How We Teach.  How We Learn

For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them. - Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics

“Gather (Hakhel) together the people – let the men, women and the small children, and your stranger who is in your cities – so that they will learn, and they shall fear Hashem, and be careful to perform all the words of the Torah.” (Devarim 31:12)

So, we are told that once every seven years, on the first day of Chol Hamoed Sukkot that follows the Shemita Sabbatical year, the entire nation is to come together in Jerusalem to listen to the king read highlights of Sefer Devarim.

He would read selections from the beginning of Devarim that included the first and second parshiyot of Shema as well as sections that focused on commitment to God, the Torah and s’char v’onesh reward and punishment.  The gathering, the reading, the power of the moment was in many ways reminiscent – a reenactment – of the Giving of the Torah at Sinai.  Like that historic occasion, this was powerful, filled with awe and wonder, and singular in its impact on all who participated.

But, one would be forgiven for asking, what was the purpose of the gathering?  After all, had we not all been present at Sinai, once and for all time?  The Sefer HaChinuch explains that, “...because everything is contained in the Torah, it is fitting that at a fixed time they should all gather together to hear the Torah’s words. The talk of the nation – men, women and children – would then be, ‘why have we assembled for this large gathering?’  And the answer would be, ‘To hear the words of the Torah – our essence, glory, and pride!’ This would lead them to praise the Torah and speak of its glorious worth, and implant within their hearts a desire and motivation to study and know God....”

In other words, this would be news.  This would be the “talk of the town”. It would be riveting, dominating, all-encompassing.  Every man, woman and child would refocus on our mission, our purpose, our identity.  We would know anew what we have known from the beginning, that it is God and Torah that root us, that define us, that give us meaning and purpose.  God and Torah make us unique amongst all the nations.  This knowledge, this message, this “headline” needed to be heard by everyone.  No one could call in sick, be too busy to attend, having something else to do. This is why they came. “Everything is contained in the Torah....”  So, all must be there so that they all “get it.”

This is, of course, a compelling explanation.  But for those of us who have been teachers and parents, it is still somewhat lacking.  After all, it’s easy to understand why the men came, they came, as Rashi quotes the Talmud in Chagiga 3a) “to learn.” Likewise, it is understandable why the women came; they came “to listen.” But the explanation for the children’s attendance is less compelling. They came, “to give reward to those who bring them....”  So, there was no intrinsic reason or benefit for the children to come?  No lesson for them?  Just reflected glory allotted to “those who bring them”?

That’s a reason to schlep them all the way to Jerusalem?  Remember, at the time, that was a real schlep.  There were no trains or busses.  No Uber or Lyft.

Men, they learn.  Women, they listen.  Children… just reflected glory to their schleppers?  Just to reward those who brought them?  What does that even mean?

There are those, including the Nesivos, who see this as little more than a practical matter. If all the adults, men and women, throughout the country had to come, who would have been left to stay behind with the children? No one! So, they had to bring them along. And, as anyone who has schlepped their children along to what would be an adult event knows, that is no easy task! Or kept them entertained on a long drive, or overseas flight! The Torah is right to make bringing the children a mitzvah and worthy of reward!

Pirkei Avot rightfully teaches, “Lefum tza’ara agra” (according to the suffering is the reward)! No question these parents, these men and women, earned their reward.


It seems though that there must be something more significant going on. The Torah would not reward a behavior simply because it is difficult. There must be an inherent value. And indeed, the Talmud in Chagiga phrases the question about why the children came, not simply why there is an obligation to bring them. The implication being that there must be some inherent value in their coming.

All of tradition, the lifeblood of Jewish experience, is the effective transmission of knowledge and emotion, dreams and hopes from one generation to the next.  Because of the importance of passing along the power of our teachings and practices, respect for and value of teaching is woven into the very fabric of Jewish life. From spinning dreidels to hiding Afikomen we, as parents and teachers, find ways to engage our children in the wonders and beauty of our teachings, our history and our place in the world.

What we have discovered is that learning is not effectively passed on simply by “telling” a child information, content, or data. To learn, a child needs to experience what he or she is learning, needs to be immersed in an environment conducive to taking in the breadth of knowledge – to feel it, smell it, touch it and breathe it in.

