Shavuot celebrates the divine revelation at Mount Sinai 3,335 years ago. There is a famous midrash about how this event our ancestors experienced  has ongoing relevance to us today. Before Hashem decided to give the Torah, he wanted to make sure there would be guarantors—people who’d ensure that the Jews would keep the mitzvot for generations to come. The Jews gave a list of potential guarantors, which included the learned elders as well as the saintly prophets. Hashem rejected each of these options until the children were finally offered to be the guarantors. This is one of the many reasons why till this day, Jews have such a strong emphasis on our children’s education.

Education has a different meaning depending on who you ask. In the general secular world, people tend to associate education exclusively with subjects like math, science and history. However, education is more than just about ensuring our children’s mastery in these subjects. Having solid academics is important for one’s future career, but in my over 30 years as an educator, I’ve noticed that children also need a solid moral and ethical foundation to ensure their success broadly. The Rebbe emphasized the importance of teaching our kids that above them there is “a seeing eye, and listening ear” (Pirkei Avot 2:1). In other words, the awareness that they have a higher standard to live up to.

Shavuot commemorates the giving of the Ten Commandments, the foundation of society’s moral and ethical framework. I first appreciated the importance of moral education back in 2009, when my home was damaged in a small fire. With God’s help, my family and I were all safe, and we found a temporary home to live in on the other side of town. When it came time to move, however, yellow caution tape blocked off our new street, which was filled with the flashing lights of police cars and the sounds of helicopters overhead. It turned out that the FBI had arrested our soon-to-be next door neighbors—two nursing students who had been operating a clandestine meth lab in their basement.

This might sound like the plot to a TV show, however, at the time, I was surprised how two individuals preparing for a career in helping sick people could operate a side business that would destroy so many lives. The issue was not that they had no education. They were educated in chemistry, biology, anatomy and many other subjects. What they lacked was a strong moral compass that would inform them on the right way to use that education; a moral compass telling them that no matter what financial gain they might have received from their actions, it was still the wrong thing to do. Many incomprehensible acts of evil we hear about, from school shootings to the antisemitic attack my community witnessed in July 2021, stem in part from a lack of moral guidance telling the perpetrators that violence and murder are wrong.

This theme is the focus of another holiday known as Education and Sharing Day, a nationally recognized holiday that highlights the importance of moral and ethical education for children. On April 2 of this year, President Joe Biden, as well as governors and mayors across the country, proclaimed Education and Sharing Day, which government officials have done since 1978 when this day was first established by the Carter administration. Education and Sharing Day coincides with the Hebrew birthday of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, and recognizes the contributions the Rebbe made to education and his emphasis on moral and ethical education as critical parts of a child’s overall development.

On Shavuot, families around the world gather in synagogues to hear the Ten Commandments. The words “don’t murder,” “don’t steal” and “don’t testify falsely” are the bedrock of a society where people respect and live in harmony with one another. The more we emphasize and uphold these foundational rules for living, the closer we get to a time where, as the prophet Isaiah, wrote: “Nation shall not lift the sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”

Happy Shavuot.

Rabbi Dan Rodkin is the director of the Shaloh House in Brighton. Shaloh House is a Chabad-Lubavitch Jewish organization providing education, outreach and community service projects in the Greater Boston area.

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