Latest update: June 20th, 2013
If the eyes are the window to the soul, then children’s eyes are the window to the Almighty Himself.
Seen through their eyes, everything excites. A ride on the bus, horses, a caterpillar on the playground, ice cream, cousins, dollar-store tchotchkes, construction equipment, snow… Life is wondrous. Questions bubble up like lather (another object of childhood wonder) as everyday items and quotidian rituals hold the seeds of untold possibilities. That’s one reason why spending time around children, whether our own or someone else’s, is one of the best antidotes to cynicism, negativity, and general world-weariness.
Recently, I’ve come to realize that children’s unique perspective also holds the key to strengthening our connection to Torah and, even more important, to Hashem.
Yesterday, my son and his Pre-1A classmates joyfully received their first siddurim. The “siddur party,” so lovingly and meticulously organized by his teachers at MTJ (Mesivta Tifereth Jerusalem), had shone like a beacon on our fridge calendar for many weeks. My son could not wait for the day to arrive. Night after night, as he practiced kriah from an oversized siddur my husband had given him to use as a stand-in for his own, he would gaze at the bookshelf and imagine aloud how wonderful it would be to have his own siddur. He would ask, “When will I get all the sefarim Daddy has?” – and we would explain the pedagogic path from Chumash to mishnayot to Gemara, and that his bar mitzvah milestone several years away would hopefully bring a windfall of Torah volumes to call his own. (May he only be as happy to receive sefarim gifts then as he is now!)
When the day came, we struggled to keep up as he ran almost all the way to school, not wanting to be late for the festivities. Yes, he was excited about the ice cream after-party and the many prizes his morah had prepared – one for each letter of the aleph bet – but the sight of our little boy clutching his siddur to his chest for the class photo said it all. Like a teenager’s first cellphone, it represented a door opened, a ready line, an invitation to commune with the Creator which most of us take for granted.
One grandfather in attendance, a rabbi himself, remarked that the siddur play reminded him of a Chag Hasemicha – so high was the spiritual level of the proceedings. Making them even more special was the presence of the gadol hador Rav Dovid Feinstein, shlita – though in his role as great-grandfather of one of the boys rather than as rosh yeshiva of MTJ.
It was a sight to behold: a room full of men and women of various ages and backgrounds, all drawing inspiration from a group of mini-talmidim taking a momentous step toward becoming full-fledged links in the chain of Klal Yisrael. Perhaps this is what the navi Yeshaya meant when he prophesied, “V’na’ar katan noheig bam” – “and a little child shall lead them” (Isaiah 11:6, containing the famous prophecy about the wolf dwelling side by side with the lamb).
The siddur play took place just before Shavuos, which might be, if you’ll forgive the term, the stepchild of Jewish holidays. Short in duration; no curious or colorful minhagim or mitzvah-foods (as much as we love cheesecake); no specifically youth-oriented customs. Coming on the heels of Pesach – which my children, like many, find endlessly exciting – Shavuos can easily seem basically like a two-day Shabbos. And yet, for a little boy newly in possession of his very first siddur – and whose morahs cleverly thought up a shtender to use with it as a Shavuos project – what could be more wonderful than a celebration of Matan Torah?
Students, it is often said, teach their teachers as much as the reverse; so, too, do children teach their parents. Preparing for Yom Tov, cleaning for Pesach, surviving the “long” Shabbosim – the Jewish calendar can at times find us jaded and uninspired, not to mention stressed by the necessary physical and financial outlays. And most of us verbalize these thoughts from time to time, directly or indirectly. When we do, we infect our children with the cynicism that is so foreign to their young souls and so antithetical to the faith posture we would like to nurture – in ourselves as well as in them.
* * * * *
This year, for the first time, my husband and I decided to make our own sedarim at home. On one hand, I was saddened at the prospect of observing this pivotal ritual with no grandparents or extended family around us to share it with. On the other hand, I was excited to pave our own path and make a Seder centered on our children and their abilities and needs. I did not want my doubts and mixed emotions to rub off on our kids (who are used to being with their grandparents for the sedarim), so I tried to be positive and drum up as much excitement as possible about everything from kadesh to nirtzah, and the chance to truly make the Seder our own.
It worked. When the time finally came for setting the table (which my son was itching to do from the moment he awoke), preparing the Seder plate, and planning how to arrange and incorporate each of children’s myriad projects, the Yom Tov spirit filled our small apartment. The circle of inspiration ran from us to our kids and from them right back to us.
Today, as my kids and I came through the front door after the afternoon pickup, laden with knapsacks and jackets, my son remonstrated with me, “Mommy, you didn’t kiss the mezuzah!” “My hands were full,” I protested. “Just do this,” he said, pursing his lips and sounding a small kiss. Of course! And a little child shall lead them.
It is not our children’s job to teach us; “V’shinantam l’vanecha” is the sacred obligation of parents. But dipping into our children’s wellspring of enthusiasm and eagerness to learn furthers not only our own spiritual development but theirs as well. To succeed as parents, we need more than the right words and techniques – we need to be the kind of people, the kind of Jews, we want them to grow into. To do that, we need all the inspiration we can get. Even from our own offspring.
In a way, children personify “na’aseh v’nishma” – they do even though they don’t yet understand. They embrace mitzvos whose underpinnings and complexities are far beyond their (let alone our) ability to comprehend – tzitzis, basar v’chalav, muktzah, arbah minim. And they do so with happiness.
