A powerful mystery should haunt us each year at this time of the year; a mystery that strikes to the core of the Pesach festival with its overriding theme of “V’higadeta L’vincha”, “And you shall teach your child”.
Consider the following two Talmudic assertions:
• Rabbi Akiva declared: “‘Vahavata L’re’acha Komocha”, “Love your neighbor as yourself. This is the great principle of the Torah”.
• Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of students… all of them died in one period (between Pesach and Shavuot –the Omer period) because they failed to treat each other with respect…”
How can it be that one of our greatest sages apparently failed to impart his core belief to his students? Had Rabbi Akiva’s students perished as a result of any other sin, the tragedy might have been comprehensible. But to transgress the very precept that served as the core of their mentor’s beliefs and practices… How can it be?
Perhaps the issue is one of chronology. We do not know when Rabbi Akiva determined the centrality of the mitzva of V’ahavta. Perhaps he reached this realization only in retrospect, as a result of the tragic loss of his students. Perhaps it is precisely their death that led their mentor to recognize the emptiness of Torah observance absent a foundation of interpersonal respect.
I would like to think, however, that our tradition is referencing an entirely different life lesson through this tragedy- a lesson of overarching significance for us all. The stark inconsistency between Rabbi Akiva’s core belief and the actions of his students may reflect a universal challenge inherent in the task of Mesora, intergenerational transmission. Perhaps Rabbi Akiva failed to teach his students the central value of his worldview precisely because he considered that value to be self-evident.
We often make the mistake of assuming that just because something is vital to us it will automatically be important to our children. We feel that the ideas and beliefs lying at the heart of our worldview are so obvious they need not be openly stated and taught.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Our children grow up in worlds different from our own, and within those worlds they form their own personal convictions. The basic foundations that we consider central to our lives are not automatically “givens” within theirs.
While I now live in Israel, allow me to cite an example from my many years of experience as a Diaspora Jew, rabbi and educator. The deep connection that Jews of my generation feel towards the State of Israel will not automatically develop in the hearts of our progeny, who are more temporally and emotionally removed than we are from the creation of the State. The signposts of our life journey and the journeys of our parents: the Holocaust, the birth of the State of Israel, the War of Independence, the Six-Day War, the Yom Kippur War, Entebbe, the dramatic Aliyot from Yemen, Ethiopia, Russia, and more, are not the signposts of theirs. Our children live in a world where Israel has always existed, a world in which the Jewish State is viewed through increasingly critical and jaundiced eyes, a world in which the historical connection between the Jewish people and their homeland comes under daily attack.
In our effort to convey critical ideas and principles to future generations, we can make no assumptions of prior knowledge, feeling and commitment. We must consciously and actively teach each and every one of the ideas and principles we feel important through open discussion and deed.
When it comes to Zionism in the Diaspora, however, we must admit that the problem runs much deeper. In this arena, even when we are successful in communicating central beliefs to our children, our messages are often inconsistent and contradictory. We profess a deep connection to the State of Israel, yet remain unwilling to carry that connection to its logical conclusions.
We send our children to schools where they learn that Israel is the true home of the Jewish Nation. We define ourselves as Zionists and bemoan the anti-Israel bias from countries around the world. We involve ourselves in continuing political action on behalf of the Jewish State and express deep admiration for the soldiers of the IDF, bravely guarding the borders of our land.
And yet, what is too often our response when our children decide to practice what we have preached? How do we react when a son or daughter expresses a desire to explore the possibility of living in Israel? What is our reply when they suggest they might want to become soldiers in the Israeli army? How do we respond even to much simpler requests- the desire, for example, for “shana bet”, a second year of study, in Israel after high school?
Don’t get me wrong. As the parent of five children and their wonderful spouses (and, thank G-d, the grandfather of many more), I deeply understand the desire to keep our children close and safe. I also understand that the decision to make Aliyah and the ability to build a successful life in Israel involve many factors at any age. But, we need to ask ourselves what messages we are or are not communicating both in word and in action. Are we implicitly declaring that our Zionism stops at the door of real commitment and self-sacrifice?
As we approach the holiday of Pesach, with its overarching emphasis upon the conveying of critical ideas and principles to future generations, we would do well to explore the current character of our own communication to our children. Are we clearly saying what we want to say, and, when we say it, are our messages both complete and consistent? By confronting these questions, on the holiday of questions, we will come closer to a true confrontation with the character and strength of our own beliefs and commitments, as well.