Our people love questions. We love inquiry. You might argue that the entire enterprise of rabbinic Judaism is based on the asking of questions, e.g. What does this mean? How do we do this? What does God want from us? How do we understand the Torah so that it is relevant to us, in this time and place?
The essential question of Yom Kippur is, “How can I be a better person?” But we might also broaden that question to the community to ask, “How can we be a better people?” Writ large, that latter question is multi-faceted. It could be about being part of and contributing to our community; it could be about Israel; it could be about how we interact with others as a group.
It can also be about our children. What do we want them to learn? How can we as a community guide them so they grow up to be effective members of our community? This is a question, by the way, that transcends parenting or grandparenting. Why do synagogues like Temple Israel subsidize their religious schools? Because we as Jews acknowledge that learning is the highest mitzvah of the lot, that more than anything else, it is our ancient custom of relaying our textual tradition from generation to generation that has maintained our people. Who are we without the next generation?
Furthermore, what are the priorities that we as Americans are passing on to our youth? A few pundits have drawn attention to the following juxtaposition from this past summer. In July, a mother was arrested in South Carolina for letting her 9-year-old daughter play in a playground alone near her workplace. She was a single mother, a shift manager at a fast-food restaurant, and for some time the girl been entertaining herself with a tablet while her mother worked. When that was stolen, the mother sent the girl, equipped with a cell phone, to a park next door. It was all fine until another mother called the police.
In August, a 9-year-old girl in Arizona shot and killed a gun instructor with an Uzi. Her parents brought her to the shooting range and set her up for a lesson; when she could not handle the recoil from the notoriously difficult-to-handle Israeli-made submachine gun, she shot the teacher in what amounted to a tragic accident.
The first mother served time in jail for letting her daughter play in a busy park. The parents who put an Uzi in their child’s hands? No charges were filed.
On what planet does any of that make sense? What are the messages that these cases signal to our next generation? That playing in a playground is dangerous but that guns are OK?
I read not too long ago a captivating article by Hannah Rosin in the The Atlantic magazine about a unique playground in Wales. It’s called “The Land,” and it is unlike anything that you would think of when you hear the word “playground.” Although it was built within the last two years, it is effectively a dirty junkyard: an assemblage of old furniture, used tires, ropes and big pipes and discarded toys and wooden pallets and tools of all sorts. There is a fire pit, a stream running through it, a whole lot of mud, and various types of building materials scattered about. There are adults inside called “playworkers” whose job it is to try to avoid injuries, but they rarely stop the kids from running around, building, jumping, lighting and playing tools and with fire, and doing all sorts of things that most of us would consider “dangerous.” The Land bears no resemblance to the safe, cushioned, clean, colorful (perhaps even sterile) playgrounds that one finds all over America.
The creators of The Land have fashioned a space in which children can develop their creativity in infinite ways - not limited by the presence of hovering parents or the fear of getting hurt. The theory behind it is that children who are given independence, who are allowed the thrill of exploring and taking risks, develop healthier coping skills. They are more self-reliant and work out problems for themselves. They overcome fear. If we view our children as incapable of handling challenges, if we do not trust them to manage some risk, then they will fulfill, in some sense, our greatest fears.
There are a few passages from Jewish text that tell us about raising children. The first is one with which most of us are familiar because it is found in the first paragraph of the Shema (Deut. 6:7)
וְשִׁנַּנְתָּם לְבָנֶיךָVeshinantam levanekha.You shall teach them to your children.
Now the word “them” here appears to refer to the text of the Shema itself, although it may very well imply the entire body of Jewish learning, beginning with the Torah and proceeding on to all the great works of the Jewish bookshelf - the Talmud, the midrashim, the centuries of commentary. This suggestion is reinforced by a statement in Pirqei Avot (5:23):
הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, בֶּן חָמֵשׁ שָׁנִים לַמִּקְרָא, בֶּן עֶשֶׂר לַמִּשְׁנָה, בֶּן שְׁלשׁ עֶשְׂרֵה לַמִּצְוֹת, בֶּן חֲמֵשׁ עֶשְׂרֵה לַתַּלְמוּד[Yehuda ben Teima] used to say: At the age of five, the study of Bible; at ten, the study of Mishnah; at thirteen, responsibility for the mitzvot; at fifteen, the study of Talmud....
