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“And a Small Child Shall Lead Them”
by Rabbi Zvi Homnick
CHILDHOOD ATTITUDES
 
One of the attitudes that I absorbed growing up in a world in which Torah scholarship was the ultimate measure by which a Jew is judged, was that those who teach Torah to little children are held in relatively low esteem in terms of their standing in the world of Torah.  A truly great scholar is someone who leads a yeshiva for adult students.  If somebody ends up teaching high school age students, obviously he didn't have what it takes to make it to the top.  If he ends up teaching elementary school age kids, he is almost to be pitied for having to stoop so low in order to provide for his family, but if a person is involved in teaching Alef-Beis and reading, it is safe to assume that he probably wasn't very bright to begin with and obviously “does not know how to learn.”
 
Yes, I was well aware of the Talmudic account regarding Rebbi Chiya cited in Bava Metzia (85b, Kesubos 103b), “Once when Rebbi Chanina and Rebbi Chiya were arguing [in Torah], Rebbi Chanina said to Rebbi Chiya, 'You are arguing with me?  If chas v'shalom the Torah would be forgotten from the Jewish People, I could restore it through my exegetical prowess.'  Rebbi Chiya said to him, 'You are arguing with me?  I am working so that Torah not be forgotten from the Jewish People.  I go and I plant flax, and then I weave the flax into snares and trap deer.  I feed the flesh [of the deer] to orphans and I turn the skins into parchment.  Then I go to a city [where are there are no teachers of Torah] and I teach five boys [one each of] the five books of the Torah and I teach six boys [one each of] the six orders of the Mishna, and I tell them to teach other the scripture and the Mishna until I return.  Thus, I accomplish that the Torah not be forgotten from the Jewish People.  This is what Rebbi (Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi) said, 'Greater are the deeds of Chiya.'”  Additionally, in Bava Metzia, the Gemara recounts various anecdotes indicating that Rebbi Chiya's place in the Next World is far beyond that of his contemporaries, as well as the fact that he and sons were the equivalent of Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov, in terms of being able to usher in the Messianic Age before its time through their prayers.  And all this was because of his efforts in the education of young children.
 
So, rationally, I knew there was something off about this invidious and pervasive elitist snobbery inherent in that worldview.  I also sensed a certain lack of appreciation for the holiness of Torah and its transmission into the “mouths that have not tasted the taste of sin” implicit therein, and yet, I must confess that the attitude in question definitely colored my thinking throughout my formative years.  I was also aware even then that the Chassidic world had a very different view of the “melamed” and the importance of his contribution, but that just fed into the stereotype of Chassidim as people who “do not know how to learn.”  I eventually discovered how deeply ingrained this worldview had become when I began reading and learning about the Baal Shem Tov. 
 
I'm embarrassed to repeat this now, but back then, the fact that the Baal Shem Tov “wasted his time” with the education of little children raised questions for me as to whether perhaps his greatness was overly exaggerated, because I couldn't fathom a truly great person personally engaged in such trivial matters, let alone being a “teacher's aide” to an Alef-Beis teacher.  On the other hand, my bleeding heart and mushy emotionalism (Chassidic soul?) couldn't help but be moved by the love and devotion to every Jewish child expressed in those accounts of the early years of the Baal Shem Tov.  That is why, oddly enough, my grappling with this issue played a disproportionate part in my internal struggle in becoming receptive to, and accepting of, the teachings of Chassidus. As opposed to more esoteric issues such as the debate over “literal versus non-literal tzimtzum” (is G-d in the bathroom?), or the finer points of demarcation between Chassidus and pantheism.
 
SAVE THE CHILDREN
 
On the fifteenth day of Sivan, in the year 1927, the Rebbe Rayatz was arrested, primarily for his far-reaching network of activities, as well as his public calls, to promote and sustain the proper Torah education of young Jewish children in the face of the atheistic communist juggernaut in Russia.  Although the heroism and personal sacrifice displayed by the Rebbe and his followers earned the, sometimes grudging, admiration of all Jews, sadly, there were/are many who saw/see this focus on chinuch as a deviation from the more lofty spiritual agenda of Chabad Chassidus through the earlier generations.  In retrospect, I am ashamed to admit that this argument carried significant weight with me, and (although hard to quantify in the face of the many other arguments, objections and points of difference, which I had to confront and contend with) contributed to my inner resistance to the ideas and messages of modern-day Lubavitch.
 
Imagine my shock, when I discovered that even on “the inside” there are Chassidim who view this shift in emphasis, which continued into Poland, the United States, and ultimately around the world, with a somewhat jaundiced eye.  Amongst these, there is a wide spectrum of views ranging from seeing it purely as a matter of exigency to acknowledging certain benefits and advantages that accrue from devoting one's energies towards addressing what is essentially an unwelcome situation and diversion.  Then again, after having resolved for myself, at least theoretically, how it is specifically through the “deeds of Chiya” that one becomes a suitable vessel to the highest revelations of Divine Consciousness, I was no less shocked to discover that there are those who have built an entire ideological construct around the idea of not pursuing the lofty spiritual agenda of Chabad Chassidus for the sake of Jewish education and outreach.
 
It had long seemed pretty obvious to me that the memoirs and stories published by the Rebbe Rayatz about the early hidden Tzaddikim, followed by the Baal Shem Tov and his disciples, devoting themselves to the chinuch of little children, are meant to convey the idea that this activity is not something undertaken in desperation as a last ditch effort to preserve the future integrity of the Jews as a people, but is a key ingredient in the Torah philosophy of Chassidus.  I distinctly recall, as a teenager, listening in on a conversation between a group of very learned married guys, in which they were discussing this very point. 
 
