Judaism: Transmitting the Tradition
Rabbanit Shira SmilesShira Smiles is a sought-after international lecturer, popular seminary...
Summary by Channie Koplowitz Stein
The first verse of Parshat Emor has an interesting language anomaly: “Vayomer Hashem el Moshe, emor el hakohanim … Hashem said to Moshe, say to the Kohanim, the sons of Aharon…” and the verse continues with the laws of a kohain’s defilement. This double construction of the root word emor as a verb not only gives rise to the name of the Parsha, but also serves as a springboard for a discussion of teaching methods. (The usual construction is vayomer … leymor, Hashem said … saying, rather than a second verb.)
Rashi gives the simplest explanation that is most relevant in educating the young or those newly entered into service. Rashi explains that we tell the older kohanim to warn the younger ones about these laws.
Rabbi Shimshon Pincus, the Tiferet Shimshon, adds that this terminology infers more than verbally teaching our young. Its deeper meaning, writes Rabbi Pincus, is that we are not to have our underage child transgress a law on our behalf, such as asking him to turn off the light in the bedroom, which we inadvertently left on, on Friday night.
Jewish education involves not only verbal instruction but also action to stop transgressions.
There are two Hebrew words signifying language transmission, dibur and amirah, the word in our verse. However, the two words are not identical in meaning, notes Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. Dibur, he notes, is speaking, expressing an idea whether or not anyone is listening. In contrast, amirah is communication with another, and therefore one may need to explain one’s idea until the listener understands. Amirah often requires repetition.
So when do we start educating a child? Rabbi Reiss discusses this question in Meirosh Tzurim. As we would expect, he advocates beginning when the child is very young so that the practices of Judaism become second nature to him, like his own breathing. The child may not yet know what the blessing means, but he automatically recites one before eating his candy. Training him in this way, the mitzvoth become part of his routine, and he does not consider them onerous.
If we are going to discuss chinuch, education, we must first define and understand the term.
In "With Hearts Full of Love", Rabbi Salomon uses Rashi’s definition to clarify the meaning of chinuch: It is “the first introduction of a person or an item to the function that he or it will ultimately serve.” As such, it is the dedication of someone or something to its ultimate purpose, and we can dedicate our home –chanukat habayit – or dedicate the altar to God’s service in that special House – chanukat hamizbeach.
Therefore, when we are educating a child, we must focus on the future, the result we hope to achieve as the child matures to adulthood, and not focus on eradicating those childish behaviors that he will normally outgrow but which may be extremely annoying to us. To constantly reiterate how wrong stealing, or “borrowing” something without permission is will have long term effects; to badger a child for climbing on furniture may help keep us sane, but is not chinuch, for the child will naturally outgrow this behavior as he grows.
Along these lines, the Piasznetsner Rebbe in "Chovot Hatalmidim" writes that when we teach a child, we must remember that we are teaching his soul. We are not training them to be the best children they can be, but rather we are trying to channel those characteristics which may make them both unique and infuriating to adults. For example, the obstinate child can learn to focus his resolve to maintaining a strict learning schedule that leaves little room for deviation.
So proper chinuch, while it must begin at a young age must always maintain its focus on the future, on the adult we want to mold. Further, as Rabbi Reiss says, the message often needs repeating multiple times, for we are not angels, and our yetzer horo, bad inclination, often gets in the way of our better judgment and knowledge.
Further, we are to remember the other difference between dibur and amirah. While dibur is often harsh, amirah, the softer tone, is what is most effective in chinuch. We must also bear in mind, Rabbi Sternbach points out in Taam Vodaath, that we speak with many voices. How we speak to a toddler, for example, will be different from how we speak to a teenager, or to the elderly. Repeating vayomer and emor alludes to these multiple voices.
Underlying all these ideas is the precept that the most effective framework for teaching is love. As the Ohr Doniel reminds us, while training another, we must push away, be harsh or discipline with the left, weaker hand, while drawing the child or student close with the right, stronger hand.
By far, the most effective tool for teaching and influencing the behavior of others is role modeling. Role modeling can have either positive or negative results, for children and others will do as I do, not do as I say. In fact, one of the greatest challenges in Jewish education, says Rabbi Reiss, is that we lose many students because their teachers act poorly.
