In the opening verses of Parashat Nitzavim, Moshe proclaims to Benei Yisrael, “You – all of you – stand before the Lord today: the leaders of your tribes, your elders, your guards, all men of Israel, [as well as] your children, your wives…in order for you to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God…”
Chazal, in Masekhet Soferim (18:6), tell that Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya discussed these verses on the day he was appointed head of the yeshiva in Yavneh in place of Rabban Gamliel. He raised the question of why the young children were present at this covenantal ceremony, and explained, “in order to bring reward to those who bring them.” The Mishna then concludes that for this reason young children are brought to the synagogue – “in order to bring reward to those who bring them.”
An additional, or likely alternative, account of this story is told in Masekhet Chagiga (3a). There we read of two Tanna’im who visited Rabbi Yehoshua, and reported that Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya addressed a later verse, in Parashat Vayelekh (31:12), which requires that children be included in the septennial hakhel ceremony. Rabbi Elazar explained that the children were brought “to bring reward to those who bring them.” In their account, these Tanna’im mentioned that it was “Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya’s week” in the yeshiva, referring to the rotation system that was established after it was decided to reinstate Rabban Gamliel, as the Gemara famously relates in Masekhet Berakhot (28a). The account in Masekhet Soferim, by contrast, tells of a lecture Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya delivered on the day he was first appointed, before it was decided that he and Rabban Gamliel would alternate weeks. It thus seems that these passages refer to two different lectures, or represent two different versions of the same lecture. (The question as to the relationship between these two accounts was raised by the Chida, in his Kisei Rachamim commentary to Masekhet Soferim, and he leaves this question unresolved.)
In regard to the account that appears in Masekhet Soferim, it has been suggested that there is great significance to the fact that Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya addressed this topic on the day of his appointment. The Gemara in Berakhot tells that Rabban Gamliel had implemented very strict admission standards, allowing only outstanding students into the yeshiva, and Rabbi Elazar abolished these restrictions immediately upon being appointed as head of the academy. He ordered the removal of the guard by the entrance, and the Gemara tells that numerous benches had to be added to the yeshiva that day to accommodate the influx of students. It has been suggested that Rabbi Elazar’s discussion of the subject of children’s attendance in the ceremony of Parashat Nitzavim related to this drastic change of policy. While the phrase “in order to bring reward to those who bring them” is not entirely clear, Rabbi Elazar was pointing to the fact that the Torah sees value in bringing children to religious events despite their inability to fully understand. The experience of attending the nationwide ceremony entering into a covenant with the Almighty was deemed significant, even for those who could not understand or appreciate what was happening. Rabbi Elazar drew upon this point to explain his decision to open the doors to the yeshiva and welcome all students. Even if they cannot fully understand the material being taught, the experience will be significant and impactful, and thus makes their participation worthwhile and valuable. The Torah’s description of the covenantal ceremony of Parashat Nitzavim formed, in Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya’s eyes, a model to be followed in all contexts in Torah education, instructing that experiencing rigorous Torah learning is valuable and impactful even for those who do not fully understand what is being taught.