Nitzavim/Vayelech – Do As I Say – Uh, Rather As I Do
In Parshat Vayelech, the second of the two Parshiot we read this Shabbat, the Mitzvah of Hakhel is instructed. This is Mitzvah #612 as they appear in the Torah, with only one Mitzvah follwoing it, the Mitzvah for every Jew to write (or have written) a Torah scroll. After every Shemitta cycle, during Sukkot following the seventh year, the king reads out portions of the book of Deuteronomy to the multitudes of the nation of Israel. “Gather the nation, the men, women and children as well as the proselyte among you, in order that they should hear and in order that they will learn and revere the Lord your G-d and they will observe all the words of this Torah. (31:12)
Rashi quotes the Talmud, questioning why the young children need attend this gathering. The adults, and even the older children, have what to learn from this experience. The words of the verses speak to them. But why is it necessary to have the young children participate in this great gathering? If anything, the children will prevent the parents from giving their full focus to the lesson at hand. “Mommy I’m hungry, can I have another cookie?” “Chaim pinched me!” “Owch! Sheina stepped on my toe.” You get the picture.
The Talmud states that the reason the Torah commands bringing the children is to confer merit upon those who bring them. In other words, parents get bonus points for schlepping their children along with them instead of arranging for babysitting. To provide this opportunity for bonus points, the Torah commanded this as a Mitzvah.
The Kli Yakar, in his comment to this Mitzvah, struggles to accept this. The children become objects of a Mitzvah! Essentially they are burdens, according to the response of the Talmud. Would it be meritorious to schlepp heavy rocks as well, simply because it makes traveling more difficult? How about hiring a bulldozer to chop up the road ahead, making travel very bumpy and uncomfortable? Surely if one continues despite obstacles in the path he has greater merit than one who has a smooth ride.
The Kli Yakar has a very lengthy explanation, interpreting the Mitzvah of this gathering as an inspiration for penitence. The children are brought as merit-seekers for the parents. If the parents are not worthy of atonement they should be acquitted in merit of their children who are pure and innocent.
Nevertheless, the simple reading of the Talmud asserts that bringing the children will in itself be a source of merit. We need to understand what this means.
Interestingly, the commentary of the Tosafot on this passage of the Talmud (Chagigah 3a) notes that this is the source for parents bringing children to shul. Now what is that supposed to mean? The fellow in the next row can’t concentrate on his prayers because of the children whispering. The guy sitting directly in front of the child keeps getting the back of his chair kicked and is having a challenging time controlling his temper. You know what that feels like! Remember that flight…?
Sure, I would love for the parents to have merit, but not at my expense, and not at the expense of all the disturbance they cause!
Now don’t get me wrong. I love the sound of children in shul. They never disturb me. It is a joy to hear the talking of the only people who shouldn’t know better. But I don’t know that everybody feels that way.
I once heard a story about a man who attended a Talmud class every night. He came home from work late in the afternoon, hungry and tired. He ate dinner with his family and then took an enormous volume of Talmud from his bookshelf. He went to shul and found a seat near the back of the room. Not a minute after the class began he fell asleep. This was his evening routine every single day. After this went on for several months the instructor of the Talmud class approached this man.
“I don’t mind you coming to the class,” he said, “but I don’t think you have been awake to hear a single word in the last three months. You might be more comfortable sleeping in your bed at home. Also,” the instructor commented, “we have plenty of copies of the Talmud here, you don’t have to bring your own copy. I noticed that your copy is particularly large and heavy.”
“You don’t understand,” the man responded. “I know I don’t learn a thing here since I always fall asleep, but my kids have to see that I consider learning Torah a priority. Every night my kids see how exhausted I am. They see that despite my weariness I make the effort to go learn Torah. This is why I bring this heavy volume, it is because they need to see it. If I never learn a single word I still will have gained so much in my endeavor to transmit to my children the importance of Torah study.”
The instructor shook the man’s hand and asked him to please continue to come and sleep in his class.
Why does the Torah require bringing the young children along? As the Talmud states, “the men come to learn, the women to listen, but what do the children gain? Nothing. They won’t understand a word of what is read and taught at the gathering. But they will see. They will see their parents, their primary role models, making an effort to hear these words. A powerful lesson is imparted to the child. Do as I do (and also as I say). It is worth the sacrifice of missing some of the learning of this great Hakhel gathering. It pays to suffer the complaining (Dad, is it over yet? When can we go home?) and feel awkward and uncomfortable that the neighbors are being disturbed.
It pays to bring our children to shul, even if they will understand nothing, and even if it severely compromises our own participation in the services. They should see that this is important to us. Modeling is the most powerful way of conveying values to our children.