Temple Beth Joseph of Herkimer, New York

A Conservative Synagogue in New York’s Mohawk Valley

Brainwashing the Children

August 2017

The period between the Fast of Av & Rosh Hashanah contains what may be the most powerfully moving Sabbath reading of the entire year. On Shabbat Nahamu, the Sabbath immediately following the Fast of Av, we read the portion of Viethanan. The word, viethanan, is derived from the word hen which means grace, favor, or kindness. The word hen serves as a woman's name & is also the root of several other names such as Hannah. And, after the emotional drain of the Fast of Av, & knowing that the next fast, Yom Kippur, is not far off, it is altogether fitting that these Biblical readings occur when they do.

This Torah portion contains not only the 10 Commandments but the 1st paragraph of the Shema as well. The Shema, & its 1st paragraph, may be the 1st verses that most Jewish people learn & memorize. And, for many a Jew, it is the last words in life they will think & speak. Rabbi Akiba, himself, was known to utter the Shema as he was burned alive by the Romans, holding the last word, ehad, or one, until his life departed.

With both the Shema & the 10 Commandments, there are plenty of subjects on which to base a sermon or 2. Moreover, the reading from the prophets, the haphtarah, which lends the name Nahamu, which means be comforted, to the Sabbath, is from the 40th chapter of Isaiah & is, perhaps, some of the most beautiful poetry ever written in any language. I wish to focus now on just 2 words from the Shema, part of a verse that we chant frequently as part of our liturgy: veshinantam levankha which is translated in many prayer books as “You shall teach them diligently to your children.” The word, them, refers to the laws & customs that Moses is now reiterating for his people. However, the word, veshinantam - you shall teach them diligently - is much richer in meaning than just teaching & investigating this word leads to a deeper understanding of the text.

Veshinantam derives from the Hebrew verb shanah. As a noun, we know this word to mean year, as in Rosh Hashanah, which is not that far off. As a verb, shanah has several meanings. It does mean to teach diligently. However, a better translation in this context might be to infuse, to inculcate, or to indoctrinate. Veshinantam is not merely to present facts, but to instill them so deeply, they become part of the child’s world view, a fact they know so well, that any hint of the opposite would be a cause of cognitive dissonance. Does Torah advocate “brainwashing” you ask? Well, we are commanded to speak of these things as we sit in our houses, when we travel on the road, when we lie down, & when we arise. That is to say, God’s word should form the very foundation of our lives. Yes, I suppose that is brainwashing of a sort.

That is not to say, however, that we should abandon a study of science, history, or other pursuits. Such an assertion is religious fanaticism. Climate change is real & Darwin is a better description of creation than what many a religious zealot would care to admit. However, these passages urge us to harmonize our world with a Jewish, theocentric point of view. It is possible to do this in a completely consistent, academically credible manner. Knowledge of secular world should enhance our relationship with God, not conflict with it. Religion is not the opposite of science, it is the compliment of science.

So then, how do we do this? How do we inculcate & indoctrinate ourselves in our tradition? That is suggested by the 2nd definition of the verb shanah. Shanah also means to repeat or to reiterate. This definition of the word gives rise to the term mishnah as in “the Mishnah.” The Mishnah, among other things, is meant to be a rabbinic recapitulation, a repetition, of the Mosaic law as understood by our ancient sages. In fact, the rabbinic name for the book of Deuteronomy is “Mishnah Torah” or a repetition of the Torah, a fitting name for the book considering the material it contains.

Only by constant study, repetition & review, not just inculcating our children, but by repeating our own learning over & over, in word & in deed, in new ways & in established ways, until it becomes 2nd nature, can we hope to achieve such a brainwashing. Just as it takes constant effort to be a good American citizen, so too, it takes constant effort to be a good Jew.

And finally, there is a 3rd definition of the verb shanah as well. It can mean to revise, to change, or to be different. We encounter this meaning every year at the Passover Seder when we enquire Mah nishtanah halyla hazeh… - What is different about this night…

We could change, legitimately, the translation of veshinantam levankha to “You shall change them for your children.” The trouble with this understanding is Moses has already taught us to change not a jot nor a tittle. Though this may not be the best way to interpret the phrase, the fact is, that our understanding of law, of tradition, of religion does change; it evolves & adapts to time & place. Tradition & law do change & those who don’t recognize that are doomed to a slow cultural extinction. The Jewish tradition is meant to serve Jews, not visa versa. (Lo bashamayim he! - It is not in Heaven!) The traditional process of evolving Jewish tradition is called Halkha.

Still, change needs to be purposeful; it needs to be guided & not random. It cannot be a complete overturning of the status quo, but rather, small changes at the helm with specific goals in mind. Radical wholesale changes are the province of God. That is what Isaiah teaches in chapter 40: “Every valley shall be exalted, & every mountain & hill made low, the crooked made straight, & the rough places plain. The glory of the LORD shall be revealed & all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken it.”

Now, knowing the various meanings of the word shanah, we can piece together how they are all related. Rosh Hashanah is not merely the beginning of a year. It is, or should be, the beginning of change. Instead of asking what is different about this day, as we do on Passover, we ask how reaching this day should change us, make us different. What do we want to be, where do we want to be, how do we want to be? Then, 6 months hence, at our next Passover Seder we can make the concomitant query, how have we changed. Mah nishtanah halyla hazeh… - what is different on this night - about us, as opposed to 6 months ago at Rosh Hashanah?

How do we effect these small purposeful changes? It starts with heshbon hanefesh, self introspection, a rooting out of what we don’t like & replacing it with something better. But, if we wish - either as individuals or as a community - to do this Jewishly, we have to absorb & inculcate ourselves, our children, all of our loved ones with the tradition - the laws, the history, the holy days, temple services - all of it, even kashrut & the minor fast days. We must repeat, reuse, redo, restudy. We must immerse ourselves when we lie down & when we arise, constantly, or it is not truly a part of our psyche or the fiber of our being.

The 2 month period between the Fast of Av & the fast of Yom Kippur is the time our tradition sets apart for us to become better people & better Jews. How we take advantage of it is left to our discretion. Veshinantam levankha, You shall inculcate your children - Let us resolve to do that, &, let us resolve to brainwash ourselves as well.

שלום וברכה
-shalom uverakha-
(peace & blessing)
Rabbi Ronald B. Kopelman