The children are coming home and the schools are setting up the desks. What are we supposed to be doing? To be sure, some parents are undoubtedly celebrating. There is an awkward week between camp and school when parents must entertain their brood but the teachers will soon take over again. Whew! But where exactly do we, the parents, come in?
I was reminded of this important question when I took note of the titles of two separate articles in last week’s Sunday Times Review (August 18, 2019). I was not so much moved by the columns themselves as by the implications of their titles. The first was “We Have Ruined Childhood.” The second was “I’m 57. Is This Adulthood?” Clearly, some contemporary pundits are having difficulties with both childhood and adulthood. Let’s look at the Torah’s attitude toward each one and the interrelationship between them.
As I had the privilege of writing in The Jewish Observer (“Vessels of Holiness,” October 1989), the Torah thinks extremely highly of children: “To the average Jew, few words are uttered with the reverence and yearning we reserve for ‘Moshiach.’ And yet, every Jewish child is granted that exalted title by the Torah. ‘Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rav: What is meant by ‘Touch not My anointed ones (b’meshichai) and do My prophets no harm?’ Anointed ones refers to school children and prophets to Torah scholars (Shabbos 119b).”
So every one of our children is a little Moshiach. But why this most revered honorific of all for a young, seemingly undeserving juvenile?
Rashi explains that children are referred to as “anointed” because “it is customary to rub children with oil.” Rav Eliezer Zusman-Sofer (Sefer Melaya Ketores 1872) explicates Rashi to mean that “if you want to be successful in raising children imbued with Torah ideals, you must make them feel spiritually regal.” They should feel that their Torah study makes them royal, that good middos are majestic. A parenthetic warning is sounded by Rav Sofer based upon the conclusion of the posuk: “Beware of how you treat Torah scholars, for your little ones are watching.” He means to say that if you talk down to the kollel yungerman, speak condescendingly to the melamed or look askance at the rosh yeshiva–meshulach, you won’t raise a Moshiach, because when they think of Torah, they will see shame instead of the sovereignty of being a talmid chochom (see Gittin 52a).
The Maharal gives us an even deeper understanding of the child-Moshiach appellation: “A child is like a vessel that can be sanctified. Before he has been tainted, he is like a vessel of the Bais Hamikdosh, ready to receive sanctity and become permeated with kedusha” (Nesivos Olam, Nesiv HaTorah 10). A sense of this concept of a child as a potential kli shoreis may be gleaned from a line in the Shomer Emunim (page 381, quoted by Rav Yosef Epstein, Mitzvos Habayis 2:61): “Why does a child respond to singing? The reason is that ‘nafsho murgeles b’kol neginah d’leila – his soul has become accustomed to the Heavenly Song and still remembers and feels that music until he is sullied by sin…and then it is forgotten.”
What is the role of children in our world? Chazal (Kallah Revasi 2) reveal a frightening but inspiring scene: “Every single day, an angel leaves Hakadosh Boruch Hu to destroy the world and return it to chaos. But when Hashem sees the schoolchildren…studying Torah, His anger is transformed into pity.”
Our children are extremely vulnerable, not just because they are young and frail, but because they are the first line of defense against the Angel of Death and his prosecutorial team.
Furthermore, Chazal (Shabbos 33b) also tell us that “when there are tzaddikim in the generation, these righteous people are seized by death for the sins of the generation. When there are no tzaddikim in a generation, schoolchildren suffer for the sins of the generation.” Clearly, our children are our most precious commodity and must be guarded with all the power we have. They must be protected physically and spiritually, both for their own safety and also for the good of the greater Klal Yisroel.
So, now to answer the question in the New York Times: “When do we become an adult?” One might think that the Torah answer is 12 or 13 years old, and for certain matters that is true. However, in other ways, the correct answer is “never.” How can this be a good thing? Well, we did learn that the Torah greatly values a Jewish child. But could that possibly mean that we should remain childlike forever? Actually, yes.
The Torah (Hosheia 11:1) tells us, “When Yisroel was a naar, I loved him.” Hashem loves us precisely because we are like a child. What is this quality that endears us so greatly to Hashem?
The Baal Haturim (Terumah 25:18) points out that the Keruvim that were atop the Aron Kodesh in the Mishkon were childlike figures. He asks why the representation of Klal Yisroel would be children and not the elders whom we are taught to revere. He answers that Hashem loves us because we feel inadequate and constantly in need of further spiritual growth and advancement. Rav Chaim Friedlander (Sifsei Chaim, Vayeitzei, page 337) adds that this is the essence of Klal Yisroel that we subjugate ourselves to Hashem, as a child does naturally to the mother who feeds and sustains him.
Rav Moshe Sternbuch (Chochmah Vodaas, Vayeira, page 99) uses this concept to explain why the Torah (Bereishis 22:12) refers to Yitzchok Avinu as a naar when he was already a mature man of 37. However, he points out that Yitzchok was totally subservient to Avrohom Avinu, as a young boy would be to his father. Rav Sternbuch draws a conclusion for us all from this appellation given to Yitzchok. He writes that “this is the chinuch – legacy – we have received from our holy avos, as opposed to the gentiles of the world. Most of the world – and sadly our own who have deviated from the Torah… – believe that we have nothing to learn from earlier generations because we are superior to them… They believe that earlier generations were primitive people, but we realize and know that our predecessors were far greater than ourselves. We know of the submissiveness of the Gra to the Arizal and the Arizal to the Ramban and the Ramban to the Amoraim and Tannaim…so that we can understand that our avos were indeed angels.”
Rav Sternbuch goes on to derive from this fact why Torah Shebaal Peh – the Oral Law – was never written down. It was so that we would be fully aware that all of the generations before us were far greater than us and were indispensable to everything we know.
Rav Chaim Shmulevitz zt”l once traveled this time of year to “rest” a bit at the yeshiva of his uncle, Rav Avrohom Jofen in Grodna. One day, he asked his uncle to show him the best bochur in the yeshiva. Rav Jofen pointed to one young man as the best amkan – the deepest – in the yeshiva. Another was known as the greatest masmid – the most diligent. A third was the biggest boki – the one with the widest knowledge and the fourth as the greatest in yiras Shomayim – the most G-d fearing.
“But, persisted Rav Chaim, “who is the best bochur?”
His uncle took him to a quiet corner and pointed to yet a fifth boy as the all-around best.
“But uncle,” Rav Chaim finally inquired, “you never mentioned him before at all.”
The rosh yeshiva of Novardok responded gently, “He is different than all the others, because he is the greatest mevakeish, the one who is the greatest seeker, so he is the best of all.”
He was the one who later became famous as the Steipler Gaon, author of Kehillas Yaakov on Shas (see Ohel Moshe, Parshas Tazria, page 272).
Rav Mordechai Gifter, too, would often say that the greatest trait someone can have in learning is “er halt bei shteigen – he is always advancing and growing in his learning.” This is the madreigah of a naar for which Hashem loves Klal Yisroel.
As our children return to school, let us remember the reciprocal learning process we have been taught. We must of course guide our children, shielding them as much as possible from all the evil the Soton is prepared to throw at them. We must maintain the kedusha and taharah with which they have been born as the most precious gifts with which we have ever been entrusted. But, perhaps surprisingly, we must learn from them as well. We must emulate their constant growth (see Igros Pachad Yitzchok, pages 134-137), their energy and willingness to learn new things and change when necessary.
In that, we are all indeed “Hashem’s children,” as much as He is our Heavenly Father. If we make up our minds that this year we will learn with our children and blossom along with them in Torah and middos, we will surely reap the results in the Yiddishe nachas for which we all yearn in the new year.