Excerpted from Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages – Deuteronomy, by Rabbi Norman Lamm, co-published by OU Press and Maggid Books
This week, after a good two-month vacation, our children will return to their classrooms and again continue the development of their minds and spirits. It will be a momentous occasion, no doubt, for the children themselves. These past few days they have probably been busy purchasing school supplies, arranging programs, discussing new teachers, and bubbling over with enthusiasm in anticipation of the new school year. I am sure that we all remember how we felt when we started our new terms back in elementary school. We felt as if we were setting out on a new path, full of hidden dangers and pleasant surprises, and we acted as if we expected a succession of mysteries and miracles at every step. Today’s children feel the same way about it. It is a challenge and an adventure.
But while our children are going to be busy being enthusiastic about a hundred and one things, let the parents not forget to take a long look at themselves and their progeny. On the first day of the term, ask yourself what progress your child’s teacher will report on the last day.
Will your boy or girl forge ahead, or remain just a dull average? Will he or she swim, or just float, carried by the educational tide? How many parents wonder why their child does no more than float in school, passive in his or her studies, going through school without school going through him or her. They are prone to blame it on their child’s IQ , and then discover that the child’s IQ hits 130. They blame the school or yeshiva, and then discover that their neighbor’s little boy attends the same school, nay – the same class – and is performing miracles in his work. And they are stumped. Why, after an extensive Jewish education, such parents might ask themselves, should my child remain apathetic to anything with Jewish content? What is it that the child lacks? And if the parents are intelligent people, they will ask not, “What does the child lack?” but, “What do we lack?” They lament that, “We have bought our children all the books they need, a Jewish encyclopedia and a Britannica, we send our children to the best schools in the city, give our children the best nourishment, and yet our children do not live up to our expectations.” But these intelligent parents, who paid so much attention to nourishment, have forgotten something of tremendous importance.
They have forgotten to breathe into their offspring’s lungs the life-sustaining air of courage; they have forgotten to inspire their children with the feeling that the Torah that they are learning is of terrific importance; they failed to impress upon the young minds that what they do and accomplish is of exceptional significance to both parents and everyone else as well. They have shipped the children off to school, shoved them out of their minds. In short, they failed to encourage their children.
How remarkably profound was the Bible’s understanding of the need for encouragement. In today’s sidra, we learn that if a corpse was found between two towns under mysterious circumstances, and the murderer is not known, then the courts would measure the distance to both villages. And the elders or representatives of that town or village nearest the place where the corpse was found had to perform a very strange, if not humiliating, ritual. They would take a calf upon whom a yoke had never been placed, bring it down to a brook near ground which had never been worked, and there they would decapitate the calf and wash their hands upon his carcass. And they would say, “Our hands did not spill this blood and our eyes did not see” (Deuteronomy 21:7). What strange words! What does “seeing” have to do with the guilt or innocence of a community and its leaders in a murder case? And if indeed these hands did not spill this blood, then why require the elders to undergo this strange, frightening, and suspicious ritual? Our Rabbis (Mishna Sota 9:6), anticipating that question, commented on the phrase in the verse “and our eyes did not see,” that “We accept moral responsibility because we failed to accompany him out of town.” How wise were our Sages! With their insight into human nature, they realized that this man had not successfully resisted his attacker because he left that town demoralized. The elders of the town failed to walk that man out onto the highway, they failed to encourage him on his way, they failed to make him realize that his presence in their community was important to them, and that his leaving saddened them. They simply did not take any notice of him. And it is courage, the knowledge of a man that he is backed by his fellows, that is necessary for a man to put up a fight against killers in the night who fall upon him with murder in their hearts. Without this encouragement, this knowledge that he means something to someone, a man’s resistance to his attacker is nil, whether he has eaten well or not, and he falls by the wayside, dead. And when a community has thus sinned against the lonely stranger in its midst, it must accept full moral guilt for his murder. And the elders must announce in shame, “These hands did not spill this blood and our eyes did not see.” Do you know how the Rabbis would translate that? “No, we did not murder him with our very hands, but nevertheless we admit that our hands are stained with his blood, because our eyes did not see – we were blind to his existence, indifferent to him, we overlooked him, we failed to encourage him and inspire him with the dignity of being a man among men. Our hands are stained because our eyes were clouded!”
