(This is part II of a four-part High Holiday sermon cycle. I encourage you to read part I first: Increase the Love: Ani / the Self – Rosh Hashanah 5779, Day 1)
How many of us saw the documentary about Mr. Rogers, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor”? One thing that we heard Mr. Rogers say during the film, which has stuck with me, is as follows: “The greatest thing that we can do is to help somebody know that they’re loved and capable of loving.”
Now, my guess is that some of us in the room actually met Fred Rogers, and I have been assured by people in the know that he was “the real deal” – a genuine person whose off-screen personality matched the one on the show. He was not acting; he was truly a loving person who wanted to improve the lives of all the people he reached, and particularly the children. His primary goal, it seems, was to increase the love in this world.
Yesterday I introduced the topic of love, and the framework of this High Holiday sermon cycle. We learned that love starts with Ani, with the I. We cannot love others until we love ourselves.
Today, we move from the alef (א) of ahavah (אהבה ) to the heh (ה): hamishpahah. The family. Moving outwards from Maimonides’ concentric circles of responsibility, the next stop is the people closest to you, your family.
Judaism actually mandates that each of us has particular obligations to our family: various ways of honoring our parents and being responsible for our spouses, and of course teaching our children the words of our tradition.
But perhaps the most important thing that we can do for our family members, and particularly our children, is to teach them how to love. But how do we do this?
I would like to make the case that the way we teach our children about love is to give them the space in which to learn. Yes, we have to model. Occasionally, we have to lecture. Sometimes we even have to intervene to keep them safe. But the most essential piece of parenting is ultimately to equip our children to leave us; that is how we demonstrate our love, and children so properly equipped will, in love, prepare their children the same way.
As some of you have heard me say many times, the essential mitzvah, and here I will translate that word as holy obligation, of Jewish life is learning. 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, and how will the next generation manage without familiarity with what it means to be Jewish, and the value that Judaism brings to your life?
A few years back, 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 the summer of 2014, 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? Is this a way to love our children?
I read not too long ago a captivating article 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.” 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 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)
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 quite 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 long time ago, at one of my first cantorial pulpits, a congregant of mine 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.
Not long before he died, the actor Leonard Nimoy gave an extensive interview to the National Yiddish Book Center. Mr. Nimoy, of course, was perhaps most famous for playing the hyper-logical character Spock on Star Trek, but he spoke in the interview about growing up in a Yiddish-speaking environment in Boston. 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.”
Reflecting on his own experience, Mr. Nimoy recalled that his parents did not want him to become an actor; they did not trust him to make the right choices for himself. Of course, we know how it worked out.
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. Love is not meant to protect our children from the cold; it is rather meant to arm them to face the world bravely, to make their own choices; to pick themselves up when they fail.
How many of us, as parents, have heard ourselves say, “I’d like to give my child what I did not have”? Perhaps 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 the fanciest new smartphone. 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?
Not too long 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 Paul Tough’s book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character, Mr. Tough identifies the qualities that actually lead to accomplishment. It is not performing well on tests or being surrounded by children of privilege that equip children to succeed. Rather, it is conscientiousness, self-control, curiosity, and perseverance that yield the best outcomes.
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.
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.
As we send our children out into the world, the message that we hope they have received in love is, “You are ready. You are prepared. You’re going to be OK. You are loved.”
We love them so that we can set them free.
We’ll speak on Yom Kippur about lhttps://themodernrabbi.com/2018/09/20/increase-the-love-beyahad-community-kol-nidrei-5779/https://themodernrabbi.com/2018/09/20/increase-the-love-beyahad-community-kol-nidrei-5779/ve of community and love of the world.
(Delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, second day of Rosh Hashanah 5779, 9/11/2018.)
Next in the series:
Increase the Love: Beyahad / Community – Kol Nidrei 5779