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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

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The truly lasting monument

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This week or next, children from all grades in all communities across the country will be completing their annual studies. Their sense of exhilaration at summer’s arrival should be matched by our – parents and grandparents – sense of gratitude to the teachers, principals, administrators, custodial staff and volunteers who quite literally enable and bring about the education of our children.

We refer, of course, to all places of formal education. But we wish to pay special homage to the places of Jewish education, for it is Jewish education that is still the best guarantor of the permanence of our peoplehood.  

We who live in the West in our modern time look upon the obligation to educate our children in the same way we feel the obligation to say “thank you.” It is the logical, proper thing to do. We also do so, however, because teaching our children has been at the very core of our religious, family and communal obligations since Mount Sinai.

The instruction to teach our children appears at the very outset of the prayer that has been the watchword of Jewish faith, recited in all generations by Jews of all streams and affiliations: the Shema. That instruction is repeated in countless forms in the Bible, the Talmud, commentaries and scholarly tracts to this very day. 

Wherever Jews settled around the globe during the millennia of our dispersion, community elders – leaders, sages, philanthropists, entrepreneurs and ordinary folk – ensured that a school was built even before a synagogue was. The reason for this was so obvious to them that it was enshrined in the 16th century, in the Shulchan Aruch (the settled code of Halachah), requiring each community to ensure the presence within its midst of teachers because “the world exists only through the breath of school children.” 

Recently, at a Grade 1 ceremony at the Associated Hebrew Schools of Toronto, the director of education, Rabbi Mark Smiley told a story of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who, when asked what God sees when He looks in the mirror, answered that God sees the hopes, aspirations, prayers and possibilities of children. In effect, Rabbi Heschel was telling us that it was for the sake of our children – of all children – that God created a world that they might embrace, cherish and strive always to protect for one another and for all mankind. We educate our children for this purpose in the hope that they, in time, will know how to educate their own children for the same purpose.

When he wrote his famous poem Ozymandias in the 19th century, Percy Bysshe Shelley was clearly not addressing a Jewish audience. For Jews of the time had long since learned the lesson that Shelley was trying to impart to his society, namely, that hewn, sculpted works of granite and stone are not the monuments that last for eternity. The truly lasting monuments are the instructions we carry in our hearts and minds – the faith, traditions, values and ways of our people – that we pass forever to our children in an eternal chain of love and responsibility.  

Jews today must not forget this lesson.

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