Monday, August 1, 2011

Teaching and Learning

velimadtem osam es beneichem ledabeir bam beshivtecha beveisecha uvlechtecha vaderech uvshachbecha uvkumecha. On the face of it, the verse says: You should teach them (the laws) (to) your children, to speak in (or about) them, when sitting in your house...

A question that arises is: What is the force of to speak in them? Is it to be understood as saying, teach your children to speak in them? In other words, get your children to speak about the laws: this is what you are enjoined to do (in your teaching). Or, is it rather to be understood as saying that you should teach them (the laws) to your children, so that they will...later, of their own accord (as it were), come to speak of them? We put this aside for a moment and raise another matter, one that is indifferent to the two sides of the question just raised.

The verse says, to speak in them...besivtecha beveisechawhen you sit in your house. It sounds as if it is saying that you should teach them to your children, so that they will speak in them when you sit in your house and travel on your way, etc. Which seems incongruous! Why would you want to anchor your children’s study to the intervals and highlights that punctuate your routine/schedule? You would think that their study sessions should, rather, be pinned to judiciously selected segments of their respective schedules!

Perhaps, someone might say, this is what it means. The mode of expression merely switches from addressing you to addressing them. However, the suggestion of a switch like this occurring in mid course seems a bit excessively farfetched. So what then?

Another suggestion: beshivtecha beveisecha applies, not to when they, the children, should learn/speak of them, but rather to when you should teach them (i.e., your children). Do your teaching to your children when you sit in your what the verse is saying. This sounds plausible. We need, it light of this suggestion, to reconsider the two sides of the question raised up front.

That question concerned the object of teaching: what is it that we are enjoined to teach our children? On one view, ledabeir bam addresses this matter, asserting that you are enjoined to teach your children to speak in them, meaning in the laws of the Torah. One question for this view concerns the word osam. On the face of it, it is out of place. Apart from this, there is also the consideration that, if what you are enjoined to teach is that they should speak in them, it is a bit hard to understand why this teaching should be anchored to discrete intervals in your daily schedule. Ostensibly, you could hammer in the importance of studying and speaking in learning on an opportunistic basis – whenever the occasion arises. Finally, is it really plausible to assume that we are being told to teach our children to speak about the laws? Does it not make more sense to say that that we are being enjoined to actually teach them the laws? It would seem to me that the answer is yes: the object of our teaching should be the Torah itself.

On this understanding, the intent of ledabeir bam is not that of supplying an object of teaching but, rather (to repeat), to accentuate that the point of teaching them the laws of the Torah is to get them not only to practice the mitzvos but also to speak of them and to study them – and, in turn, to pass them on to their young. This, then, accords with the last suggestion made, the one, namely, that beshivtecha beveisecha... is a characterization of when you should do your teaching: do it at all sorts of times of the day, under a variety of circumstances. On this view, the object of teaching is specified by the word osam (thus accounting for its presence) – which alludes to the laws. Do your teaching of the laws, the verse says, as you engage in pivotal activities throughout your day.   

I believe that the verse’s stream of cantillation supports this reading of the verse. An esnachta occurs under the word bam, signaling a separation from the immediately ensuing beshivtecha... Beshivtecha is thus freed up to modify the leading verb velimadtem.

Equally important, this reading of the verse makes it out to run parallel with the corresponding verse in the first parsha of kerias shema. There it says: veshinantam levanecha vedibarta bam beshivtecha beveisecha... This latter verse, ostensibly, tells you to do two things: teach them to your children and speak in them. It then tells you to do these things under various circumstances, at various junctures of the day. These specifications pertain to both of the injunctions enunciated. (Proof: once again, an esnachta occurs under bam.) Consequently, it is the command to teach that is being qualified by the stated specifications as to when. Thus the one parsha is revelatory of the proper reading of the other.

And incidentally, there may be another respect in which the first parsha sheds light on how the second is to be read and understood. We had occasion to fuss over the phrase ledabeir bam; and we settled on the understanding that it was an allusion to a future payoff of the effort to teach children Torah: they will, in time, come to study Torah (speak of it) on their own. However, pursuing the method of extrapolating from the first parsha of kerias shema to the second, we are afforded another perspective on the interpretation of this phrase. We may understand ledabeir bam as meaning that you should teach them to your children so that you will speak in them, as you do so. You will thus be teaching and learning at all hours of the day. Indeed, you will be teaching and learning at once! This reading creates a really neat symmetry between the verses of these two parshios – which makes the reading compelling in the extreme.

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