While none of us is perfect, students can still recognize our struggle to improve ourselves and will give us the benefit of the doubt if they see us working on our character through our imperfections. This struggle for self improvement is in itself a great lesson to our students. As the Ksav Sofer says, if we “spare the rod” on ourselves and let ourselves get away with poor behavior without striving for personal improvement, we “will spoil the child” we are trying to educate and become a negative influence on his character.
If we check the exact terminology Rashi uses in explaining the double usage of emor, Rabbi Reiss notes an alternate translation. Rashi explains, as noted above, that the older Kohanim must teach and warn the younger ones about the dangers of ritual defilement. The words Rashi uses are, “lehazhir hagedolim al haketanim, the older should warn the younger.” But lehazhir can also mean to shed light, rendering the verse to mean that the older kohanim should shed light upon the younger ones.
Rabbi Reiss quotes the hassidic masters who interpret this beautifully to mean that the older generation, by the strength and shining example of their character, provides the guiding light that the younger generation should follow.
But rote learning of mitzvoth and habitually observing them, however praiseworthy, can remain cold. How can we impress our children with yiras shamayim, fear of Heaven, and imbue them with a love and awe at the majesty and beauty of Judaism, Yiddishkeit? This can only be taught by example, writes Rabbi Frand, for children will witness their parents’ joy as Shabbat arrives, they will see their parents recoil at the prospect of non kosher food, they will experience their home infused with the aura and beauty of a Torah observant home.
This, posits Rabbi Frand, is the reason of the double language, for it’s not enough to teach mitzvah observance; at least equally important is to model the love of mitzvoth that will inspire the next generation to continue the legacy.
Rabbi Keleman expands on this idea more fully in "To Kindle a Soul". Great parenting and great teaching, he writes, can only be accomplished through great parents and great teachers. What this means is that the parent and teacher must continue to struggle to elevate himself through continuing his own spiritual education. It is this struggle for greatness that is then passed on like a flaming torch to the next generation. Rabbi Keleman goes on to cite Maimonides who writes that when a child is old enough to hold his father’s hand, the father is to present himself “in his child” on the Temple Mount during the foot festivals.
How does the parent present himself in his child rather that with his child? It is actually the child presenting the parent, for the child reflects the spiritual achievements and failings of his parent and reveals who the parent actually is. Therefore we must ignite our own spiritual growth, writes Rabbi Keleman, so that we can faithfully pass the torch onto our children. Leave them a legacy that will inspire them to recognize and value what is truly important.
But no kohain and, by extension, no Jew lives in a vacuum, writes Rabbi Roberts in "Through the Prism of Torah". How we talk and how we act has a ripple effect on others, whether it is our families, our colleagues or our friends. Our verse says to tell the kohanim, the descendants of Aharon, how they are to act, for their actions reflect either positively or negatively on their forebears. Similarly, each Jew is descended from great ancestors, and our actions can bring glory or shame on our patriarchs.
Rabbi Frand develops this idea more fully by explaining the significance of placing this tenet of chinuch among the laws applying to only a small percentage of the population. We tend to easily get caught in the problem of “everybody else” when we place restrictions on our children. And who has more restrictions that the little kohain who can’t even take the shortcut through the cemetery with his friends. Yet, if the father lovingly explains his special status, that as a descendant of Aharon, he is privileged to serve Hashem, the child will understand that the restriction helps maintain his elevated status.
This same approach should apply to all Jewish parents in placing restrictions on our children, for we are all a “nation of priests”, descended from Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, and we must not besmirch this elevated status. This is incorporated in the idea of speaking softly to them, writes Rabbi Koffman in "Mishchat Shemen".
While we shouldn’t lose sight of the big picture, it is important to notice the details, for if we overlook transgressions when they are still small, we may allow them to grow into major problems, writes Rabbi Reiss citing the Noam Elimelech. We are building our children, and just as a small, faulty bolt may be in a strategic area and lead to the collapse of the entire structure, so must we be vigilant with the each trait within the little adult we are trying to build.
Two words from the Torah, vayomer and emor, enable us to build an entire structure and philosophy of education: Start early with a vision toward the end result, speak softly and individualize your speech, lead by example and with pride, validate your child and keep your eye on the details. Who needs Dewey and Skinner; we have the original, the Torah.