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Three Major Challenges In Jewish Education

| Emor |

Q. How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb?

A. One is enough, but the bulb has to be willing to change.

It’s very difficult to educate someone who puts up resistance to what you want to convey. One can transmit ideas to one who is interested in knowing and listening, but it’s very difficult —if not impossible— to do so if the one you are talking to doesn’t want to listen.

The same thing can happen with yourself. Before getting frustrated for not understanding something that has to do with your spiritual development, see if you really want to understand it. If you come to the conclusion that you don’t really want to understand, that understanding in itself will allow you to address the root of the resistance and make it possible to overcome.  

In connection with the first verse of this week’s reading, Emor [1], our sages identify three personal conditions that sabotage the willingness to understand something.

This week’s reading opens with G-d’s communication to Moses: “Say to the priests, sons of Aaron, and tell them that they must not become unclean through contact with a dead body from amongst their people.”

The question is, why the redundancy of “Say… say to them”? 

The Biblical commentator Rashi quotes the Talmud’s explanation [2]: “It’s to warn the grown-ups regarding [the behavior of] the children.” In other words, the warning to the priests was not only with respect to their personal conduct vis-à-vis their personal ritual purity but also regarding their responsibility for the education and conduct of their children in this matter.

Interestingly, we find this unusual biblical emphasis with respect to the responsibility that grown-ups have regarding the behavior of minors in two more cases: the prohibition of consuming blood and the prohibition of consuming insects. 

Why was it necessary to emphasize the responsibility of adults for children precisely in these three issues?

The Rebbe —may his merit shield us— explains that these three cases represent three types of resistance that can discourage the educator regarding the chances of success he may have in influencing his student’s behavior: 1) addiction; 2) rebellion against authority; 3) the abstraction of the topic at hand.

Our sages [3] point out that in biblical times people were very accustomed to consuming blood. When one is very accustomed to a certain lifestyle or behavior, it is difficult to hear about something that might challenge or deprive him from it. 

Eating an insect is usually an act of rebellion [4], since people are naturally disgusted by it. What can you say to a rebel? The more you tell him, the more opportunities you will give him to rebel; you will just be stoking his rebellious fire!   

All the norms of ritual purity and impurity that the Kohanim (priests) must respect are not rational [5]. They are criteria that have no rational foundation; they are divine, supranational laws. How, then, does one educate a rational being —whose education may have been in a totally secular educational system— regarding matters of ritual purity and impurity, divine laws that transcend reason? Furthermore, for many it is very uncomfortable to be openly different from the society he or she lives in, behaving in ways that are rationally inexplicable.

This is why the Torah emphasizes in these three cases that the older ones —both in years as well as in wisdom— not be discouraged by how difficult the educational responsibility may seem when transmitting these concepts to those that are uninitiated. Each individual —no matter his or her current situation— has the potential to overcome such barriers by accessing the essence of their soul.

The verb that the sages use to denote “to warn” —Lehazhir— can also be understood as “to make shine”, from the same root as the word Zohar. The idea here is that the “older ones” have the duty not only to admonish, to impose the rules of conduct, but to enlighten, to expose them in such a way that the student wants to incorporate them into his life for his own benefit, so that he himself, his soul and essence will shine and make everything around them shine. 

The same is true regarding one’s own education and spiritual development. Many times we can become discouraged by our stagnant spiritual condition and see no way out. “I am too dependent on this or that behavior,” “I do not like to submit to authority and discipline,” “I cannot accept ideas and rules that I cannot understand or explain,” are some of the excuses.

The lesson of this week’s reading is: do not get discouraged. We have the divine command —and with it comes the promise and empowerment— that by putting our effort the right way —by exposing the teachings instead of imposing them— we will succeed in activating the very essence of the soul, the truest and deepest source of endless inspiration and motivation.

So this week’s tool is: when spiritual growth is frustrated by emotional resistance, look a little deeper and when you access the essence you will have the key to overcome, and even transform, any personal obstacles. 

Based on Likutei Sichot Vol. 2, Page 679


  1. Leviticus, 21:1 – 24:23

  2. Ievamot, 114a

  3. See Rashi, Deuteronomy 12:23.

  4. Horiyot, 11a

  5. Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, conclusion of Hilchot Mikvaot.

First published on my blog at Times of Israel, May 6, 2020


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