What Will We Teach Our Children? And How?

It’s fairly well known that each of the Haggadah’s four children (wise, wicked, simple, and unable to ask) elicits a different lesson about who we are. It’s less well known that the four children, their questions, and their lessons also appear in the Jerusalem Talmud, but that ancient work pairs them differently.

For instance, the lesson “with a mighty hand Adonai brought us out of Egypt…” goes to the simple child in the Haggadah, but to the wise one in the Talmud.

Furthermore, the Haggadah’s wicked child is chastised for asking “what is this service to you?” instead of “to us,” thereby, according to the Haggadah, removing himself from the community. Yet the wise child (quoting Deuteronomy 6:20) also asks about the laws that God “commanded you,” not “us.” Why isn’t the wise child scolded?

Finally, a close look at the four lessons reveals that one is technical, another spiritual. A third is a rebuke. And a fourth answer invites conversation.

Far from being a simple set of questions and responses classified by type of child, then, the narratives surrounding the Haggadah’s four children demonstrate the complexity of teaching a new generation: We need different kinds of messages working in concert.

As it happens, I believe that today’s religious schools also have four ways of teaching children: curriculum, budget, behavior, and ritual. But even though children learn from all four, it has unfortunately been my experience that most leaders focus only on curriculum.

The curriculum, of course, is a list of what children have to learn, and how the teachers will teach it. For instance, one common curricular element is Shimon’s list in Pirkei Avot of the three things that sustain the world: Torah, service to God, and kindness — taught, perhaps, through text study and music. A follow-up lesson might include the Talmud’s discussion of derech eretz (hopefully along with my favorite example: there’s no law against whistling mirthfully at a funeral, but you still shouldn’t do it). So far, so good. But most schools stop there.

The budget, many people think, is simply a financial document, divorced from curriculum. But I disagree. It has just as much to do with morals and values and teaching as it does with money. For instance, if the curriculum teaches kindness but the budget isn’t kind — and I’ve seen many that are not — children will notice the disparity. Many budgets aren’t even designed to mesh with what the school teaches. I’ve even seen budgets that don’t address any of Shimon’s three things, budgets that always have reserve funds for fixing the roof but never for extra learning or for paying the teachers and clergy well. The message is as clear as it is alarming.

Behavior, too, extends beyond its immediate effects and serves as a lasting lesson to the next generation. In chainlike fashion, some behavior is necessarily constrained by the budget, because some actions have to be paid for. But sometimes we can adhere to the Torah’s teachings for free. Do we? Do we speak kindly of one another, avoiding gossip (lashon hara) and slander (motsi shem ra) — a capital offense according to the Talmud? Or do we see the school and its supporting synagogue as a political machine to be manipulated? In a different direction, do we refrain from synagogue work on Shabbat, or just teach the children that they should?

Ritual — more fully, ritual behavior — follows. Bar and bat mitzvah ranks as perhaps the most ubiquitous Jewish ritual in America, and for many children this ceremony is (for better or for worse) the pinnacle and defining moment of their Jewish study. Are board members supposed to attend? They are, after all, supposed to attend board meetings. In the other direction, do we imbue rituals with the messages we want to teach?

As Passover comes to an end this year, let’s take a cue from the multifaceted approach in the Haggadah and turn our attention to curriculum, budget, behavior, and ritual, asking not just what we will teach the next generation, but how we will do it.

Chag samei’ach.

About the Author
A pioneer of applying modern translation techniques to ancient languages, Dr. Joel M. Hoffman brings the unappreciated wisdom of ancient texts to modern audiences.
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