January 13, 2000
Parashat Bo: (Exodus 10:1 -- 13:6)
Children often are pestered by well-meaning adults. I remember as a child having my cheeks pinched, or, even worse, my ear lobe pulled by some sweet elderly lady. Recounting this experience at one of my evening classes, one student seriously asked me, "Rabbi, did she pull down or pull up?"
I was amazed by this question and couldn't understand it until I was told that it's a long standing Polish Jewish custom to pull someone's ear when he sneezes, indicating good life.
In addition, I was told, the custom also depends on which way you pull the ear. If you want the person to grow you pull up, but if you want them to stay short you pull down. Upon hearing this interpretation, I finally understood that maybe this is what happened to me when I was a child. I figured that my two brothers who are 6'2", and 6' respectfully, must have had their ears pulled upwards while, at 5'6," mine were pulled down.
Whatever the case may be with the pulling of the ear and the effect on one's growth pattern, what we do know for certain is that the ear is one of the most important conduits to learning. This very idea is noted in the Torah in this week's portion when God declared:
"And so that you may relate in the ears of your son and grandson" (10:2).
My late grandfather, in his commentary on the weekly Torah portion, noted that this is the challenge presented to all of us to make teaching of Torah the most interesting experience possible. When we speak words of Torah we have to grab their ears, if you will, with interesting material so our children and grandchildren will listen to our message. If we are boring and we don't get them excited, we have missed our chance to encourage the next generation.
It was this very directive from God which led Moses to tell Pharaoh a revolutionary idea. It happened just before the eighth plague was about to descend on Egypt. After Moses warned Pharaoh about the impending plague of locusts, Pharaoh began to show signs that he was willing to let the Jews leave for three days to pray to God. But before he would give final approval he said to Moses, "Tell me exactly who is going." Moses responded without hesitation, "With our young and with our old we will go" (10:9). With these famous words, Moses proclaimed to Pharaoh and to all subsequent generations, that for the Jewish people, religious service includes our children.
Pharaoh couldn't understand this and he told Moses: "'Not so. Only the adult men should go and worship the Lord; for that is what you desire.' And they were driven out from Pharaoh's presence" (10:11).
The argument between Moses and Pharaoh pertained to the role of children in the service of God. Are children to attend the divine service or not? Pharaoh believed that prayer must occur in a formal setting where children are not welcome and only adults may participate. Moses, however, understood that if you leave children outside the religious experience, and you don't include them when they are young then we will jeopardize our heritage.
This is perhaps what the Psalmist meant when he describes the Jewish community praying. In the beautiful passage recited daily known as the Hallelujahs, the Psalmist proclaims, "Lads and also maidens, old men together with youths" (Ps. 148:12). The famous medieval Biblical commentary, the Radak, noted that this is the perfect description of Jewish prayer. When it comes time to pray we have to have the old together with the young. The adults have to encourage the young to participate and be inspired by what is happening.
When we speak of reaching the ears of our children, whether they will grow up to be tall or short is of little consequence, but as Moses realized, if they grow up imbued with God's word, they will affect the future course of the Jewish people.
Rabbi Elazar R. Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.