It is a wonderful coincidence that our Torah reading, parshat Bo, the section that deals with the culminating plagues and the exodus, turns three times to the subject of children and the duty to educate them, when we, at Bet David, have our Back to School service and the opening of the cheder for 2018. As Jews we believe that to defend a country you need an army, but to defend a civilisation you need education. Freedom is lost when it is taken for granted. Unless one generation hands on their memories and ideals to the next generation – the story of how they won their freedom and the battles they had to fight along the way – the long journey falters and we lose our way.
What is fascinating, though, is the way the Torah emphasises the fact that children must ask questions. While most traditional cultures see it as the task of a parent or teacher to instruct, or command in order for the child is to obey (“Children should be seen, not heard,” goes the old English proverb. “Children, be obedient to your parents in all things, for this is well-pleasing to the Lord,” says a Christian text), Judaism is asking for the opposite. It is a religious duty to teach our children to ask questions. That is how they, how we, grow.
Judaism is not a religion of blind obedience. Indeed, astonishingly in a religion of 613 commandments, there is no Hebrew word that means “to obey”. Instead, the Torah uses the verb shema, untranslatable into English because it means  to listen,  to hear,  to understand,  to internalise, and  to respond. Written into the very structure of Hebraic consciousness is the idea that our highest duty is to seek to understand the will of God, not just to obey blindly, because we believe that intelligence is God’s greatest gift to humanity. Rashi understands the phrase that God made man “in God’s image, after God’s likeness,” to mean that God gave us the ability “to understand and discern.”
As we begin a new year of learning, I encourage all of you, children and adults alike, to ask questions, to grow and to help us growing, and to enjoy one of the greatest gifts we have been granted ever, the freedom to learn.
Wishing you a wonderful Shabbat Rabbi Adrian M Schell
(Source: Rabbi Jonathan Sacks)
Torah Reading Shabbat Bo
Reading: Exodus 12:1-28
Plaut p. 409; Hertz p. 253
Haftarah: Jeremiah 46:13-28
Plaut p.427; Hertz p.263
TuBiSh’vat is on Wednesday 31.01.2018