Judaism has always understood that a people's future is only as great as the values it manages to inculcate into its youth. In line with this, the Torah does not command individuals to study Torah. Rather it commands us "to teach Torah to our children." A fascinating Midrash says that when the Messiah comes, everyone will go out to meet him - with the exception of school children who will stay in class to study Torah!
Perhaps this explains the absence of television sets in many religious homes today. It is felt that the potential gain from watching educational programs is more than canceled out by exposure to less savory programs. Why subject a child to impurity while trying to inculcate values of holiness?! Moreover, even in instances where the programs are beneficial, often those hours could be better spent reading.
This issue of education plays a role in this week's Torah portion, Vayelech. A central topic discussed in the Parsha is the Hakhel (literally "gathering") observance. Once every seven years during the era of the Holy Temple, every Jewish man, woman, and child is commanded to go up to Jerusalem. There, the king reads sections of Deuteronomy focusing on the covenant between God and the Jewish nation. The purpose of this, explains the Torah, is for the people to hear "so they will learn and shall fear the Lord your God."
Interestingly, the next verse specifically singles out babies, stating: "And the children who do not know - they shall hear and shall learn to fear the Lord your God." What possible benefit can there be to schlepp along "children who do not know"? It is not simply because their parents have no alternative means of childcare! Rather, the Torah makes it clear that the children's presence at the Hakhel ceremony will cause them "to learn to fear the Lord Your God."
The Sfas Emes, a Chassidic master of the last century, gives several reasons for this command. First, he suggests that conscious cognition is not the only way that human beings learn things. Even though an infant may not consciously understand what is being said at the Hakhel ceremony, his soul can still be very much affected.
Furthermore, the Sfas Emes notes, when the child grows up he will have a greater appreciation of the importance of Torah study, knowing that his parents carried him for miles and miles just so he could hear the king read from the Torah! Experience bears this out: Many of the greatest Torah scholars came from poor homes, where the parents sacrificed basic of necessities in order that their children should receive the best Torah education.
In the final analysis, it is not what we give to our children, but the sacrifices that we make for them - particularly in the area of education - that really counts.