“The world would cease to exist if not for the breath of schoolchildren [studying Torah].” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 119b)
“שאין העולם מתקיים אלא בזכות הבל פיהם של תינוקות של בית רבן”
(שבת קיט ע”ב)
We can learn so much about a society by looking at its children. What they wear, what they play, what they talk about with us and amongst themselves. What they dream about for their future.
As I dropped my 4-year-old at kindergarten this week, I noticed a new addition to the space. Presumably in honor of Tu Bishvat, the new year for trees and the day that heralds new growth for the year, the children had made a “wishing tree.” Each child stated their “wish,” which was then printed on one of the leaves of the tree.
Some of the wishes were what you would expect from a class of preschoolers. They wished for pets (dogs, bunnies and parrots). Some (more than I would have expected) wished to get married (perhaps because their teacher recently did). But many, many children had wishes related to the war:
“That the war will end.”
“That the soldiers will come home safely.”
“That there will be no more wars.”
“That the hostages will return home.”
“That none of the soldiers will die.”
For background, I live in a beautiful settlement in the Judean hills about 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) south of Jerusalem. While many children in my son’s kindergarten have parents or siblings actively serving in the IDF, these 4- and 5-year-olds have not been evacuated from their homes. They were not forced witness or experience first-hand the atrocities Hamas committed against innocent children like themselves on October 7, 2023. They have experienced air raid sirens (like almost all children in Israel), but do not have to run to a shelter on a regular basis, like children living further north, south or east.
Children are nothing if not adaptable. It was this generation of children that, by age 2 and 3, adopted terms like “COVID,” “isolation,” and “face mask” into their lexicon. The reality of war is just another “new normal” they have had to adjust to. Of course, some adjust better than others, and some are struggling, but on the whole, kindergarten is kindergarten and most of these children are doing okay.
And yet, seeing these children’s purest hopes and dreams printed on their “wishing tree,” of a world free of war and pain, where they and their loved ones are free to bask in the simple joys of pets and family, brought tears to my eyes.
And I couldn’t help but contrast these preschoolers’ hopes and dreams, phrased with such innocence and simple hope, with those of many children in easy driving distance. Children raised from birth on hate and dreams of conquest. Children suffering for the ideology and actions of their society and the world’s complicity.
We read in last week’s Torah portion, Yitro, that the descendants of those who worship other gods are punished.
לֹֽא־תִשְׁתַּחֲוֶ֥֣ה לָהֶ֖ם֮ וְלֹ֣א תׇעׇבְדֵ֑ם֒ כִּ֣י אָֽנֹכִ֞י הֹ אֱלֹקיךָ֙ אֵ֣ל קַנָּ֔א פֹּ֠קֵ֠ד עֲוֺ֨ן אָבֹ֧ת עַל־בָּנִ֛ים עַל־שִׁלֵּשִׁ֥ים וְעַל־רִבֵּעִ֖ים לְשֹׂנְאָֽי”
…You shall not bow down unto them, nor serve them; for I, Hashem, your G-d, am a jealous G-d, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate Me. (Shemot 20:5)
This is a difficult passage, with many commentaries discussing its meaning. But in the plainest sense, many modern readers understandably find this passage difficult to swallow — how could a loving G-d punish children?
We only need to look around at the world today to understand that this is a case of natural consequence created by G-d, not punishment. Parents who worship a god of hate cause their children to suffer. And not just their children – their grandchildren and great-grandchildren too. 75 years is a long time to nurse hate and perpetuate a state of suffering for your children.
A society that invests its resources in the teaching and infrastructure of hate will not survive. A society that values the martyred dead over the living will itself eventually wither and die.
As the saying goes, children are the future. If we do not treasure them, we have no future.
I hope and pray that children raised in love, in a society that treasures life and all its gifts, who wish for “the war to end,” know peace in their lifetimes.