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Torah Attitude: Parashas Emor: Listen and you will be heard
The Torah stresses the importance of educating our children and to teach them the Torah and its laws. The Torah puts special emphasis on the obligation of parents to relate to their children what happened at the time of the exodus from Egypt. The Rambam mentions three areas where the obligation of Seder night is different than the rest of the year. By opening the floor for questions and posing questions ourselves, we open the minds of our audience and stimulate them to get involved and think about what happened then, and how it relates to us today. G'd orchestrated some of the failures and mistakes of our greatest leaders and ancestors in order to show us that every one can repent and return to the right path. G'd said to Moses that it is not sufficient that he teaches the laws themselves, but he must explain the reasoning and deeper understanding of every commandment. The Torah emphasizes how that the educator must take the words of the Torah to heart on a personal level before he gets involved in teaching and educating. There is a story told about a professor, who taught a course on ethical values, who was questioned by his students why he did not live up to the values he was teaching. The Chofetz Chaim told a parable about a great doctor who had discovered a special cure for a debilitating children's disease. If we listen to our rabbis and mentors, we have a good chance that we will be listened to as well.
Towards the end of last week's Torah Attitude, we discussed the second of the 48 things needed to acquire Torah, "listening with one's ear." We mentioned the importance of finding ways how to get the attention of our children and students, when we teach them the ways and laws of the Torah. In the beginning of this week's parasha, the Torah again addresses the importance of education. The Parasha starts with G'd instructing Moses to teach special laws to the kohanim. As it says, (Vayikra 21:1): "Say to the kohanim, the sons of Aaron, and say to them … " Rashi quotes the Talmud (Yevamos 114a) that points out the obvious redundancy in this verse. The Talmud explains that this comes to teach that not only shall the adult kohanim be careful about their special laws, but they must make sure to instruct their children as well. This is but one of the many places where the Torah stresses the importance of educating our children and to teach them the Torah and its laws.
Haggadah on Seder night
Just a month ago Jews worldwide sat at the Seder table and read the special Hagaddah of Pesach. The Torah puts special emphasis on the obligation of parents to relate to their children what happened at the time of the exodus from Egypt. As it says (Shemos 13:8): "And you shall tell your son on that day saying, 'It is because of this that G'd acted for me when I left Egypt.'" Rashi explains that this verse means that G'd took us out of Egypt in order that we shall be able to fulfill His commandments, starting with the commandments of Seder night.
Three differences on Seder night
In connection with Seder night, Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik, the Rabbi of Brisk, asks a simple question. What is unique about the obligation to tell the story of the exodus from Egypt on this night? We are already commanded to remember the exodus every day and night throughout the year? To answer this, Rabbi Soloveitchik points out that the Rambam (Laws of Chametz and Matzah, Chapter 7) mentions three areas where the obligation of Seder night is different than the rest of the year. First of all, throughout the year it is sufficient if we just mention the exodus on our own (without elaborating on the whole chain of events). But on the night of Seder we are obligated to relate, preferably to others, every detail of the exodus in the form of questions and answers. Secondly, on Seder night it is not sufficient that we speak about the exodus. We must first elaborate on the whole chain of events and go through the background. We start with Terach, the father of Abraham, who was an idol worshipper. Afterwards, we mention how Jacob went down to Egypt with his family, and how eventually the Jewish people became enslaved there. The rest of the year, it is sufficient just to mention the exodus. Thirdly, there is a special obligation to discuss and explain the reasons why we fulfill the commandments of the Seder night. As we say in the Haggadah, "Rabban Gamliel used to say, 'Whoever has not explained these three things on Pesach has not fulfilled his obligation … 'Pesach, Matzah and Marror.'"
On Seder night the Torah guides us how to educate effectively and get the attention of our listeners. Throughout the year, remembering the exodus is a personal obligation. But on Seder night we have to find ways how to pass on the message. By opening the floor for questions and posing questions ourselves, we open the minds of our audience and stimulate them to get involved and think about what happened then, and how it relates to us today.
The second point is the special emphasis we put on the negative aspects of our past. By being open about the fact that we were not always doing what we were supposed to do, and by acknowledging that we have been through our own struggles and difficulties, we give an opportunity to every listener to connect to what we are trying to get across. Very often parents want to appear to their children as perfect members of society and chastise their children for not living up to how they would like to be perceived themselves. The truth is that if we are honest with ourselves, we all know that no one is perfect. By being candid and open about our own flaws, we convey a message to our listeners that even if they are not at the moment doing what they should be, they are not hopeless failures and they still have the opportunity to straighten out their future. The Torah is full of examples of failures and mistakes of our greatest leaders and ancestors. The Talmud (Avodah Zorah 4b) teaches that G'd orchestrated some of these instances in order to show us that every one can repent and return to the right path.
