“The Mandate for Parental Involvement in Jewish Education”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Va’etchanan, we encounter not only the Ten Commandments, but also the famed Shema prayer, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our G-d, the Lord is one.” (Deuteronomy 6:4)

The first paragraph of the Shema prayer begins with the words: “V’ah’havtah ayt Hashem Eh’lo’keh’cha.” This verse calls on every Jew to love G-d with all one’s heart, all one’s soul and all one’s might. The Shema prayer continues: “V’hah’yu had’vah’rim hah’ay’leh,” and these words which I command you today shall be upon your heart, “V’shee’nan’tam l’vah’neh’cha,” and you shall teach them to your children, “V’dee’bar’ta bam,” and you shall speak to them dilligently, “B’shiv’t’cha b’vay’teh’cha, uv’lech’tcha vah’deh’rech,” when you sit in your home, and when you go on your way, “Uv’shach’b’cha uv’ku’mehcha,” when you lie down and when you rise up.

Allow me to focus on the phrase, V’shee’nan’tam l’vah’neh’cha, which serves as the Torah’s mandate requiring Jews to educate their children. Of all the 613 mitzvot of the Torah, perhaps the most vital for the continuity and continuance of the Jewish people is the mitzvah of V’shee’nan’tam l’vah’neh’cha, and you shall teach your children. Jewish education is the lifeline and the lifeblood of Jewish life. After all, it is Jewish education that has proven, throughout Jewish history, to be the most effective method of educating large numbers of people over long periods of time to ethical and moral living. There is almost no chance of Jews surviving as Jews without our people’s intense and zealous commitment to Jewish education for the next generation.

An analysis of the verse V’shee’nan’tam l’vah’neh’cha reveals a host of profound insights. The root of the word, V’shee’nan’tam, can be traced to the word shana which, like the Hebrew word sh’nayim–two–means to repeat, over and over, implying that Jewish learning and rituals must become a constant of a Jew’s life and must be ingrained into the very essence of the Jew. This statement underscores that for continuity, real continuity, there needs to be a sincere commitment to the rituals of Jewish life.

An alternate root of the word “V’shee’nan’tam” may be the root-word Shah’nan, shin nun nun, which means sharp. Jewish education must be intense, sharp, meaningful, exciting, and cutting edge.

But, perhaps most of all, the verse boldly declares: V’shee’nan’tam l’vah’necha, you shall teach your children! Almost all parents today pawn off their children’s education to professionals–professional teachers, schools, yeshivot, day schools. With this verse, the Torah underscores that the basic, bottom line obligation of the parent is V’shee’nan’tam l’voh’nehcha, you shall teach your children. Even though parents in effect pass the baton to the professional teachers, the buck ultimately stops with the parent. In fact, the Hebrew word for parent, horeh, comes from the word moreh–to teach. A parent is a teacher, in fact, the primary teacher! Consequently, if the school fails, the school is not at fault, the parent is at fault. If the teacher fails to teach properly, the responsibility lies with the parent, not the teacher. It is the parent’s job to be on top of the goings-on at school, to be well-informed about the effectiveness of each teacher and correct the “miseducation” that often takes place in the professional settings. While it is certainly true that children spend many hours in formal educational settings, the would-be “quality time” spent at home with parents is far more critical in value in terms of “real” education.

The Midrash Rabbah in Genesis 27:22 relates that in the first century all the idolaters gathered about a Cynic philosopher named Oenomaus of Gadara and asked him: Can we defeat the nation of Israel in battle? He replied: Go out and make the rounds of all their synagogues and houses of study. If you find children in them, chirping away (while studying Torah) you will be unable to defeat them. For this is what their father [Isaac] promised them (Genesis 27:22): “The voice is the voice of Jacob”–as long as the voice of Jacob is found in the synagogues (and houses of study), the hands will not be the hands of Esau. But if not, “The hands are the hands of Esau,” and you will be able to defeat them.

There’s no such thing as overdosing on Jewish education. There’s no such thing as being too zealous or too extreme about Jewish education. I’ve often said that if parents aspire for their child to be “passionate” about Judaism, due to the blandishments and distractions of secular society, we’ll be happy if they wind up moderates. If parents aim for their child to be moderate about their Judaism, they’ll wind up indifferent. And if the parents themselves are indifferent, their grandchildren might wind up, G-d forbid, Episcopalian! One never outgrows one’s need for Jewish education–it must be perpetually enhanced.

For those who are not fortunate enough to be able to send their children to an intensive Jewish educational setting, which is so desperately needed today, keep in mind the Torah’s admonition: V’shee’nan’tam l’vah’neh’cha. Take ten, fifteen minutes, out of your busy schedule, twice or three times a week, to discuss Torah issues with your child. Even if your child is away at college, call and discuss Jewish or Torah-related issues, so the child will clearly understand how important these values are to his/her parents. This practice, of course, can enhance those who do obtain strong Jewish educations as well.

Please, don’t compromise on Jewish education. The alternative is very much Jewish oblivion.

May you be blessed.