One year, however, the auction for Kol Hanearim in my synagogue was unusually competitive. When finally over, I asked the man who fiercely bid the highest, why he vied for this honor.
Surprised by my question, he replied as if it were self-evident: "The one who supervises scores of little children crowded under the tallit, reciting the same blessing Jacob uttered over his grandchildren, is himself guaranteed Jewish grandchildren. Could I want less for myself?"
These words come to me again and again, whenever I contemplate the unique Torah portion, Vezot Haberakha, the only parasha not identified with a specific Shabbat. Rather, it is reserved for the joyous Simchat Torah holiday, with its unique Kol Hanearim ceremony, and as such deserves close analysis.
The Talmud, in Sukkah 42a, referring to Vezot Haberakha, provides a provocative comment: "Our rabbis taught: A minor who is able to speak, his father must teach him Torah.... What could be meant by Torah? Rav Hamnuna replied, the Scriptural verse [Deuteronomy 33:4], 'Moses commanded us a law, an inheritance of the congregation of Jacob.'"
Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein, an early 20th-century commentator, questions why the Talmud chose this particular passage as the first Torah verse that a parent must teach a child. Epstein suggests that by referring to Torah as a morasha, an inheritance of all Jews -- young and old alike -- it rejects the notion that only mature adults are obligated to observe Torah. An inheritance is age-blind, and so too is the Torah.
The word "morasha," however, may contain another dimension. An early 19th-century German scholar, the Ktav V'Kabblah, notes that the usual word for inheritance is "yerusha," not "morasha." In fact, "morasha" is best translated as "a possession" rather than "an inheritance." The difference is crucial. One receives an inheritance without individual effort, but one attains a possession through personal exertion. Torah, in other words, requires personal exertion rather than effortless lineage. The only way to become fluent in Torah is to work at studying Torah.
Ketav Sofer, a 19th-century scholar, remarks that "morasha kehillat Yaakov," "a possession of the congregation of Jacob," means that no Jew is an island onto himself. No Jew can observe all of the mitzvot of the Torah, for the 613 commandments don't all apply to any one person. Some only apply to Kohanim, others to Leviim, some to women, while others only to those who live in Israel. Only as a part of the congregation of Israel can we become complete Jews.
Certainly these lessons are themes that the beautiful Kol Hanearim ceremony emphasizes. First, each child has a right to Torah, an inheritance that comes with birth.
Second, Kol Hanearim suggests that Torah requires effort. Neither children nor adults will acquire knowledge unless they work at studying Torah. If they put in the effort, they will be rewarded with the greatest gift: the Torah itself.
And, finally, we must appreciate that a Jewish life must include the community of fellow Jews. The little children are blessed as part of an entire group -- part of a future community -- because Torah can't be lived in isolation. Instead, our blessing emphasizes the need for everyone to be involved with the Jewish community, for only together do we comprise the congregation that both Vezot Haberakha and Simchat Torah celebrate.
Elazar Muskin is rabbi at Young Israel of Century City.