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by Rabbi Yisrael Pesach Feinhandler
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Speak to the Children of Israel, and say to them that they should make tzitzis on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and that they should put upon the fringe of each corner a thread of blue.
The following story was heard from Rabbi Shalom Schwadron, who heard it from Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian, who heard it from Rabbi Hirsch, who heard it from Rabbi Yisrael of Salant, who heard it from Rabbi Zundel of Salant, who heard it from Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin.
In the yeshivah of Volozhin, where Rabbi Chaim was the Rosh Yeshivah, there was an outstanding student who died at an early age, before he had even married.
Late one night during the week of shivah for this student, Rabbi Chaim entered the study hall, as he always did. There was constant learning in the yeshivah, twenty-four hours a day, and Rabbi Chaim would regularly get up at night to see whether or not the boys were concentrating on their learning. While he was walking through the hallway, Rabbi Chaim suddenly saw the deceased boy.
Rabbi Chaim went over and asked him, "What are you doing here?"
"I came down to this world to ask a favor of the rosh yeshivah," replied the student.
"What is this favor?" Rabbi Chaim wanted to know.
The student answered, "Let me tell you what happened after I died. When I arrived in heaven, all the gates opened for me. The angels came towards me and announced, 'Let the tzaddik come and rest in his place.' Everywhere I was well received.
"However, when I reached the gates of Gan Eden, the angel stood there and would not let me enter. What was wrong? I had stolen! When did I steal? Once, when I was on my way to the train station, escorted by a friend, I remembered that I owed seven cents to my landlady. I took the seven cents out of my pocket, gave it to my friend and asked him to please give it to my landlady. Unfortunately, he entirely forgot about the matter. Because of this unpaid debt of seven cents, I was not allowed to enter Gan Eden.
"Although I claimed that I had done my part by giving the money to my friend to deliver, I was still not allowed to enter. Nevertheless, since it was not directly my fault, I was given special permission to come back to this world to correct the matter. Therefore I implore you to arrange payment of the debt."
Rabbi Chaim asked the student the name of the landlady and where she lived, and promised that he would see that she got the seven cents. Rabbi Chaim then said, "May you rest in peace!" and the student disappeared.
Rabbi Chaim had succeeded in raising his student to such a high spiritual level that he was greeted as a tzaddik in the World to Come. We must also strive to train our children to reach the highest spiritual levels of which they are capable.
"Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them that they should make tzitzis..."(1)The phrase "Children of Israel," comes to inform adults that they should train their children in the mitzvah of tzitzis. From here the Sages have learned that every child who knows how to wrap himself in them is obligated in the mitzvah of tzitzis.
How did our Sages learn from the above verse that parents are responsible for teaching their children? Why does the Torah say that only once the child knows how to wrap himself in them is he obligated in the mitzvah of tzitzis? Why must the child know how to guard tefillin before he is allowed to perform the mitzvah? Why must the child be trained in shema, Torah and Hebrew as soon as he knows how to speak? If a child remains untrained in these matters, why would it have been better if he had not come into the world at all?
How does recognizing his father give the child the right to participate in the sacrifice of the korban Pesach? What does eating a kezayis of grain have to do with keeping away from feces? Why is opening up one's arms a criterion for receiving gifts of grain at the silo?
"Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them they should make tzitzis."
Our Sages learn from the above verse that parents are responsible for the education of their children, since the verse says, "Speak to the Children of Israel." This implies that we are responsible for the children of Israel, referring to the minors who need training. Although the simple explanation of the verse is that G-d commanded Moshe to tell the whole Jewish nation about the mitzvah of tzitzis, since the Torah used this particular expression, it hints at the responsibility we have towards our children.
The Torah says that only a child who knows how to wrap himself in them is obligated in the mitzvah of tzitzis. In order for the child to properly appreciate the mitzvah, he must be able to comprehend its basic meaning and be able to physically perform the mitzvah. If these conditions are lacking, he may learn to do the mitzvah in the wrong way. Therefore only when the child himself is mature enough to be able to wrap the tallis katan around his body, can we see that he comprehends the basic concept of tzitzis and is able to fulfill all its requirements.
Our Sages say that a child must know how to guard tefillin before he is allowed to wear them. Guarding here refers to not breaking wind, since the holiness of the body must correspond to the holiness of the tefillin. If a person allows a foul odor to emanate from his body, this breaches the honor and proper conduct that tefillin require from us. Preventing that foul odor requires self-restraint, which young children do not normally have. Thus, a child is not allowed to fulfill this mitzvah until he can guard the tefillin in this way.
Every child who knows how to speak is obligated to say the Shema, words of Torah, and learn Hebrew. And if the child never learns the mitzvos, it would have been better if he had not come into the world.
The reason a child must be trained to say the Shema, words of Torah and speak Hebrew as soon he as is able is because the Torah says, "You shall speak of them."(2) From here we learn that our speech should constantly revolve around Torah. It is not enough to merely set aside time every day to learn; direct or indirect involvement in Torah should be our main occupation throughout the day. Other things we do may be necessary but should not have the same importance in our minds as our study and observance of Torah. Since speaking of Torah and developing the ability to learn Torah are essential to a person's function in life, they become obligatory as early as possible, which is when a child first learns to speak.
These matters are so important that if one does not fulfill them it would have been better if he had not come into the world. When we bring children into the world, we are assuming a great responsibility. We must to the best of our ability see to it that they will grow up faithful to G-d and to the Torah He has given us. Every human being is created for that purpose, as the verse says, "Everyone who is called by My name; for I have created him for My glory."(3)
Since we are responsible for the upbringing of our children, it is our duty to guide them in fulfilling their purpose in life.
