This week’s Torah portion recounts the last of the ten plagues, the first celebration of the holiday of Passover and the dramatic departure of the Children of Israel from the Land of Egypt. The Torah, while describing the unique set of laws pertaining to the holiday of Passover writes, “And it will come to pass if your children say to you, What is this service to you? You shall say, ‘It is a Passover sacrifice to the Lord, for He passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians, and He saved our houses” (Exodus 12:26-27) Rather than simply enumerating the laws, by placing the question “What is this service to you?” the Torah is highlighting the importance of question/answer and education in Jewish tradition.
The task of educating the next generation is one of the fundamental tenets of Judaism, and is expressed twice daily in the words of the Shema prayer, “These words which I command you today shall be upon your heart. You shall teach them thoroughly to your children…” (Deuteronomy 6:7) In the Laws of Torah Study, Maimonides writes that because education is of paramount importance, teachers should be appointed in every town and village in order to be able to instruct the children who live there. He writes strongly on the subject, and rules that any town where children live, but no teacher is in place to provide them with an education, should be placed under a ban of ostracism (1:1). But while there is a tremendous value placed on the concept of education within the Jewish tradition, we must take care not to let that noble task fall into the rut and abyss of indoctrination.
Is there a clear difference between education and indoctrination, or do the lines often get blurred? Rabbi David Aaron, the Founder and Dean of Isralight, offers a fascinating explanation on the difference between education and indoctrination as follows: the Hebrew word for education is “Chinuch” – the root of the word is “chen” or inner beauty. Rabbi Aaron explains that the goal of a good educator is to facilitate the process by which the student is able to draw out from themselves that which is inside of them, and to allow them to become the person that they are meant to be. Indoctrination on the other hand, is not about the facilitation of an internal quality coming out, but rather the imposition of the teacher’s external values and character onto the student. Writes Rabbi Aaron, indoctrination is designed to create a situation in which, “…the student will become like the teacher and reflect the teacher… he wants the student to accept, even at the expense of the student’s unique identity and individuality.” (Sparks) One of the key differences between education and indoctrination is actually highlighted in this week’s Torah portion, and that is the importance of having the freedom to ask a question. In a true educational/chinuch environment, questions are not to be discouraged or shunned but rather are encouraged. Why? Because through the asking of a question, a child is able to discover the world around them and make it their own.
Similarly, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of Britain, eloquently expresses this idea. He writes, “Education is not indoctrination. It is teaching a child to be curious, to wonder, reflect, inquire. The child who asks becomes a partner in the learning process. He or she is no longer a passive recipient but an active participant. To ask is to grow.” (The Sacks Haggada, pg 136)
A simple yet powerful story on this subject was written by Jay Litvin, a humanitarian who served as Medical Liaison for Chabad’s Children of Chernobyl program and was a frequent contributor of Chabad.org. The story is entitled “The View from My Child’s Window.”
Looking out the window, my son saw a tree whose branches were vigorously swaying back and forth. “How does the tree move its branches like that?” he asked.
Without rising from my chair, nor shifting my eyes from my book, I started to answer, “The tree is not moving the branches, son. The wind is…” But before the words were out, I caught myself. Instead I rose from my chair and moved to the window to join my son. I looked at the tree. From inside our room, from behind the window, I could neither feel nor hear the wind. I saw instead a tree with its branches silently moving.
As I stood there with my son watching the tree, I became mesmerized by the movement of the branches, the shimmer of the leaves. “I see what you mean,” I said to my son. “The movement of the tree is very beautiful.”
“Do you think the tree is dancing?” asked my son.
“Why would it be dancing?” I asked.
“Maybe it is happy because the sun is shining,” he said.
“Perhaps,” I said.
As we continued to watch the tree together, I, too, began to discern the dance of the tree. I enjoyed the movement and sway of the branches, seeing little nuances that I hadn’t noticed before. There seemed to be a rhythm to the movement, first strong and forceful, then light and gentle, then more vigorous, sometimes nearly violent.
“Are trees alive?” my son asked.
Yes, I answered, they are alive.
“Do they feel things?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Why do you ask?”
“Because this tree looks happy,” he answered. “Can a tree be happy or sad? In the winter, trees seem sad. Their branches hang down, and they look cold and lonely. But now with the leaves on the tree and the sun shining and the birds flying, it looks happy.”
“Look at that big oak tree over there,” I said. “What do you think it is feeling?”
“It’s happy too,” he said. “But it’s not dancing as much. I think because it is older, and maybe its branches are stiff. Or maybe it is not as excited by the sun and spring. It has met them too many times before and is used to them.”
“Yes,” I said, smiling inside.
By this time, I loved this tree. Or at least I was feeling so much love, that it was impossible for me to exclude the tree from my feelings. And I began to wonder whether the tree was causing these feelings in me? Or was the tree simply a catalyst, like the wind, that engendered a response in me, just as the wind engendered a response in the tree?
“Do you really think the tree is dancing?” I asked my son.
“I don’t know,” he answered.
“You don’t know?” I asked, surprised at his sudden uncertainty.
“If it were dancing,” he said, “it would need music.”
“Oh, I see,” I said. “It would need music.”
And then he said, “But maybe the music is in the wind. Maybe the wind carries a music that only the trees can hear.”
“Yes, son,” I said, “maybe the wind carries a music that only the trees can hear.”
And I began to dream of scientists with ears and instruments to hear the music of the wind and who listen to its shifting harmony.
My son interrupted my thoughts.
“Dad?” he said.
“I don’t really like my teacher at school.”
And then we talked about this for a while, while standing by the window. And though I could not know for certain, I had the sense that the tree was now watching us and I wondered if we – the tree, my son, and I – shared the satisfaction of this moment.(Chabad.org)
This story encapsulates the Jewish educational model. An inquisitive child asks questions, and a patient father teaches him that which he already inherently knows but has not yet had the chance to discover. In the process, a bond and closeness forms which serves as the backbone of the entire educational relationship. This is the ideal, and when it transpires, both the student and teacher are enriched by the experience.