in restaurants. Our education was the priority. Kids can help, as well. The dedication to shared values shown by our parents was infectious. Whatever free time we had was spent helping out in our parents’ grocery store, sharing in the chores at home or at part time jobs. Frankly we really didn’t go away to summer camp until we were able to work there.
The key was focusing on the basics and a Yeshiva education is a fundamental part of a traditional Jewish upbringing. My wife and I are most grateful to our parents for giving us a Yeshiva education. We did the same for our children. Thank G-d, our children are doing so for their children, as well. It’s part of a tradition that has enabled the Jewish people to survive through all the trials and tribulations of the millennia. The Zohar[xiii] states that it is the voices of the children who study Torah, which saves the world. The Talmud[xiv] reports that even a generation bereft of saints is saved because of the children. We have a duty to teach them well and inform them by our example of proper conduct.
Do as I do; that’s a part of the real teaching formula and a hallmark of our religion. Bring your children to Synagogue and make them proud to be with you. They’ll make you proud and grateful to be with them.
May we all be blessed with a happy, healthy and sweet new year.
[i] The song is titled, The Greatest Love of All.
[ii] Deuteronomy 31:10-12.
[iii] Sota 7:8, appearing in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sota, at page 41a.
[iv] Tosefta Sota 7:8, based on the description in II Chronicles 23.
[v] Deuteronomy 32:12.
[vi] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Chagigah, at page 3a.
[vii] Hilchot Chagigah 3:6.
[viii] Part III, Chapter 46:12.
[ix] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Pesachim, at page 109a.
[x] Deuteronomy 6:4-7.
[xi] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Kiddushin, at page 29a.
[xii] Sefer HaMitzvot, Positive Commandment Number 11.
[xiv] Babylonian Talmud Tractate Shabbos, at page 33b.