And yes, we do aspire to teach our children our holy books. But not just so that they can spit back the story of Creation or the Flood or the midrash about Abraham destroying the idols in his father’s shop. Rather, we learn these stories so, for example, that when we spot “idolatry” in our own world - worship of money and material goods, or a slavish devotion to our electronic devices, or the tendency to place our desires over the needs of others - we know that we should find the better path.
The Talmud (Qiddushin 29a) tells us that we are obligated to teach our children three things:
האב חייב בבנו למולו ולפדותו וללמדו תורה ולהשיאו אשה וללמדו אומנות וי"א אף להשיטו במים
The father is obligated to circumcise his son, to teach him Torah, to find him a wife, and to teach him a trade. And some add, to teach him to swim.
So in addition to seeing a child through berit millah and marriage, the parent must teach a child Torah, how to earn a livelihood, and to swim. Rashi logically explains this third item by remarking that if one is traveling by boat and falls in, it could save one’s life.
But the wider message here is much more interesting. The first two items suggest that the goal is to make a person who not only can support him/herself and has familiarity with Jewish tradition, but also is well-rounded, can draw on Jewish values in making decisions, who will not merely follow the crowd but will think for him/herself.
But what does it mean to teach your child to swim? It means holding on to the child at first, and then gradually letting go, until she or he can manage in the water alone. This is, of course, a challenge to both the parent and the child.
A congregant of mine at my last position, before I came to Great Neck, told me the following: Parenting is about learning to let go. We cannot always be there for our children. We teach them our values, we fill them with useful information, and then we leave them alone. We cannot always be there to hover over them in case they fall or make a mistake.
I recently saw an interview on YouTube with Leonard Nimoy, the Jewish actor who is probably most famous for playing the character Spock on Star Trek. It was conducted by the National Yiddish Book Center, and in the interview, Mr. Nimoy talks about the Yiddish-speaking part of Boston in which he grew up. He mentions one of his favorite songs, a song that, like so many Yiddish songs, gets me right here. It’s called Oyfn Veg Shteyt a Boym. It’s about a little boy who sees a deserted tree, bent and unprotected in a winter storm, and wants to become a bird to fly to the tree to comfort it with song. The mother bird, who wants to protect her nestling from freezing to death, insists that he put on a coat, a scarf, galoshes, long underwear, and a fur hat. So he does, and then the boy discovers that he cannot fly because he has been smothered by his mother’s overbearing love (transliteration from Mir Trogn A Gezang, a treasury of Yiddish songs).
Oyfn veg shteyt a boym
Shteyt er ayngeboygn
Ale feygl funem boym
Zaynen zikh tsefloygn
Dray keyn mayrev, dray keyn mizrekh
Un der resht - keyn dorem
Un dem boym gelozt aleyn
Hefker far dem shturem
Zog ikh tsu der mamen - her
Zolst mir nor nit shtern
Vel ikh mame, eyns un tsvey
Bald a foygl vern
Ikh vel zitsn oyfn boym
Un vel im farvign
Ibern vinter mit a treyst
Mit a sheynem nign
Yam tari tari tari...
The song concludes with, “Sadly, I gaze into my mother’s eyes, knowing that it was her love that kept me from soaring like a bird.”
We have to be careful, ladies and gentlemen, not to let our love stifle our children. Teach them to swim; don’t be there with the lifejacket, the noodle, the pole and the canoe. We have to give them independence. That is what raising the next generation is all about.
I was chatting over this sermon idea with Rabbi Abraham Eckstein a few weeks ago, and he said something to me which I never would have come up with myself, but I think works so well here. He pointed out to me that parents will often say that they want to give their children what they didn’t have growing up. But what we should say instead is, “I want to give them what I did have.”
