April 13, 2024 |

Early Childhood Education

I'm not an expert in early childhood education, but I was a kid once and I have three growing children who are rapidly learning about themselves, their values and their world. Aside from a few songs and various bits of material that I must have re-learned many times since then, I don't remember very much information from my early education. But I do remember feelings and associations and I think that my early childhood experiences shaped my moral view of the universe in many ways.

I have always felt that the most important thing small children learn in school is middot, ethical and moral habits and behaviors. Indeed, they also learn particular skills and learning habits and a bunch of other things, which I don't want to negate. Yet, in my mind, the most important early lessons are how to share, to respect God and authority, the habits and feelings of gratitude and how to be kind and compassionate to others. I am always a proud papa of my children and their accomplishments, but I am especially touched when Uriel - when he was first learning to talk - would say 'ank-u' and 'wekom', when Rinat would cry in empathy and run to help because Nadav fell down and when Nadav would change Uriel's diaper and help him get dressed because he knew that Uriel adored him and he wanted to be a good older brother role model.

I'm sure that I learned about hachnasat orchim, welcoming in guests, when I was a kid. I am sure that I drew pictures of it and did projects and colored in papers with the Hebrew words in banner-type at the top and a picture of Avraham's tent. I am sure that I learned about Shabbat and did all the requisite painting, spelling and being tested on the seven days of creation. But all of that introductory knowledge has been swallowed up by years of further study. What I DO remember - and cherish - is what Shabbat felt like to me in my childhood. What I DO remember is what kind of guests we had in my home and how we treated them.

In my daughter's class this week, the kindergartners are hosting the 2 year olds. The 5 year olds are baking for their little guests, setting the tables for them and planning to greet them, make them feel comfortable and escort them out the door at the end. My daughter has seen us do this a thousand times with community members and college students. She has helped set the table at home, taken coats and walked with me out to the hallway to say farewell. But I am glad that her teachers have found a way for her to BE the hostess. I am glad that she will feel - that it is deeply ingrained for her to feel - that this is part of what it means to be a Jew.

At a sukkot meal we were at, the children of our hosts - ranging from elementary to high school - served the guests and cleared the plates. What impressed me was not only that they did it and not only that they did it graciously and without complaint, but that their mother and father never asked them to. I'm not saying they were volunteers; clearing and serving was absolutely expected of them. But they knew what was expected of them - it was their moral duty - and they did it as effortlessly as washing your hands after you go to the bathroom. It was just a part of their universe, their routine, their way of being. I think this is a message that is found in God's interactions with Avraham in this week's sidra as well.

In a remarkable and strange passage (Gen 18:17), God asks a rhetorical question: "Can I conceal from Avraham what I am about to do?" God is about to destroy Sodom and - as the destroying angels make the journey from Avraham's tent to the city gates - God decides to tell Avraham the plan. Avraham seems scandalized by the imminent holocaust - "shall the judge of the whole world not do justice?" (18:25)- and negotiates - unsuccessfully - for a stay of execution.

What interests me about this incident is the question of why God feels compelled to tell Avraham at all. Was it just a common courtesy? Was He looking to explain the ways of Divine justice or perhaps just to let him know that his nephew Lot would be saved? Or maybe, God was giving an opportunity to Avraham - or testing him - to see if he would challenge God's authority and justice, which is exactly what Avraham does. One way of looking at it, which has always been particularly meaningful to me, is found in the following passage:

"Can I conceal from Avraham what I am about to do? For Avraham shall be a great and formidable nation and all the peoples of the Earth will be blessed through him. For I have chosen him[1]so that he will instruct his children and his household after him to keep the way of Hashem (derech Hashem) [and] to do kindness (tzedaka) and justice (mishpat) so that the things I have spoken about Avraham will come to be."
(Gen 18:18-19)

One of Avraham's primary responsibilities was to pass down a set of values called the "derech Hashem" (the relationship between us and God[2]) and "tzedaka u'mishpat" (the relationships between people) to his descendants. Hashem feels compelled to reveal to Avraham his plans for Sodom so that Avraham can model the behavior that will be expected of the Jewish people. Indeed, Avraham's response -- in arguing with God, in attempting to uphold kindness and justice, in advocating even for those who may not deserve it, and in finally acquiescing to God's decision, is exactly the value system of the Jewish people. God wanted Avraham to have this experience and response and He wanted it to be recorded in the Torah so that we should know what to do and how to respond when faced with seeming injustice.

But it is more than just an object lesson; the reaction is meant to be visceral[3], immediate and instinctive. What God wants from Avraham is the moral values of our youth -- deeply ingrained from childhood -- about what is right or wrong, the message which has been taught to us from generation to generation from infancy, for Avraham "to instruct his children and his household after him." Hirsch writes this eloquently:
"ki y'dativ, (for I have chosen him) - not for his own sake, not just to make him into a rich and powerful prince have I chosen him but just to be the founder and educator of such a nation, and not for himself, but for this nation, is the knowledge of this decision and the insight into My ways which it imparts, of such significant importance. For he is to achieve the unique great pedagogic success of implanting the principles of the future nation so deeply in the breast of his only late-born son, that long after he, the ancestor, has departed this world his children, and his home after him and the whole future nation would stand on these principles, live in them, and make them into a reality. He will live on so immortally in his children that every particle of blessing that comes to his very last descendant can be ascribed back to the great ancestor."

May we succeed in educating our children to be descendants of Avraham our fore-father, for whom the moral response to injustice was instinctual and obvious, for whom middot were no less habitual than getting up in the morning. May we be able to follow and perpetuate the way of God to do kindness and justice, derech Hashem la'asot tzedaka umishpat. Shabbat shalom!

[1] This is how Hirsch interprets it. The original languge is "y'dativ", "I know him", which, in the Biblical sense, means to have an intimate and close relationship (and not, contrary to popular belief, a necessarily sexual one.)
[2] See Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch on this verse.


Rabbi Avi Heller

Joined: July 27, 2007

Originally from Denver CO, Rav Avi received a BA from BU and Rabbinic ordination and an MA in Bible from YU. Before joining MJE, he was Director of Jewish Education at BU Hillel, co-directed the BU Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus and was an Associate University Chaplain. He has been the...

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