Making Sense of the Sedra: Education is a Mitzvah
The Yizkor prayer uttered at the end of each foot festival in Ashkenazi synagogues prays that God vouchsafe unto us the joy of training our sons and daughters to follow in the ways our parents taught us in generations previous to our own. This is the fundamental premise to the opening section of Emor, this week’s reading.
The rabbinic reading: “Tell the priests, sons of Aaron,” is that the scripture is holding the priesthood to a commitment to train their children from a young age to take care with the disciplines of life specific to them. This maps over somewhat to all Israelites, paralleling the rabbinic enjoining of all Jews to place a high priority on initiating our children, through education, into the customs and practices of our predecessors and ancestors. This is known as the mitzvah of chinuch (education), which extends training in the practice of the commandments to all, beyond the specific practices of teaching and discussing with one’s children the content of the Torah.
At this time of year, during the Omer, between Pesach and Shavuot, we commemorate various dates relating to the existential realities of our people. On Yom HaShoah we commemorate how as a nation we survived the Holocaust. On Yom Haatzmaut, we celebrate that we set up a Jewish state only three years after that terrible inferno; on Yom HaZikaron preceding it, we commemorate how our soldiers fell for Israel’s freedom. On Lag Ba’Omer we recall the collapse of efforts to win back a Jewish state in 135 CE and the temporary relief, after the war with the Romans concluded, to clear away and bury the dead of Bar Cochba’s forces in Betar, an event eternalised in the fourth blessing of the grace after meals.
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A particularly sad element of Emor appears at the end, featuring the son of an Israelite woman of the tribe of Dan who blasphemed God and was put to death. The modern reader might shudder at the thought of putting someone to death for saying rude things to God. Was the son fatherless and bullied? Was he a troubled teenager? Or was he just angry at the system? It may be any, all or none of these. Whatever his personal issues, to blaspheme God was just too violent a crime for society to suffer. In the socially fragile, post-slavery reconstruction of a broken nation, disrespecting the God whose valiant salvation had just plucked them from the jaws of death and misery was a high crime, and an intolerable one. This sad occurrence, and the later example made of the rebellious son might relate to one theme, which is how children are nurtured from the earliest years. Responsible parents would wish that their child reflect, through their good conduct through life, the best teaching and guidance that their parents were able to afford. It is therefore imperative that the social and moral development of a child is well-led and guided, so as to lessen, if to not eliminate, the risk of delinquency and criminality.