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Va’etchanan 5780-2020

“The Mandate for Parental Involvement in Jewish Education”
(updated and revised from Va’etchanan 5761-2001)

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Va’etchanan, we encounter two fundamental declarations of the Jewish faith: the Ten Commandments (Deuteronomy 5:6-18), and the Shema prayer (Deuteronomy 6:4-9), “Hear O Israel, the L-rd our G-d, the L-rd is one.”

The first paragraph of the Shema prayer begins with the words: וְאָהַבְתָּ אֵת השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ. This verse calls on every Jew to love G-d with all one’s heart, all one’s soul and all one’s might.

The Sh’ma prayer continues:  וְהָיוּ הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם עַל לְבָבֶךָ and these words which I command you today shall be upon your heart, וְשִׁנַּנְתָּם לְבָנֶיךָ, וְדִבַּרְתָּ בָּם, and you shall teach them to your children, and you shall speak to them diligently,  בְּשִׁבְתְּךָ בְּבֵיתֶךָ, וּבְלֶכְתְּךָ בַדֶּרֶךְ, וּבְשָׁכְבְּךָ וּבְקוּמֶךָ, when you sit in your home, and when you go on your way, when you lie down and when you rise up.

Let us focus on the phrase, וְשִׁנַּנְתָּם לְבָנֶיךָ, which serves as the Torah’s mandate requiring Jews to educate their children. (It is fascinating that there is no direct Mitzvah in the Torah for a Jew to study Torah, other than studying Torah in order to be able to teach one’s children!)

Of all the 613 mitzvot of the Torah, perhaps the most vital for the continuity and continuation of the Jewish people is the mitzvah of וְשִׁנַּנְתָּם לְבָנֶיךָ, and you shall teach your children. Jewish education is the lifeline and the lifeblood of Jewish life. After all, it is Jewish education that has proven, throughout Jewish history, to be the most effective method of educating large numbers of people, over long periods of time, to ethical and moral living. Furthermore, more than 3300 years of Jewish history confirm that there is absolutely no chance of Jews surviving as Jews for the next generation, without our people’s intense and passionate commitment to Jewish education.

An analysis of the words וְשִׁנַּנְתָּם לְבָנֶיךָ reveals a host of profound insights. The root of the word, וְשִׁנַּנְתָּם, can be traced to the word שִׁנָּה,  which, like the Hebrew word שְׁנֵיִם–two, means to repeat, over and over, implying that Jewish learning and rituals must become habitual and constant in a Jew’s life, and become ingrained into the very essence of the Jew. This statement underscores, that for continuity, real continuity, there needs to be a sincere commitment to the practices and rituals of Jewish life.

An alternate root of the word וְשִׁנַּנְתָּם may be the root-word שִׁנַּן, shin nun nun, which means sharp. Jewish education must be intense, sharp, meaningful, exciting, and cutting edge.

But, perhaps most of all, the verse boldly declares: וְשִׁנַּנְתָּם לְבָנֶיךָ, you shall teach your children! Most parents today pass off their children’s education to professionals–professional teachers, tutors, schools, yeshivot, day schools. With this verse, the Torah underscores that the fundamental, bottom line, obligation of the parent is וְשִׁנַּנְתָּם לְבָנֶיךָ, you shall teach your children. Even though parents may rely on professional teachers, the buck ultimately stops with the parent. In fact, the Hebrew term for parent, הוֹרֶה–“horeh,” is derived from the Hebrew word מוֹרֶה–“moreh”–to teach. A parent is a teacher–the primary teacher!

Consequently, if a school fails to properly educate, the school is not at fault, the parent is at fault. If the teacher fails to teach properly, the responsibility lies with the parent, not the teacher. It is the parent’s responsibility to be on top of the educational services provided by the school, to be well informed about the effectiveness of their children’s teachers, and to correct the “miseducation” that often takes place in school settings. While it is certainly true that children spend many hours in formal educational settings, the “quality time” spent at home with parents is of far greater value in terms of “real” education.

The Midrash Rabbah  has a fascinating comment on Genesis 27:22, that recalls the story of Jacob deceiving his father to receive the blessing.

All the idolaters gathered about Avnemus of Gadara (a first century non Jewish philosopher) and asked him: Can we defeat the nation of Israel in battle? Avnemus replied: Go out and make the rounds of all their synagogues and houses of study. If you find children in them, chirping away (while studying Torah) you will be unable to defeat them. For this is what their father [Isaac] promised them (Genesis 27:22): “The voice is the voice of Jacob”–as long as the voice of Jacob is found in the synagogues (and houses of study), the hands will not be the hands of Esau. But if not, “The hands are the hands of Esau,” and you will be able to defeat them.

There’s no such thing as overdosing on Jewish education. There’s no such thing as being too passionate or too extreme concerning the value and importance of Jewish education. I have often said regarding the challenges of raising Jewishly-committed children in today’s environment, that if parents aspire for their children to be “passionate” about Judaism–due to the blandishments and distractions of secular society, they will be fortunate to wind up with moderate children. If parents aim for their children to be moderate about their Judaism, they’ll wind up casual. And, if the parents themselves are casual, they might wind up with, G-d forbid, Episcopalian grandchildren! One never outgrows the need for Jewish education, it must be perpetually enhanced. Jews must always be in the “Growth mode.”

Of course, it is crucial for parents to serve as educational role models for their children. Even parents who have personally had a limited Jewish education, it is never too late to learn. Nothing can be more impactful than for a child to see his/her parents eagerly attending Torah classes.  With the abundance of classes available today, both online and in actual class settings, there is simply no excuse not to participate.  “Do as I say,” is not nearly as powerful as “Do as I do.”

For those who are not fortunate enough to be in a position to send their children to an intensive Jewish educational setting, which is absolutely basic today, keep in mind the Torah’s admonition: וְשִׁנַּנְתָּם לְבָנֶיךָ. Take ten, fifteen minutes, out of your busy schedule, twice or three times a week, to discuss Jewish issues and Torah issues with your children. Even if your child is away at college, call and discuss Jewish or Torah-related issues, so your child will clearly recognize how important these values are to his/her parents. This practice, of course, can enhance the commitment of those children who obtain strong Jewish educations as well.

Please, do not compromise on Jewish education. The alternative is very much Jewish oblivion.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The observance of the fast of Tisha b’Av, marking the destruction of both the Jerusalem Temples, starts on Wednesday night, July 29th and continues through Thursday night, July 30, 2020. Have a meaningful fast.

The Shabbat after Tisha b’Av is traditionally known as Shabbat Nachamu, in deference to the first of a series of seven Haftarot (prophetic messages) of consolation, drawn from the book of Isaiah, that are read between Tisha b’Av and Rosh Hashana. “Nachamu, nachamu amee,” be comforted My nation, are the opening words of Isaiah 40.

This year, the joyous festival of Tu b’Av, the fifteenth of Av, is celebrated on Tuesday night and Wednesday, August 4th and 5th, 2020. Happy Tu b’Av.