Teach Your Children Well


‘You shall teach them with your children, to speak with them, when you sit in your home, when you walk on the way, when you lie down and when you arise” [Deuteronomy 11:19].

How, with what attitude, are we to convey our traditions to the next generation?

The Book of Deuteronomy is the farewell address of Moses, just before he gives over the baton of leadership to Joshua. In last week’s portion of Va’ethanan we read the Shema, which insists that YHVH, the God of Love, is the one and only God. The passage commands every Israelite’s absolute love and dedication to this God, as well as the necessity of conveying this faith-foundation to the next generation [Deut. 6:4-9]. This is known as “the first paragraph of the Shema,” and has been incorporated into our daily prayers each morning and evening.

Interestingly, this week’s portion of Ekev contains what has become “the second paragraph of the Shema,” likewise part of our daily liturgy [Deut. 11:13-21]. However, there are some marked differences between these two paragraphs: First, the first paragraph is addressed to every individual Jew; the second paragraph is addressed to the entire nation, and whereas the first is singular, the second paragraph is in the plural, guaranteeing that were the entire nation to become committed to the God ideal, then rain and produce will be plentiful, and Israel will prosper.

A fascinating theological truth emerges from this distinction in the paragraphs. The first paragraph enjoins total commitment to a God of love but does not promise personal prosperity as a result. Yes, virtue is its own reward, and one who lives a loving life dedicated to a God of love will most assuredly reap the spiritual benefits, but there is no promise of material gain. Only if the entire Jewish nation becomes lovingly committed do we have a right to anticipate the participation of nature in a world of climatic cooperation for successful harvests.

The second distinction is with regard to the manner in which we are to convey God’s commandments to the next generation. The first paragraph reads: ve’shinantam le’vanecha, usually translated, “you shall teach them diligently to your children.” The root word of “shanon” is “shen” or tooth, which connotes “biting into,” sharpness; tell it over, communicate the commandments to your child, strongly and sharply.

Alternatively, teeth enable mastication, chewing, so that the food becomes more digestible. Indeed, “shin” connotes repetition, learning by rote until you memorize the text and it becomes imbedded within your mind. Whichever way you interpret ve’shinantam, the idea behind the verb pictures a younger generation that “learns” without actively participating, never having been given the opportunity of questioning or modifying the lesson: the commandments are to be accepted because of the authority of the teacher. The source material must be “ingested,” almost spoon-fed. At best it is never really analyzed or altered in any way by the student who is a passive partner in the learning process.

The second paragraph of the Shema likewise expresses the vital importance of conveying the commandments to one’s children, but with completely different phraseology: “You shall teach them (ve’limadetem, the verb lamod simply meaning to teach or to learn — and with only slightly different vocalization the phrase can be translated “you shall learn them” — the commandments) with your progeny. Note as well: the two paragraphs suggest two opposing educational attitudes. One speaks sharply to one’s student or one’s progeny, or one learns gently with one’s student or progeny.

In the first paragraph of the Shema, when the text is dealing with an individual parent who is God-enthused and mitzvah-inspired, perhaps he/she can speak sharply and excitedly to the youth, and the child will be motivated by the parent’s commitment, passion and sincerity.

However, in the second paragraph, when we are concerned with an entire nation’s ability to hand over the traditions to the next generation, then it becomes mandatory for the parent to teach with compassion; the learning experience dare not be an authoritative lesson but rather the collaboration of an inter-generational havruta studying together. The point is not for the child to continue the tradition because the parent wants him to, or even worse, because the parent commands him to, but rather because the child himself wants to; it must become in his eyes as his Torah, not only as his parents’ Torah, because he, too, claims ownership of the Torah!

This was the critical importance of the Oral Law, which was absent from the first Tablets and came only with the Second Tablets. The Oral Law, the interpretation of the Sages of each generation, transforms Torah from God’s one-way gift to Israel to a collaborative “conversation” between God and Israel, to include Israel’s added gift to God by making His Torah viable and relevant to every generation: “God’s children eternalized His Torah.”

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat.

Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat Candles: 7:51 p.m.
Torah: Deut. 7:12-11:25
Haftarah: Isaiah 49:14-51:3
Havdalah: 8:50 p.m.