By Rabbi Isaac Mann

The opening verse of the parashah – “Say (emor) to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and you shall say (v’amarta) to them ‘do not defile yourself to someone who died amongst his people,'” (Lev. 21:1)is a major source in the Midrash and Talmud for an important rabbinic teaching. From the redundancy of “emor” “v’amarta” the Rabbis derive that the adult priests must teach their young to follow in their ways, and just as the former are forbidden to be defiled by contact with a corpse so too the young must be instructed to follow this law. Thus the phrase of “and you shall say to them – v’amarta aleihem – applies to the offspring, so as to say, “You shall teach them what I am teaching you.”

By extension, the Rabbis teach us that every adult Jew must teach his children to follow the laws of the Torah. We generally refer to this as the mitzvah of hinukh. Even when a child is young, he/she must be introduced to a life of observance. One cannot simply say that, because the child is not yet bar/bat mitzvah, therefore he/she is not yet obligated in the observance of mitzvot. To the contrary, to the level that is possible, the young child must be discouraged from violating the forbidden acts and encouraged to do the mitzvot.

This basic teaching of hinukh (sometimes translated as “training”) is fundamental to the continuity of Judaism. If one would wait until a child reaches the age of puberty before he is told that she must obey the laws of the Torah, it would be exceedingly difficult to influence her. Imagine a child who watches television every Shabbat as a regular routine while munching on a pepperoni pizza. When it comes to his 13th birthday, he is told that he must observe the Sabbath laws from now on – no more television, no more non-kosher pizza – and, instead, he must go to shul with his parents. There is no way that this child will easily transform himself into a religiously observant Jew. One must start from early on to have the television shut on the Sabbath (if not a whole week) and not allow non-kosher food into the home. Synagogue attendance should be part of a weekly routine when a child is able to do so. This is what hinukh is all about.

While the Torah elsewhere (as we read in the Shema) imparts the importance of teaching our children, it does not explicitly insist that the child must also begin to observe, at least in stages, the laws of the Torah. It is one thing to know; it is another thing to observe. Thus, the Rabbis found a basis in the opening phrase of our sidra, for the notion that the parents must not only teach the child what is expected but also encourage him or her to begin the observance well before the age of obligation.

One might then ask: If this is so fundamental to Judaism, why is the Torah not more explicit in requiring hinukh.
Why must we depend on a midrashic interpretation to convey such an important principle? Surely, there should have been an explicit teaching, maybe even one of the 613 mitzvot, that requires parents to teach and train their children to follow in the ways of the Torah.

Let me suggest that the Torah does not specifically add hinukh as another mitzvah or explicit obligation because, ideally, hinukh is accomplished in an implicit manner – just as the source of hinukh in the Torah is implicit. The ideal way for parents to teach their children is by example. When parents act in accordance with the highest ideals of the Torah, then the children will naturally emulate them.
This is what the Torah is trying to convey by not explicitly adding another mitzvah. We should not think that we must behave differently than we would otherwise simply in order to teach our children proper conduct. There is no separate mitzvah for which one might even say a berakhah, a blessing, upon instructing and training a child to do a mitzvah. Rather, by being a model and an examplar, one shows the child the proper way to observe the Torah.

The adult who, himself, does not observe but tries, instead, to impart proper observance to his offspring is courting failure. “Don’t do as I do; do as I say,” as we all know, never works. It is only by example that we can be most effective in imparting our traditions to our children. If we follow the ways of the Torah and do so with joy and
happiness, we will impart those feelings to our children, and they in turn will follow in our footsteps as well. Of course, we have to be strong in our commitments and gentle in our demeanor, but the result will be that our children will proudly carry on their parents’ traditions.

Thus, the priests – the ideal mentors in the Biblical period – were instructed by Moses to impart God’s teachings to their offspring. By setting a good example for them and guiding them in the proper path, the children will grow up to be faithful members of the Jewish people. May we too merit to have our children follow in the path of the Torah.

Shabbat Shalom!