Teaching tradition and Torah

Parshat EKEV: ‘You shall teach them to your children, to discuss with them while you sit in your home, while you walk on the way, when you retire and when you arise…’ (Deut. 11:19)

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August 6, 2015 14:36
Painting by Yoram Raanan

Painting by Yoram Raanan. (photo credit: YORAM RAANAN)

Painting by Yoram Raanan; www.yoramraanan.com

With what attitude are we to convey our Tradition to the next generation? The Book of Deuteronomy is the farewell address of Moses our Master Teacher to the Israelites, just before he gives over the baton of leadership to Joshua, his faithful disciple and chosen successor.

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In last week’s portion of Va’et’hanan we read the Shema, the very foundation of Torah-faith which insists that YHVH the God of Love is the one and only force above all creative forces in the Universe, and that this non-corporeal God to whom we (Israel) vow fealty will eventually be accepted by all the families of the earth.

The passage continues to command of every Israelite absolute love and dedication to this God, as well as the necessity of conveying this faith-foundation to the next generation (Deut. 6:4-9, especially Veshinantam levanecha; Deut. 6:7). This is known as the first paragraph of the Shema prayer, and has been incorporated within our daily prayers each morning and evening.

Interestingly, this week’s portion of Ekev contains what has become the second paragraph of the Shema, likewise part of our daily liturgy morning and evening (Deut. 11:13-21). However, there are some marked differences between these two paragraphs: Firstly, the first paragraph is addressed to every individual Jew, who is expected to commit him/herself to a unique God ideal; the second paragraph, however, is addressed to the entire nation, and whereas the first is singular person, “you shall love,” ve’ahavta, the second paragraph addresses the entire nation in the plural, you (plural) shall hearken, tishme’u, guaranteeing that were the entire nation to become totally committed to the God ideal, then rain and produce will be plentiful and Israel will prosper.

A fascinating theological truth emerges from this first distinction in the paragraphs. The first paragraph enjoins total commitment to a God of love – but does not promise personal prosperity as a guaranteed result.

Yes, virtue is its own reward, and one who lives a loving life dedicated to a God of love will most assuredly reap the spiritual benefits of love; but there is no promise of material gain. Only if the entire Jewish nation becomes lovingly committed do we have a right to anticipate the participation of nature in a renewed world order of climatic cooperation for successful harvests.

The second distinction in the paragraph is with regard to the manner in which we are to convey God’s commandment to the next generation. The first paragraph reads: veshinantam levanecha, usually translated “you shall teach them diligently to your children.”

The root word of shinan is shen or tooth, which connotes “biting into,” sharpness: Communicate the commandments to your child, strongly and sharply.

Alternatively, teeth (shen, shinayim) enable chewing, so that food becomes more digestible. Indeed, “shin” connotes repetition, learning by rote until you memorize the text and it becomes embedded within your mind. In whichever way you interpret veshinantam, the idea behind the verb pictures a younger generation that “learns” without actively participating, never having been given the opportunity of questioning or modifying the lesson: the commandments are to be accepted because of the authority of the teacher. The source material must be “ingested,” almost spoon-fed; at best it is never really analyzed or altered in any way by the student, who is a passive partner in the learning process.

The second paragraph of the Shema likewise expresses the vital importance of conveying the commandments to one’s children, but with completely different phraseology: “You shall teach them (velimadetem, the verb lamod simply meaning to teach or to learn – and with only slightly different vocalization the phrase can be translated “you shall learn them” (the commandments) with your progeny. Note well: The two paragraphs suggest two opposing educational attitudes – either one speaks sharply to one’s student or progeny or one learns gently with one’s student or progeny. And in the phrase “velimadetem et bneichem,” “you shall learn with your children,” the word et for the objective case is translated as “yat” in the Aramaic translation and as the Greek “sun” which means “with” when it appears in the Greek Septuagint or the translation of Aquila: “You shall learn with your children,” a cooperative, two-way exercise.

Allow me to attempt to explain the differences in phraseology and meaning. In the first paragraph of the Shema, when the text is dealing with an individual parent who is God-enthused and mitzva- (commandment-) inspired, perhaps he/she can speak sharply and excitedly to the youth, and he/she will still be motivated by the parents’ commitment, passion and sincerity.

But in the second paragraph, when we are concerned with an entire nation’s ability to hand over the traditions to the following generation, it becomes mandatory for the parent to teach with gentle compassion.

The learning experience dare not be an authoritative lesson from the elder to the younger but rather the collaboration of an intergenerational havruta studying together. The point is not for the child to “continuate” because the parent wants him or her to, or even worse, because the parent commands it, but rather because the child wants to. It must become in the eyes of the children their Torah, not only their parents’ Torah, because they, too, claim ownership of the Torah.

This was the critical importance of the Oral Law, which was absent from the first failed, smashed Tablets and came only with the Second Tablets on Yom Kippur. The Oral Law, the interpretation of the Sages of each generation, transforms Torah from God’s oneway gift to Israel to a collaborative “conversation” between God and Israel, to include Israel’s added gift to God by making His Torah viable and relevant to every generation. “God’s children eternalized His Torah.” 

Shabbat shalom/

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone institutions and the chief rabbi of Efrat. His latest book, The Living Tree: Studies in Modern Orthodoxy, is available from Maggid Books, a division of Koren Publishers Jerusalem.

“For the Lord your God is bringing you to a good land, a land with brooks of water, fountains and depths, that emerge in valleys and mountains...” (Deuteronomy 8:7) (Painting by Yoram Raanan; www.yoramraanan.com; www.facebook.com/RaananArt)


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