Before G-d gave the Torah to the Jewish people, He asked for guarantors. The nation offered several options - the Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Moses and the other prophets, but G-d rejected them all. The people then volunteered: "Our children will be our guarantors."
G-d agreed and gave the Torah.
In earlier chapters, we talked about the vision of our Founding Fathers. In order for that vision to be perpetuated, however, attention must be directed to our children.
America is looking more closely at its children. In this decade, increasing numbers of families are discovering that raising children is a source of genuine satisfaction. Few things are more dear to a father than lifting up his child to play with him, or more satisfying to a mother than the look of trust and reliance her child gives her.
Nevertheless, although we treasure our children when they are small, no parent would want his child to remain an infant forever. Indeed, life and growth are interrelated. Like plants which grow continually, our children are always developing. Children have an insatiable urge for activity, and one of the most satisfying sources of activity is the assimilation of knowledge.
A couple once came to a rabbi for advice. Their child had turned five, and knowing the importance of early childhood education, they wanted guidance on how to help him advance.
The Rabbi promised to help, but told them: "Now, it's patchwork. Where were you five years ago?"
But children also need structure and guidelines. A child possesses many positive qualities such as spontaneity, trust and sensitivity, but these tendencies are not controlled by a developed mind, and so a youngster often lacks the ability to distinguish between right and wrong. Since a child is always learning, the question his parents must ask is: "What is he learning?" Is his growth being directed by a television set, or by a more thoughtful process?
All normal parents want the best for their children. They themselves are willing to do without in order to ensure that their offspring have everything they can give them, materially and spiritually. Money alone is not sufficient; every child needs a proper education.
More people are coming to realize that education is not the mere acquisition of skills and knowledge. A proper education builds character, and provides children with the wherewithal to continue to develop, as it is written: "Educate a child according to his way, and even as he grows older, he will not depart from it."
Every parent has an obligation to spend at least one half hour a day thinking about the education of his children (Rabbi Sholom DovBer of Lubavitch).
Even in the business world, companies are spending more time and money on programs to build character in their employees. Experience has taught them the benefits of developing their workers as people, for in our information age, human resources such as personal integrity and creativity are a company's most important assets. Data can be stored on a microchip. The resourcefulness required to devise ways of using that data, however, and the maturity and responsibility to do so ethically, are things which must be taught.
These concepts also apply to our country. To maintain the vitality, prosperity and culture of our society, we must invest in our children. Realizing this, our Founding Fathers developed a public school system; education has since become one of our government's fundamental responsibilities.
Most citizens understand the need for a government to provide various services for its citizens. Most of these services are usually no more than a means to an end, necessary so that we can get on with our lives. We need an army to protect us; we need a treasury so that our finances are regulated. Education, by contrast, addresses the purpose of life itself. It is not merely the transfer of information. Its main goal is the shaping of character, so that each person can develop his or her potential and live a meaningful existence.
Our Sages relate: "Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai had five [outstanding] disciples, and... he would enumerate their praiseworthy qualities: Rabbi Eliezer ben Horkenus - a cemented cistern which does not lose a drop; Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya - happy is she who bore him; Rabbi Yosay the priest - he is pious; Rabbi Shimon ben Netanel - sin-fearing; and Rabbi Elazar ben Arach - like a spring which flows with ever-increasing strength."
As a teacher, Rabbi Yochanan appreciated the uniqueness of each of his students. He did not seek conformity, but instead endeavored to give each one the opportunity to develop his own potential.
To accomplish this, a child's education must be based on universal truths. The child must understand that there are absolute rules in life, and that these come from an absolute Creator who built them into the very fabric of the universe.
This makes a strong impression on children, endowing their life with meaning, purpose and direction. They learn that the world has a Master - not a philosophical abstraction, but a personal G-d, a Supreme Being who takes a close interest in the affairs of every individual, and to whom everyone is accountable.
As a result, a child comes to understand that "what I want" and "what makes me happy" are not life's ultimate purposes. Instead, life becomes an opportunity for service, in which each person plays a role in advancing the purpose of the Creator. The gifts with which everyone is endowed by G-d are trusts which must be managed in order to bring greater good to the world. A genuine education reveals an ordered pattern in the universe and in human relations - a pattern which produces laws which are self-evident and unchanging. One can choose to ignore these laws, but they cannot be broken, for they are the bedrock of existence.
Take the concept of honesty. When a person tells a lie, he does not change the truth, he merely obscures it. And one lie inevitably leads to another, until the web of fabrications is exposed. Because the truth remains unchanged, it will ultimately surface.
Teaching children to recognize such basic laws and incorporate them into their lives is the essence of education, and the key to endowing our children's lives with meaning.
Undoubtedly, such an approach represents a challenge for any parent, but it has its rewards, both immediate and long-term. Sharing and communicating deeply with one's offspring gives a parent genuine satisfaction, and ensures that these lines of communication will remain open as one's child matures into adulthood. But it requires great resources of time, energy and spirit.
