Parshas Shelach (5769)
In this week’s Torah portion, Parshas Shelach, the Torah states: “As the first of your kneading you shall set aside a loaf as a portion …” (Numbers 15:20). This verse, in its plain meaning, refers to the mitzvah of separating a portion of dough when baking bread or challah, and setting it aside for the Kohein (priest).
The great Chassidic Masters interpret this verse homiletically to reveal a whole new layer of meaning. The Hebrew word for “kneading”, aree-so-sei-chem, can also be taken to mean “your cradles”. And the Hebrew word for loaf, challah, which is spelled ches, lamed, hei, can also be understood as an acronym for three different stages in a child’s early development – ches (which has the numerical value of 8) alluding to circumcision which is performed on the eighth day; lamed (which has the numerical value of 30) alluding to the mitzvah of Redeeming the Firstborn, which (where applicable) is performed after the 30th day; and hei (which has the numerical value of 5) which alludes to the commandment to teach our child Chumash (Torah) when he reaches five years old (see Ethics of our Fathers 5:25). So that the verse would, in effect, be telling us, “From the very beginning - when your children are still “in their cradles” - make sure to set aside time to perform these early-childhood mitzvahs – circumcision, redemption of the firstborn, and teaching them Torah.”
When we take a look at the Jewish landscape across North America today, we find an interesting phenomenon. Whereas the majority of Jews – including the most liberal among them – will circumcise their child on the eighth day (a procedure, I might add, which is not exactly painless for the child or even for the parents who are watching), and some might possibly even “redeem their firstborn” if they were aware of this relatively rare, but easy-to-perform ritual, it is but a small minority of Jews who fulfill the Torah commandment to teach their children about Torah and Judaism in early childhood.
No Jewish parents (that I know of) have ever said, “Let’s not force this circumcision ritual on our little eight-day-old baby. We’ll wait until he gets older and more mature and can figure things out on his own – and we’ll let him decide.”
Yet when it comes to learning about Judaism, which, as Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm writes in his book The Royal Reach, is “a way of life that will determine whether existence has meaning, whether [the child] is rooted in history or not, whether morality is binding, whether hope and destiny are real or illusions” – this we let our child choose for himself when he gets older?! Does this make any sense?
Do you really think that our kids, after having gone through their formative years with hardly any Jewish education, are going to “pick it up on their own” one day when they’re in university? Is it any wonder that the assimilation rates for Jews in North America are skyrocketing? How can we hope to raise a generation of Jews who are proud of their Jewish identity to the point that they will always want to remain Jewish if they never actually learned when they were younger what it means to be Jewish?
Now I know that some Jewish parents will defend their position by saying that it is not healthy to “force” children to learn about their religion and to “stuff it down their throats” at an early age. Better let them choose to embrace it (or reject it) when they’re older and when it’s more meaningful – even though there is great risk that at that stage, when there are so “enticements” competing with Judaism for their attention, they will likely never opt to explore it all – than to “make” them study and practice Judaism as little kids when they would rather be doing something else.
The truth is, though, that this argument doesn’t hold water. As Rabbi David Orlofsky writes in a brilliant essay on raising Jewish children, in the book Jewish Matters:
As our children grow, we teach them how to say the blessings and prayers a Jew must recite. At this point some parent will complain, “That sounds like coercion!” This is the same parent who spends hours annoying his children with flash cards for math and language skills. Why is it that anything we care about that we force our children to learn is called education, but anything we don’t really care about is called coercion? If our children said they weren’t interested in learning spelling or grammar, would we say we’ll let them decide when they’re older? No way, because language skills are important. They’re part of the “real world”. Well, if Judaism isn’t important enough for us to instill when our children are young, we’ve already taught them how important we think it is. Less than “The Itsy, Bitsy Spider,” which every parent seems manic about their children learning with, of course, all the proper movements.
The Torah is teaching us here a powerful lesson in guaranteeing the continuity of the Jewish people. It is simply not enough to give our kids a circumcision at eight-days-old or even “Redemption of the Firstborn” at thirty-days-old in order for them to remain proud, dedicated Jews. While they are yet still “in their cradles”, we need to start teaching them all about Torah and mitzvah observance. This way, we can be sure that they will continue to be loyal Jews even when they get older and can decide for themselves.