On this evening of Kol Nidre, Leil Yom Kippur, we re-encounter a theme that seems to permeate our Yamim Nora’im, our High Holydays: Speech. Once a year, we stop to consider the commitments that we’ve made in the past out of either carelessness or excessive zeal. In the course of the day ahead, we will utter the vidui, verbal confession, before G-d. According to the Ramban, the Torah is referring to the mitzvah of teshuva, repentance, when it cites the mitzvah that “is in our hearts and mouths to fulfill.” The term, “in your mouths” is a reference to this vidui. Over this next day, we will also apologize for an insincere confession of the lips; while confessing, we are sensitive to the flaws in our own confessions!
The concern with what our lips utter is a continuation of the Rosh Hashanah refrain, recited during the Musaf prayer, that the offerings of our lips should “be sweet before G-d.” “Today is the world’s birthday!” we declare…..According to our tradition, however, the world itself was created on the 25th of Elul, while man – the centerpiece of creation – was formed six days later, on Rosh Hashanah. In other words, our focus on Rosh Hashanah as the world’s birthday is really an assertion of the centrality of man in creation.
When we are first introduced to Adam , we read: “And G-d fashioned man from the dust of the earth, and breathed into his nose the breath of life. Man became a living soul.” Our classic commentaries, including Onkelos and Ramban, explain the concept of a “living soul” as a reference to the gift of speech.
Misusing the Gift
Yet, prior to the arrival of Avraham onto the world stage, mankind does not use its power of speech in the optimal way. Perhaps the best illustration of this is the story of Migdal Bavel, in Chapter 11 of Bereishit:
11:1 The entire earth had one language with uniform words.
11:2 When [the people] migrated from the east, they found a valley in the land of Shinar, and they settled there.
The Yalkut Shimoni, on the Hebrew expression “Vayehi b’nas’am m’kedem” declares: “The people of that era were moving away from He who pre-dated the world, from G-d. They said, ‘We are neither interested in either Him nor His godliness.'”
What is the basis of this midrash? The Hebrew root kedem has two possible meanings: a) East b) Before. Now, although, the verse simply indicates that this group migrated from the east, the midrash understands that their ultimate agenda was to journey spiritually away from G-d – who came kodem, pre-dated the world.
The Culprit – Hebrew Language!
What was the context of this rebellion? The entire earth had one language with uniform words.
What was this language?
At least one view in the Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Megillah, identifies it as “the holy tongue” – namely, Hebrew. The “onenness” of the language, the uniform words, suggests the Talmud, is a hint at the origin of this language: G-d. As the single force that creates and drives the world, G-d’s language was the tower builders’ mode of communication. Though they were conversing in G-d’s language, they paradoxically utilized it in order to remove themselves from the shackles of Divine morality. This, says the great Gerer Rebbe, the Sfat Emet, was the great tragedy of the generation: The people didn’t understand that language is a mere garment for the internal, the spiritual. ‘This terrible abuse of Hebrew prompted G-d to grant them multiple languages so that they could not communicate. These consequences mirror their move away from G-d, the single moral force that governs the world.
We, the Jewish people, who appreciate that the gift of Lashon Hakodesh is the key to unlocking what G-d, the Yechudo shel Olam asks of us– are charged with the task of using Ivrit to tap into this oneness, this moral code.
SHA – Inspiring the Best
At the Seattle Hebrew Academy, we have chosen as this school year’s theme, “Inspire the Best”; from the educators to the administrative to the maintenance staff, we are a community of learners, of inward-looking people who rejoice but are not complacent with our achievements.
In line with this theme, and with the generous help of Keren Avichai and our local Samis Foundation, SHA has introduced the Tal Am curriculum in grades 1 to 5 this year. A complete environment of colorful textbooks, workbooks, and tools in the form of posters and CD’s, Tal Am focuses on language acquisition, not language instruction. Over the course of their years in our Lower School, we hope to have our children connect to Ivrit as their second language. Sure, this will make it easier to order a falafel on a family trip to Eretz Yisrael and to forge a common bond with over 5 ½ million fellow Jews in Medinat Yisrael. But we have something more in mind….
Teach Your Children Well
In a familiar set of verses, we read, “Teach you children Torah, when you are dwelling in your homes, walking along the way, lying down and rising up…So that your days and those of your children will be long on this land that the Lord your G-d has sworn to your forefathers…”
The midrash (Sifri) explains:
When a child begins to speak, his father speaks with him in the Holy tongue, and teaches him Torah. If he does not speak with him in the Holy tongue and does not teach him Torah, it is fit for the father to bury him….
The midrashic basis for this declaration is the long life promised when one teaches his child Torah; the inference is that if he does not, there is no guarantee of a long life for either parent or child.
Now this Sifri is very haunting and a bit depressing! If we teach our children in Ivrit, we and are children will live long – and if we don’t we’ll G-d forbid, die prematurely?
Is it true that the Chassidic communities of Williamsburg, teaching their children in Yiddish, have a lower life expectancy than their Torah-learning Israeli counterparts?
Creating an Authentic Connection
I’d like to offer a different approach: it’s not that the only language in which Torah can be taught is Ivrit. That’s simply not true. But, if I eventually hope to grasp the nuances of a Rashi in Chumash, of a Grah in Sefer Mishlei, a sensitivity, an intuition of the mechanics of Lashon Hakodesh, will give me a deeper appreciation of what the Biblical text means, and what our great commentaries were driving at when they what they said in their perushim. The greater each Jew’s appreciation of the profundity of what our Chachamim are saying, the greater the desire to connect to the source of that wisdom – to Kadmuno shel Olam, the One who pre-dated the world. The resultant inspired Jew – who organically connects to the Torah – continues living and teaching Torah to his children after him. This, I believe, is the continuity, the length of days, to which the Sifri is referring.
Tal Am introduces learning and critical analysis of Parsha, of classic Chumash commentaries in the spiraled Chumash curriculum; in a child-friendly way, it guides them to view the Chagim through the eyes of Rambam and other Chachamim.
Combined with our Boniyach mishna curriculum, Tal Am has the potential to give our students greater textual literacy for our challenging Middle School Judaic curriculum of Chumash, Navi, Dinim, Mishna and Gemara. We wish to inspire the best, to graduate students for whom an intimate connection with Hebrew will, as it did for our forefathers in Mizraim, hasten our redemption.
In the course we have set for ourselves, as I’ve said, we’ve had much generous support. But this is a long term investment. Maybe you have a child or grandchild in the Seattle Hebrew Academy, Maybe you’re an alumnus; maybe you are simply a Jewish person living in Seattle for whom the future of Seattle Jewry matters. Wherever you find yourself along the continuum, please consider investing with us in this quest to Inspire the Best – Jewishly – in our children.
Shabbat Shalom, and Gmar Chasima Tova.