Dear Rabbi,

My Chabad rebbetzin nudged me so much—and she was so nice about it—until I put my little boy in their Hebrew School. It’s wonderful to see the enthusiasm with which he comes home and tells me all the stories. But some of them are more than a little fantastic.

Moses turns out to be ten feet tall. Pharaoh is one foot tall. Then we get to Moshiach-times, when candy is growing on trees. It only gets wilder from there.

Don’t you think Moses would be at least as believable a teacher and liberator at a moderate 5' 9"? Just as Pharaoh is villainous enough without shrinking him to the height of a cucumber?

The same applies to Moshiach-times. I want my child to understand that we are working towards a beautiful world of peace and wisdom. Candies on trees (as though my little guy doesn’t have enough candies already) only serves to distract from that ideal.

I’ve read that these stories have deeper meanings. But my child takes them at face value.

I’ve read that not all these stories are meant as historical fact, but they all have deep meaning. But my child takes everything at face value. I’m concerned about when he grows up and figures that he was told a string of fishermen’s tales. How will he know what’s for real and what’s fantasy?

Dear Jewish Mother,

Actually, the Talmud says that Moses was ten cubits tall.1 That puts him at about 15 feet. Which doesn’t help you much. Neither will it help that Pharaoh, at one cubit, would have to be an English cucumber.

Also may not help to point out that the issue is more endemic than you may have realized. The child reads, for example, that G‑d struck Egypt with “His strong hand.”2 I guarantee you, as much as any teacher may attempt to explain to a small child how that is just a figure of speech for the indescribable power of the Creator of the Universe, the child will still be stuck with the image of a very large, powerful hand, certainly bigger than the teacher’s, maybe even bigger than the gorilla he saw in the zoo.3

Now that’s a problem. Maimonides (who codified Jewish law 800 years ago) determined that believing in a G‑d who has a body is heresy.4 No, your little guy is not a heretic. He’s just taking the words at face value. That’s the sort of world little guys live in—a very face-value, concrete world. Nevertheless, how could the Torah communicate something to a child (or anybody else who takes things as they are laid out in black on white) that is not true? And not just not true, but the opposite of the truth that the Torah is meant to convey?!

So here’s something that might help:

Let’s look at the face-value world of your adorable little guy. What does the world look like from down there? Let’s ask him to draw a picture—say, a picture of his family. Now read his world out of the picture. How big is Mommy? How big is Daddy? How big is the little baby who has become the centerpiece of family attention for the past two months? And how big is your little guy? What about if he would draw Moses in there—even without having heard the ten cubit figure? My guess is that Moses would take up much of the drawing. Much more than a moderate 5' 9".

Children, being humans, are not really interested in the facts, but in their meaning.

That’s because children, being humans, are not really interested in the facts, but in their meaning. Especially the child.

To the child, meaning is everything. Jean Piaget, the father of developmental psychology, understood that well. He demonstrated that to a child a table is not a board with four legs; a table is something you eat on, sit at, or place things upon.

If the meaning of the table is its function, the meaning of size is importance. The rest is almost irrelevant.

The child has already learned that the world was created with ten sayings, and the Torah was given in ten commandments. A ten cubit Moses, to the child, is a person who is as important and complete as the world that G‑d made and the Torah that He gave.

As the child grows, the literal world and the figurative world pull apart. Size begins to have meaning for the sake of size alone. Drawings become representational of the physical dimensions necessary to deal with our world on its own terms. What you were able to tell to him at six years old by describing a ten cubit Moses, you will now communicate by talking about the power of spirit that breathed inside Moses, how Moses viewed the world from a place far beyond anyone else and how he lived on another plane of reality.

The older child gets more information, through abstract concepts and much more subtle metaphor than you would give the small child. But the idea inside those concepts and metaphors has not changed.

In a way, the small child has a clearer grasp of Moses’ greatness than the adult.

Who Knows Better?

It turns out that in a way, the small child has a clearer grasp of Moses’ greatness than the adult. In the adult’s world, there is a gap between the world of the human spirit and the world of tangible matter and sensation. For the small child, it’s all one. The greatness of Moses’ spirit, for the child, is as real as his physical body.

The same with G‑d’s hand. The child is not interested in the size of a hand for anatomical reasons. He wants to know how far that hand could throw a ball, how tight would be its grasp if it shook your hand, and how much power the person behind that hand might wield through it. So too, when the child thinks of G‑d’s mighty hand, he’s thinking of the meaning behind it: G‑d’s hand is powerful beyond belief.

As he matures and continues learning, his concept of G‑d will also mature. He’ll look back at how he thought of G‑d and His powerful hand as a child and all that he learned will take on deeper meaning.

Further down the path of life, he’ll learn that the kabbalists call G‑d “Infinite Light.” Hard to imagine Infinite Light with a hand sticking out. He may also learn how later kabbalists taught that G‑d is yet beyond the infinite, and certainly beyond light. He may even think deeply into those concepts and develop some inkling of what they all mean. But all the time, he will be building upon the affinity he felt to G‑d’s mighty hand as a small child.

When the Moshiach comes, we’ll all see the world in a whole new way. As deep as you or your child may have understood anything to that point, it will seem more than childish in comparison to what will unfold before our eyes then. No matter how abstractly, ethereally and transcendentally he understood candy on trees, these revelations are going to make it all look like child’s play.

The ascent continues, the leaps and bounds never end. But the essential truth you grasp inside all those packages stays the same throughout. As does the beauty of the packaging itself.

Unlike candies and other toys, with Torah, you never throw out the packaging.

That’s the power of Torah: Unlike candies and other toys, with Torah, you never throw out the packaging. It’s just as beautiful as what’s inside—and maybe more so. Because it’s that packaging that allows G‑d’s infinite wisdom to be found everywhere.

As the sun is reflected in the ocean, in a pond, in a cup of water and in a tiny droplet of dew on a blade of grass—exactly the same sun, just less grand and bright—so the Torah enters into the world of each one of us, each according to the parameters of his or her particular world.

And truth be told, in that tiny droplet, undistorted by the ripples of outside disturbances, the sun’s image shines most pristine and clear.

As a wise rabbi once commented, “When I pray, I pray with the mind of a small child.”5 The adult has ideas, concepts and abstractions. The child has G‑d alone.

The parables, the metaphors, the wild and fantastic tales of the Talmud and Midrash—they are all beautiful, and they are true. At each stage in life, we can find a new depth within them. But they are most true because they communicate truth into the world of the small child. And all of us, as much as we may mature into adults, must always hold on to that small child inside. Because it is there that truth and beauty reside most pristine.

I know you’re asking about your child, but, like the flight attendant tells you before take-off, you’ve got to put on your own oxygen mask before helping your child. Get some of that oxygen and dive beneath the sea of midrash yourself. Look into the classic commentaries and ponder their meaning. Read our series, “Is Midrash For Real?” that maps out some of that territory and explains Midrash so that even adults can understand it.