Unfortunately, the challenge is not always met. Many parents are unable to muster the necessary commitment. This is not an accusation; no one is blaming anyone. Many factors come into play, among them the pressures of earning a living and the type of work we do, but the fact remains that there is a dire lack of proper parenting in American society today.
American children have been allowed to assume that they can do as they please and get whatever they want. How many parents accept what their children do because "That's what makes him happy"? What about right and wrong, and the natural consequences of one's actions?
Children are trained to assert themselves, but too often they are not taught to balance such self-expression with self-discipline. Exposed to a TV world in which brute force, cunning and unbridled passion rule supreme, it is not hard for a child to conclude that every person can do as he wishes without considering about the effects on others.
When NASA first began looking at the possibility of extended space travel, its scientists decided to experiment with the effects of weightlessness on plants. Several seedlings were sent up in one of the first satellites.
When the satellite returned, the biologists were amazed at the results. There were roots growing out from every side. In several places, a stem had started to grow, only to have its growth aborted. Leaves had sprouted at random.
The researchers came to a conclusion: When plants do not have 'up' and 'down' defined for them, they cannot grow correctly.
This is not just a problem for parents, but for the entire society. All major cities in the continental United States have an appalling juvenile crime rate. Drug and alcohol abuse is widespread among young people.
Efforts are being made to counter these ugly trends. Most of them focus on law enforcement - catching and punishing lawbreakers - but this is an ineffectual approach.
First of all, it's impractical. There is no way you can apprehend all the youth who are breaking the law. No police force would be large enough for that. And it's illogical to think that the arrests and imprisonment of some will have a restraining effect on the rest. The facts prove otherwise. Today's young people are confident that they can outsmart the police.
Most importantly, this approach offers only a quick fix; it treats the symptoms, but not the cause. It does not teach a child to refrain from wrongdoing and focus his attention elsewhere. All he learns is that he must be "smart" enough to avoid being caught.
The real answer is education. A child must grow up learning right from wrong. He must appreciate that his actions (or lack of action) are important and have consequences. He must be taught responsibility and sensitivity to others. The key to these positive virtues is a well-grounded relationship with G-d. For this is the anchor securing the increase of moral conduct.
In previous generations, much of this moral training was done in the home. Today, parents have allowed teachers to assume responsibility for this aspect of their children's education. Unquestionably, it would be better if parents shouldered their full share of the burden, but this is not happening. Therefore, society - and schools in particular - must acknowledge and accept this responsibility.
There is no time to waste. Now is the time to reclaim our public schools. It is no secret that many parents in American cities try to avoid sending their children to public schools. Violence in the classrooms is such that teachers in some inner-city zones stand behind protective screens in their classrooms!
America is no longer synonymous with excellence in education. Other countries are doing a better job in this area.
The process of reclaiming our schools must begin with an emphasis on moral values and truth. Our children must be provided with a yardstick of firm and unchanging principles by which to govern their lives and interactions with others. They must learn that the world is not a jungle. A child must become aware of "the Eye that sees, and the Ear that hears," an omnipresent G-d who has given mankind rules of proper conduct, and who watches to see whether they are respected.
These principles are common to all religions, and lie at the core of our national heritage. We want our youth to be imbued with them.
Admittedly, there is a problem, because the principles of freedom and tolerance which are also found at the heart of our value system seem to mitigate against any form of ideological compulsion. We don't want an overzealous teacher imposing his or her particular beliefs on our child. But we don't close down our highways because some drivers break the speed limit. Instead, we educate drivers about the danger and enforce the law.
Similarly, safeguards must be put in place so our children are not proselytized by any one faith. But the need for such safeguards cannot obscure the necessity for our schools to teach moral truth. We have seen the result of the erosion of religious belief in our schools, and it is high time that the tide is turned.
Our Sages taught: "Deed is most essential." Practical steps must be taken. First and foremost, a moment of silent prayer should be instituted in all schools at the beginning of every day.
It is important that this be the first thing the child does in school, so he gains an awareness of the preeminence of G-d in our lives, and so that trust in Him becomes the vortex around which everything else revolves. And it is equally important that this become a regular practice.
When a person begins at the center of a circle, he can continue swinging an arc until he has completed its circumference. If, however, he is standing at the circumference, he may have trouble determining the center. Prayer is a time when we focus.
Why silent prayer? Because if the prayers are spoken, one child will hear what the other is saying, students will talk with each other and the teachers, and there may be pressure from one faith or another. When prayer is silent, no one will know what the other person is thinking, and it will not become a topic for discussion. There will be no pressure from friends or teachers. Every child will be able to develop his own private relationship with G-d. Each one will pray according to his own faith, with words that he and his parents have chosen. And if he and his parents are atheists, he can use this time to meditate on principles of truth and justice.
This approach will preserve unity in the classroom. Since the content of the prayers will not be spoken, the children will recognize that each has his or her own personal bond with G-d, and they will respect the privacy of that relationship.
