Are You Smarter Than a Fifth-Grader?

Are You Smarter Than a Fifth-Grader?

From the desk of Rabbi David Lyon

There’s a benefit to being a rabbi. In times when justice, truth, civility, and integrity are mocked and challenged, I have a place to go to find them again. In sacred books that open to timeless and timely Jewish values I have sources that can’t deny what is right and good.

This past week, two Shlenker School fifth-graders came to my study to review the portion of Torah they will read on Thursday morning from the Torah scroll in our morning chapel service. After they chanted the verses for me in Hebrew, we also took time to understand what they were preparing to lead in the service. In Exodus 23:1ff, they began to read in English:

“You must not carry false rumors; you shall not join hands with the guilty to act as a malicious witness: You shall neither side with the mighty to do wrong — you shall not give perverse testimony in a dispute so as to pervert it in favor of the mighty…”

They explained to me that the Ten Commandments had just been recounted in Torah, in Exodus 20, and that these verses in Exodus 23, described more laws for the Israelites. Their factual restatement of the text was already taking hold. The next step would be the responsibility of their rabbi, teachers and parents to model such texts in real-time. But, it’s not easy, today. Fifth graders are smart enough to read social media, watch video clips, and understand their parents’ exasperation with the news. They know that leaders are failing to model justice, truth, civility, and integrity. During out time together, I didn’t launch into a conversation about the uncivilized times in which we’re living, because they deserved to know — for a little while longer — that the ideals we find in Torah are not unreachable. They should know for as long as they can that such ideals are the backbone of the finest people we’ve ever known and the best models of who they can grow up to be.

One day they’ll encounter someone’s claim of “moral relativism,” which explains that your morals are moral because you think they are, no different than mine are moral because I think they are. But, it’s not true that every moral is moral. The fifth-graders read in Torah many moral lessons that are not relative. It’s never moral to “pervert justice,” to “side with the mighty to do wrong,” or “to give perverse testimony.”

Torah isn’t a model of ancient times. Torah is also a cornerstone of western civilization and our democracy. These are the values that our Founding Fathers also knew and, though they were challenged by the times they lived in no less than we are in ours, justice, truth, civility, and integrity were ideals that the foundations of our nation were meant to defend and uphold. It isn’t time to let go of these ideals, and, if we can help it, there never will be a time to let them go.

As Jews, we have an obligation to Torah and its teachings. We strive to adhere to its ritual and ethical commandments; but, we have a daily duty to explore Torah for its guiding principles, deepest ethics, and enduring values. When we do, we can lead our lives and also guide those who depend on us to live a life of meaning, gratitude and faith.

This past week, the two Shlenker School fifth-graders came to learn from me, but it turned out that I learned from them, too. I’m going to stay committed to Torah’s truths and values despite anyone’s claim that they know better or are smarter than any fifth-grader.