To those parents who will cry out against fate at the end of this school year that their children who have IQs above 130 and attend the best schools in New York are nevertheless dead in their spirit, that their souls are corpses, the Bible gives a high warning: Keep your eyes open and clear, not clouded. Inspire your children with the courage to take on a double program because it means so much, make them feel important and wanted. Take a long look at your children; don’t overlook them. Extend to them the courtesy of accompaniment; let them feel that you want their company because they want yours. Go with them to school some day and ask them what they expect to accomplish that day. Friday nights and Shabbat afternoons when you have an opportunity to eat your meal without hurry and rush, discuss with them the problems they discussed in school; respect their arguments instead of dismissing them or, contrariwise, acting as if all the world knew that. Keep your eyes open and clear, and your hands won’t be stained.
During the war, I received a letter from a soldier friend of mine who hit the Normandy beaches on D-Day, fought through France and went through the horrors of the Battle of the Bulge. That boy saw more of horror than a man double his age. Yet, he wrote to me, he did not falter for one moment; despite the cold and impersonal grinding of the war machine, he did not feel lonesome or dejected. For the one thing that had helped him most during those long months of fighting was the remembrance of his father who, seeing him off from New York and unable to speak because of emotion, put his hand on his son’s shoulder and held him strongly. His father’s hand on his shoulder is what kept his spirit and body alive in that hell called Europe. It was this accompaniment that assured his son’s survival. His hand on his son’s shoulder was a life-sustaining encouragement. That father’s hand was not stained with his son’s blood. There was no necessity for him to perform the humiliating ritual of raising his hands and exclaiming, “These hands did not spill this blood and our eyes did not see.”
My friends, the closets of the American Jewish community are full of corpses, skeletons of what once were or could have been good Jews. The words of the poet Bialik ring true: “The people are indeed a corpse, a corpse dead-heavy without end.” It was the great failure of the last generation to inspire their children with the courage of a Jewish education that is responsible for the ghosts of Jews who clamor in the ball parks on Saturday afternoons and the corpses of Jews who will eat just anyplace, from Times Square to Chinatown, corpses whose uniquely Jewishly blood has been drained from them right down to the last drop. It is for these derelicts of the spirit, Jews whose Jewishness died a premature death because they were not properly encouraged and inspired, that the Jewish community at large must answer. Right outside this synagogue there are young Jews and middle aged Jews and old Jews walking past without the least recognition that today is Shabbat. Who is it who will raise his hands and disclaim responsibility for this situation and say, “Our hands did not spill it?” Look again at those very same hands. They certainly are stained red with the blood of their Jewishness, because “our eyes did not see” – our eyes were clouded. We were blind to them when they were young and impressionable, we bought school supplies for them and filled their lunch baskets, but we failed to inspire them with our sincere interest in them; we gave them a sugar-daddy when what they wanted was a father. And then when they left their elementary schools we failed them again – we did not accompany them onto the great highway of life, we left them to fend for themselves as we overlooked their existence. We simply were not interested in anything beyond the immediate welfare of their bodies. George Bernard Shaw writes in his The Devil’s Disciple that “the worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them; that is the essence of inhumanity.” Well, we are guilty of that inhumanity – we accept moral responsibility because we failed to accompany them out of town.
Before Jacob died, he blessed his son Judah saying, “May your teeth be whiter than milk” (Genesis 49:12). What a strange blessing! Surely our father Jacob did not mean to anticipate Colgate and Pepsodent! The Rabbis of the Talmud (Ketuvot 111b) explain, as they interpret this bizarre text, that he who makes his friend show the white of his teeth, that is – he who makes him smile, does him a greater good than he who provides him with milk. This was Judah’s blessing – that his smile encouraged his brothers and friends to smile, and that was worth more to them than all the milk on Borden’s farm. The Rabbis place greater emphasis on encouragement than on nourishment.
Your son and daughter will begin their school term this week. You will have provided them with all the physical necessities. But don’t forget to smile, to make them feel proud, to encourage them, to bolster their spirits. Keep your eyes open – and your hands clean.