Here is a parable from the Talmud.
A wily fox once sat by a river bank greedily eyeing all the delicious looking schools of fish swimming in the river. Strangely, they were all darting about and dispersing in every direction. Growing hungry and impatient, but ever the wily fox, he called to the fish:
“Good fish, why are you jumping about so much in the river?”
Rushing to and fro, the fish stopped to respond to him:
“We are desperate to stay out of the way of the fishermen’s nets!”
Licking his lips, the fox gently said to them:
“Are you sure you don’t want to come up here on land and live with me, just as our ancestors did long ago? That would be much safer.”
Laughing with scorn, the fish replied:
“You’re the animal with the reputation for being the smartest among all the species? You’re actually the stupidest animal! If we’re swimming here in our natural habitat and we’re terrified of being captured and killed, how much more terrified would we be to come out of the water and on to land, where we would surely die!”
The great scholar and martyr, Rabbi Akiva, told this story to his friend, Pappos one day after the Roman empire forbade, on pain of death, the study of Torah during the Hadrianic persecutions in the second century CE. Refusing to be intimidated, Akiva steadfastly refused to stop teaching Torah, even to the point of gathering together large public assemblies of students to do so. Terrified for his friend and for the Jewish community, Pappos asked him:
“Akiva, aren’t you afraid of what the empire will do to you and to us if they catch you?”
Akiva then told him this parable of the fox and the fishes and explained:
“You see, Pappos, we are the fish, the fox is the Roman empire, and the water is a symbol for the Torah which gives us life, even when we are threatened with death. If we have to deal with the death threats of Rome, at least we can do so while swimming confidently in the living waters of the Torah that sustain us spiritually. Giving up the Torah for the false security of living with the Romans will not guarantee us our physical lives, but it will certainly destroy our souls. I’m staying immersed in the Torah.”
The Romans caught, tortured and executed Akiva shortly thereafter. As he was dying, he remarked to his students,
“Now I understand the Shma when it tells us to love God with all our souls: even if God is taking our souls away from us, we should never stop loving God and His Torah.”
I am telling you this story not only because it is one of our greatest traditions about remaining loyal to the Torah, which we refer to as our life and the length of our days. I am also telling it to you as part of another story about an interesting interchange I had with a young Jewish day school student a couple of years ago. One Shabbat during Kiddush, this student, who attends a Jewish day school in another city, approached me with her grandparents to tell me some great news. She could not have been more than eight at the time. For her grade’s stepping up ceremony during which they would receive their copies of the Humash, the five books of Moses, she had memorized in Hebrew a story about a fox and some fishes. When I asked her to recite it for me, she enthusiastically did so with flawless Hebrew pronunciation. Deeply impressed by her achievement, and knowing the story well, I then asked her, “”What is the story about?”
She looked at me, smiled shyly and said,
“Uh, I’m not sure.”
I laughed gently, then prompted her with some of the details, after which she began to remember that her teachers had told her a version of the story.
I would not have expected someone so young to know the fable, and certainly not to understand what it symbolizes. It is, after all, an emotionally and religiously complex tale about spiritual commitment and resistance, Jewish suffering, and martyrdom, hardly what a little kid should be worrying about. Nonetheless, I was pleased that her day school would teach her the story as part of a celebration of her growth as a Jew.
At the very least, her teachers were modeling for her the excitement and joy that accompany learning a passage of Torah in lashon ha-kodesh, the sacred language of the Jewish people and faith. Like the young child of shtetl days who learned to associate Torah with sweetness by licking honey off of a chalk board filled with Hebrew letters, this young girl was learning that receiving tradition is a cause for celebration.
At the very most, her teachers were priming her to learn this text in the original and to internalize its values as a Jew later in her life, when she could study it more thoughtfully. Far from being a mind numbing exercise in rote repetition, learning this story helped this young girl begin to develop spiritual muscle memory: the almost reflexive capacity to embrace and act upon the world using the words, values, images, and meanings of the Torah as her framework.
This is the kind of sacred work that Jewish day schools do best. I certainly respect and understand that day school is not a viable option for every Jewish family, which is why I work very hard to support religious schools like the one in my local Jewish community. However, as a parent of day school graduates, a rabbi, and a teacher, I remain a fiercely dedicated supporter of Jewish day schools.
Almost alone among the various Jewish communal institutions which educate and socialize, day schools are able to immerse students and their families in an unparalleled Jewish environment. They allow Jewish identity and commitment to flourish naturally without the constant anxiety of having to compete with the wider society for students’ attention and loyalties. Day schools also encourage students to integrate Jewish and secular thought and values within the same school day and culture. Only Jewish overnight summer camps can do this equally well in the highly assimilatory milieu of American society. Most of all, Jewish day schools, at their best, arm their students with knowledge, the most effective weapon in the battle against assimilation. The eighth graders I teach in our local day school have heard me say incessantly that the greatest enemy of the Jewish people is ignorance, not anti-Semitism. That is a lesson that Rabbi Akiva taught his friend Pappos, and all of us, centuries ago when he chose to keep teaching Torah in the face of persecution. It is a lesson we Jews in the modern world need to learn over and over again. It is a lesson my young student is already beginning to take to heart and will carry with her for life.