Parasha Vayelech You Shall Teach

   You Shall Teach and Learn
This weeks Torah portion contains the commandment to gather the people together every seven years at the Temple in Jerusalem in order to hear the King read from the book of Deuteronomy.  The Torah specifies that men, women, and children are to attend this gathering.  Why children? Wouldn’t small children run around and disturb the learning of the adults?  Wouldn’t they take up valuable study time, distracting their mothers and fathers from the concentration they need to listen and learn? 

            That is a question that was raised in the Talmud.  R. Eliezer ben Azaria answered it this way — The Torah commands that children be brought to listen to the King read the Torah in order to bring a reward to the parents who bring them.  What kind of reward will parents get?  The Talmud doesn’t specify.  But it does seem obvious.  The reward of bringing the child is to raise a well-educated child, one that has knowledge of Judaism and who is religiously inclined — one who will pass on the heritage of Judaism to the grandchildren.  It is told that from the day of his birth, Rabbi Joshua Ben Hannina’s mother placed his crib in the House of Study, in order that he soak up words of Torah and that he be raised in an atmosphere of holiness.  Of course, at that very young age it is not a matter of intellectual knowledge the child will attain.  Rather it is the atmosphere that he will be surrounded with.  Once I mentioned to a friend that my sister had been depressed during the pregnancy of her first child, who is now 19 years old.  I was shocked when my my friend asked if the baby had been all right.  Then I understood — even in the womb, emotional atmosphere is important.              The education of our children is an important value in Jewish life, as it must be in any religion or culture that wishes to perpetuate itself.  It is encoded in our most sacred prayer, the “Sh’ma” which enjoins us to “teach these words to your children.”  The Talmud tells us that it  was originally the responsibility of the father to teach his children – a kind of home schooling.  But, if a child had no father, he did not learn.  Therefore, teachers were appointed in Jerusalem. He knew that the center of learning needed to be Jerusalem, for it says in scriptures "Ki MiTsion Tetze Torah":  (for out of Zion shall go forth Torah)." But if a child had no father, he would not be able to travel to Jerusalem to study. Therefore, the High Priest, Yehoshuah ben Gamla, appointed teachers of young children in every town, so that children could enter school at the age of six or seven.  Our religious schools are the direct descendents of these schools set up by Yehoshuah ben Gamla in Roman times.             Yet many of us, even those of us who have had formal Jewish education as children, find that our education is inadequate for our functioning as Jewish adults.  I was very moved this Rosh Hashannah as our own Reb Baruch talked about the embarrassment he felt when he could not lead the prayers fluently at his father’s shiva when he was but 23 years old.  He promised himself he would never again be placed in that situation.  He could have fulfilled that promise by withdrawing from Judaism, and thereby insuring that he would never be asked to lead services again.  But he took the opposite approach – to his and to our enduring benefit.  He resolved to learn more, so that he could lead services and act as a competent Jewish adult in the future.             In taking this path, he was following a Talmudic prescription, although he may not have known this at the time.  The Rambam teaches, “If a father does not adequately teach his children, the children are obligated to teach themselves.”  Reb Baruch taught himself magnificently.  Of course, he is still learning, like all of us who continue our studies into adulthood.                          Even in the Middle Ages, what we now call “lifelong learning” was recognized as important.  Rebenu Bachya wrote:             “Do not be content with the impressions you formed in your childhood, of deep and difficult concepts and ideas.  Now that your intellect has matured, delve anew into G-d’s Torah.  Then you will behold of the secrets of the Torah what would have been impossible for you to understand from the instruction of those who guided you in your childhood.”             May this year be a year of study and of learning, both for the children of our congregation and for the adults. 

Shabbat Shalom and Shannah Tovah
Rabbi Marc D. Rudolph