Weekly Torah Commentary — BO January 3, 2014

Exodus 10:1 – 13:16

In this week’s parsha, the subject of children and the duty of parents to educate them is addressed three times. As Jews we believe that to defend a country you need an army, but to defend a civilization you need education. Freedom is lost when it is taken for granted. Unless parents pass on their memories, their values, their experiences and, yes, even their mistakes, to the next generation the children have no foundation to build their own future.

The way the Torah emphasizes the fact that children must ask questions is intriguing. Two of the three passages in our parsha speak of this:

And when your children ask you, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’ then tell them, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when he struck down the Egyptians.'” (Ex. 12:26-27)

In days to come, when your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ say to him, ‘With a mighty hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. (Ex. 13:14)

There is another passage later in the Torah that also speaks of question asked by a child:

In the future, when your son asks you, “What is the meaning of the stipulations, decrees and laws the Lord our God has commanded you?” tell him: “We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. (Deut. 6:20-21)

The other passage in today’s parsha, the only one that does not mention a question, is:

On that day tell your son, ‘I do this because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.’ (Ex. 13:8)

You may recognize these four questions as those asked during the Pesach Seder each year.

Now, many traditional cultures see it as the task of a parent or teacher to instruct, guide or command. The task of the child is to obey. “Children should be seen, not heard,” goes the old English proverb. Socrates, who spent his life teaching people to ask questions, was condemned by the citizens of Athens for corrupting the young.

In Judaism the opposite is the case. It is a religious duty to teach our children to ask questions. That is how they grow.

Judaism posits that a faith based on asking questions, sometimes deep and difficult ones, is a faith that will grow. Consider: “Shall the Judge of all the earth not do justice?” asked Abraham. “”Why, Lord, why have you brought trouble on this people?” asked Moses. “Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease?” asked Jeremiah. The book of Job is largely constructed out of questions, and God’s answer consists of four chapters of yet deeper questions: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? … Can you catch Leviathan with a hook? … Will it make an agreement with you and let you take it as your slave for life?”

Judaism is not a religion of blind obedience. Indeed, did you know that in a religion of 613 commandments, there is no Hebrew word that means “to obey.” Instead of a word meaning “to obey,” the Torah uses the verb Shema, untranslatable into English because it means [1] to listen, [2] to hear, [3] to understand, [4] to internalise, and [5] to respond. Within the very structure of Jewish thought is the concept that our greatest responsibility and privilege is to seek to understand the will of God, not just to obey blindly.

Judaism views intelligence as God’s greatest gift to humanity. According to Rashi the phrase that God made man “in His image, after His likeness,” means that God gave us the ability “to understand and discern.” The very first of our requests in the weekday Amidah is for “knowledge, understanding and discernment.” In fact, to many peoples’ surprise, there is actually a specific blessing prescribed for when a Jew sees a great non-Jewish scholar because unlike the narrow-mindedness of some other religions, Judaism recognizes and acknowledges wisdom in other cultures.

Jews have always placed a very high priority on education and specifically on how parents are to teach their children. The Torah highlights this at the most powerful and poignant juncture in Jewish history – the Exodus – by instructing us tell our children in every generation about our liberation. Encourage your children to ask, question, probe, investigate, analyze, explore. Liberty means freedom of the mind, not just of the body. Those who are confident of their faith need fear no question. It is only those who lack confidence, who have secret and suppressed doubts, who are afraid.

It is essential as well to teach our children that not every question has an immediate answer and to learn to be comfortable with the “unanswered”. But in teaching our children to ask and keep asking, Judaism positions the next generation to progress, to seek, to inquire and to discover. This, some have said, is why there are so many Jewish Nobel Prize winners. It all started at home.

In Tune with Torah this week = are you afraid to ask questions about fundamental issues of life? Purpose this year to become a seeker; one who is not hesitant to ask, to consider opposing views, to see if in fact in many areas, there is truth hidden in the thoughts and wisdom of someone with whom you disagree. It’s a delightful and enlarging experience to be open to knowledge within the framework of your secure relationship with the God of Israel.

Shabbat Shalom

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