09/19/2012 05:45 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Deuteronomy 31:1-30: A Call for Universal Education

Over the last several years I have had the opportunity to teach in classrooms in villages around the world, from Central America to Southeast Asia, and from Africa to the former Soviet Union. One unexpected and saddening phenomenon I have encountered in several poorer countries is empty classrooms. Many students do not show up or are pulled from school by their families due to intense economic or social pressures. There is an education crisis around the world that is at the root of countless other social and economic problems.

In this week's Torah portion of Vayelech, we learn about the keen Jewish interest in public education, expressed by way of a fascinating communal forum called Hakhel. Every seven years, the king would come out of his palace to educate the public. This was in keeping with the command to "Assemble the people -- men, women and children, and the strangers living in your towns, so that they can listen and learn..."

According to the medieval commentator R. Abraham Ibn Ezra (31:10), this public learning event took place at a time when everyone -- even the slave or the stranger -- would be able to attend: the beginning of the Sabbatical Year, when working the fields is forbidden in Jewish law (other rabbinic authorities argue that it took place immediately after the Sabbatical Year). This ensured that everyone was able to break from the demands of work and have time for study.

Yet today, too many of the world's children lack the opportunity for intellectual growth. While the number of primary-school-age children who do not attend school has been reduced from 105 million in 1990 to 61 million today, the trend has slowed since 2005, and has remained virtually unchanged since 2008. More than half of unschooled children live in sub-Saharan Africa.

A key reason for this lack of progress is the effect of armed conflict, which prevents 28 million children from going to school, as schools are targeted for attacks, and girls in particular are subjected to physical and sexual abuse. In South Sudan, for example, families often marry their daughters off by age 15 in order to relieve the crushing economic pressures of recovering from civil war. In Pakistan, numerous girls' schools have been forced to close due to militant attacks on the facilities. Low education levels only heighten the risk of further conflict, as militancy become the only available "career" option for those who lack the training to earn a decent wage.

This should be a call to action.

Jewish law mandates that we not only teach where we can but that we appoint teachers to all of our cities. The Shulchan Aruch (a mainstay of Jewish legal codification) requires that "Every community is obligated to appoint teachers; a city without a teacher should be put under a ban until the inhabitants appoint one. If they continue to neglect to appoint a teacher, the city should be destroyed for the world exists only through the breath of school children" (Yoreh Deah 245:5).

Perhaps we should return to this Sabbatical Year ritual to remind us that we must seriously invest in the education of our children if we wish to move villages and nations out of poverty. Today, only 2 percent of humanitarian aid goes to education, which will not pull South Sudan or Pakistan out of their crises. The Talmud teaches that Jerusalem was destroyed "only because they neglected (the education of) school children." Further, "School children may not be made to neglect (their studies) even for the building of the Temple" (Shabbat 119b). We must heed this message before yet another generation is lost to ignorance, prejudice and war.

There are ways to improve education. UNESCO and the EFA Global Monitoring Report note that some policies have proven beneficial in areas where armed conflict has disrupted the educational system, including a shift from humanitarian aid to long-term investment with multi-year commitments and pooled resources to reduce bureaucracy and help the transition to government-run programs. In addition, if donor nations converted six days of military spending to education aid, they could make up the current $16 billion shortfall in education needs for poor nations. While well-planned military campaigns might reduce violence in the short term, in the long term an educational investment in the future of poor nations is a more certain route to peace and prosperity.

In the 21st century there is an endemic problem of placing immediate rewards over long-term gains. With education, we cannot afford to delay investing in the future. The Torah reminds us that we must put down our shovels to prioritize public education. We cannot expect struggling villages and nations to address this challenge alone. As Jews and as Americans who hold the value of education so highly, we must be at the forefront of the policies and financing of global education opportunities.

ON Scripture -- The Torah is a weekly Jewish scriptural commentary, produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks and Hebrew College. Thought leaders from the United States and beyond offer their insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.