Education is a major topic of conversation in our personal, communal, and national conversations these days. Political, cultural, and spiritual leaders discuss the best ways to educate our youngsters and use our limited resources. Controversies around charter schools, common curriculum, “no child left behind,” standardized curricula and national standards, pre-K funding, the place of values in the public schools, and many other important issues dominate the pages of thought journals.
Numerous sources in the rabbinic tradition indicate that in Talmudic times children entering school were first educated in the intricate laws of the book of Vayikra, the laws that begin to be presented in our parasha this week. This, at first blush, appears to be a strange curricular choice. Why not begin the educational journey of the young Jewish child with Bereishit and the creation narrative or the stories of Abraham or the national narrative of the Exodus?
Three reasons may be suggested that possibly played a role in the curricular choices of the ancient rabbis.
1. The detailed laws of the korbanot (the sacrificial system) and the laws of ritual purity, while technical and intricate, are concrete and tangible. They are well defined, involving specific actions, routine activities, and clearly specified models of behavior and activity.
In contrast to the abstract and difficult questions and issues that lie at the heart of the Biblical story of creation and the garden of Eden, which touch on deep questions of the origin of the universe, the nature of God, good and evil, free will and choice, and other sophisticated matters, the laws of the sacrificial system and its corollaries such as the laws of kashrut, which appear later in the book of Vayikra, are concrete, defined, detailed requirements, and mitzvot. Children can point to the animals, talk about numbers, and engage with the realia around them.
For most young minds the first encounter with Judaism must be concrete, well defined, and involve clear parameters and experiences. Philosophical explorations and even historical narrative are best suited for the next stage in the development of the child as she grows and matures. In those early years of school, the most impactful lessons are those that are hands-on and connect them to the living pulsating world of concrete experience of Jewish life like Kiddush, Shabbat candles, megillah reading, giving charity, and the whole range of Jewish behaviors that shape the contours of a rich and engaged Jewish life.
2. In many ancient cultures the entire system of the Temple, of religious devotion and worship, was an elitist one. Priests alone were given access to the special, restricted knowledge of religious service, while the average person was kept in the dark. It was presented as some mysterious, esoteric knowledge only available to the initiates.
In sharp contrast, the book of Vayikra declares that God commanded Moses to present the laws to all of the children of Israel. This bespeaks an almost democratic access to knowledge about the laws of the Temple and sacrifices. All Jews are given entry into understanding all parts of the Torah and there are no hidden mysteries that only some elite members can access. The Torah records that the Torah is an inheritance – “morasha” – to all of Israel and each and every Jew can learn and imbibe its details and content.
In this spirit, the rabbis may have specifically wanted to drive home this message from an early age. Every Jewish child from early youth is educated in the details of the law of the Temple service. There is no area of Torah that is off limits to any Jew, and that message is brought home from the very first day of schooling.
3. Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, one of the leading teachers of Mussar of the mid-twentieth century, noted in a celebrated essay that the word for love in Hebrew, “ahava,” is connected to the Aramaic word “hav,” which means to give. Expanding on that theme, he notes that deep love is often associated with a desire to give to the other rather than looking to take or expressing demands upon the other. This is true in marriage and in our most intimate and joyful relationships. Love often grows and expands with the investment of time and effort that one expends in giving and investing in the other.
Rabbi Norman Lamm, former president and chancellor of Yeshiva University, notes that in Judaism, “More than believing in God we are commanded to love Him… the question is how shall we express it and enhance it: And the answer is ‘when one offers a korban la-Hashem’ – you must learn to give to God. When we give of our time by getting up early to pray in a minyan, when we give of our substance to the causes of the Almighty, such as a synagogue or school or charity, when we give of our attention and concern to Him and his people, then the process of giving enhances the love we bear for Him within.’ And it is this message of a commitment to give of oneself and one’s abilities, time, resources, and feelings that we want even our youngest to begin to imbibe and absorb as they begin their journey to learn and experience the presence of the Divine and their relationship to God, the Torah, and the Jewish people.