If ignorance is bliss, illiteracy can be beneficial.
It was the final Friday of the past summer’s camping season. I was in our bungalow in Camp Dora Golding looking at a calendar when I realized that Shabbos would be our twins’ – Gavriel and Michael’s – fifth Hebrew birthday. Generally, we celebrate our children’s English birthdays for the simple reason that we remember those (at least the rest of my family does. I’m lucky if I remember all of my children’s names.). But I made the mistake of announcing that it was their birthday in their presence. They excitedly asked what we were doing to celebrate their birthday. My wife shot me an annoyed glare and asked me why I had to say anything.
On Shabbos morning the following day, camp’s Director and First Lady – Alex and Chanie Gold – hosted their annual hakaras ha’tov kiddush, in appreciation of the devotion and efforts of the camp administrators and their families throughout the summer. All camp families attended the gala kiddush presented by Chef Yosef Oldak, which included an impressive assortment of meat, kugels, herring, and sushi platters (for those who like that stuff), endless candy, and cookies that had the Camp Dora Golding logo on them.
When our family arrived at the kiddush, the twins assumed it was in their honor and were very excited. We weren’t about to tell them otherwise.
I approached Alex and asked him if he could give a happy birthday shout-out to the twins at the end of his speech. He graciously agreed. He did even better. At the end of his warm message of gratitude to the assemblage, he asked, “Where are Gavriel and Michoel Staum?” The two of them looked up surprisedly from their plates of candy and cups of soda and raised their hands. Alex called them over and told them that because it’s their birthday they each get another cookie.
The twins assumed that the words on the cookies read “Happy Birthday, Gavriel and Michoel.” They were delighted to add the extra cookies to their overflowing loot of nosh.
We thanked Alex for helping us with our birthday dilemma, allowing the twins to feel special without it costing us a penny. He jokingly replied that he was sending us a bill for half the kiddush.
Of course, we want our children to learn to read and write. There is a beautiful excitement generated as they begin to recognize letters, and even more so, when they are able to read words. But, until that time, we can take advantage of their illiteracy.
More recently, our daughter Aviva got her driving permit. During the days prior, while she was studying for the exam, whenever I was driving and she was in the car, she would announce what each sign we passed meant. The entire trip I heard, “Stop, Yield, Left Turn Ahead, Traffic Light Ahead, Speed Limit 30, Two-Way Traffic, Dead End, Pedestrian Crossing,” etc. It was worse than having a cop driving behind me.
Those signs had been there for years, but she had never paid much attention to them because they didn’t mean much to her. But now that she needed to know what each one meant, she paid careful attention to ensure that she understood their message.
At the beginning of each year, when I hand my wide-eyed, overwhelmed freshman students the gemaras they will be using for the year, there is a palpable feeling of nervousness. I tell them that now the words in their new gemaras look like they are in a foreign language (to be fair, they are written in a foreign language. But I mean even more foreign than a chumash or mishnayos). Our goal is that over the course of the year, they will invest in their learning, and repeatedly review the words of the Gemara until they become fluent and comfortable with them. That includes marking up their gemaras with punctuation, translation of hard words, and other brief notes. If they do so, they will discover that they will become very attached to their gemaras, until it feels like a dear friend. They will invariably feel a deep sense of mastery, pride, and love for the volume whose words once seemed so alien to them.
I also tell my students that there is a certain majestic beauty seeing a yeshivah bachur walking in the street clutching his gemara. Just as he takes his t’filin with him whenever he goes away overnight, if he develops a true connection with his gemara, he will want to take it with him, as well.
On Simchas Torah, many yeshivah bachurim dance while grasping the gemaras that they use every day. There is an unparalleled pride in the feeling of connection to Torah and Hashem, which results from investment and diligence.
I write this from the vantage point of a rebbe of boys, because that’s what I have the great z’chus to be. But the same is true for a girl who invests in her Torah studies and t’filah.
Davening is a particular challenge for many of us (especially our youth) because the words are so foreign. But one who tries to understand the timeless words of t’filah will begin to recognize the incredible tapestry and depth that are to be found in the words of the Siddur.
May we all become spiritually literate and discover the great sweetness of connection to Torah and t’filah.