Rich and Deb were in my office discussing their children’s education.
“I want the kids to have a solid Jewish education,” said Deb.
“That’s great,” I responded, “So what’s the problem?”
“I don’t want to brainwash them,” blurted Rich, “when they get older, let them choose for themselves if they want to learn Torah. I don’t believe in ramming religion down their throats.”
The Torah states, “And it shall be if you hear, you will hear the voice of the L-rd your G-d.” What is the meaning of the double expression?
Rabbi Zaira (or Rabbi Chanina bar Papa) teaches: A human being can fill an empty container but cannot add anything to a full container. In contrast, G-dliness can only fill a container that is already full; an empty vessel is unfillable.
The meaning of the apparent redundancy in the Torah verse, says Rabbi Zaira, is that if children hear the word of G-d – if we fill up their vessels when they are young, then they will continue to fill their vessels when they get older, i.e. they will continue to seek to listen to the word of G-d as adults. But if they grow up empty, then it will much harder to fill them with G-dliness when they get older.
Why is that so? Why can’t G-d fill an empty vessel?
The answer is that there really is no such thing as an empty vessel. As we know, at the very least any container is full of air. In English, we have an expression, ‘full of hot air.’ The equivalent biblical expression, coined by King Solomon, is “hevel havalim.”
Nobody reaches adulthood with nothing in their vessel. Between TV, movies, videogames, the internet, and whatever atheistic ideas we’ve been fed through school and university, our vessels are all overflowing by the time we’ve begun to make our own choices in life. Unfortunately, they’re often full of rubbish.
Ever tried to fit anything into a full rubbish bin? Not only does it not fit inside, but when it overflows, it causes the area around it to become sullied. That’s what Rabbi Zaira means when he says that a human being cannot add anything to a full container.
Teaching Torah to children is not called brainwashing or ramming religion down their throats; it’s called giving them the ability to make their own choices when they grow up. Tragically, we live in a time when most Jews are unable to make choices about their Judaism – they simply don’t have enough information to make an informed decision.
It’s a free world out there. People will choose to live as they wish. Our children may or may not choose to live as we have for thousands of years. But if you have any hope whatsoever that they will follow in your footsteps, you’d better provide them with the tools to make an educated choice. That means giving them the most solid Jewish education available to you.