It was late Simchat Torah night, 3:00 AM to be exact, and everyone in the central Lubavitch synagogue was engrossed in the concluding prayers following the Hakafot ceremony.

A young boy stood near the Rebbe. He did not have a prayerbook—the synagogue was crowded, and there were none available. The Rebbe took notice, and motioned for the boy to approach him. He lowered his prayerbook so that the child could look in with him. Sharing pages, together they swayed and prayed . . .


Pharaoh, it seemed, was finally coming around.

The latest threat from G‑d had just come in: “If you refuse to let My people go, behold, tomorrow I am going to bring locusts into your borders . . . and they will eat all your trees that grow out of the field.”

The people at the palace weren’t pleased.

“Pharaoh’s servants said to him, ‘How long will this people be a stumbling-block to us? Let them go and they will worship their G‑d! Don’t you know that Egypt is lost?’”

Perhaps it was the fear of economic ruin or civil unrest that brought Pharaoh to the negotiating table, or maybe it was the creepy thought of a locust invasion; either way, it appeared that he was ready to do business at last.

Moses and Aaron were brought back to Pharaoh, and he said to them, ‘Go, worship the L‑rd your G‑d . . .’”

Free at last.

Well, almost. While looking over the discharge papers, something caught Pharaoh’s eye. “Who exactly is going?” he asked.

“With our youth and with our elders we will go, with our sons and with our daughters . . . for it is a festival to the L‑rd for us,” was the response.

Pharaoh said, “May the L‑rd be with you just as I will let you and your young children out [the ancient way of saying: not in a million years!]. Not so; let the men go now and worship the L‑rd, for that is what you request.”

A Battle of Wits

On the surface, this fruitless exchange seems identical to previous ones; just another ploy plucked from Pharaoh’s bottomless bag of gimmicks.

Perhaps, though, we can also see in it the origins of a contemporary debate.

Note: the following dialogue was not found recorded in ancient Jewish manuscripts, or transcribed in Egyptian hieroglyphs, but emerges from the author’s imagination alone.

On the basic level, Pharaoh argues, “If it’s truly a prayer experience and environment you seek, leave the kids behind. How can you achieve transcendence with a screaming child tugging at your sleeve? Prayers and Pampers don’t go together.”

Moses’ response is equally convincing: “The children must come, despite the challenge you present. For if synagogue life is devoid of children today, tomorrow it will be devoid of adults. The institution of prayer is better maintained, or only maintained, when youth are involved. After all, they are the link to the future . . .”

Not one to buckle easily, Pharaoh persists. In an inadvertent prophetic nod to a new-age line of reasoning, he declares:

“But encouraging children to pray and follow ritual is a form of brainwashing! It’s unethical to impose religious beliefs and a particular lifestyle on children too young to choose for themselves.”

Ahead of his time, he stumbles onto a modern-day trap. Old-school education surely equals indoctrination. Teaching children to believe in G‑d, or in anything absolute for that matter, is denying them their “G‑d-given” right to explore things on their own.

“To bring up children in a distinct way, especially in a particularistic way, is to do them irreversible and lifelong damage,” asserts Pharaoh. “They will be haunted by their rigid and restrictive past, and forever held captive to the belief system of their childhood . . .”

Counters Moses: “While you’ve aptly pointed out that children are most impressionable, that’s actually a reason for, not against, teaching them about such valuable things as faith, prayer and community at such a young age. If they learn right from wrong in their formative years, if they are instilled with religious teachings like ‘Love your neighbor like yourself’ from childhood, these good traits and impulses will be ingrained in them, not superimposed onto them, as is the case with much of what is learnt in adulthood.

“Besides”—and here Moses calls Pharaoh on his bluff—“it’s not as if you walk your own talk . . .”

Brainwash or Brain Freeze?

If there was one individual in ancient Egypt who knew and practiced indoctrination in the extreme, it was Pharaoh.

His horrific decree to drown all males at birth overshadowed a different, equally sinister, plot pertaining to Jewish females.

On the verse, “Pharaoh commanded all his people, saying, ‘Every son who is born you shall cast into the Nile, and every daughter you shall allow to live,’” the sages wonder at the redundancy of Pharaoh’s words: “and every daughter you shall allow to live.” If the drowning decree didn’t apply to them, isn’t it obvious that they would live?

But Pharaoh’s evil plans included girls as well, whom he wanted “drowned” in Egyptian religion and culture. The boys he sought to eliminate; the girls, to indoctrinate.

In today’s world, Moses would surely call a different but prevalent bluff: “You can unhesitatingly enroll your children in the School of Television, where they are taught the Art of Obscenity by such expert professors as the Simpsons or the faculty of Glee; in their free time they take music at MTV, and if they excel at their studies, they are rewarded with time to play Grand Theft Auto or surf (really, drown in) the ’Net—yet you are opposed to the ominous indoctrination practiced at Hebrew school?”

