Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Back to School

With Labor Day behind us, most of the country’s children now return to school. Some jurisdictions begin the school year in August to avoid having classes during the heat of June. Of course, the proverbial “first day of school” tends to manifest various emotions in the returning children, ranging from excitement to anxiety. All of this is normal for those encountering new situations.

In Jewish tradition, educating Jewish children in their heritage is a paramount virtue, of course. Well-deserved kudos to all the teachers who accepted the calling of educating the next generation. What is even more universal than the “rituals” of the first day of school, are the exuberant celebrations that mark the end of the school year.

In Numbers (10:35-36) two verses are presented with large inverted Hebrew letter nuns around them, something that is not seen anywhere else in the Torah. The Talmud (Shabbat 115b-116a) offers two reasons for this anomaly. First, some argue that the two surrounded verses represent a separate Book of the Torah. The second reason is proffered by Rabbi Simon ben Gamliel, claiming that the two verses were transported here, purposely positioned out of place, in order to separate two negative events. God, author of the Torah, did not want these two examples of bad behavior to be juxtaposed, reasoned Rabbi Simon.

What were those events? The event described following the second reversed Nun can clearly be classified as negative. “And when the people complained, it displeased the Lord; and the Lord heard it; and His anger was kindled; and the fire of the Lord burnt among them, and consumed those who were in the outlying parts of the camp” (Numbers 11:1). But, what event occurred beforehand, that caused the Nuns to be placed as a demarcation? The preceding verse seems fairly benign: “And they departed from the mount of the Lord three days’ journey; and the ark of the covenant of the Lord went before them in the three days’ journey, to search out a resting place for them” (Numbers 10:33). The sages (Tosafot to Shabbat 116a and Ramban on the Torah) cite an ancient Midrash, which claims, that when the Jews left Mount Sinai after the Revelation--the most significant event that had ever occurred in human history, the Children of Israel, did not merely depart, but rather, they “ran away with such glee, like school children running away from school.”

While no one expects children to go to school with the same joy and enthusiasm as they leave it, let us hope and pray that all Jewish children will have a very successful, inspiring, and pedagogically-effective school year. Let’s also thank all the teachers and all those individuals who make the children’s experience at school a positive one.

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