One of the positive byproducts of this approach will be increased communication between parents and children about spiritual matters. For it is the parents who must give their children something to think about during this moment of silence (just as a parent packs a lunch to relieve the child's hunger).
Often, the materialistic preoccupation of our society doesn't provide easy and natural opportunities for spiritual discussion; parents and children tend to be embarrassed by this kind of talk. Parents are accustomed to providing for their children's material needs, but often haven't the foggiest idea of how to deal with the spiritual aspect of their kids' lives. Having to provide their children with a prayer to say every day would certainly make it easier for parents and children to discuss spirituality in the home.
One might protest that a routine action will lose any meaning; children will pray out of habit, without thinking of what they are saying. This is not a valid argument. It is important for children to know that prayer is routine. This will help them perceive G-dliness as a continual thread in their everyday existence. A child should be trained to understand that a connection with G-d is not something that is only for special occasions, but is an ongoing fact of life, 365 days a year.
And children have powerful resources of trust, sincerity, and faith. There is every reason to believe that they will treasure the morning prayer as a meaningful and motivating experience.
"Oh, that I could pray with the intent of a child" (the Kabbalist Rabbi Shimshon deKinon as quoted in Shoresh Mitzvas HaTefillah, sec. 8).
Some will argue that such an approach contradicts the First Amendment provisions for the separation of Church and State. This argument shows a fundamental lack of understanding of our Founding Fathers and of the society they envisioned. The American government has been involved in religious matters since 1776. The day after the Bill of Rights was passed, Congress authorized the commemoration of Thanksgiving as a day to offer gratitude to G-d. Sessions of the federal and state legislatures are opened with prayers. The president and other government officials are sworn into office by taking an oath to G-d. Chaplains are employed by the military. G-d is mentioned in the Declaration of Independence and on every American coin and dollar bill.
Our Founding Fathers were G-dfearing men who wanted to build a society that would enable every person to worship as he or she chose. They had suffered religious persecution themselves, and did not want this to be repeated on America's shores. It is, however, ludicrous to think that they would desire to bar all mention of G-d from American schools.
The absence of prayer in schools in itself tells children something about their society. A child knows that education is compulsory and assumes that, however unpleasant school may be at times, he is learning what is necessary to get him through life. If prayer is excluded from his classroom experience, he will conclude that this is a secondary type of activity, comparable to extra dance or music lessons. He may enjoy such activities, or he may regard them as a nuisance, but regardless of his personal reaction, the manner in which these activities are presented to him has made a lasting impression. He knows that something of fundamental necessity would not be left for last. Conversely, if a child's school day begins with prayer, he will appreciate its primary importance in his life.
The entire argument over the constitutionality of silent prayer is a misrepresentation of the issue. The Constitution makes provisions for its own amendment. Indeed, the Bill of Rights itself is a series of amendments to the Constitution. And so, the question is not whether the implementation of silent prayer in public schools is constitutional, but whether it is desirable, and will help society.
Silent prayer is desirable, because it is a necessary first step in creating a better moral climate in this country, one which replaces the "do-as-you-feel" ethic with one of responsibility and spiritual purpose. As such, it is in the national interest to proceed with any and all legislative processes necessary - including a constitutional amendment - to institute such prayer in our schools.
In previous centuries, there was a need for a stricter interpretation of the principle of the separation of Church and State to prevent a resurgence of religious persecution and the denial of minority rights. Today, this is no longer necessary. Mankind in the past suffered from an excess of religious zeal and intolerance. This no longer true. On the contrary, it is the lack of religious awareness and growing materialism which challenge American society.
If a patient's sickness changes, his medication should be altered. Instead of proposing solutions that were relevant to previous eras, it is necessary to focus on the immediate problem and how to deal with it.
Silent prayer is an embodiment of the principles of "In G-d We Trust," and "E Pluribus Unum." It establishes G-d and His natural laws as the basis of our experience, and yet allows for a plurality of approaches, a oneness that recognizes rather than obscures differences.
- (Back to text) Shir HaShirim Rabbah 1:4.
- (Back to text) Proverbs 22:6.
- (Back to text) Pirkei Avos 2:9. See the Commentary in In the Paths of Our Fathers (Kehot, N.Y., 1994).
- (Back to text) There are those who object, maintaining that a school cannot serve as a surrogate parent. A child's education must be balanced between the school and home. There is a measure of truth to this approach, for it surely reflects the ideal. Nevertheless, when the ideal is unavailable, one must accommodate to the circumstances as best as possible.
To reply with an analogy: Both a father and a mother play important and necessary roles in educating their children. If, heaven forbid, one parent passes away, the other tries to compensate for the missing influence.
- (Back to text) Cf. Avos 2:1.
- (Back to text) Cf. Avos 1:17.
- (Back to text) A further point: Strong opposition to a moderate proposal such as a moment of silence may trigger a vehement counteraction and lead to calls for sectarian prayers and Bible readings in public schools. It would be self-defeating if those whose goals are religious tolerance and plurality of expression caused the most powerful religious denomination in the country to lay claim to our educational system.