Where is the heart of the Jewish people? Parashat Vayikra answers this question unequivocally with the first installment of what will become an entire Biblical how to manual to sacrificial worship; the heart of the Jewish people is wherever centralized sacrifice takes place. For the Israelites wandering in the desert this was in the tabernacle while for later generations the heart of the Jewish people became the Temple in Jerusalem.
If you take a moment to reflect on modern Jewish practice, the centrality of the sacrifices outlined in Vayikra are integrated in to much of what we do. We pray facing Jerusalem to orient ourselves toward the spiritual capital that once held the Holy Temple. Our synagogues, with their eternal lights and curtained arks, in many ways mirror the physical structure of the Temple. And our prayer services are at least partially and sometimes directly linked to the sacrificial services of our ancestors.
But are the sacrifices of the Temple really the heart of the Jewish people?
A moving passage from the Babylonian Talmud suggests that the answer might not be as clear as Parashar Vayikra assumes. We learn in Mesekhet Shabbat 119b:
אמר ריש לקיש משום רבי יהודה נשיאה אין העולם מתקיים אלא בשביל הבל תינוקות של בית רבן
Reish Lakish said in the name of Yehudah haNasi: The world only exists because of the breath of school children.
On it’s own, this is a powerful statement, that the world is sustained by the elementary learning of school children. The surprising emphasis here is not on the masterful give and take of rabbinic tradition, but rather on the basic acquiring and integrating of knowledge done by children. But Reish Laksih goes even further when a few lines later in the sugya he states:
ואמר ריש לקיש משום ר”י נשיאה אין מבטלין תינוקות של בית רבן אפי’ לבנין בית המקדש
And Reish Lakish said in the name of Yehudah haNasi: One may not interrupt the studying of school children, even in order to build the Temple.
So where is the heart of the Jewish people? In this Talmudic passage, Reish Lakish suggests that it is wherever school children are studying Torah. It is where children are surrounded by traditions of their ancestors. Where they seek to master texts in order to engage in the debates and questions that have animated the Jewish mind for thousands of years. Reish Laksih suggests here that while the rebuilding of the Temple is still an integral part of Jewish longing and aspiration, the heart of the Jewish people is what happens in our schools, around our tables, in our synagogues and in our families. The heart of the Jewish people is the education of our children.
Rabbi Charlie Schwartz is the director of content development for Hillel International’s Center for Jewish and Israel Education. He lives with his family in Cambridge, MA