Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks is one of the greatest Jewish thinkers alive today. In his written D’var Torah on Parashat Bo, he writes about the extraordinary choice Moses made when first addressing the Israelites after their redemption from Egypt. Rabbi Sachs points out that many leaders may have spoken about the responsibility of freedom or the long road ahead. Instead, Moses makes another, unlikely choice. He speaks about education. Here is an excerpt from Rabbi Sachs’ D’var Torah. It is worth the read and I will explain my reasons below.
“It is one of the most counter-intuitive acts in the history of leadership. Moses did not speak about today or tomorrow. He spoke about the distant future and the duty of parents to educate their children. He even hinted – as Jewish tradition understood – that we should encourage our children to ask questions, so that the handing on of the Jewish heritage would be not a matter of rote learning but of active dialogue between parents and children.”
So Jews became the only people in history to predicate their very survival on education. The most sacred duty of parents was to teach their children. Pesach itself became an ongoing seminar in the handing on of memory. Judaism became the religion whose heroes were teachers and whose passion was study and the life of the mind. The Mesopotamians built ziggurats. The Egyptians built pyramids. The Greeks built the Parthenon. The Romans built the Coliseum. Jews built schools. That is why they alone, of all the civilizations of the ancient world are still alive and strong, still continuing their ancestors’ vocation, their heritage intact and undiminished.
Moses’ insight was profound. He knew that you cannot change the world by externalities alone, by monumental architecture, or armies and empires, or the use of force and power. How many empires have come and gone while the human condition remains untransformed and unredeemed?
There is only one way to change the world, and that is by education. You have to teach children the importance of justice, righteousness, kindness and compassion. You have to teach them that freedom can only be sustained by the laws and habits of self-restraint. You have continually to remind them of the lessons of history, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt,” because those who forget the bitterness of slavery eventually lose the commitment and courage to fight for freedom. And you have to empower children to ask, challenge and argue. You have to respect them if they are to respect the values you wish them to embrace.
This is a lesson most cultures still have not learned after more than three thousand years. Revolutions, protests and civil wars still take place, encouraging people to think that removing a tyrant or having a democratic election will end corruption, create freedom, and lead to justice and the rule of law – and still people are surprised and disappointed when it does not happen. All that happens is a change of faces in the corridors of power…
What God taught Moses was that the real challenge does not lie in gaining freedom; it lies in sustaining it, keeping the spirit of liberty alive in the hearts of successive generations. That can only be done through a sustained process of education. Nor is this something that can be delegated away to teachers and schools. Some of it has to take place within the family, at home, and with the sacred obligation that comes from religious duty. No one ever saw this more clearly than Moses, and only because of his teachings have Jews and Judaism survived…He knew that “if you plan for a year, plant rice. If you plan for a decade, plant a tree. If you plan for posterity, educate a child.”* (*Attributed to Confucius)
Education, commitment to our Jewish values, Torah, and mitzvot have sustained the Jewish people for generations. And in each generation our people have faced significant challenges. Regardless of the challenges we have thrived because of our relentless commitment to pass down our story and way of life. This has been our secret to survival – and it will again.
It is now that time of year when Hillel parents and day school parents across the country will decide where their children will go to school next year.
What Moses knew when he led the people out of Egypt to create the Jewish nation is as true today as it was then. Children need a rich and deep Jewish education along with their deep and rich general education. Day School is the best answer – more than ever!