We adults could all use more na’aseh v’nishma in our lives. In other words, more trust that God has His reasons and that if we follow the path He laid out for us, things will work out. That does not mean a surcease of questions. Who, after all, asks more probing questions about Hashem and His ways than children? Rather, the goal is to continually renew our acceptance of Torah and our commitment to grow as we go.
And how to do that? Here again, our kids can teach us a thing or two. As much as we emphasize the value of school, they know instinctively that you learn best by doing. Books and shiurim have much to offer, but if the messages are not put into practice, they evaporate like fog. It’s like a professor of mine used to say, “Show, don’t tell.” So when I encourage my children to make berachos and they don’t hear me saying them, what are they really learning? If I cut in line or rush through bentching or speak lashon hara or disrespect Shabbos, my children will, consciously or not, disregard their formal teachings as merely heuristic constructs.
When our kids seem to be tuning out our lectures, they’re reminding us that the most powerful teaching tool we have is not our words but our actions. Our conduct is what defines us.
There is much corruption in the Orthodox Jewish world. Sex abuse scandals, embezzlement schemes, feuds and schisms between competing groups – it’s enough to make one cry out: Is this what we have to show for ourselves? But then we look at the children, at how their true, simple faith shines. No political calculations, no apologia. No constantly looking over their shoulders to take the pulse of the people. What a refreshing contrast! It’s enough to awaken the hearts of even the most disillusioned. And a little child shall lead them.
I think the reason children are so adept at cutting through the thicket of adult hypocrisy is because human beings are naturally attracted to emes. A pure, unsullied neshamah seeks what is real and true, not a bunch of self-serving, semi-truthful mumbo jumbo. Yes, little ones may have a hard time separating between fantasy and reality, but that’s not the same thing as truth and falsehood.
Unfortunately, the more time we spend in this mixed-up world where sheker is chein and hevel is yofi, the more comfortable we become with reconstituted emes, truth adjusted to fit our needs. Asking for a tuition break the same year we buy a fancy new sheitel or iPad? Taking a sick day from work to go to a baseball game? Even as we slowly teach our children that much of life consists of gray areas, their clear-eyed view can remind us that some things are, in fact, black or white.
Another area where children tend to surpass adults is in fulfilling the precept of “Ivdu es Hashem b’simcha,” serving God with happiness, as alluded to earlier. When I looked at my children as they lit their own handmade menorahs this Chanukah (my daughter for the first time), their faces gave off as much light as the candles. This, the meforshim tell us, is how Aharon HaKohen approached the lighting of the menorah in the Mishkan, day in and day out, for years on end – with purity of intent and joy as vivid as if performing the mitzvah for the very first time.
Granted, our kids’ excitement about Jewish rituals is often tied up with their getting something – Chanukah presents, chocolate gelt, mishloach manos treats, afikoman presents, etc. But as long as the gashmiyus aspect is not the main course but a sweet aperitif – the incentive to get the child to the table, so to speak (and sometimes literally!) – it serves a positive purpose.
The stories, the songs, the opportunity to fulfill a special mitzvah hold plenty of interest on their own merits. Besides trying to make sure they consume a balanced “diet” of ruchniyus and gashmiyus, we can aim to tie the material elements into our religious life whenever possible. For example, getting something new to wear for Yom Tov makes anyone feel good, enhancing the simcha of the day; it’s also a mitzvah. Giving our kids a Shabbos treat, as so many of us do (instead of sweets, my husband and I let our kids choose a small doctor’s-office-type prize), helps them look forward to Shabbos even more.
So being excited about “stuff” is not incompatible with spirituality. The challenge is making sure our children appreciate what they have and don’t think it’s all coming to them.
* * * * *
My son’s siddur play took place in the lunchroom. His school has no endowment, no auditorium, no gym. The building is more than a hundred years old. And yet the mood inside could not have been more festive nor the boys more delighted with it all.
We tend to get caught up in the trappings, the material accoutrements of Jewish life, making our core values harder to hold onto, like a marble rolling around inside a giant crystal ball. But what I have seen is that, lo and behold – kids don’t notice that stuff. At least when they’re young, they tend to accept what they are accustomed to. Once they are exposed to other lifestyles and material pleasures, they may start to compare and question. Still, a child’s notion of what is necessary to lead a good life is most strongly influenced by his or her parents – not only by what they have or don’t have but by their degree of contentment with their portion.
To achieve contentment, we can take a page from our kids by finding joy in the simple, everyday things we have the profound power to define as beautiful. Of course, angst-ridden as we are by the anxieties of adult life, we have to work harder at this skill than they do. But we have some very fine (pint-sized) tour guides to help us.
Can we imbibe our children’s youthful excitement about Yahadus and somehow internalize it? Our patriarch Avraham demonstrated that it is indeed possible. As he headed to fulfill his tenth and most difficult nisayon – Akeidas Yitzchak – the pasuk tells us, “Vayikach es sh’nei ne’arav ito,” usually translated to mean “And he took his two lads with him” (Genesis 22:3). But the Baal Shem Tov offers another understanding: “sh’nei ne’arav” can also mean “the years of his youth.” Avraham mustered all of the passion, energy, and enthusiasm for Hashem’s word that he had cultivated in himself as a young boy, and he carried it with him to help meet the daunting spiritual challenges that lay ahead.
This essay is not a paean to my children but to all of our children. My kids are regular kids who, as befits their age, whine, demand, complain and don’t fully understand many of the realities of life yet. But they embrace Yiddishkeit with fervor and joy, and accept Hashem’s dominion with simple, sincere belief. Ideals to live by, truly.
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