Va-et'chanan for Tots

Va-et'chanan, Deuteronomy 3:23–7:11

D'Var Torah By: Ellen and Peter Allard

Hear, O Israel! The Eternal is our God, the Eternal alone. You shall love the Eternal your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day. Impress them upon your children. Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up. Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead; inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates."

-Deuteronomy 6:4-6:9

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice. Well known as advice for aspiring musicians, this three word answer is equally useful if applied to anything that one wants to learn to do, particularly something one wants to learn to do well.

This week's Torah portion, Parashat Va-et'chanan, includes the following words instructed by Moses (and commanded by God) to Israel: "You shall love the Eternal your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might." (Deut. 6:5). This phrase, included in the V'ahavta prayer, follows the six words of the Sh'ma "Hear, O Israel! The Eternal is our God, the Eternal alone," (Deut. 6:4) the central credo of Judaism.

The concept of a commandment to love can be a hard one to relate to. Is it possible to love when the impetus to do so comes from an outside command? And even if we were to consider the possibility of being able to do so, can the love be sustained when not driven by ones' emotions?

We would like to suggest that the words of the V'ahavta, commanded by God, instructed by Moses to the Israelites, assume that people are born with the capacity to love God. But like anything we do, the opportunity to practice makes our task come that much more naturally to us. Praying regularly and performing other mitzvot present us with the opportunity, day in and day out, to practice loving God. And by practicing, we get better at what we're learning to do.

Put simply, the word mitzvah (plural: mitzvot) can be understood in two ways: Either as a commandment or as a "good deed." As Reform Jews, and in particular in relating to young children, we are usually working within the realm of the latter understanding. When an early childhood student puts a leaf on the "mitzvah tree" it is more likely to be for cleaning up toys or helping a sibling than for lighting the Shabbat candles. This parashah, which includes the Ten Commandments, focuses on the prior understanding, "commandment" in the literal sense. With the study of this parashah we are reminded of the opportunity to think about the commandment aspect of mitzvah.

While there is a multitude of mitzvot that are appropriate for young children to begin practicing, the Sh'ma is, we think, the perfect place for your children to begin their journey. As parents of young Jewish children, you can help them observe the mitzvah of saying the Sh'ma by teaching them to say the opening six words in the morning upon rising and at night upon going to bed, just as the Israelites were instructed regarding the words of the V'ahavta in Deut. 6:7 ("recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up."). By practicing this every day, you will help your children establish their own relationship with and love of God, and in doing so, you will be giving them a language they can use to nurture a lifelong relationship with God.

Questions and Ideas for Parents:

  1. Can you think of an example of something that was difficult for you to do at first but became much easier with regular practice? What happened if/when you stopped practicing?
  2. Did your parents speak to you about God when you were a child? Do you feel comfortable talking to your kids about God?
  3. What are some of the things you feel obligated to teach your children?

Questions for Children:

  1. Is there something that you like to do that is hard for you to do? What do you think you can do to make it easier or to get better at it?
  2. Do you talk about God with people at home or at school? Do you have questions about God?
  3. Have you heard about the Sh'ma? What do you know about it?
Reference Materials

Pages 1188-1205 in The Torah: A Modern Commentary Revised Edition, by W. Gunther Plaut.