D’var Torah: We’ve come a long way, but our kids are still not safe


Rabbi Michael Alper


People are often surprised and, to be fair, a little wary, when they learn the topic of my rabbinical thesis. While many of my classmates chose practical themes that would help them in their rabbinate, such as  “Judaism in the Age of iPhones” or “Creative B’nai Mitzvah Liturgy Throughout the Ages,” my topic was “Human Sacrifice in Ancient Israelite Culture.

It’s a morbid subject if there ever was one, but certainly fascinating. We know from Torah portions like this week’s that child sacrifice was most certainly something the Israelites were familiar with. In the parasha, Moses tells the people that they should not imitate the abhorrent practices of other nations, which includes “one who consigns a son or daughter to the fire.”

But we also know with some certainty (and I have a very long, slightly dry thesis filled with archeological and textual examples to convince you) that this is something the Israelites themselves had done with frequency.

Fortunately, this kind of child sacrifice is clearly not a part of any kind of Jewish life today, nor has it been for centuries. Yet, as my children return to school, I’m reminded that even today, there are still ways we put our children in unnecessary peril.


For the past few years, American schools have gone through tremendous turmoil. The pandemic put teachers and students alike under incredible pressures. And even though most of our schools are now back to “normal,” the stress and strain of the past years has taken its toll. The fear of violence in schools is an unimaginable burden that we all must all carry. Heightened security measures, intruder drills and shocking headlines that sensationalize the horrors of this reality are all part of a seemingly endless cycle.

We’ve seen school board meetings become battlegrounds for competing agendas that fail to consider the most important matters at hand. We’ve seen increasing pressure from parents and community members about what subjects should be allowed, what teaching techniques are permissible and what books should be banned.

Should we be shocked that so many teachers have decided to move on and leave the profession?

I spent several years teaching in some of the toughest public schools in the South Bronx before I became a rabbi. It was one of the most powerful and meaningful experiences I ever had, and it lead me in many ways to the rabbinate. With all the obstacles I faced, I still can’t imagine how difficult it must be to be a teacher or a student today.

The pasuk in Shoftim that extols us not to pass our children through the fire seems so distant and alien, yet it truly isn’t. In our time, we must ensure that our children aren’t sacrificed on the altar of vain idealism or politics, or for the sake of our own egos.

Each of us has the ability to support the educators in our local schools, to provide them with the tools they need and let them do the jobs they were trained to do. They have the minds, hearts and lives of our children in their hands; let’s help support them in any way we can.

In the Talmud it is taught: “The world only exists because of the breath of schoolchildren (BT Shabbat 119B).”

May this be a year when our children and their teachers are able to feel safe and supported, and may we be the ones to help them get there.

Rabbi Michael Alper serves Congregation Temple Israel and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the d’var Torah for the Jewish Light.