Excitement about Torah learning is a goal we all share for our children. We want our children to love learning Torah and to develop a lifelong affinity to talmud Torah. How can we engender this love of learning in our children? Parshat Yitro describes a model of how to transmit the Torah, scripted by Hashem, in order to generate a real ahavat HaTorah and lifelong commitment. Let’s look at the blueprint summarized through the acronym ENGAGE.
The Torah was given alongside thunder and lightning. In order for talmud Torah to be memorable, it must be exciting. How can we create an exciting experience for our children? Our children are sensitive to subliminal messages. They can sense what excites us. To imbue them with a love of learning Torah, we must model ahavat HaTorah. Studies in literacy development demonstrate that children are significantly more likely to read if they view their parents as readers. Similarly, if we want our children to love learning, we must show them how much we love learning Torah.
Picture your child receiving his or her first siddur or Chumash, or your son’s hanachat tefillin. The excitement is palpable. They are overjoyed to have the chance to use their siddur, Chumash, or tefillin. In preparation for Matan Torah, Rashi comments (Shemot 19:1) that the words of Torah should seem fresh and new each time we learn, as if we just received the Torah that day. How can we create this “new” experience for our children on an ongoing basis? Every time we learn, we can celebrate that we have the opportunity to learn something new, something we have not learned before or something from a new angle or a deeper perspective. This celebration may include buying special refreshments, inviting friends to a siyum and playing a game relating to the topic that was learned (a siyum need not mean completing a mesechta or sefer). The feeling of newness or freshness can also be generated by tapping into our children’s natural curiosity or exploration. Providing children with an opportunity to explore their curiosity inspires a love of learning. If we want to spark our children’s innate curiosity, when preparing to learn with them we should consider how to set up the material so our children will come up with a profound question or relate the material to his or her life.
Limud HaTorah is a special experience, different from other intellectual pursuits. Although a person may enjoy the intellectual stimulation, learning Torah involves an encounter and relationship with Hashem. Kabbalat HaTorah was the ultimate meeting with Hashem, and our goal is to ensure that every time our children learn Torah they appreciate the opportunity to strengthen and deepen this relationship. Fittingly, in preparation for Kabbalat HaTorah, Hashem promises us that we will be a “mamlechet kohanim v’goy kadosh (Shemot 19:6),” describing our special relationship with Him. We must strive to bring Hashem into the conversation and enable our children to appreciate the kedusha of talmud Torah. Our educational system generally grades students for their talmud Torah. The topic of grades for talmud Torah is beyond the scope of this article. However, it is valuable for parents to consider what we emphasize to our children—do we care more about the grade or the learning and religious experience? Do we celebrate how much they learned, how much they enjoy their learning and how much they are growing in learning? Ensuring our focus remains on these questions ensures that our children know we appreciate talmud Torah as a religious experience.
Providing students with a variety of opportunities to take active roles in their learning enables them to personalize the learning. Students who are actively engaged in learning experience greater success and enjoyment in their learning. Being an active participant is relevant within the actual learning, as well as the choice of what to learn. If we want our children to “own” their learning and feel a deeper and more profound connection to it, we should provide them with the opportunities for choice and active involvement. Rashi, quoting a Mechilta, points out (Shemot 20:1) that Bnei Yisrael did not simply listen to the Aseret Hadibrot. Rather, they actively responded to each command, voicing their acceptance. Rashi (Shemot 19:3) quotes Chazal who explain that Moshe personalized the message by speaking differently to the men and the women in preparation for Matan Torah. As project-based learning has become more popular due to its great effectiveness, we can utilize this in learning with our children. For example, before Sukkot, we can learn about sukkah or the daled minim and simultaneously build a sukkah or hunt for a proper lulav and etrog.
People are by nature social creatures. Talmud Torah can create a group identity and cohesion. The Torah describes, “Vayichan sham Yisrael neged hahar (Shemot 19:2),” which Chazal describe as a unification of Bnei Yisrael in preparation for Kabbalat HaTorah. The notion of receiving the Torah brought our nation together as a group in an unprecedented way. Similarly, in instilling a love of learning in our children, we can use the social opportunities. Whether it is Shabbat learning groups with our child’s friends or optional learning opportunities in which our child can attend with his or her friends or other learning programs, we can take advantage of the social aspect of these talmud Torah gatherings. Not only will this make the learning more enjoyable, studies illustrate that by learning with others the learning is deeper and more enduring.
In today’s fast-moving world, giving an activity our undivided attention is a challenge. A key ingredient in instilling a love of learning Torah in our children is to give them our undivided time and attention when learning together. Committing our full selves to learning with our children ensures that they feel the importance of this time and provides us with valuable opportunities to connect. Perhaps, this is why the whole world stopped for Kabbalat HaTorah, underscoring that the entire world turned their complete and undivided attention to the world-changing experience.
Instilling a love of talmud Torah is a daunting task. It is a goal we should include in our tefillot as we ask Hashem to partner with us and guide us in the education of our children. Although parents value the partnership with their yeshiva in the education of the children, the role of the parents is irreplaceable. Our efforts are well served to follow the model set forth by Hashem as we ENGAGE with our children in their religious development.
By Rabbi Joshua Kahn, head of school, Yeshiva University High School for Boys/MTA