Reasoning and deeper understanding of Torah
The third point of speaking about the reasons for the commandments shows the importance of being knowledgeable about our Torah life. It is not enough to tell our children that this is what we have to do. If we have no clue why we are doing it, chances are that our children will not continue to do something that makes no sense to them. The Rambam (Laws of Meilla 8:8) writes that everyone is obligated to study the laws of the Torah and the rationale behind them to the best of their ability. In the beginning of Parashas Mishpatim (Shemos 21:1), Rashi quotes the Talmud (Eruvin 54b) that relates that G'd said to Moses that it is not sufficient that he teaches the laws themselves, but he must explain the reasoning and deeper understanding of every commandment. And this is how it must be taught ever since. Only in this way we can ensure that future generations will be excited to observe the commandments.
Taking words of Torah to heart
In the first two portions of Shema, the Torah obligates us to teach our children and students. In the first portion (Devarim 6:6-7) it says, "And these things, that I command you today, shall be upon your heart. And you shall teach them to your children, and you shall speak about them." Similarly in the second portion (Devarim 11:18-19) it says, "And you shall place these words of Mine upon your hearts … and you shall teach them to your children and talk about them." It is very clear that the Torah emphasizes how the educator must take the words of the Torah to heart on a personal level before he gets involved in teaching and educating. If we do not show how important the Torah's commandments are to us and how we personally practice what we preach, our instructions will have absolutely no positive value. On the contrary, it will just be considered as hypocrisy.
The story is told about a professor, that taught a course on ethical values, who was questioned by his students why he did not live up to the values he was teaching. He answered that his lessons were merely his source of income, and he did not see why he was obligated any more to live up to what he taught than the professor of mathematics to be a triangle. Our sages' approach to this is very different. The Talmud (Moed Katan 17a) teaches: "If the rabbi is like an angel of G'd, then seek to learn Torah from his mouth. But if he is not, then do not seek to learn Torah from him." An angel has no personal agenda, but is totally dedicated to fulfill his Divine mission. This is the standard that the Talmud expects of someone teaching Torah. Otherwise, he is considered dishonest and he will not succeed to open the ears of his audience and to influence them in a meaningful way.
Chofetz Chaim's parable about a great doctor
However, even if the rabbi is completely dedicated, his message will not come across to the younger generation unless the parents show that his teachings are important to them as well. Rabbi Pesach Krohn (Along the Maggid's Journey, p.41) brings a story about a distraught father who once came to Rabbi Zalman Plitnick, the Rabbi of Liverpool England, and implored him to speak to his daughter who was about to intermarry. The Rabbi spent a considerable amount of time with the young woman, but to no avail. The father was very disappointed with the rabbi, as he had hoped that he would have some influence on his daughter. The Rabbi said to him, "Let me tell you something that I once heard personally from the Chofetz Chaim. The Chofetz Chaim told a parable about a great doctor who had discovered a special cure for a debilitating children's disease. The doctor often travelled to cities and villages to dispense the medicine as only he knew the right blend of ingredients to make it effective. Once as he was travelling he was assaulted by three robbers who took all his belongings and ran away. A little while later the robbers came to a bridge and started looking through the various bags that they had stolen. As they found no money or valuables in the bags, they threw everything into the raging river below, to get rid of the evidence of their robbery. In the meantime, the doctor continued on his travels and went to the clinic where he knew people would be waiting for him. He felt terrible, as he had no medicine, and he was not in a position to help them. At the head of the line waiting to see him, was a man and his son. 'I need your help doctor', the man called out frantically. 'My son is very sick and only you can help him.' The doctor recognized the father as one of the robbers and said to him, 'I regret that I cannot help you. Don't you recognize me? You yourself robbed me last night. Where are all my bags that you took from me?' The father was totally shaken up, as he said, 'But I threw it all into the river.' Sadly the doctor said to the distraught father, 'You had the remedy in your hand and you threw it away. Now there is nothing that I can do for your son.' When the Chofetz Chaim finished telling this parable he added, 'People want the rabbis to provide the answers and counsel for their children when they need them. However, these same people often come home from shul on Shabbos and criticize everything the rabbi said in his sermon. They ridicule the values the rabbi tries to teach, and thus make the rabbi powerless when they need his help for their problems.'" The poor father had nothing to say. He knew very well how critical he had always been of Rabbi Plitnick, and he had only himself to blame for the rabbi's failure to influence his daughter.
The importance of the parents' attitude and respect for their rabbi, and their readiness to listen to him, is hinted at in the second portion of Shema. This portion (Devarim 11:13) starts "And it will be if we you listen to listen to My commandments that I command you today …" Our sages point out the apparent redundancy in this verse. Maybe one can read and interpret this in the following way, "And it shall be if you personally listen to the teachings of the Torah, then you will merit that your children will listen as well." It is up to us to set the example. If we listen to our rabbis and mentors, we have a good chance that we will be listened to as well. But if we do not show the respect and listen with our own ears, then we have undermined the authority of the Torah, and therefore cannot expect to open the ears of our children and students to what we want to teach them. May we succeed in our efforts to educate the future generations to be proud to carry on the transmission from Sinai, so that everyone will acquire their share in the eternal Torah.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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