Rabbi Herschel Shachter
Rabbi Hershel Schachter

Straightening Out Our Priorities

In parshas Matos Moshe Rabbeinu rebuked bnei Reuven and bnei Gad for their improper attitude in asking to remain on the eastern side of the Jordan river and build enclosures for their flocks and cities for their children. Rashi (Bamidbar 32:16) explains their mistake: by placing their flocks first, they seemed more interested in protecting their monetary possessions than in looking after their own children! Many of us, too, are so eager to strike it rich that we make the same mistake and place higher priority on our jobs and money than our children.

In a certain sense, our children are our most valuable possession. Nobody lives forever. The Talmud (Yevamos 97a) understands from the possuk in Tehillim (90:10) the halachic principle that the average life of an individual is seventy years. We have the ability to extend our years by living in the past and the future in addition to the present[1]. If we identify with our ancestors - Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov - as well as with all the tzadikim and anshei maaseh of previous generations, we can live in the past. And if we always look forward to the coming of Eliyahu Hanavi and the days of the moshiach, we can live in the future as well. The rabbis, commenting on Breishis 30:1, noted that one who leaves no descendants (or, for those who cannot have children, disciples) is considered to have never lived[2]. If one can not live into the future - by extension, through his descendants, his meager "seventy years" are insignificant. Reshaim are neither interested in living in the past (by identifying with the tzadikim of years ago), nor in living on into the future (by hoping for the coming of Eliyahu and moshiach); they only want to live for the pleasure of the present. The rabbis comment that such reshaim, even during their lifetime, are not considered "living". Tzadikim are considered to be "living on" even after they die (see Rashi to Breishis11:32). By caring properly for our children, and seeing to it that they preserve our Torah way of life, we extend our own lives and, in a certain sense, live on into the future.

Before mattan Torah the mitzvah of pru u'rvu applied to all people, and the essence of the mitzvah was populating and controlling the world (see Sanhedrin 59b). After mattan Torah, the entire nature of the mitzvah changed: it no longer applies to non-Jews, and Jews are commanded as part of the mitzvah to transmit the Torah to the next generation. If a Jew will have non-Jewish children[3], or (according to many poskim) even non-observant children[4], he will not fulfill this mitzvah. Furthermore, if one is not able to have children but teaches Torah to the children of others[5] or supports Jewish education[6] it is considered as if "he has given birth to these children", and has at least partially fulfilled the mitzvah of periyah verivyah.

To fulfill the mitzvah of pru u'rvu it is not sufficient to merely give birth to children, rather we must transmit Torah values to them as well. And we should not be fiscally conservative in performing this crucial mitzvah! We should not focus on the cost of tuition when determining which school to enroll our children in. The only criteria to be considered ought to be where they will receive the best education in middos (character development), deios (principles of faith), and Torah knowledge. The cost should not be a deciding consideration. The rabbis of the Talmud had a tradition that whatever one spends on the Torah education of one's children will be reimbursed. At the outset of the year (i.e. in Tishrei) it is determined how much money one will earn, but this does not include s'char limud which he pays (Beitza 16a). That is an additional allocation that we receive min hashomayim. Whatever we spend on our children's Torah education will not reduce the amount of money we are supposed to earn during the year.

We should not underestimate the potential of our children and provide for them an inadequate Torah education because we assume that they cannot become talmidei chachamim. The Talmud uses an expression, in connection with teaching young children, that we should "stuff them like one would a fat ox" (Bava Basra 21a). The more Torah knowledge the mind absorbs, the more it becomes capable of retaining. Before we start reciting shmoneh esreh we recite the possuk from Tehillim, "G-d, open up my lips, and my mouth will recite your praises" (Tehillim 51:17). In the essay "Emunah u'Bitachon" attributed to the Ramban, a different interpretation is offered to this possuk: G-d, open up the bounds and the limits of my potential, and enable me to accomplish more than my present potential. The child's mind is, in a certain sense, like a sponge. If parents would engage a private tutor to enrich their children with more Torah learning, in most cases this would not cripple the child, neither socially, nor psychologically or scholastically. Rather, their children would become more learned; and by becoming more learned, according to our tradition, it would follow that the children would become more observant (Avodah Zarah 28b).

All children should be treated as if they might reach the greatest spiritual heights. The Medrash[7] tells us that because Moshe Rabbeinu was destined to become a prophet and speak with the Shechinah, it was not proper for him as an infant to nurse from non-Jewish women (who ate non-kosher food). The Rema (Yoreh Deah 81:7) encourages all parents to consider the possibility that their children too will some day become nevi'im, and therefore in the event that a mother is unable to nurse her child and a non-Jewish woman must nurse the child, the parents should see to it that the wet-nurse should not eat any non-kosher food as long as she is nursing the Jewish child.

We should not be afraid of our children becoming more knowledgeable or observant than we are. The Talmud tells us that normal parents are never jealous of their child's accomplishments (Sanhedrin 105b). Parents view the child as an extension of themselves and consider the child's accomplishments as their own. A parent who cherishes Torah knowledge would be very proud to say that his child is more learned than he. And likewise, a parent who cherishes observance of mitzvos would be very proud if his child were more observant than he.

On a communal level, we have lost our bearings regarding what is a normal and proper lifestyle, and what is an opulent and improper one[8]. In that context, some Orthodox people spend large sums of money on non-essentials without making yeshiva tuition a top priority, and consequently want to send their children to public school to save money. We, too, need Moshe Rabbeinu's rebuke! What an unfortunate confusion of priorities! Our children are immeasurably more valuable than our homes and all other material possessions. If we really believed G-d that the Torah is the "kli chemdah" (Avos 3:18), and that observance of the mitzvos is the wish of the Creator of the world, how could we possibly be so lax regarding the Torah education of our children?


[1]See Mipninei Horav, parsha Va'eirah

[2]See Nedarim 64b

[3]See Beis Shmuel to Shulchan Aruch Even Hoezer (1:12)

[4]See commentaries to Ein Yaakov (Brochos #51)

[5]Sanhedrin 19b

[6]This is the interpretation of the Chafetz Chaim to Yeshaya 56:4

[7]See Rashi to Shemos 2:7

[8]As Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski recently said during a TorahWeb leil iyun, "the frum world is up to its eyebrows in looking for pleasure". Audio & video of Rabbi Dr. Twerski is available at here

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