The Damage of Sophistication

The debate gets more serious.

The issue of continuity aside, Pharaoh argues that children are unfit to pray. They lack the maturity and sensitivity to appreciate matters of the spirit. While the words of prayer these youngsters are expected to chant are pretty, moving and soulful, their meaning is lost on children. Their childish perception of G‑d is probably insulting to Him.

Moses is secretly thrilled to address this last point. Here is his chance to bust a myth.

That Jewish continuity is a big factor in Judaism’s emphasis on the involvement of children in things Jewish1 is a given.2

Its recognition of the power of one’s formative years, and the lifelong effects of childhood upbringing, is also commonly emphasized. (Think of the Mishnaic statement,3 “He who learns as a child may be compared to ink written on new paper.”)

That there is another, entirely non-utilitarian factor, however, is much less known.

Consider the following Talmudic passage:

“Rabbi Yehudah said in the name of Rav: What is meant by the verse, ‘Do not touch my anointed ones’?4 ‘My anointed ones’ refers to tinokot shel beit raban—schoolchildren.”

Reish Lakish said in the name of R. Yehudah the Prince: The world endures only for the sake of the breath of schoolchildren [emitted during Torah study]. Said R. Papa to Abaye: What about mine and yours [i.e., is our Torah study chopped liver]? He replied: Breath in which there is sin is not like breath in which there is no sin.”

Abaye makes clear that the value placed on the Torah study of children is not related to their future status as adults. Childhood Judaism is not just a means to an end. On the contrary, there is something pure and innocent about the divine service of a child—“breath without sin”—that is lost in adulthood, even for such legendary Talmudic sages as Abaye and R. Papa!

In all likelihood, it’s the same radical notion that led some of the great masters of Jewish spirituality and meditation to offer the following humble and breathtaking prayer to G‑d: “Ani mitpallel le-daat zeh ha-tinok—G‑d, please give me the ability to address You with the innocence of a child . . .”

In other words, in Jewish tradition the spiritually sophisticated and mature view their sophistication and maturity as a vice to be overcome, to the point of asking G‑d: “Please undo the damage of sophistication. Help me to grow out of adulthood . . .”

Talk about religious sophistication.

To the Kabbalist, the child is the grownup. Their innocence is not something to grow out of, but something to grow into.

Moreover, it is this purity that renders the child’s prayer more effective than an adult’s.

As we know from the Purim story,5 when the Jews were in a bind, Mordechai gathered 22,000 children for a prayer session. Apparently, these youngsters held G‑d’s ear even more than the sages and saints of Israel, not to mention their parents and grandparents!

The Psalmist,6 too, says as much: “Out of the mouth of the babes and sucklings You have established strength, in order to put an end to all enemies and adversaries.”

(The Lubavitcher Rebbe often quoted this verse in the months leading up to the Yom Kippur War, in the context of his intensified efforts to create children’s gatherings of study and prayer.)

Finally, in addition to their advantage over adults in terms of spiritual innocence and purity, and the resulting added power of their prayer, in Jewish tradition children are seen to have a greater spiritual sensitivity as well. It was this sensitivity that allowed “the children to recognize G‑d first”7 at the splitting of the sea, even before Moses, Aaron and the elders!

This leads us to the concluding words of Moses’ (imaginary) exhaustive rebuttal: “With our youth and with our elders we will go, with our sons and with our daughters . . . for it is a festival to G‑d for us.”

These words, with their intentional placement of children before adults in the context of “a festival before G‑d,” could not sum up any better the position of Moses and the G‑d he represented.


On a personal note, I’d like to relate a relevant memory that my wife has shared with me from her childhood.

As a result of the Moshiach campaign that the Lubavitcher Rebbe initiated in the nineties, in which he urged all men, women and children to increase in acts of goodness because “Moshiach is on his way” and every act, big or small, “can tip the scale towards world redemption,” my wife’s early childhood was Moshiach-centric.

Having heard from the Rebbe on many occasions that children play a special role in bringing Moshiach,8 she, along with many of her young peers, felt an extraordinary sense of mission and urgency.

My wife took her unique childhood role so seriously that when she turned bat mitzvah—a time when most kids are exhilarated to be called a teen at last, and look back on their childhood years with a sense of disdain—she felt a deep sense of loss. She no longer belonged to the exclusive group that would usher in an era of world peace . . .

While she knew she could still contribute to Moshiach’s coming as a teenager, she felt she had lost something irretrievable: the role that only a child can play in bettering the world, and the ability that only a child has to reach out and touch G‑d in that pure and tender childlike way . . .

(Inspired by a letter of the Rebbe printed in Likkutei Sichot, vol. 26, p. 400)