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.
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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.