They, as Misnagdim, were discussing how the memoirs and stories in the talks and writings of the Rebbe Rayatz were written to make the Chassidim look good and the Misnagdim look like monstrous caricatures of self-absorption and arrogance.  Their contention was, on this specific topic, everybody agreed about the necessity and the importance of Jewish education.  The question was only about the proper balance between emulating the “deeds of Chiya” and investing in one's own growth and development in Torah scholarship.  We see that even Rebbi Chiya didn't stay around to teach each child individually, but rather he gave them the tools to teach each other and he went back to the Beis Medrash where he could continue his learning on his level amongst his equals. 
 
Therefore, they understood the debate between the Chassidic view and that of the Lithuanian scholar class as being about which takes precedence and which is of greater importance.  Even they managed to “get” that the Rebbe Rayatz was promoting the position that the activities of the Baal Shem Tov were an outgrowth of a worldview that saw this work as far more than a simple “necessity,” which should only require the hands-on involvement of great scholars and Tzaddikim when there is no one else to step up to the job.
 
EDUCATE THE CHILD
 
One of the most basic tenets of Chassidus is that although in this finite not-yet-rectified world in which G-d's presence is concealed He can only be grasped and apprehended in the heart and mind “each according to his measure,” He ultimately wishes and plans and promised to reveal Himself to the Jewish People in this physical world in all His infinite glory.  As such, part of the process of preparation for that revelation is to recognize the limits of the heart and mind and to seek to connect to G-d on a level that transcends those limitations, even if it means being consumed by His Infinite Light. 
 
The means through which a finite being can connect to G-d on any level is only and exclusively through the Torah, because G-d put Himself into and expresses Himself through the Torah.  As such, the intellectual component of Torah (“Torah goes forth from Chochma”), especially that part of Torah which deals with issues of the mundane world including falsehoods and fraudulence, is only a means (in this context) to establishing a finite connection with G-d as a step in the journey towards transcendence.  And since G-d's “presence” is not strongly felt in that study, the Talmud issues countless warnings about how it can lead to arrogance or become a “potion of death,” because it so easy to lose sight of the true goal and purpose of Torah study.
 
Conversely, the letters of the written Torah are actual “vessels” for the absolute infinity of the Divine Essence, although our “eyes” don't perceive the fact that “I have written Myself into the Torah and given it.”  This is evident in the law that states that in order to fulfill the mitzva of Torah study when studying the Oral Law, one must understand the subject matter, whereas when reading the Written Law one fulfills the commandment even without understanding.  This affects the law of making the Torah blessings before study as well.  Therefore, little children and the simpleminded Jews of yore, who are intellectually underdeveloped and are barely able to read the words and letters of Torah, are actually much closer to G-d himself on an instinctive, soul level.  Additionally, as Chassidus explains, little children have the advantage that they are more recently arrived from the “World of Truth,” and as such, were more recently immersed in the reality of G-d and G-dliness.
 
As part of the spiritual revolution wrought by the Baal Shem Tov, he revealed how every Jew has the capacity to connect to G-d while warning against the pitfalls that are inherent in the finite world of human intellect, even the human intellect steeped in Torah.  When one recognizes the pure and simple quality of the faith and outlook of the “simple Jew” and the Jewish child that has been raised in a proper Jewish environment with a proper Jewish education, the issue becomes not how can I raise the child/children to grow up to be like me, but how can I become more like him/them and provide an education that does not corrupt that purity while developing the mind and heart.
 
“Rebbi said, ‘Greater are the deeds of Chiya.’”  Through the dissemination of Torah on the most basic level to young Jewish children one merits an increase in “Chiya” (meaning life, energy), and a “greater” ability to relate to and appreciate the transcendent “Greatness” of G-d. 
 
CHILD PROPHECY
 
So it turns out that what the Chassidic movement has always been about ever since its inception is only being fully realized in our times.  The global and geopolitical upheavals that presaged the shift towards focusing huge amounts of time, energy, resources and personnel, to the most basic levels of education and outreach, were simply setting the stage for what are the final preparations for the coming of Moshiach.  It is not, nor has it ever been, an either-or proposition; either we focus on elementary educational issues or pursue a lofty spiritual agenda, nor about which takes precedence or is of greater importance.  It has always been about integrating these two elements that are two sides of the same coin and which complement each other fully, so that we are ready and prepared for the time when “eye to eye they shall see” and “all flesh will see” the transcendent revelations of Moshiach and the Era of Resurrection.
 
That is why so many of the prophecies regarding the Messianic Era speak about the role of the children, such as “And your sons and daughters shall prophesy.” “And a small child shall lead them” (referring to the wild animals that will be tame enough to interact peacefully with domestic animals and be led and handled by a small child).  And that is why the Sages say that “my anointed ones” (meshichoi – my “moshiachs”) refers to the “children in the house of their teacher,” little children reading and studying the words of Torah, since they are closer to that revelation than their adult counterparts. 
 
It has been handed over to us to complete that process of preparing ourselves and the world, starting with the little children.  Thankfully, the heroism and personal sacrifice of our Rebbeim (as expressed by the arrest of 15 Sivan) and those that came before us have spared us the need to face danger and threat to life and liberty in that endeavor (for the most part).  Just as the arrest led to the reprieve (on 3 Tammuz) and the redemption (on 12-13 Tammuz), so too now let us prepare with joy and gladness of heart for the ultimate reprieve and redemption with the revelation of G-d's “anointed one,” King Moshiach, immediately, NOW!
 

 


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