The first pasuk in Parshas Emor is unusual due to the repetition of the words, “Say to the kohanim,” and then again, “You shall say to them.” Rashi quotes the Gemara that the repetition should be interpreted as follows: “Say to them” – relate to them these words: “You must tell your children not to defile themselves.” Each kohen is exhorted to teach his children to follow the special laws affecting the kohanim, for it is what their lives are all about. The lesson here is two-fold: If a parent wishes his children to identify with Jewish ideals, they must be taught by example to follow those ideals. Secondly, Jewish ideals must occupy a significant place in a child’s view on life. Jewish education in a significant measure, with parents setting the example, is the only tried and true method of raising children who make Jewish identity a priority in their lives.
A rebbi in a local Jewish school, on the last day of school, threw an end-of-year party for his fifth-grade class, celebrating everything they had learned during the entire year. The event progressed nicely, with the principal offering a few words, followed by a fun, action-packed game, and then a short meal, accompanied by spirited singing.
As the kids were setting the tables for the meal, they set aside one table for the delectable goodies that some of the mothers had sent. One boy in the class, a shy, sensitive boy, had brought a particularly beautiful cake. His mother had apparently spent lots of time and dedication preparing the cake, showing her pride at her son’s accomplishments. The boy was visibly proud as he gingerly set the elaborate cake onto the table. But then, just moments later, in the cramped classroom full of exuberant kids, the inevitable happened: Someone must have pushed by without looking where he was going, and inadvertently shoved the cake off the table. Still in its box, the cake landed on the floor, crushed and completely ruined.
The rebbi watched as the boy who had brought the cake struggled to maintain his composure. He put on a brave face, and with the large, forced grin of someone trying hard not to cry, went about his tasks without saying a word to the classmate who ruined his cake. But after ten minutes of struggling with that smile, his facade crumbled as the boy suddenly lost his composure and began sobbing. The rebbi put his arm around his student’s shoulder and led him out of the room.
“Here,” he said, as he looked into the boy’s eyes and handed him a $20 bill. “Take this money and go to the nearby bakery and get whatever cake you wish for the entire class. But,” he added, as the boy reached for the bill, “I only want one thing from you in return. I watched you as your classmate pushed your mother’s cake onto the floor, and how you held back and did not say a word to the offender. I watched as you bravely tried to smile and overcome your emotions. So, in exchange for this $20 bill, I would like the merit of the mitzvah of you not having embarrassed another person publicly.”
The boy stared wide-eyed at his rebbi as the words registered. Slowly, a small smile formed at his lips as he gently shook his head, as if to say, “No, rebbi. If you feel so strongly about this merit, then I’m not giving it up so fast.”
The boy handed back the money to his rebbi, and the two walked back into the classroom together.
But the story does not end here. When they settled back into their seats, the rebbi turned to his class and asked, “Boys, what exactly are we celebrating here today? Why did your mothers spend precious time preparing cakes to mark this occasion? Is it just so that we get to eat some good food?” He looked around before continuing. “No, it is because these delicacies stand for something. They are a symbol of our joy at having completed another year of learning Torah. They are a symbol of your parents’ pride in what you have accomplished. That’s what these cakes are all about. Look here,” the rebbi said pointing to the messy, crushed cake ensconced forlornly in its box. “Here we have a cake that symbolizes all of that, and yet so much more. This is a cake that symbolizes both the love of learning, and the ability of one boy to win over his emotions. It is the symbol of a child who was able to struggle with, and then contain, his anger. This is a truly special cake.”
Everyone looked at the blushing boy. And then, every single one of them reached over and took a piece of the flat, messy cake. And not a single crumb was left!
Adapted from “The Crushed Cake” by D. Weinberg (5772)