Parshah Nitzavim-Vayelech, Deuteronomy 29:9–31:30
When I had the blessed opportunity to teach overseas in underdeveloped nations, one heartbreaking phenomenon I encountered was the amount of empty classrooms. Many students never attend or are pulled from school by their families due to intense economic or social pressures. In this week’s double Torah portion —
Nitzavim-Vayelech — we learn about the Jewish interest in public education, expressed by way of a fascinating communal forum called Hakhel (Deuteronomy 31). Every seven years, the king would come out of his palace to educate the public. This was in keeping with the command: “Assemble the people — men, women and children, and the strangers living in your towns, so that they can listen and learn … ”
According to the medieval commentator Abraham Ibn Ezra, this learning event took place at a time when everyone — even the slave and the foreigner — would be able to attend: the beginning of the Sabbatical Year.
Jewish law mandates that we not only teach where we can but that we appoint teachers to all of our cities. The Shulchan Aruch requires that: “Every community is obligated to appoint teachers; a city without a teacher should be put under a ban until the inhabitants appoint one. If they continue to neglect to appoint a teacher, the city should be destroyed for the world exists only through the breath of school children” (Yoreh Deah 245:5).
Yet too many of the children in the world today lack the chance for intellectual growth. While the number of primary school-age children who do not attend school has been reduced from 105 million in 1990 to 61 million today, the trend has slowed since 2005. More than half of unschooled children live in sub-Saharan Africa. Armed conflict prevents 28 million children from going to school. In South Sudan, families often marry their daughters off by age 15 to relieve the crushing economic pressures of recovering from civil war. In Pakistan, numerous girls’ schools have been forced to close due to attacks on the facilities. Low education levels heighten the risk of entrenched conflict, as militancy become the only available “career” option.
This is a call to action.
Both UNESCO and the EFA Global Monitoring Report note that there are policies beneficial in areas where armed conflict has disrupted the educational system, including a shift from humanitarian aid to long-term investment with multi-year commitments and pooled resources to reduce bureaucracy and help the transition to government-run programs. In addition, if donor nations converted only six days of military spending into education aid, the current $16 billion shortfall in education needs for poor nations could be alleviated. Long-term educational investment in developing nations is a more certain route toward stable peace and prosperity.
The Torah tells us that we must prioritize public education. We cannot expect struggling villages and nations to address these challenges without assistance.
And, we need not look overseas. The education crisis is local for us since Arizona ranks as low as 48, 49 and 50 in the major education quality rankings.
By returning to a Sabbatical Year mindset, we return to a way of thinking that encourages us to go beyond our immediate needs. We must seriously invest in educational opportunities if we wish to move villages and nations out of poverty. As the Talmud teaches, Jerusalem was destroyed “only because they neglected (the education of) school children.” Further, “school children may not be made to neglect (their studies) even for the building of the Temple” (BT Shabbat 119b). We must heed this message before another generation is lost to ignorance, prejudice and war. JN
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the president and dean of Valley Beit Midrash and the author of 11 books on Jewish ethics.