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A Child's First Word

06/07/2019 08:50:58 AM


What was the first word your child learned to say?

What is the first word you wanted your child to learn to say?

We take our children’s education very seriously. We recognize our responsibility to ensure that they are equipped to live successful lives. And we know that education is key to achieving this.

But how should we educate them? Who to entrust to educate them? When to begin their education? What should be our priorities?

As Jews, education about our faith and tradition is essential. The motto of my children’s school expresses this beautifully: “Judaism is not a subject; it's a way of life.” Jews consider the Torah as a manual for how to live a successful life. 

There are two general categories in education: 1) Information, 2) Values.

- Information is processed through the mind. Values are understood with the heart.

- Information answers the 'what' and 'how' about life. Values answer the 'why' of life.

- Information must be memorized and constantly reviewed, and is subject to being forgotten. Values become ingrained and internalized, becoming second nature.

- Information is temporal and requires constant updating. Values are essential and eternal.

Values provide the invaluable context behind information. When we teach without the context, the information may end up appearing meaningless. In Jewish education, too many children grew up to find that the Judaism they were taught, from the laws to the traditions, seem devoid of meaning.

A few years ago, I went to the parent-teacher orientation evening for my son’s class. The Judaic Studies teacher opened up as follows: “My goal this year is to teach your child three things: 1) To love G-d, 2) To love the Torah, 3) To love each person.” I sat there nervously thinking to myself, “What about Mishnah? Talmud? History? Study skills? Language? I wanted my son to become a talmid-chacham!” As the year progressed, my son was not only learning a lot of all those topics, but he was immensely enjoying himself. By the end of the year, he had completed one of his most successful – and enjoyable – years in school.

That teacher knew what he was doing. Yes, he taught all about the Jewish laws and customs, and he taught endless pages of Talmudic discourse. But, more importantly, he gave his students an appreciation into ‘the rest of the story’. They began to understand what is the point of all this information. They understood that G-d created them by design, out of love, with a specific purpose that only they can fulfill. They understood that G-d created the world for a reason, with a goal in mind. They understood that life can be complex, that figuring out right from wrong can be challenging, and that choosing right over wrong can be even more difficult. They understood that they were very fortunate that G-d gave them the Torah to guide them along their path of trying to live a meaningful life. They understood that life was a precious gift, and that they should embark on a never-ending quest to live life correctly.

I doubt my son remembers all the information he learned that year. But I know that he has been profoundly shaped by the values he learned.

The Talmud asks, “When a child begins to talk, what should be the first thing we teach them to say?”

The Talmud’s answer is a rare instance where there isn’t any dispute and everyone unanimously agrees. We don’t begin by teaching the child any specifics of Jewish law, such as Shabbat, kosher, prayer etc. Instead, we teach the child two verses from the Torah:

  1. Torah Tzivah Lanu Moshe Morashah Kehillas Yaakov - The Torah that Moses commanded us is an inheritance for the congregation of Jacob.
  2. Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad – Listen, oh Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is one.

These two verses encapsulate everything a child essentially needs to know for life:

G-d exists - There is only one G-d - One G-d who designed and created everything - G-d created our world with a purpose in mind - G-d doesn’t make mistakes - Everything that happens is for a reason - G-d chose you to play a necessary role in the world - G-d gave you the Torah - The Torah is your inheritance, your birthright - You can discover your unique mission in life through the Torah - You have your own connection with the Torah and with G-d - The Torah is the manual for all mankind - All humans are created in the image of G-d - All humans are on the same team - Behind all the externals we are all one - You are a gift to the universe, and so is everyone else - You are an intelligent species - Every move you make affects the rest of the world - Chose wisely.

These are the messages that lie in between the lines of these two verses. If a child is taught to appreciate these values, then their life is guaranteed to be a smashing success, no matter how much they do or don’t ‘succeed’ later in life. But if a child is not taught to appreciate these values, then no matter how much they ‘succeed’ later in life, a painful emptiness might eventually catch up to them, and no amount of ‘success’ can ever patch-up the existential wounds of meaninglessness or worthlessness.

Being a mentsch will always be more important than being a mathematician. Being sincere will always be more important than being a scientist. Practicing love will always be more important than practicing law. Being confident will always be more important than being powerful. Being happy will always be more important than being wealthy.

We all want our children to live prosperous lives. Of course, we want to equip them with the necessary information and skills to succeed. But we must always remember how to balance this out with the even more important values of life.

The wisest of all people, King Solomon, said it best (Proverbs 22:6): “Train a child according to his way; even when he grows old, he will not turn away from it.” Amid all your educational goals, be sure to make a strong emphasis on those things which never become dated, so that your child can live by those teachings for the length of his days.

Fri, April 19 2024 11 Nisan 5784