Teach them to your children and speak of them.
Devarim 6:7; 11:19
In my first book Fragments of the Hammer, I identified the two modes of learning advanced in the Shema. The first is “shinun”, absorption by repetition, as per the word “v’shinantam” in its first paragraph read as part of this week’s parasha. The second is “limud”, conceptual study, as per the word “v’limadtem” as per the second chapter in next week’s parasha, Ekev.
I argued that both are necessary at different stages of human development. Shinun is more suited to younger children’s item-receptive minds. As an educator for the last 40-plus years, I see constantly how much children savour the challenge of learning by heart and via rote facts, figures, lists, mishnayot and the like, notwithstanding the tut-tuts of disapproval in some so-called progressive circles.
Only as we grow older do we value concept-learning more.
Developing this theme, a remarkable lesson can be learned out of the variation of order in which the mitzvot are presented in the first and second Shema sections.
In the first, we are told to first “teach [shinun]… your children” and then “bind them [the words]… on your hands and… between your eyes” in the form of tefillin. However, in the second section we are instructed to “place these words on your heart and soul, bind them… on your hands and… between your eyes” and then to “teach [limud]… your children”. Why this disparity of order?
I suggest the following: When children are young – and, as we said, the first paragraph advancing the “shinun” method of learning by repetition appears to address younger children – they will engage with learning as long as they are stimulated. When a boy approaches bar mitzvah he will be introduced to the mitzvah of tefillin. If he comes from a traditional home and has a faithful tutor, he will take it as a given. And he will thoroughly relish the grownup feeling of donning them just like the adults. After all he is now a man!
The challenge comes of course in the teenage years. Will bar mitzvah be a bar to further mitzvot? Here is where the second paragraph of Shema, addressing older children and adults, becomes relevant. At this stage, teaching your children can only hope to succeed if it follows in the wake of “binding them for a sign upon your (own) hands and… between your (own) eyes”. If the parent is not engaged with mitzvot, if the parent isn’t acting as a role-model, if his or her message is “do as I say not as I do”, then the chances of succeeding in keeping the child switched-on Jewishly diminish. And even the best Jewish schooling in the world may not help. Because undoubtedly the prime influence for a child is the Jewish home!
Which leads me to conclude by reflecting upon an idea that has stuck in my mind ever since I heard it as a young cheder teacher from the lips of a senior rabbi in London, Rabbi Isaac Bernstein, now sadly deceased. He said that while we routinely translate the fifth sentence of Shema as “teach them to your children and speak of them”, i.e. the words of Torah, we could just as easily render it thusly: “Teach them (the words of Torah) to your children – and if you do you will be able to speak (proudly) about them”, i.e. your children.
I would add slightly to his words if I may. Reverting to the previous verse of Shema – when the words of Torah are engraved on our own hearts and we put them into practice in all that we do, then when we teach our children well, we shall have great prospects of being able to always speak proudly about our children!
Surely a powerful message for Jewish parents and grandparents everywhere!
Extracted and adapted from Rabbi Ingram’s recently published Lattices of Love: Exploring the World of Jewish Prayer.