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THROUGH A CHILD'S EYES

by Rabbi Alexander Heppenheimer    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

A fundamental theme that runs through this week's Torah portion is that of the importance of learning Torah, and even more so of teaching the Torah to one's children.

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A fundamental theme that runs through this week's Torah portion is that of the importance of learning Torah, and even more so of teaching the Torah to one's children. This note is again sounded where the portion reaches its crescendo, with the first paragraph of the Shema prayer and its affirmation of our belief in Hashem: "These words. . .shall be upon your heart. You shall teach them thoroughly to your children. . ." (Deuteronomy 6:6-7). It would seem from the language of the verse that the Torah places personal study and teaching on the same level.

Similarly, it is quite noteworthy that, in the commentaries' official enumeration of the 613 mitzvot, personal study is included in the same mitzvah with teaching. Furthermore, the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) opens its section on "Laws of Torah Study" with the laws of teaching Torah to one's children, and only then moves on to the laws of studying Torah oneself!

Another curious point we note in this connection is that Torah study is the only mitzvah that applies to children on a Biblical level; training children to perform other mitzvot (such as prayer, eating matzah on Passover, etc.) is only a rabbinical enactment. Again, we may ask, why does the Torah make this distinction?

The answer is that there is a basic difference between Torah study and the observance of other mitzvot. Although mitzvot are meant to be performed purely because G-d said so, if (for example) someone blew the shofar on Rosh Hashanah just to show off his musical skills, the mitzvah has nevertheless been properly fulfilled. But learning Torah without giving Hashem a thought - studying it as one would study math or physics - is not considered Torah study at all. In fact, the Talmud quotes Hashem as saying that the destruction of the holy Temple, which we commemorated just this past week with the mournful fast of Tisha B'av, came about "because they did not make a blessing prior to learning Torah" (Tractate Nedarim 81a). The Jewish people of that time failed to see the Torah as G-dly wisdom worthy of a blessing, and instead treated it as just another science.

To make matters worse, one who learns Torah simply as any other science is prone to the mentality where he thinks that there is only one correct understanding - his own, so that if anyone disagrees with his approach, then they are going against the Torah itself! This is a terrible distortion of what the Torah is all about. The goal of Torah study is to ascertain G-d's thoughts, not to make G-d's wisdom subordinate to our own.

The emphasis on children's Torah study is meant to remind us that we have to approach the Torah with the mindset of a child - not merely as an intellectual exercise and certainly not with a "know-it-all" attitude, but with the unquestioning, supra-rational devotion to Hashem that is an innate characteristic of even the youngest Jewish child.

This same concept is expressed in a Mishnah in this week's chapter of Ethics of Our Fathers (4:25): "One who studies Torah as a child, to what is he comparable? To writing with ink on fresh paper. And one who studies Torah when older, to what is he comparable? To writing with ink on erased paper." Clearly, the Mishnah is not trying to scare off people who discovered Judaism and Torah study late in life, telling them that their efforts will be unsuccessful. Rather, the Mishnah is teaching us that there are two attitudes with which one might approach Torah study, but that only one, the "childlike" approach, guarantees that regardless of biological age, the Torah will be absorbed into one's mind and personality as surely as "ink on fresh paper".

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Rabbi Alexander Heppenheimer, a graduate of Yeshivas Tomchei Tmimim of Brooklyn, resides in Atlanta.

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