Going back to the beginning of things can be eye opening.
The origins of an official schooling system where students come to learn in an organized and uniform way, are described by the Gemara (Bava Batra 21a), as being the initiative of one great revolutionary genius, Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Gamla, more than 2,000 years ago.
Until he emerged on the scene, home-schooling was the order of the day – parents taught their own children. This system was built on the fact that parents have the primary mitzva to give a Torah education to their children. The Gemara notes that the problem of such a schooling system was that it had inconsistent success rates, and led to inequality of educational opportunities.
Those children blessed with parents who were able to teach them properly received a good education, and those whose parents were unable to teach them were never given the proper skills of Jewish literacy.
Following experimentation with different models, including centralized schooling in Jerusalem, Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Gamla led the way, together with the support of the great sages of that generation, in establishing a national school system in which every town and village had to have its own school.
Since then, every Jewish community has an halachic obligation to establish Torah schooling for its children, and the Rambam (Laws of Talmud Torah 2:1) ruled, based on the Talmud, that any community that does not fulfill its obligation is liable to be ex-communicated, “because the world exists for the breath of the young children in school [learning Torah].”
Understanding the beginnings of our school system is important, because it reminds us of the fact that the primary obligation to teach Torah to children rests on the shoulders of parents, and that the school serves as the agent of the parents, assisting them to discharge their sacred duty. This has important practical and psychological implications. Parents need to feel a sense of ownership of the mitzva of giving their children a proper Torah education.
Embracing this responsibility means that parents should take every opportunity possible to learn Torah themselves with their children. The very transmission of our heritage, which was given to us by G-d at Mount Sinai, depends on the bond and relationship between parents and children, and how the values, wisdom, and learning of our Torah heritage is passed from generation to generation.
This theme is intimately connected with Pessah, where the transmission from one generation to the next of the origins of our people in the slavery of Egypt and G-d’s liberation of us, with the attendant miracles, is at the heart and soul of the Seder experience. So much of the structure and content of the Seder is geared toward children, so that parents can transmit, in a relevant and interesting way, the essence of our vision of the destiny of our people as given to us by G-d.
And even if there are no children at your Seder, we should all engage in the learning process with a childlike wonder and appreciation for our Torah heritage. In this spirit, and as part of the Generation Sinai project, a program for parents and children to learn Torah together, a pack of Seder learning cards has been made available to print before Passover for use at the Seder at www.generationsinai.
com. The objective of these cards is to facilitate discussions and the sharing of ideas between parents and children during the precious moments of our Pessah Seders.
As one of the most successful institutions of Jewish history, the Seder provides a model for the Jewish world today, which confronts very high levels of assimilation, ignorance, and apathy. The Seder is essentially a grand Torah learning experience and shows that one very powerful answer to the problems we confront today is for parents and children to learn Torah together at home. Through this connection the values, history, and vision of the Jewish people are handed from one generation to the next.
Without Torah learning the Jewish world will be lost. Torah study gives us the inspiration and direction for the future. We can only begin to understand our lives and our purpose on this Earth through learning Hashem’s wisdom. Often we are so busy with the immediate tasks in life that we don’t see the full picture; we don’t fully understand the values and the vision behind Judaism. But when we study Torah, we get to see everything in our lives with clarity and the right perspective.
We need to know why we are here and how we can achieve our purpose in this world, and the way to understand this that is through learning Torah. The lesson of the Seder is that such learning can and must be a cross-generational experience, something to be shared between parents and children.
The Gemara (Sotah 21a) compares this world to a walk in a dark forest, filled with confusion and spiritual and moral pitfalls.
The mitzvot, says the Gemara, are like holding the candle in the dark forest; they illuminate somewhat. Torah learning, however, is like the rising sun which illuminates the signposts, enabling us to see everything and know where to go.
The Seder also shows us how to study Torah together. The Seder is not a presentation; it is not a lecture, but a dialogue, a dynamic conversation.
We begin this conversation with the four questions that ask why this night is different. This thread of questions-and-answers weaves its way across the telling of the Exodus. Clearly, this is not simply about imparting information.
Indeed – as we learn in the Haggadah itself – even if a person knows many of the answers, he or she must still engage in the dialogue.
The question-and-answer format promotes this dialogue, and that really is the art of a good Seder – finding a way to draw participants into a discussion so that it becomes real and relevant to everyone present.
From a psychological perspective, this question- and-answer format engages participants and helps them take ownership of the narrative.
Having this sense of ownership is a very important concept when it comes to learning Torah in general, which is not just about absorbing information or grasping a set of instructions, but about internalizing, making it part of the way we look at the world.
The Seder shows that our homes – not only our shuls and schools – can be places of Torah learning. Parents need to embrace their primary mitzva to learn Torah with their children throughout the year. The Generation Sinai project has been established to assist parents with this sacred task at least at the times of the festivals (see generationsinai.com).
Together we can create a culture of Torah learning in our homes. The Seder points the way to how this can be done in a wonderful spirit of fun and fascination. We can extend the magic of the Seder so that families can share dynamic Torah learning experiences throughout the year, and watch our homes become beacons of light and inspiration for us all.