Parashat Hukat: Meeting a Child’s Unique Educational Needs
Parashat Hukat begins with the famous law of Para Aduma, the red cow that was burned and its ashes mixed with water that would be used to purify those who came in contact with a human corpse. Contact with a human corpse results in a status of Tum’a (impurity), and in order to regain his status of Tahara (purity), the person would have to be sprinkled with the special water prepared with the ashes of the Para Aduma.
The most unusual feature of the Para Aduma is the opposite effect the water had on different people. When a Kohen sprinkled the water on a person who was Tameh, the person would thereby become Tahor, whereas those involved in preparing the purifying waters become Tameh. And thus the Para Aduma waters would bring purity to those who were impure, and bring impurity to those who were pure.
The Torah introduces this section with the words "Zot Hukat Ha’Torah" – "This is the statute of the Torah." Rather than introducing this discussion as the laws of the Para Aduma, the Torah instead describes these laws as "Hukat Ha’Torah." It seems that the special properties of the Para Aduma are relevant not only to the particular context of Tum’a and Tahara, but more generally, to the entire Torah.
Indeed, the concept of something being beneficial for one person but detrimental to another is truly the "statute of the Torah," a fundamental rule about Torah education. The same school and educational approach which works wonders for one child would be destructive for another. Just as the Para Aduma waters purify some and contaminate others, similarly, an educational method can be "purifying" and uplifting for some students but worthless or even harmful for others. This is the "Hukat Ha’Torah" – that each student’s needs must be individually assessed. We cannot use Torah education as a cookie-cutter trying to turn every child into the exact same kind of adult. This would be going against the "Hukat Ha’Torah," the fundamental rule that a system which is right for one person is wrong for another.
Unfortunately, I have met many parents who make their educational choices for their children based on considerations that have little, if anything, to do with the children’s individual needs. Too often, parents choose a school or yeshiva in Israel not to meet the child’s needs, but to meet their own needs. They might be embarrassed to tell their friends that their child attends school X, and will score points by proudly reporting that the child attends school Y. They might be concerned about a stigma associated with a certain school that best suits their child, and refuse to enroll the child in that school. They might have connections in a prestigious institution that they can leverage to have their child admitted, even though it is clearly the wrong choice for that child.
This problem is especially common when it comes to children with special needs. I recall one incident involving a child who was not speaking at the age of four, and the parents were reluctant to enroll their child in an institution specializing in this particular area because of their fear of a stigma. Rather than provide the child with the most suitable and beneficial framework, the parents were instead worried about their reputation.
The lesson of the Para Aduma is the "Hukat Ha’Torah" – the rule we must follow in educating our children. Our decisions must be made based solely on the individual needs of the child, not on the needs of anybody else. This way we ensure that each and every child receives the "purification" he or she needs and grows to become a devoted member of Am Yisrael.