Fill ‘Er Up

(originally published in the KC Jewish Chronicle)

Rabbi Greenstein had just settled into his pulpit in Portland. One Monday morning after services, he sits down for an hour to pore over his daily folio of Talmud.

At 9 am, the phone rings and the secretary answers. “Congregation Anshei Emet. Belle speaking.”

“Is the rabbi available?” asks Mr. Gould, a long-time congregant.

“I’m sorry, but the rabbi will be studying for another 15 minutes. Can he call you back?” Belle offers.

“Studying? I thought he’s already received his Semicha!” Mr. Gould exclaims. “What kind of Rabbi is he, anyway?!”

A major theme of the Kriat Shema is the mitzvah of learning Torah: “And these words, which I command you this day, shall be upon your heart”. In the next verse, we are bidden to “speak of them when you sit in your house, when you walk on the way, when you lie down and when you rise up.” (Devarim 6:6-7) The mitzvot and ethics of the Torah should be on our minds… all day long!

The order of these verses is troubling: Sandwiched between the mitzvah to contemplate (verse 6) and to speak words of Torah (second half of verse 7) is the command: “Veshinantam Livanecha” – “And you shall teach them to your children…” Why did the Torah not first introduce the mitzvah to learn and speak words of Torah; then, with that wisdom in hand, the verse could instruct a parent to teach Torah to his child. Why the intermingling of the two themes?

The problem is compounded by the Talmud in Tractate Kiddushin. It identifies the root of the word “Veshinantam”, as “shinun”, review. As Rashi explains, we are expected to review the mitzvot and research them in depth. If someone asks us a question, we should be able to respond immediately. However, if we examine the verse from which this phrase is taken, the Talmud has seemingly misinterpreted “Veshinantam Livanecha”. The Torah’s emphasis here is not on personal review and erudition, but on teaching Torah to our children!

Ramban (Nachmanides) notes that the Torah continually reminds us to ensure Jewish continuity. “It is an eternal statute – for all of your generations.” In another verse, we are told that Shabbat “is a sign between G-d and the Children of Israel forever.” This cannot be achieved, Ramban notes, unless we teach our children so that they thoroughly understand the mitzvot. This knowledge leads to practice and thereby guarantees our Jewish future.

Yet, as most of us realize, effective parenting involves more than telling our children what to do and what not to do. A good parent models proper behavior for his kids. If we want to guide how they, as Jews, should think and behave, we must put in the effort to become self-educated. To this end, we have to begin asking ourselves some tough questions: In our role as Jewish parents, do we settle for the distant memories of our Hebrew school education or do we seek out ways to access an advanced, adult understanding of our heritage? Given a choice of what to listen to on the way to work, what earns our attention, the daily banter about the Obama-McCain race — or an MP3 class on Jewish ethics?

If each one of us, daily, is re-fueling his spiritual gas tank, we ourselves can begin to live inspired Jewish lives. This may be the reason that the Torah interrupts the topic of personal study with the mitzvah to teach our children, then instantly returns to the theme of self-study. It could also be the reason that the Talmud identifies the term Veshinantam as personal review. Our connection to our own Jewish selves shapes the manner and quality of how we teach our children. Once we’re “hooked”, our enthusiasm will be contagious.

Jewish tradition teaches that the mitzvah to educate our “banim” is not simply an obligation to instill Torah values within our biological children. The Torah’s vision is much grander: It considers our students and congregants spiritual “banim”.

Rabbi Greenstein understood that rabbinic ordination is not a mere diploma received upon graduation; it’s a lifelong charge to continue learning. Through personal growth, we inspire others.

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