The Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 7:3) asserts that when we begin to teach our children Torah, we should begin with Sefer Vayikra, the Book of Leviticus. This is surprising. The first half of Leviticus presents the sacrificial order of worship and concentrates on purity; the second half introduces many ritual and moral laws and focuses on holiness. This material brings to our awareness sublime, but difficult theological ideas, and legally complex religious and ethical imperatives. Surely, the stories of Bereshit – Genesis will capture the attention and imagination of children better than the arcana of Leviticus. Furthermore, shouldn’t children’s Jewish education commence with the beginning of the Torah? The aforementioned Midrash explains: “Let those who are pure come and occupy themselves with the acts of the pure.”
I believe we can learn three important pedagogic principles from the approach of the Midrash. One, environment matters. As parents and teachers, we all aim to find the right balance between protecting our children from the brokenness of our world, and exposing them to said brokenness so that we can all become partners in its repair. The Midrash says begin with wholeness, purity, holiness, and goodness, i.e., Leviticus, with its orders and sacred aspirations. Once a baseline is established, our children can better recognize brokenness when it appears, such as in the stories of Bereishit.
Two, cultivate within our children the capacity to hear the Torah’s call to purity and holiness. The book of Leviticus begins with “Vayikrah – And God called.” Children often enter early childhood with spiritual and ethical questions that are quite profound, even if stated simply. Nurture their natural attunement to such questions.
Three, the book of Leviticus taken as a whole emphasizes ritual and ethics, our relationship with God and with other people. The book which details how to worship and come close to God, also teaches, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” To be a Jew requires commitment to both law and spirit for Judaism staunchly believes that religious practice externalizes the internal and internalizes the external: we practice what we believe and we believe what we practice.
Whether or not we actually commence our children’s Torah studies with Sefer Vaykira, the Midrash challenges us to think more deeply about our educational goals and their implementation.
Rabbi Benjamin J. Samuels, PhD, is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Tefillah, a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Newton Center.