And a child must see others modeling the behavior that will be expected of him when he grows older.

To teach, we must create the environment where a student can learn.  A positive learning environment makes an impact by its existing, effortlessly. The child takes in learning as naturally as breathing. A spiritual environment creates a learning space naturally. If you’ve ever been around good, kind, sensitive people you know how you react. Simply looking at tzaddikim creates positive vibes within us.

And, as we know, the earlier in life we expose a child to such goodness, the greater his embrace of all that is positive, kind, and meaningful in the world.  Dr. Sigmund Freud was once asked, “How early can I begin the education of my child?”

He answered with a question, “When will your child be born?”

“Born?” the woman exclaimed. “Why, he’s already five years old!”

“My goodness, woman, “Dr. Freud cried, “don’t stand there talking to me! Hurry home! You have already wasted the best years!”

Yes, it is a pain to schlep the children.  But often, it is in the experience of being schlepped that some of the greatest lessons are imparted to them.  And to a people as well.  After all, some of Klal Yisrael’s most essential lessons were imparted in the throes of galus and slavery.

And that’s the reason, the little ones were brought to Hakhel.

During their young years, their formative years they needed to be exposed to the fundamental lessons taught at Hakhel.  They needed to see the men learn and the women listen.  They needed to be surrounded by the aura of holiness that was there.

Years later, they might not be able to tell you details of what they learned, but they will still feel the power of the experience; still recall viscerally the wonder of the moment.  Just as my son told me years after the fact, “Abba, I can’t ever forget how Rav Asher looked at me!”

The Talmud relates how the mother of the greatest of sages would bring his cradle to the Bais Medrash, just so the baby would absorb the sounds, the “vibes” of Torah! Modern psychology concurs – the best time to infuse a child with values is when he is youngest. Likewise, children denied such experiences often spend their lives “playing catch up.”

That’s the reason the children were brought to Hakhel. Not to “learn” as such, they were too young for that, but to experience it all, to be in the environment of learning, of holiness, of monumental awe so that these things could seep into their beings as surely as breath enters their lungs and warmth touches their skin.  Such experience pays lifelong dividends.

The Talmud teaches that children are brought to give reward to those who bring them. True. There are great rewards for parents who actively, determinedly and lovingly seek opportunities to expose their children to good people, good places, good experiences.  Such parents will reap countless rewards for their efforts to shlep little Reuven or Shimon all the way to Hakhel. 

A lifetime of rewards.

In Chagiga 3a Reb Yehoshua asked the disciples visiting him, “What is new in the Bais Medrash.”  They told him about Hakhel and all its details including men, women and children.  “The men,” they said, “come to learn, women to listen.”

“And the children?”

They related the answer, to “reward those who brought them.”

Reb Yehoshua was thrilled. “Such a precious pearl of an idea, and you wanted ‘le’abda mimeni,’ to make me miss it!  You wanted to hold back such a great lesson?”

Reb Meir Simcha explains that R’ Yehoshua was so thrilled (based on Yerushalmi in Yevamos) that when Rav Dosa ben Horkinus was visited by R’ Yehoshua, R’ Akiva and R’ Eliezer, he gazed upon each of them and extolled each of them. About R’ Yehoshua after lauding his erudition and brilliance, he exclaimed: “I remember that his mother used to bring his cradle to the Bais Medrash so that the words of Torah would attach themselves to his ears.”

R’ Yehoshua was ecstatic because he understood what his mother realized intuitively, and that was the lesson conveyed in the Torah to bring the children to Hakhel. He saw clearly that Torah recognizes the supreme value of environment; that there is absolute value in exposing little ones from earliest age to all that is positive.

He realized that he was living proof of that.

Children’s chinuch starts from the moment they are born. The good that will surround them, will impact their lifetime...

What can we say then about the environment in which we are raising our children?  An environment drowning in social media and all of its viruses, infections, spams and other insidious evils?  What kind of Hakhel would we need to offset the poisons in the environment children are born into for which there are no anti-bodies nor inoculations?

We must look beyond the lessons, to the environment that we have created for our children and we must have faith that if we change the environment, we change the child.