The Talmud in several areas stresses the effects of studying a subject when one is young. At one point it quotes an incident of a sage who forgot a Jewish law and attributed his lapse in memory to the fact that he didn’t study it when he was very young.
Pirkai Avot, the Ethics of our Fathers compares the acquisition of knowledge of a child to writing on a blank piece of paper that has never been erased, to that of an adult to a paper that is full of erasures. The muddled and ambiguity of the adult mind pales to the lucidity and the innocence of the mind of a child. Wordsworth in his famous poem “Intimations of Immortality” alludes to the specialness of a child and the unique relationship that they have to their creator. Indeed Jewish tradition speaks of the singular connection that children have with almighty G-d. Their prayers are accepted more readily because of their innocence and because of their uncanny ability to understand the unlimited powers of the creator. For children time is endless, with no beginning or end. So too our creator has neither beginning nor end; for Almighty G-d, time is boundless. Children identify uniquely with their creator by the sheer fact that they are closer to their birth time. The further we move from our birth, the more we fill our minds with doubt and question regarding our Creator.
At the same time that they are so close to G-d, a child’s mind is so impressionable. What we teach our children-the impressions that we place upon their minds-become indelible in shaping their future existence and destiny. Often, remarks that are made to children when they are young never leave them and are their source of strength or weakness in the years to come.
I remember vividly as a young third grader sitting in class and being actively involved in the Chumash lesson of my teacher. At one time the text was confusing to me and I raised my hand to ask a question. For me the question that I was about to ask had value and I was always taught by my parents that one must ask questions to gain knowledge. I believed that the answer was essential for me to understand the lesson. However when I asked the question the teacher innocently and without malice or forethought laughed and said that my question was stupid and the answer was obvious. He called it a “Klutz Kasha”, an idiot question.
That remark, as innocent as it was, remained with me even until today. When I sit at a Shiur (Torah class) I hesitate to ask a question because of that remark that was made to me decades ago. Though there is no logical reasoning behind my fears, that feeling of inadequacy that I received as a young lad remains with me even today.
We all know that sibling relationships re-enact themselves when in the presence of parents. Even when we are older and married, we slip back to the times that we were children. The same child who was looked upon as the smartest, again takes on the same role that he had when he was growing up regardless of how successful he has become or whether his siblings have surpassed him in their intellectual abilities.
The Talmud in Taanit states that if you see a student who is not successful in his studies it is because his/her teacher did not smile at him/her. Once again stressing the delicate and impressionable minds of our children and the enormous responsibility that educators have in assuring that these imprints are wholesome and positive.
The conclusion of the above is applicable to both parents and educators. Do we want our children’s first innocent impressions of the world to be in front of a TV or the Internet in which they are exposed to violence and inappropriate relationships? Are teachers careful how they address students and do they truly realize that their words have enormous impact on their future? Are we always aware that our words and actions create tremendous waves of influence and indelibility on a child’s mind that will be the building blocks for their future?
It is an awesome responsibility! One that we must not take lightly.
Rabbi Mordechai Weiss is principal of the Bess & Paul Sigel Hebrew Academy in Bloomfield.