If we do not meet this obligation to our children, then our Sages maintain it would have been better had they not come into the world. Once a person is born he is liable for punishment if he does not fulfill his role in Creation. Therefore, had he not been born, he would not have been subject to the punishment facing those who throw off the yoke of Heaven.
Every child who recognizes his father can be counted as one of the participants in the sacrifice of the korban Pesach. Every child who knows how to eat a kezayis of grain, we must keep away from his feces and urine... Every child who knows how to open his arms receives part of the gifts which the kohanim collect...
As soon as a child can recognize his father, he has the right to participate in the Pesach sacrifice, since this recognition signifies that he is aware of basic human bonds. Once he has developed this sense of social responsibility, he can be counted as a participant amongst those who share the Paschal lamb.
What does eating a kezayis of grain have to do with keeping away from feces? Only the feces of an infant is considered harmless. When a child is old enough to digest regular food instead of his mother's milk, he is considered to have entered the age when he can also absorb knowledge. With this development in the child's growth comes the need to keep away from his feces, since he is no longer considered a dormant moral being. Once the child can understand, he must begin to choose between good and bad. The potential for choosing evil is symbolized by feces, which demonstrates that a person is capable of producing impurity. Before this point the feces cannot be considered a symbol of the conscious choice to do bad.
Only when the kohen's child knows how to open his arms is he able to receive a measure of the portion at the silo. The Torah allowed the kohanim to receive terumah at the silos where the grain is stored. A person might think it unjust that he must toil in the field, while the kohanim come and take a portion of his labor without investing any effort whatsoever. But in reality, the kohanim give a great deal in return. They give us their blessing in the birkas kohanim. This blessing is the source of our success and the reason why our silos are full of grain. Thus they surely deserve a portion.
Their contribution is alluded to here since opening the arms is part of the mitzvah of blessing the people at the time of birkas kohanim.(4) Therefore only when the child can perform the function of giving a blessing is he justified in receiving part of the reward that the kohanim receive.
It is clear from the above midrash that it is primarily the parents' obligation to train their children in Torah and mitzvos. The moment a child is old enough to participate in any mitzvah properly, the parents are required to instruct him.
Many parents mistakenly believe that this is the job of the child's teachers, while they themselves are free from the task. This is a grave error. Without the cooperation of parents, teachers cannot succeed. Parents must give the child the desire to learn, stimulate the commitment to carry out what he is taught, and provide the necessary love and support for growth. Without these vital tools, the knowledge that teachers attempt to instill in their students will not penetrate.
Parents must be extremely careful not to criticize a teacher. Even if it is obvious that the teacher made a mistake, this should not be pointed out to the child, since the child looks up to his teachers, and the moment a parent belittles a teacher, he will destroy the respect the child has for that teacher. For the child to gain from the teacher's wisdom, he must first respect him. Therefore, even laughing at a teacher's accent or mannerisms can be dangerous. Besides teaching your child that the prohibition of lashon hara is not to be taken seriously, the child will also lose the reverence he needs to absorb knowledge from his teacher.
If you need to point out something to the teacher, it should be done personally and in private. The child should not be the one to convey the message.
It is also important that there be constant communication between teachers and parents. Unfortunately, some parents send their children to school and have no communication whatsoever with the teacher during the entire year. They do not even bother to come to parent-teacher meetings.
Frequent communication has many benefits. First of all, it makes a parent aware of his child's situation in the classroom. Perhaps the parents are unaware that their child is misbehaving in class, not doing his homework, or has some other kind of problem. Maybe the child has the wrong friends in school and he is being exposed to influences that will harm him. The teacher may be the only one who is aware of these problems, and therefore he or she must be consulted regularly.
Avoiding this vital connection can endanger your child's intellectual, emotional and spiritual progress. A teacher needs the parents' cooperation in order to succeed with the child. Furthermore, a child who knows that his parents are checking whether or not he is doing his homework and what grades he is getting will be much more motivated to do a good job. If he knows that his parents are so busy that they don't care, then he does not have the incentive to make strong efforts.
Also, one encourages the teacher to give more help to a child by consistently staying in contact with him. The teacher will feel that if these parents care so much, then he should try harder to help the child succeed. When a teacher sees that parents do not care at all and never ask about their child, he is not usually motivated to make a special effort with that particular child.
Some parents are reluctant to phone their child's teacher. They feel that they are intruding on the private life of the teacher and it is impolite.
From my experience this is not true. Teachers understand that they cannot communicate with parents during school hours, and this must be done after school. They also appreciate it when parents care enough about their children to call them and find out how he or she is doing. They look at such parents as caring, and are happy to assist.
We must not wait for a note from the teacher to call them at home. If we would call our children's teachers regularly, there would be no need for such notes, since if a child knows that there is constant communication between his parents and his teacher, he will take care to study and behave properly.
Put a reminder on your calendar to call your children's teachers. I suggest once a month, when all is fine. When there are problems with your child, it should be done more often. If your child is not embarrassed by your presence, it is a good idea to come personally to school to talk to the teacher at least once a year. This will prove, both to the teacher and to your child, just how much you care about your child.
Training children in Torah and mitzvos needs the skillful efforts of teachers, since often parents are too busy and may not have the necessary pedagogic tools to educate their children themselves. But the teachers, no matter how well trained and highly motivated they may be, still require the constant interest and input of parents to succeed in their task.
1. Bamidbar 15:38
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Shema Yisrael Torah Network