Korbanot, child-pure, as a beginning of learning


A number of midrashim pose the question (ascribed either to Rabbi Yoseh, Yosi, or Dosa), “Why do children begin learning the [Chumash] from the section about korbanot [offerings]?” And the answer is, “Because just as the korbanot are pure, so are the children pure.”

In recording the question at the beginning of Vayikra, Kli Yakar quotes the Yalkut Shimoni (Pinchas 786), who uses a play on words to demonstrate that one year old k’vasim (sheep) are used as korbanot, because they are m’khabsim (they launder or wash away) the sins of a person, making the person as clean (or pure) as a one-year old.

While there are many suggestions as to why the alef in “VAYIKRa” is small (Kli Yakar begins his commentary on the parsha with his own interpretation), the call to attention brought on by the alef in this first word of the book is a reminder that this is where children, who are small and who begin their learning with alef, should begin their Chumash studies.

Kli Yakar quotes another opinion, that the word “Alef” comes from a root which means to study, as in the verse in Iyov (33:33), when his friend Elihu tells him, “Va’Alefkha Hokhma,” — “If you have words, answer me … but if you don’t, then listen to me; be silent as I will teach you wisdom.”

The point taken from there is that learning is only fulfilling when a person lowers himself, and accepts the role of student, like a child learning in a classroom. 

Moshe indeed merited to be called in this manner – Vayikra El Moshe – because he had done this when G-d first called upon him. He belittled himself saying, “I am not a man of words” (Shmot 4:10), and he merited to become the epitome of being a man of words, the quintessential teacher of Torah. 

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Not only was he the greatest teacher, but he rose above everyone else of his time. Certainly G-d spoke to Adam, Noach, Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. But there was no one else in their time worthy of being any kind of competition. But in Moshe’s day, there were 70 elders, Bezalel, Aharon and his sons, the princes, etc. and only Moshe merited to have the relationship with G-d he enjoyed.

And so the lesson is twofold: We learn from Moshe that one who never thinks “I have arrived” and who always thinks, “I have so much more to learn” is a person who will have much more success in learning.

Having played the role of instructor for advanced teacher education and training, I have found the most productive classes were those in which the teachers in the room played the role of students. Those who feel the need to reverse the roles in that context end up learning nothing themselves and ruin the class for everyone else.

On the other hand, playing the role of student is something I cherish as well. It is a blessing to hear new ideas, see new things, be presented with different perspectives on things I don’t know well or even know very well. And the reminder of how much there is still to learn is ever humbling.

This leaves us with the second lesson: regarding children, of what and how they learn. We are living in a time when information is out there, available and so easily accessible. What is not out there, and what needs to be taught, learned and made available to children, is the ability to think. The answer to “what’s the answer?” is “I don’t know. Figure it out.” Or, “Perhaps if you use this rule or this information that you have, you may be able to come up with the answer.” “I am here to help, but not to show you or tell you.”

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Of course there are things we must “tell” children. How to read, translation of words, and even some basic skills all come from a frontal sharing of “information you need to know.” But the book of Vayikra is a great place to start learning because the same words and shorashim (root words) appear over and over in the first seven chapters, creating a built in review of language, syntax, vocabulary, and structure. 

And even the message shared by Rabbi Yoseh, Yosi or Dosa is equally important to bear in mind. There is a purity that beginning learners have, a curiosity, along with a desire to learn and to please others.

Our challenge is to teach things correctly, to make good choices, and to give learners information, skills, and the wings to think for themselves.

Instead of creating “Yes”-men-and-women and people who are afraid to get wrong answers, we must tap into the purity of Vayikra, combine it with the purity of the children, and promote an active kind of learning in which mistakes are encouraged, because we catch them on our own, learn from them, and grow from them. We create an environment in which those who have the drive, who have a similarly talented peer group (as did Moshe), are able to rise above because they raise themselves above through their commitment and dedication to learning and growing.

Hanokh L’naar al pi darko — Teach the child according to how the child learns, so that even when he grows old, he will not turn away from what he has been taught. (Proverbs 22:6)

Originally published in 2013.