Translated and Adapted by Braha Bender
This week’s parasha quotes the Almighty commanding Moshe to, "Say to the Kohanim, the sons of Aharon, and tell them…" (Leviticus 21:1). The phrase is not redundant, explain our sages. Instead, the repeated message of, “Say to…and tell them…” comes to remind adults to be aware of their responsibility to educate their children.
One of the most fundamental concepts to structure the Jewish life is the mitzvah (commandment) to educate our children. The Hebrew word for childhood education, chinuch, means much more than helping children to amass knowledge. Chinuch means initiating children into the values and practices you hope they will maintain for a lifetime.
This obligation is emphasized in the well-known Jewish prayer, the Shema. After the initial declaration of the Almighty’s sovereignty and unity, the Shema goes on to describe the many ways in which we are to integrate these facts through our daily lives, including, "You shall teach them thoroughly to your children" (Devarim 6:7). The Jewish relationship with the Almighty does not end with the service of the individual; the individual is responsible to initiate his children into this relationship as well.
The Almighty praises Avraham (Abraham) by saying, "For I have loved him, for he commands his children and his household after him that they keep the way of Hashem, doing charity and justice…" (Genesis 18, 19). The literal translation of the phrase “for I have loved him” is “for I have known him”. Rashi explains that the phrase "for I have known him" is a "term of endearment". The Almighty expressed his tremendous affection for Avraham Avinu by describing how our forefather educated his children to continue the relationship he had forged with Him.
Avraham possessed many extraordinary qualities. The first individual in human history to forge an intimate relationship with the Divine, he was willing to undergo any degree of self-sacrifice to maintain his loyalty to his Creator. The spiritual path forged by Avraham formed the pillar of chesed, lovingkindness, one of the spiritual pillars upholding the universe. Despite all this, though, the quality the Almighty chose to praise him for was the fact that he educated his children to continue in his ways.
Avraham’s behavior taught his progeny to put special emphasis on educating the future generations about their heritage. Since then, the duty and privilege of chinuch has formed one of the primary focuses of the Jewish nation. The existence of Torah and mitzvos amongst the Jewish People is based on their continuity from generation to generation as the Torah emphasized in the verse, "Torah tziva lanu Moshe – The Torah that Moses commanded us is the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob" (Deuteronomy 33:4). Parents must appreciate their importance as links in a chain linking all the way back to Avraham, the generation that stood at Mount Sinai, and all the other righteous generations of Jews up until this very day and until the end of history.
Jewish parents must teach their children Torah from the dawn of their childhood. Torah study beginning at infancy, conveyed in an understandable manner for every age and stage, has been Jewish practice throughout time. For thousands of years before gentile civilization dreamed of providing such a sophisticated exercise as education for little boys and girls, the Talmudic phrase, "infants of the study-house" already slid easily off of the Hebrew tongue.
A good educator is compared to a cup full to overflowing. As long as you continue to pour liquid into the cup, the liquid overflows to nourish everything in its immediate surroundings. The Jewish educator is never stale, never boring. Rather, his constant investment in his own continuing education breeds an enthusiasm and wisdom that spills over into the lives of everyone around him, most especially his students.
There is no one who is free of the responsibility to monitor his influence on his surroundings by virtue of the simple fact that no one can avoid having that influence. We touch others in everything we think, say, and do, whether physically or spiritually. Parents and teachers carry this responsibility even more so. The best thing we can do to make our children into wonderful people is to work on being wonderful people ourselves.