What did you have? What did your parents give you? What did they allow you to do that most parents would never do today?
Your parents may not have been able to give you a Lexus or a Caribbean vacation or an XBox. But what did they give you? Was it love? Was it decent, but not fancy, home-cooked food? Was it their time? Was it an emphasis on the importance of family? Was it a love of reading, or of helping the neighbor in need, or of singing or building things in the garage or digging in the garden or playing in the great outdoors?
Was it punishment when you misbehaved? Was it shame?
Was it Judaism? Did they bring you to the synagogue, on the High Holidays? On Shabbat? Was it a love of the Divine, of things unseen?
Was it a sense of purpose, of belonging? Was it the drive to succeed?
About a year ago, New York Magazine published an article by Lisa Miller about the ethics of parenting, which documented some of the ways in which contemporary parents might bend the rules a bit to give their children an edge. The author, perhaps rationalizing her own misdeeds, likened parenting to war, and pointed to a whole range of misbehaviors that she knew her friends and fellow warriors to be guilty of: lying on school applications, pulling strings of all sorts to get them into this program or that, paying $20K for test-prep, getting them unnecessary prescriptions to drugs that help with concentration, and so forth. She cites the apocryphal story of the woman who, with her husband’s permission, slept with an Ivy League admissions officer to get her son into a select university.
Ms. Miller asks the essential questions: “But how are children supposed to learn honesty and fairness when the parents are yelling at the coach to give Johnny more playing time? Or wrangling behind the scenes to get Susie into a particular day care? Put another way: By advantaging kids at every turn, are parents, in fact, laming them? Are they raising children they may not ultimately want as colleagues, neighbors, or friends?”
She points to research data that suggest that cheating is commonplace and accepted and in some cases believed to be required; one such study showed that 95% of high school juniors and seniors confess to have cheated in the past year.
But does she chide the guilty? No. In fact, she excuses herself and all of us by saying, “It’s tough out there.”
But that is exactly the point. It’s tough, for children and adults, and by shielding our children from the challenges and risks of life, we do them a great disservice. In Marjorie Ingall’s critique of Lisa Miller’s article in Tablet Magazine, she points to Paul Tough’s recent book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character. “The qualities that actually lead to happiness and accomplishment aren’t linked to test-acing or being surrounded by fellow privileged white children. Conscientiousness, self-control, curiosity, and perseverance are better indicators of success and satisfaction and the kind of future we want for our kids.”
Dr. Wendy Mogel is an author who does marvelously what each of us should do: she uses the texts of Jewish tradition to teach us about our lives today. In particular, she has written books on parenting that see children and their behavior through the lens of ancient Jewish texts. In her book, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, she points to a classic statement of Jewish law, from the so-called “Holiness Code” of Leviticus (19:14): לפני עיוור לא תתן מכשול. Do not put a stumbling block in front of the blind. (This is one of those classic passages that simply cries out for interpretation. Rashi tells us that this can refer to anybody who is blind in a certain way, i.e. not necessarily one who cannot physically see.)
But Dr. Mogel uses this passage to refer to our children, and in doing so I think that she sums up all of this quite nicely:
“Keeping too close an eye on our children is a stumbling block. If they don’t have the chance to be bad, they can’t choose to be good. If they don’t have the chance to fail, they can’t learn. And if they aren’t allowed to face scary situations, they’ll grow up to be frightened of life’s simplest challenges.”
Our next generation is indeed precious; they will carry our body of learning, practice and values into the future. But we cannot treat them like they are precious. We have to teach them to swim. We have to give them the independence that they need to flourish.
The greatest mitzvah of parenthood is to let go. Don’t give your children what you didn’t have; give them what you did have.
Shanah tovah, and have a meaningful fast.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Friday evening, 10/3/2014.)
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Friday evening, 10/3/2014.)