French journalist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr’s aphorism, “The more things change, the more they stay the same,” is expressed in Rashi’s commentary on the ancient Israelites’ departure from Mount Sinai.
He quotes the midrash that the Jewish people left the site of The Giving of the Torah, “like a young child fleeing the House of Study.” The image of children streaming out of school at the end of a school year (which sadly will not take place for most of America’s youth this summer), is apparently a very enduring one, relevant to both medieval and contemporary students. But why did the Jews feel such a need to leave Mount Sinai? And what lesson does this specific comparison intend to convey to us?
Students tend to proclaim vocally that they would rather not have school. Perhaps our current COVID-19 crisis has created a yearning for the locker-lined halls of our educational institutions, but my guess is that whatever affection has been developed will not last once everyone gets back to the business of attending school.
School can be tedious, grinding and unconnected to our perception of what we need. But the main reason kids hate school is because it is challenging. It forces them to face their limitations and work through them. In short, it forces them to grow. And if there’s anything a young child reviles, it’s having to grow. It is so much work. Perhaps even more so, school constantly reminds the student of how little he or she knows, how much more there is to learn, how developmentally small and incapable they currently are.
The Hebrew label for “young child” employed by Rashi in the above comment is tinok, which literally means a nursing child. The term is almost always used to denote a toddler; everywhere, that is, except when discussing an educational setting. There tinok describes an elementary to middle school child; in fact, the standard term for such students is tinokos shel bais raban — “toddler-like students of the House of their teacher.” Young students are still full-time recipients, like toddlers. They drink from the wisdom of their teachers and absorb wisdom constantly. But they cannot yet turn it into their own, they do not have the tools for educational independence.
The student knows that this is beneficial, but it feels forced on them. So they chafe at the burden, try to push away this pouring of knowledge into them; they run, they flee, they exult in the freedom of the end of the term — and in doing so remain a tinok. It is when the student realizes that education is the path to gaining maturity and self-sufficiency, and agrees to be a participant in the acquisition of wisdom, that he/she graduates from tinok-hood. That transformation occurs at exactly the moment that the child stops running away.
The Jews at Mount Sinai achieved tremendous spiritual growth. They enthusiastically agreed to learn and observe the entire contents of the Torah given to them by G-d. But the midrash is pointing out that the transition from ignorance to proficiency is a difficult one, and that even our illustrious desert-dwelling ancestors were not past the feeling of overburdening and pressure that accompanies the steepest of developmental climbs.
In some way, they still had not shed the tinok mindset, even after a year camping at the foot of Mount Sinai. Rashi tells us this because the seed of tinok-hood was the cause of all of the trials that the Jewish people endured in the desert, and led to their dying before reaching the Promised Land.
We all have difficulty with the tinok that remains in our adult psyche, with shirking duties and opportunities that stretch our abilities. We don’t feel that we can own the responsibility and rise to the challenge. But it is just that, the remnants of our youth. Our job is to grow past it. When we stop running, we will truly have arrived. JN
Rabbi Raphael Landesman is the head of school of Shearim Torah High School in Phoenix.