Telling Children – Ha’azinu 5784

D'var Torah | Deuteronomy

Stylistically, biblical Hebrew frequently includes phrases that are parallels, especially in the poetic portions. And this is the simple and likely explanation for the verse (Deuteronomy 32:7): “Ask your father, he will inform you; your elders, they will tell you.” The same pattern repeats throughout the poem called the “Song of Moses.”  The meaning is clear enough. Israelites ought to turn to their ancestors, fathers or elders, for confirmation that God has been the protector of Israel. Even so, there may still be a subliminal teaching that bears consideration.

In the Torah, fathers are the primary source for education. It is the father’s responsibility to train the child and rehearse the central teachings of the Torah. It is the father’s responsibility to answer his son’s questions about the exodus from Egypt (Exodus 13:14). It is the father’s responsibility to explain the laws of Passover to his son (Deuteronomy 6:20). And it is the father who must speak to his son about all the commandments, whether at home or abroad (Deuteronomy 6:7). It was in the Rabbinic Period that authorities began to address the question regarding the training of children who have no fathers. It was Joshua ben Gamla (Bava Batra 12a) who organized a school system for orphans or for children whose fathers could not fulfill their biblical responsibilities. In such cases, teachers, that is, elders, stood in for fathers.

Over time, the teaching of all children has been relegated to schools and the role of parents in Jewish education has been surrendered almost altogether. That is unfortunate. Even if fathers (and mothers) are no longer the primary educators of Jewish children, they still fulfill the critical role of modelling Jewish behavior for their children to follow.  This is what Rabbi Haym Soloveitchik describes as “mimesis.” Children learn from what they observe. Thus, children who see parents observe Shabbat learn the importance of Shabbat and the means by which that observance is expressed. Children raised in homes where the dietary laws are practiced will tend to keep to kosher. Children who see parents take time to pray learn the value of prayer in their lives.

Children may no longer ask their parents about Judaism. Nonetheless, it is the parents’ task to tell: by word and by deed.


Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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