This column would never have been written were it not for Riki, my first-grade teacher. She didn’t actually help me write it this week, but back then when I discovered my talent for writing and began publishing poems and stories in children’s magazines, she encouraged me.
Riki did, but other teachers didn’t.
To this day, I still remember who pushed me to continue and supported me but also recall those teachers who tried to put a stop to my budding journalistic hobby because it meant I had to miss school days for interviews and photo sessions. I was just 6 years old then and now I am 36 and despite the many changes in the world and the education system, the following recommendation is still valid: We know that there has to be an educational framework with its fixed rules. But at the same time, allow a child to soar, to develop his or her individual talents and bend the rules if necessary. Who knows, one day she may even thank you for it in a newspaper column!
I have collected several more principles and pieces of advice concerning our children’s education. I didn’t write them, they are all from this week’s parasha, Ki Tetze. Written thousands of years ago, it is as though Ki Tetze is meant to be read especially for September 1st.
“If you go out to war” are the opening words of the parasha. In a way, our children are off to a kind of war this week – the war of life. Two million, two hundred thousand students accompanied by millions of hopes, prayers, wishes, decisions, and fears. For parents, September 1st is like Yom Kippur. In his song “Children” Evyatar Banai wrote about his feelings when sending his child off to another day at school: “For just one moment, the open door resembles the lion’s wide-open mouth / and my heart begs / may you be protected / be loved and be near / may you always walk in the fields of truth / in the fields of joy and beauty / and my heart bows in supplication / protect him from shame, embarrassment and fear.” Amen!
“If a man has a wayward and rebellious son.”
The Torah talks about a violent, egoistic, problematic juvenile delinquent and determines that he is to be punished by death. However, in Jewish law punishment and actions are not only fixed by the written verses alone but also according to the commentators and decisions made by our Sages throughout the generations. In this instance, they wrote: “The wayward and rebellious son never occurred and will never occur in the future.” If such a child whose behavior is deserving of death never existed, why does the Torah even talk about him? What purpose is there in discussing an extreme case that never did and never will occur? Our Sages answer that the purpose is to raise the topic. The theoretical case is meant to warn us, to exhort us to always have our finger on the pulse of our children’s lives. Their education and upbringing must be on our minds constantly. Our parenting skills, the question of limits, the warning signs that we must be aware of in order to prevent such disasters are topics to be raised. The Torah brings the shocking case to ensure that we constantly remain on the alert to never reach this extreme.
One of the Hasidic masters of the previous century wrote that a person should spend half an hour each day thinking about his children’s upbringing. I believe that this is vital in our times. Whenever I talk to my own friends, we all agree that our parents had a natural parental authority which we seem to be lacking. One could write a book about my generation entitled: “Who moved my authority?” A few years ago I interviewed the mother of a three year old son who really wanted to have another child, but “he doesn’t want to.” When I asked what her husband is afraid of, she replied: “Oh, you misunderstood, I wasn’t referring to my husband, but to my son.”
“You will not be able to ignore it.”
With this wonderful phrase, the Torah commands us to return lost property to its owner. We are told that if a person sees his friend’s lost ass or his tablet, he must make every effort to fulfill the commandment of returning lost property. Why? “You will not be able to ignore it.” We live in an increasingly selfish society with messages such as “Don’t take any notice, it’s none of your business” and “Live and let live.” The Torah gives us a polar opposite message – take control of yourself. We are not mindless robots who live in an automated society, ignorant of the fate of those around us but rather we are all part of the same human fabric. It is interesting to note that the Torah does not write “Do not ignore” or “It is forbidden to ignore.” The Torah offers a psychological analysis of our character and writes: “You will not be able to ignore it.” The Torah seems to tell us: “I know who you are, and ignoring lost property is not in keeping with your nature, you are not being true to yourself. Even if you try, you will not be able to ignore it.”
“You shall keep what is emitted from your lips.”
In other words, think before you speak, and if you do speak, take responsibility for what you say. When I was a young schoolgirl, we decided to completely ignore one of our classmates. I would love to find out where she is now and apologize for our senseless behavior. Yet, back then the worst we could do was to write on the blackboard “Dana is horrible” (not her real name.) Now children use much crueler methods. We may think we live in an age of progress, but in fact we live in the Wild West, where we mindlessly take aim and shoot. We send off a message and kill. The Unbearable Lightness of clicking on ‘send’ or ‘share’ extracts a heavy price. It’s true that we have unprecedented freedom of expression, but at what price? When I was young, I had to make an effort to have my writings published. Now, everyone is a journalist, everyone is able to express him or herself. But we all know that the result is a paradise of nonsense, destructiveness and violence.
“Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey out of Egypt.”
We start off the school year with smiles and pastel colors and try to paint life in bright colors. However, we need to remember that evil also exists in our world. The kindergarten teacher won’t tell them about it on the first day, but there is also Amalek, good and evil. The Roman philosopher Cicero said that: “He who does not prevent evil, encourages it.” However, some people now prefer to make room for every group’s narrative and speak with terrorists in a language of democracy. In this parasha, the Torah warns us not to blur the distinction between right and wrong. We must not get mixed up and let naïve and utopian ideologies get hold of us and our children. On the contrary, if we remember that evil exists, define it and fight against it, then we will merit the opposite – good.