April 18, 2024
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Exactly what is chinuch? The word—in its various forms—is generally translated as having something to do with training, inauguration and, of course, education—specifically, as commonly used, the Jewish education of our children. These understandings are not inaccurate, but none other than Rashi—in his commentary to the Chumash (Bereishis 14:14)—offers another definition, providing us with an additional nuance. In explaining the Torah’s use there of a word with the same etymological root, Rashi declares that this word connotes the initiation—that is, the beginning of the entry—of a person (or an item) into the task or role in which he/she (or it) is destined to function. We thus find, for example, the term “chanukas mizbeach” in reference to the initial use of the Altar, and the term “chanukas habayis” in reference to the dedication of the Beis HaMikdash (and, subsequently, of any newly-built home).

To provide proper chinuch for our children, then, we must do more than educate them. Since, the role in which we want them to ultimately function is the role of dedicated, committed, respectful and religious Jewish adults, the chinuch with which we provide them must be geared towards initiating them in that role. But while classroom instruction and the presentation of information is obviously indispensable, as one cannot be a fully-observant Jew without knowing what the halacha requires, and as the basic mitzvah of talmud Torah—incumbent upon all—enjoins everyone to spend time learning Torah in accordance with his or her ability, that is only one part of the story. Effective chinuch must be designed to mold every aspect of the character of our children, and to shape the way they carry themselves, the way they talk, the way they act and the way they interact.

It is noteworthy that Rabbi Meir Simcha HaKohen of Dvinsk (1843-1926)—in his classic work on the Chumash entitled “Meshech Chochmah” (to Bereishis 18:19)—wonders where in the Torah the mitzvah relating to chinuch may be found. He affirms that there are certainly sources in the Torah for the mitzvah of talmud Torah, and there is a famous verse about chinuch in the book of Mishlei (22:6) which directs one to train or educate (“chanoch”) a youngster in accordance with his way, so that he will not stray when he gets older, but what about a source for chinuch in the Torah itself? To answer this interesting question, the Meshech Chochmah points to this verse in Bereishis—in which Hashem tells Avraham Avinu that He cherishes him so much because he commands his children and his household to keep His ways. Here—posits the Meshech Chochmah—is where we see the tremendous significance of transmitting the values of God-awareness to the next generation. That is what the mitzvah of chinuch is all about and this verse is, thus, its source in the Torah.

What is further striking regarding this insightful proposal about the mitzvah of chinuch is the choice of examples in the verse of that which constitutes keeping the ways of Hashem. No mention is made there of observing any particular mitzvah or engaging in any specific act, whether in the realm of commandments governing one’s relationship with Hashem or of those governing one’s relationship with other people. Nor do we find anything in that verse about studying or accumulating knowledge. As important as these pursuits are, they are not discussed here. Rather, the verse speaks about Avraham Avinu teaching about righteousness and justice. It may, perhaps, be suggested that these are broader and more general ideals, reflective of a certain refinement of character and integrity of behavior. If, then, this verse is, indeed, the source in the Torah for the mitzvah of chinuch, which—as explained above—entails preparing our children to begin to fulfill their role as responsible Jewish adults, we are being told that guiding them towards character refinement and behavioral integrity is a most important piece of that preparation.

Needless to say, these kinds of traits are best taught by example. It is profoundly important for our children to have role models who exhibit the very attitudes and conduct that we wish them to exhibit as they grow into adulthood. Grandparents, parents, rebbeim, teachers and advisors—anyone charged with the mission of inculcating the above values into the minds of our children must try, themselves, to project the desired values. Anyone serving as a role model for our children should present a cheerful countenance, have a warm disposition and reflect an internal sense of happiness and satisfaction with a righteous and just life, as defined by the Torah. While there are, of course, no guarantees, children who see certain standards of dignified behavior among those to whom they look up to will more likely adopt those standards later. It may also be added that the more positive role models a child has, the better.

The effective role models are those who can forge a personal connection and be the people from whom the students receive inspiration. In interpreting the famous passage in the Torah which relates the attempted seduction of Yosef by the wife of an Egyptian nobleman (Bereishis 39:7-12), the Gemara (Sotah 36b) asserts that just as Yosef was about to give in to the temptation, he saw—in his mind’s eye—the face of his father before him, which enabled him to resist her; it should be noted that according to one opinion in the midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 98:20), it was, actually, his mother’s face that Yosef saw at that fateful moment.

Throughout life, we are all faced with temptations of one sort or another. In certain situations, it may not be enough to simply know—from an intellectual perspective—what the halacha requires of us. Rather, we, sometimes, need some measure of inspiration from an emotional perspective as well, and having a role model to envision—as Yosef had—can make all the difference. The best role models can become that face from which students can draw encouragement and motivation throughout their lives.

In the final analysis, then, chinuch is a program of initiation, and our children are the initiates. It is a program which features multiple mentors, of different ages and at different stages of life, and which takes place in multiple venues—at home, in school and in any setting where children can be influenced. And, it is a program which must be carefully crafted to transmit not only the Torah’s information, but also its inspiration to lead a righteous and just way of life.


Rabbi Michael Taubes is rosh yeshiva at RIETS and YUHSB, and rav of Congregation Zichron Mordechai in Teaneck.

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