Children play a major role in this week's double portion. In Nitzavim,
Moshe tells the nation, "You are standing today, all of you, before
Hashem." He enumerates the different categories of people, from elders to
water-carriers, and he makes sure to include everyone, even the small
children (cf. Deuteronomy 28:9-10).
In Vayeilech as well, the Torah is cognizant of the youth. Moshe commands
that every seven years "the men, the women, and the small children, and
your stranger who is in your cities shall gather in Jerusalem to hear the
king read the Book of Devorim" (ibid 31:12). Commentaries expound that the
aforementioned children are those who are too young to understand. But
Moshe also talks about youngsters who have a basic grasp as well: "And
their children … they shall hear and they shall learn to fear Hashem, your
G-d, all the days that you live on the land to which you are crossing the
Jordan, to possess it." The Ohr HaChaim explains that this verse refers
not to toddlers, but rather to children who are old enough to learn the
fear of Hashem. What troubles me is the end of the posuk, " they shall
learn to fear Hashem, your G-d, all the days that you live on the land to
which you are crossing the Jordan, to possess it."
Shouldn't the Torah say "all the days that they live on the land to which
they are crossing the Jordan"? After all, we are teaching them, not the
adults! Why does the Torah tell us to teach the children, for all the days
that their parents live on the land to which you are crossing the Jordan,
to possess it?
Lieutenant Meyer Birnbaum was one of the only Orthodox US army officers
commissioned during World War II. Last year, he spoke at our yeshiva, and
though I was enraptured by the harrowing tales of his war-time activities,
one small incident that occurred to him as a young boy growing up in the
Brownsville section of Brooklyn during the Depression did not escape me.
In those days, few young men attended yeshiva or were committed to vigorous
Torah observance. Meyer went to public school as well, but his parents
wanted to raise him as an observant Jew. His friends would often make fun
of his yarmulka, and few attended his bar-mitzvah. But that did not deter
him. In fact, from the time he was old enough his mother would make sure
that he attended the mincha service.
Imagine the sight. A young boy coming to pray together with a group of
elderly men who were hanging on to their tradition while their inheritors
looked for newfound freedoms outside the decaying walls of the
synagogue. Even the men who came to pray were only there to say kaddish
for a dearly departed. So when young Meyer entered the portals of the
shul for the very first time their eyes widened in amazement. Their shock
turned to pity as they assumed the young boy came to shul for the same
reason that most of them came, and for the very reason that they prayed
their children would one day come the sole purpose of saying kaddish.
The moment came when the kaddish yossum, the mourner's kaddish, was to be
recited, and the congregation began in a cacophonous unison the hallowed
words, "Yisgadal V'Yiskadash." Meyer just stared up into space, waiting to
answer the first responsive Amen.
He was startled by the jab in the ribs by a crooked finger, which left his
searing side and began pointing to the correct place in the prayer book.
"Nu!" shouted the man, "They are saying kaddish!”
"I know that they are saying kaddish!" answered Meyer.
"So, what are you waiting for? Say along!"
Meyer did not understand where the conversation was heading. But he had no
time to think when another old man looked his way, motioning for him to
join the mourners in the kaddish recitation!
"But I don't have to say kaddish!" answered Meyer tearfully, "my parents
"Your parents are alive?" asked the old-timer incredulously.
"Yes, thank G-d, they are both alive! Why do you think that they are dead
and that I should say kaddish?"
They gathered around him as the final Amen was said and explained their
actions. "We could not imagine someone your age coming to shul for any
The Torah tells us that children must be trained and taught not for
post-parental existence, but rather it tells the parents "all the days that
you live on the land to which you are crossing the Jordan." You must teach
them to practice while you can enjoy the nachas as well! Torah is a living
entity, not only to pass from dying embers to rekindle new flames, but
rather to pass a vibrant torch with leaping flames onto the youth whose
boundless energy will inspire new generations, when even you live on the
land that Hashem has given you!
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