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Teaching Torah to Children Means Passing on Tradition

May 25, 2000
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“If you have ghosts, or a lot of brothers, it’s hard to have peace in the house,” my son Danny says.

He is writing about the concept of “shalom bayit,” peace in the house, for his third-grade Judaic studies class.

Peace in the house. Is it possible, I ask, with four boys, ages 9, 11, 13 and 16? Where bickering, bumping, teasing and tormenting are de rigueur? Where a slap on the back can be interpreted as a friendly hello or a call to battle. Where physical contact is expected, expedient and, sometimes, explosive.

The rabbis tell us that where peace exists among brothers, God dwells among them. In our house, this means we can count on God’s presence from 2 a.m. to 5 a.m., when everyone, except perhaps the ghosts, is asleep.

But Danny is focused on another set of brothers, on Jacob and Esau, whose sibling rivalry began in utero. He is reading about how Jacob traded a bowl of lentil soup to a hungry Esau, in exchange for Esau’s birthright. And how, with Rebecca’s assistance, he tricked Esau out of his father’s blessing. It wasn’t until decades later that the brothers reconciled, that peace in the house was realized.

In addition to “shalom bayit,” Danny, along with his entire class, has been learning about hospitality, faith, kindness, compassion and justice. And they are reading biblical stories that illustrate each of these values. The class has spent the year preparing for their Torah Celebration. And preparing for life.

“Our story of the Torah has taught us the importance of learning about our way of life and being a light to the other people of the world,” says William, Danny’s classmate.

The holiday of Shavuot, which this year begins at sunset on June 8, marks the anniversary of our becoming a light unto other peoples, the anniversary of our receiving the Torah, which occurred 3,312 years ago.

Originally Shavuot was a harvest holiday, the Feast of the First Fruits. Later, the Talmudic rabbis determined that the day the ancient Israelites brought sacrificial offerings to the Temple in Jerusalem, on the sixth of Sivan, was the exact anniversary of the day that God presented the even more ancient Israelites, under the leadership of Moses, the Ten Commandments, and, concurrently, the entire written and oral law.

But the events leading up to this portentous and pivotal moment on Mt. Sinai show that we are not only a stiff-necked people but also an impetuous one. A Midrash tells us that while other nations, for a variety of reasons, refused the opportunity to receive the Torah, we jumped at the chance — without thinking, without deliberating, without our traditional dose of Jewish skepticism and questioning.

We shouted out, impulsively and inversely, according to Exodus 19:8 and 24:3, “We will do, and we will hear.”

Interestingly, the Torah was given in the wilderness, away from any specific geographical territory, so that all nations could accept it. And it is said that God spoke on Mt. Sinai in 70 different languages.

Judaism commands us not only to remember a historical or religious event but also to actually relive and re-enact it. Just as we dwell in huts for eight days at Sukkot and just as we each personally go out of Egypt at Pesach, so at Shavuot we each stand at Mt. Sinai.

Thus, every year on the sixth of Sivan, we declare our continuing commitment to Torah, which, ideally, has become an intrinsic, integrated part of our lives, something we experience on a daily basis, something that teaches us how to live.

Over the years, the holiday of Shavuot has taken on traditions of educating the young. In the Middles Ages, it was customary for young boys to embark on their journey of Torah study on Shavuot. Cakes and sweets were often served to show, in the words of Psalm 119:103, “How pleasing is Your word to my palate, sweeter than honey.”

In the 1900s, the Reform Judaism movement in Germany began the ceremony of Confirmation, in which older teen-agers affirmed their loyalty to Judaism. Confirmation continues to be observed in Reform and many Conservative synagogues.

And for my son Danny and his third-grade class at Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge, Calif., Shavuot marks a special Torah Celebration, culminating a year — and kicking off a lifetime — of Torah study.

The students, all dressed in traditional white, will sing in English and Hebrew, dance and act out stories from the Bible, stories that illustrate the values they have been learning and relating to their own lives.

Danny’s classmate David will tell us, repeating the words of Rabbi Akiva, “There is no life without Torah for the Jews.”

But additionally, there is no Torah without children for the Jews. For the Torah is passed down from generation to generation, down, according to God’s promise, to the thousandth generation. And, as one Midrash relates, the children are the guarantors, promising God that their parents will teach them Torah.

And so, at this Torah Celebration, all of the students, one at a time, will approach their teachers. They will receive their own miniature Torah, encased in a beautiful embroidered cover that each student individually designed and stitched, and a special certificate, stating, “The beauty of the Torah is shed upon all who study it.”

In unison, they will say, “We promise we will love, learn and protect the Torah, as our ancestors did before us.”

My husband, Larry, and I will know that we are fulfilling our obligation as parents. And, as we recall the story of Jacob and Esau, we will know that in another decade or more, we, too, will enjoy peace in our house.

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