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Yayakhel: Too Young to Pray?

10/03/2019 03:59:59 PM


This Shabbat, the holiest shabbat of the year, we read Parashat Vayelekh, which includes one of the final commandment in the Torah, called Hakhel. God commands the Israelites to have a special gathering every seven years to bring together men, women, children, Jews and non-Jews alike to hear the Torah being read. One thing that is remarkable about the commandment is that it includes not only adults and older children, but even the youngest children (in Hebrew, the word is “taf”). Why bring the toddlers?

There is something special about having all the different segments of society brought together for a particular experience. Those of us who experience the High Holidays in community, and see the diversity of those gathered can perhaps appreciate that. Still, some of the commentators wonder - why include even infants and toddlers who are too young to hear and understand the words of the Torah? What might they get out of it? Wouldn’t their presence be a distraction to their parents or to others around them?

Rashi, based on the Midrash, explains that the presence of young children has no benefit to the children, but their parents receive a reward for having brought them. In essence, God grades based on attendance, and every human present adds to that number. I prefer another way of explaining this commandment: children appreciate context long before they understand content. The children may not understand the words of the Torah, but they come to appreciate that the gathering is a place that is important to their families, and they will value what happens far more when they do reach the age of comprehension.

That lesson is an important one for congregations as well. Some congregations discourage bringing children to synagogue, or have a “shushing” culture. We have sought to turn in a different direction. While we do often offer separate youth services, children should always be welcome in our regular services, even it means that infants or toddlers are sometimes adding their own voices to prayer. That experience of being present from a young age builds familiarity and comfort even long before those children are developmentally ready to grasp specific prayers or understand the sermon. It’s never too young to start a holy habit.

Sun, April 21 2024 13 Nisan 5784