Rabbi Meir says: "Do not look at the vessel, but what is in it" (Avot, 5:27). This simple but true teaching would be well applied to how we think of our own children and those of others, and to the recognition of the potential within each one. What is especially disturbing in many instances is the slotting and instant judging of Jewish children depending on which day school they attend or if they go to a Jewish school at all.
On one level, this is understandable. Parents make judgments about suitable friends for their younger children often based on perceptions of similar religious and cultural sensibilities. But these categorizations can lead to overly restrictive discernments about what kind of child is in front of me; often the reality is the reverse of common opinion. For example, there is no necessary equation that can be made between a child's level of friendliness, ethical behaviour, maturity level, psychological soundness, capacity for love, moral goodness and inherent spiritual abilities, and on the other hand their level of religious observance or Torah knowledge. Sometimes quite the opposite is the case.
All educational benefits of learning Torah remain largely theoretical until they have been properly processed and internalized by the child's whole personality. Indeed, the Talmud is replete with examples of great Torah scholars slipping up in their treatment of others, their voluminous command of Jewish texts notwithstanding.
Although Jewish education has made great strides in the last number of years in exposing kids to the rich heritage of Jewish sources and practices, I sometimes wonder if we haven't missed the forest for the trees. What are we trying to produce at the end of the day - children who have amassed large swathes of Jewish information or future adults who will inspire by their beautiful display of Jewish ethical sensitivity and compassion for the other?
In various carpool anecdotes that I have collected over the years, I have heard multiple examples of children coming home from their Torah studies for the day and manifesting all sorts of rudeness and discourteous conduct. It leads to a lot of head scratching and postfacto chagrin, at least for me. What was the point of three hours of Talmud and Chumash today? Is it all just a game or do we want our children to really feel the moral life in their bones?
Inevitably, much of this behaviour must be traced to parental example, an influence that no amount of textual learning can undo. If we wish our hard earned tuition dollars to really pay dividends in the form of children who embody the qualities of goodness and spiritual power that we pray for them to acquire, then it is incumbent on all parents to see our own ethical stance as a profound instance of informal Jewish education. In the Talmudic discussion regarding which is the higher calling--study or the life of action--study is privileged for the ironic reason that it leads to action. Put another way, how we drive during carpool, or even how we park, may ultimately register more with our kids than that day's regimen of Torah verses.