(Jewish Ideas Daily) — Since the news of the Newtown massacre and its heartbreaking aftermath, an extraordinary talmudic passage has been reverberating in my mind. In answer to the speculative theological question of what occupies God all day, the Talmud, as interpreted by Rashi, declares that “there are twelve hours in a day;” and “during the last set of hours, God sits and teaches Torah to children who died untimely deaths.” (Avodah Zarah 3b)
Why should this be?
The premature death of a child strikes a primal chord; the murder of a cohort of children produces a sense of horror mixed with incredulity. But the wanton massacre of children within the supposedly safe haven of a school — along with the slaying of their teachers and administrators — poses a particularly poignant existential problem, because the Talmud also maintains that the entire world is sustained only by children reciting their lessons. (Shabbat 119b) The blotting out of even the possibility of such life-sustaining activity creates a cosmic lacuna, a metaphysical black hole that threatens to swallow all of existence.
So, God, in His sublime grace, prevents that potential catastrophe by providing a celestial form of continuing education to children who should be back on earth in school.
This teaching reflects not Jewish theology alone but Jewish anthropology, too. Universal education of children, initiated in the first century C.E. by Rabbi Yehoshua ben Gamla, quickly became so unfailingly characteristic of Jewish society that even children who had died simply could not be conceived of as completely relinquishing their studies. Since no human agency could instruct them, their tuition was ascribed to God.
Teachers and their pupils occupy a singular place in Talmudic and midrashic thought. “What is the meaning,” the Talmud asks, “of ‘Touch not Mine anointed ones, and do My prophets no harm?’ [1 Chronicles 16:22] My anointed ones,” comes the answer, “are schoolchildren, and My prophets are teachers.” (Shabbat 119b) By analogy to fruits borne by a new tree — which must remain untouched for three years, tithed in the fourth, and consumed only beginning in the fifth (Lev. 19:23-25) — the Midrash Tanhuma suggests that children, too, should be kept sacrosanct throughout their first three years and dedicated to God in the fourth. Only in the fifth year should they begin their formal education; only then are they in the condition that enables them to bear fruit. We may presume, therefore, that until the age of five, children were educated at home by their parents. Subsequently, they were enrolled in school and entrusted to the care and ministrations of teachers.
Teachers occupy a particularly pivotal point in talmudic law and lore. In addition to serving in loco parentis — in the legal place of parents — they are in loco dei: in God’s stead. They provide instruction in His law and are subject, thereby, to the same regulations that He allows to govern Him. For instance (and a striking one at that!), halakhah requires that teachers of Torah serve gratis, because God, similarly, asked for no remuneration when revealing the Law. Indeed, Torah teachers’ salaries to this day are disbursed in consideration of the time they spend in preparation and the economic sacrifice it entails (sekhar battalah), not for providing instruction per se. The title traditionally borne by a Torah teacher, melamed, also resonates with divine association. The traditional blessing over Torah recitation and study speaks of God as the “melamed of Torah to His people, Israel.”
The students murdered in Newtown were not engaged in Torah study per se. But their education was just as life-sustaining for them, and the entire world of their parents and families revolved just as much around their lessons and recitations. The murdered educators were not melamdim in the classical sense. But they, too, were entrusted with a most precious commodity: the future of their students, to which they devoted themselves, literally, with all their hearts and all their souls.
The Bible brands the angel of death a coward when he robs the cradle: “Death has ascended through our windows and entered our palaces; to cut off children from the streets and young men from the squares.” (Jeremiah 9:20) Rather than entering through an ordinary door, death has climbed furtively through the window. When its prey is a child, death itself feels shame.
May we quickly see the day when these things will cease: “He will swallow up death for ever; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from off all faces.” (Isaiah 25:8)
(Moshe Sokolow, professor of Jewish education at the Azrieli Graduate School of Yeshiva University, is the author of “Studies in the Weekly Parashah Based on the Lessons of Nehama Leibowitz” . This article was first published by Jewish Ideas Daily [www.jewishideasdaily.com] and is reprinted with permission.)