The Torah counts the years of Sarah’s long life: “A hundred years and twenty years and seven years; these were the years of Sarah’s life” (Gen. 23:1). Noting the verse’s wordiness, the Sages commented that throughout all the years of her life — whether at age seven, twenty, or a hundred — Sarah retained the same goodness, the same purity, and the same youthful innocence.
Despite her long years of barrenness, despite twice being kidnapped as she accompanied her husband Abraham on his many journeys, Sarah did not become hard and cynical. Their son was named Isaac — Yitzchak, “he will laugh” — due to Abraham’s feelings of wonderment and Sarah’s amazed laughter. “God had given me laughter; all who hear will rejoice for me” (Gen. 21:6).
From the inspiring example of Sarah’s purity and faith, we can learn an important lesson about education.
The nation’s future depends upon how we educate the next generation. How should we tend to the vineyard of the House of Israel so that the saplings will prosper and grow, anchoring fast roots below and producing pleasant fruit above? How can we make sure that our children will develop into complete Jewish adults, their values firmly rooted in their heritage, living lives that are “pleasing to God and to man”?
We must take care to avoid slavish imitation of the educational methods of other nations. Our educational approach must suit the special nature and unique characteristics of our nation.
The question of education revolves around an even more basic question. What is childhood? Is it just a preparatory stage leading to adulthood, or does it have intrinsic value in and of itself?
If life is all about working and earning a livelihood, then a child is simply a lump of clay to be formed into a tool to serve in the nation’s workforce. Childhood is but a preparation for adulthood, when one becomes a productive member of society, a cog in the great machine of the nation’s economy.
But there is another view of life, an idealistic outlook which values the qualities of purity and innocence. Such a viewpoint sees childhood as a stage of life that has value in its own right. The Sages recognized the special contribution of children to the world. “The world endures only for the sake of the breath of school children,” for their Torah is learned in purity, undefiled by sin (Shabbat 119b).
When children are educated properly, we may discern within their pristine souls untold measures of holiness and purity. But this is only true if the grace and beauty of these delicate flowers is not crushed by the spirit-numbing reality of the factory floor and the cynical manipulations of greedy corporations.
Childhood is good and holy, but it is too weak and vulnerable to withstand the powerful forces of society. It is our duty to preserve the simplicity of childhood, to carefully allow our children to mature without losing their innate innocence. This will enable them to acquire the physical strength and spiritual resilience that they lack, while retaining the innocent exuberance of childhood.
“Do not harm meshichai, My anointed ones — this refers to school children” (Shabbat 119b). Why are children called “God’s anointed ones”? Anointing is not a one-time event, but an initiation ceremony which influences the years to come. Thus a king is anointed, and throughout the years of his reign he is the melech ha-mashiach, the anointed king.
The same is true with childhood. When it has not been debased by the pressures of an exploitative society, childhood is our anointing, our initiation, so that we may enjoy its pure fruits throughout our lives.
This is the beautiful example that Sarah provides. She lived a life of holiness and pure faith, retaining her childlike wonder and purity throughout the many vicissitudes of her long life. “All her years were equal in goodness” (Rashi).
(Sapphire from the Land of Israel. Adapted from Ma’amerei HaRe’iyah vol. II, pp. 230-231, from a lecture that Rav Kook delivered at the opening of a Talmud Torah school in Rehovot in 1905.)