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Eikev: What are you Talking About?

Anyone who knows me well knows that I like to tell stories about my nieces and nephews. I may be biased, but I personally believe there are few human beings on earth who are as cute and hilarious as “my kiddos”. Just last week, my mother told me a story about one of my nephews, who was complaining about a new kid in his bunk in camp. Apparently, this boy had a bit of a strong personality, and despite being the “new kid,” he immediately started (from my nephew’s perspective) to take on a leadership role and boss other kids around. “Who does he think he is?!,” my nephew said, indignant, “It’s just like with Lot and the people of Sedom!”

My parents and I had to look up the source for my nephew’s biblical point of reference, from the story of Lot and the angels who come to visit him to save him and his family from Sedom’s impending destruction. As the “new kid on the block,” Lot, despite being a recent arrival in Sedom, defies the social norms and rules of the city by inviting the angels over as guests. Enraged, the townspeople approach Lot’s home and demand that he brings out his guests, but Lot refuses. The people of Sedom exclaim, “Ha’Echad Ba Lagur, Vayishpot Shafot?!” “This one (Lot) just came to live here, and already he is judging us?!” (VaYeira 19:9). This was the best reference point my nephew could come up with to describe his own ire and frustration.

The beauty of this story has nothing to do with Lot, and everything to do with one nine-year-old boy’s way of understanding and viewing the world. Being incredibly special and holy people, my brother and sister-in-law unconsciously fill their home with words of Torah. Shiurim play in the background while preparations are made for Shabbos; words of comfort, consolation, and encouragement are provided in conjunction with citations from Tanach, Chazal, and our Gedolim, and stories from Tanach are as real as any book in the household, if not more so. It is no wonder that my nephew’s anguish at his bunkmate’s behavior led him to recall a Pasuk he only just learned in Chumash. When a house is filled with something, it affects all the inhabitants through osmosis.

In Parshas Eikev, we read a set of Pesukim that likely sound quite familiar, given that they comprise the second paragraph of Shema, colloquially known as the paragraph of “ViHaya.” These Pesukim (13-22) warn that if we heed Hashem’s commandments, there will be abundant blessing in Eretz Yisrael, and if not, not. Hidden in these pesukim is a reprise of the commandment found in the first paragraph of the Shema, to teach Torah to our children. The Pasuk (13:19) says, “Vi’limaditem osam es bineichem lidaber bam,” - and you shall teach (these Mitzvos) to your children to speak in them. Rashi is bothered by the somewhat superfluous nature of this verse. Is it not sufficient to teach our children the Torah and Mitzvos? What does the idea of “lidaber bam,” so that they shall speak about it, add to our understanding of this Mitzvah?

Rashi notes that the Mitzvah in the aforementioned Pasuk is not only a commandment to teach one’s children Torah, but to ensure that from a young age, they are already versed in the principle of “Torah Tzivah Lanu Moshe,” that Moshe taught us God’s commandments. Furthermore, Rashi explains that from the time that a child begins to speak, his father should speak with him in Lashon HaKodesh, using phrases and pesukim from the Torah itself, and teaching him Torah should not just be about explaining laws, but about making Torah a part of a child’s vocabulary.

Children do not only learn through frontal, structured teaching; they pick up on what is being said and spoken about around them – for better or for worse. Children learn and expand their internal encyclopedias and dictionaries more through what they most commonly hear and encounter in the world around them than through anything they are directly taught. We all have, know someone who has, or saw a Tik-Tok featuring a funny – if not embarrassing – story of a child repeating something clearly overheard from an adult, because he or she was parroting the speech most often heard in the house.

Recently, a colleague and friend of mine discovered that both of my parents are “in the field” of mental health to some degree, and joked that she, too, has parents who work in similar careers, and commiserated about “growing up with Freud at the dinner table.” Thank God, we both grew up with far more than just Freud at the dinner – and especially the Shabbos – table, and it was through the osmotic learning process so integral to development that we became not only tremendously sensitive to topics of mental health, but also quite accustomed to hearing and therefore memorizing divrei chazal and pesukim from Tanach.

This, then, is what is truly at the root of our Pasuk, “Vi’limaditem osam es bineichem lidaber bam.” The mitzvah is not just to teach Torah, but to have words of Torah be so commonly heard in one’s home that one’s children begin to speak of Torah and Mitzvos almost as they would another language; it is, in fact, the language of Jewish identity and spiritual connection.

Creating an atmosphere centered on Torah means that words, phrases, concepts, stories, and ideas become integrated into a child’s fountain of knowledge, and eventually his or her worldview, almost the same way a bilingual child grows up being able to switch fluidly from one mother tongue to another. If we can do this with cultural languages, such as sports, politics, or psychology, then we can certainly do so with the language of Torah.

This week, let us consider the ways in which we can integrate Torah more fluidly and consistently into our vocabulary. Are we speaking about Torah and Judaism and God as real and alive concepts? If our most common references and metaphors are drawn from literature, poetry, Hollywood, or social media, perhaps we can find ways to allude to stories and phrases from Tanach and Chazal as ways of understanding and enhancing our understanding of the world around us as well. No matter our age or stage or which “little people” are currently under our sphere of influence, the Mitzvah of teaching Torah also applies to oneself, for we know that one’s soul is constantly teaching and nourishing the inner children of one’s body.

Teaching Torah is not just about gaining knowledge; it is about changing the way we speak. If we are speaking about Torah and Mitzvos as often as or more often than any other cultural or societal points of reference, perhaps then we have begun to truly fulfill the Mitzvah of “Lidaber Bam.” It all depends on what we’re talking about.

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