Chukat: Singing with the Children

When to sing with them and when to let them sing solo.

Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran,

Judaism מקהלת האבות השכולים
מקהלת האבות השכולים
צילום: INN:RS

When my children were small, they all attended school where I was the principal.  As you can imagine, while I cared about all my students, I took delight in finding opportunities to check on them. Walking the halls, I was sure to peek through their classrooms' door windows to see that all was well.  I managed to find myself on the playground during recess time to be sure they were safe (and God save the teacher who wasn't watching the swings and one of my little ones fell!)  

Although my position was unique, I was like every parent in wanting to be close and to protect my children.  The joy I felt being close to them sometimes astonished me.  Yet, I found that my joy increased the more independent they became. 

Only when they were independent did I feel my greatest joy as a parent.  For it was then that I was blessed to witness them safe and secure beyond my closeness; it was then that they were able to manage and accomplish on their own.

As it was with my children, so it was with the students I’ve taught.  I cherish the moments when I reviewed text and ideas with them but I was astonished when they were able to take what I have shared with them and discover something new and unique.

It is beyond remarkable when we, as parents and teachers, are able to see our students and children be independent and take pride in their own accomplishments and achievements.  When that day comes, we can rightfully congratulate ourselves on a job well done.  For as parents, our goal is to guide our children to be wise, independent individuals capable of living lives of worth and meaning. 

As teachers, we do not seek to create “data machines” capable of regurgitating material but thoughtful learners capable of learning on their own, capable of knowing where to look, how to resolve textual difficulties; capable of opening up Chumash, Navi or Mishnah and feel confident and comfortable with it, even though the rebbi or morah are not there holding their hand.   

Not long ago, a mother and father wrote to a rabbi, saying they waited all these years for the day when their son, who had always been a caring and good student, “would pick up a Gemarah on his own on a Shabbos afternoon.”  That day finally arrived just as their son was getting ready to graduate 12th grade.

That school succeeded!  Those parents succeeded!

* * *

There were two great songs recorded in the Torah, the more famous being Az Yashir.  “Then sang Moses and B’nai Yisrael this shirah…”, praising the splitting of the yam suf and allowing the Children of Israel to be free at last from their bondage in Mitzrayim.  

The other, less well known, is tucked away near the end of Chukas, a short song of gratitude for the uninterrupted supply of water (the well!) throughout the forty years sojourn in the desert.  “Then Israel sang this song; ‘Come up, O well, announce it! Well that the princes dug, that the nobles of the people excavated, through a lawgiver, with their staff. A gift from the Wilderness.” The song then traces the path of the well /water that followed the nation, no matter how high the elevation or difficult the terrain. The gift went from the valley to the heights. And from the heights to the valley in the field of Moab, at the top of the peak, overlooking the surface of the wilderness.

As they sang, Israel finally understood that they could never have made it without God’s constant and consistent be’er –well – supply of water.  They are about to enter the Land, and are leaving God a note of thanks, very much like the bride tucking a thank you note for her parents before leaving for the Chupah, or the student for his rebbi before graduation. 

Lovely… but why isn’t Moses singing as well?  “Az yashir Moses and B’nai Yisrael…” The Az Yashir we recite daily was a communal song of the entire nation. Why is Moses excluded from this song of gratitude?  Some, including the Midrash Tanchuma suggest it is because he was punished on account of the well. That misdeed led to Moses not being allowed to enter the Land of Israel.

But perhaps there is another, less negative, explanation.  Indeed, it may well be for a very positive reason, reflecting well on both Moses and K’lal Yisrael. The Shemen HaTov cited by Rabbi Yissocher Frand notes that Az Yashir was sung at the outset of Israel’s long journey from Mitzrayim.  The Promised Land was a long, hard forty years away.  But the ‘Song of the Well’ was celebrated at the end of that long journey. Throughout that journey, Moses taught many important lessons, lessons that B’nai Yisrael fortunately absorbed.  

When they first escaped Mitzrayim,Egypt, the people were burdened with a slave mentality; they were like little children who had to be taught everything, even how to say “thank you” for their deliverance.   Thus, az yashir Moses and B’nai Yisrael.  But then, forty years hence, after hardships and joys, after the lessons of Sinai, including more than half of Torah mitzvoth bein adam l’chaveiro, with countless lessons of gratitude and appreciation conveyed everywhere in the Torah it was “graduation” time, it was time to step forward as a proud, independent nation. 

It was time for Moses, as a parent and teacher would, to sit back confident and gratified that the children will do the right thing, they will say “thank you” to God. 

They have learned to learn on their own.

Would it have been “easier” for Moses to sing with the children?  Of course.  It is always “easier” for parents to “do for” their children; it is always easier for the teacher to tell the student what he or she needs to know.  But how much more joyous, how much more satisfying, how much more meaningful to have brought children and students to the place where they can “do it themselves”?

So, by this understanding, Moses’s name not appearing in the Song of the Well is anything but a negative.  It is a grand positive.  Moses, as the archetypal parent and teacher, has shown how to raise children and teach students.  He is shepping the nachas!

Forty years later, Moses is not simply hearing a repetition of the song he led B’nei Yisrael in singing.  He is hearing a new song.  And that is the greatest joy of the parent and the teacher, to hear his or her child or student sing a “new song”, a song that could never have been sung without their love, guidance and faith – faith in the child to one day walk forward as an individual!

In honor of our wonderful grandson’s Adir Farbman graduation from Yeshiva Darchei Torah high school… With much pride and joy!