Latest update: March 28th, 2013
My family and I had recently enjoyed an outing to the bowling alley, courtesy of our friend, the owner. Children of all ages enjoy this weatherproof sport, and even preschoolers can easily score strike after strike as bumpers support the heavy ball as it creeps its way towards the pins at the end of the lane. I initially found it humorous to watch the children as they threw the ball down the lane and then attempted to guide the ball by waving their hands or moving their bodies in the direction they wanted the ball to take. When I found myself waving my hands, hoping for some magical incantation to move the ball away from the gutter, I realized that in life as well, we hope to change what we have done – even when it is too little and too late.
In part one (TorahAnytime.com, 1-11-2013), we discussed that someone who loves his home and his parents, has loving memories of his school life and felt enamored with the warmth and chesed of his community would not leave it for the trappings of the secular world. The most important dynamic in keeping our children within the community is to make them feel special and create an environment of Torah that is warm and accepting. Many of the scores of children who have left the faith of our forefathers did not feel this happiness, connection, and pull. WHEN, one might ask, did they begin to feel disconnected from the education and spirituality of their families, schools, and shuls?
In my opinion, its not that they began to feel disconnected; many children are not properly connected to begin with. Dovid Hamelech tells us (Tehillim 127), “Just like arrows in the hand of the mighty, so too are our children.” When we shoot an arrow at a target, all that matters is using the right amount of strength to pull back the bow and aiming the arrow in the right direction. Just like the bowling ball, once it has left our hands, we can wave our hands in what ever direction we want, but if the arrow’s flight was not started properly, there is no way to change it’s course. Dovid Hamelech is teaching us that children must begin their lives and formative years in a conducive and loving environment. If we think that the early years are not as relevant since our children have their whole lives ahead of them to change their philosophical courses and middos, we are wrong. Our early life experiences set the stage for our feeling and direction in regards to relationships, life, and our connection to Torah.
Chazal tell us that most members of the animal kingdom are naturally inclined to leave their parents’ homes in a short span of time from birth. It is only humans that need years of education to learn how to move, talk, and integrate with others. This gives parents the opportunity to guide their children for an extended period of time. The Hebrew word for parents is horim and the word for pregnancy is heryon, teaching us that the child leaves one womb and proceeds to another. Just as the womb provides a perfect environment for nine months, providing the unborn child with all his physical needs, parents must continue to provide the child with all his needs in the “wordly womb.” The difference is that in the womb of life we must also give our children moral, ethical and spiritual direction. It is during his formative years that we can develop his sense of ethics and morality, guide his behavior, and nourish within him a love of Judaism.
Man is compared to a tree. We need attention and nutrition just like trees do. The first three years of a tree’s growth are crucial in its growth and viability. During these formative years we remind ourselves that the tree is a blessing from Hashem; we recognize that by refraining from partaking from its fruits. Many do not cut a boy’s hair for the first three years of his life due to this parallel, as a reminder that the child’s life should also be dedicated to the One who has blessed us with this child. When we plant a tree we must make sure that its trunk is straight, as once the roots have taken hold, the tree will be too large to adjust. We must teach our children the proper behavior and direction when they are young, as it is much harder to change when they are older.
Someone once approached the Chazon Ish to ask when it would be appropriate to start educating his two-year-old son. The Chazon Ish answered that he was two years too late – children begin learning when they are infants. Studies of babies raised in an orphanage found a high mortality rate due to an absence of human warmth. When they began receiving physical and emotional attention, the mortality rate declined. When we sing Shema and Hamalach Ha’goel to a baby, it infuses in his or her heart a love of Hashem as expressed in these tefillos. The feeling of being loved, the feeling of hearing the magical words “I love you” is irreplaceable to a child.
The developing brain is a field of opportunity, and the early childhood experiences help set the stage for the choices a child will make later on. For better or worse, children mimic their parents’ behavior. Children of Hatzalah members run around with walkie talkies, and homes where davening and learning is valued are filled with preschoolers pretending to daven or learn. The best way to teach a child to daven well is by example. How foolish are those parents who force their children to come to shul and sit for hours with a siddur, but talk during davening or hang out in the kiddush club.
Years ago we went on a 28-hour trip to Niagara Falls. Our entire schedule was planned around minyanim that would fit into our location and schedule. We wanted to take our children on a vacation, but we did not want to leave Yiddishkeit behind. We left at 4:00 a.m. so we would be in Scranton on time to daven Schachris and learn in the Bais Midrash. We then proceeded to Corning and arrived in Rochester for Mincha and Buffalo for Maariv. The next morning, we davened Shacharis in Buffalo, experienced the Falls, and left in time to make it to Binghamton for Mincha and Maariv. On this lengthy drive, my wife commented that while the children would remember the magnificence of the falls, the experience of revolving a vacation around tefilla b’tzibur would leave a lifetime imprint.
It is important to teach your children to do mitzvos out of love, not because they feel burdened. If the children hear that they have to daven, it becomes a chore, which no one appreciates. Speaking to Hashem is a zechus, a true honor, and it should be something we want to do. Children have the capacity and maturity to daven well at different ages, and tefillah should be taught to children when they are ready, each child according to his own emotional and intellectual growth. Growing in mitzvos should be positive and exciting – for all ages. We are taught that the Pesach Seder should be enjoyable for children – how much more so all one’s chinuch experiences.
Children should go to shul, it is important for their growth and development; however, halachically speaking, it is wrong to bring a child to shul for long periods of time when he does not have the maturity to maintain the proper decorum and will therefore disturb others. When a child is brought to shul and constantly told be quiet, he will not enjoy going there again. There is also the possibility that if he makes noise and is not shushed, he will learn that shul is a place where one can make noise and talk. One should teach a child the importance of berachos and davening at a young age, but it must be at the right time and in a positive and inspirational way.
At my wedding, a Rav approached me and told me that I should walk toward the chuppah right foot first to set the stage for a strong and spiritual beginning to my new life. One may be married for decades, but there is only one shana rishona, first year. The Torah tells us that a chassan is supposed to dedicate this year towards establishing a special relationship with his wife and is therefore exempt from serving on the battlefield. For this reason many young men will have “night seder” at home during their shana rishona to show their wives that the home is a major part of their Torah lives, and that they are partners in this spiritual growth.
Firsts are special and memorable; we celebrate when our children take their first steps and say their first words. I have mental snapshots of the look of glee on each of my children’s faces when they learned to ride a bicycle, a rite of passage toward maturing independence.
We often wonder where we went wrong with our children, when in essence we never went right. Chazal tell us the formula for success has three ingredients: First, children must consistently feel that their parents love them. Second, we must daven that Hashem grant us success in raising them properly. Finally, we must be loving and passionate examples of a life of Torah and mitzvos.
About the Author: Rabbi Gil Frieman is the pulpit Rabbi of Jewish Center Nachlat Zion, the home of Ohr Naava. He is certified as a shochet, sofer, and has given lectures in the United States, Canada, and throughout Eretz Yisroel. Rabbi Frieman is currently the American Director of seminaries Darchei Binah, Afikei Torah, and Chochmas Lev in Eretz Yisroel, and teaches in Nefesh High School, Camp Tubby during the summers, and lectures weekly at Ohr Naava. In addition, Rabbi Frieman teaches all tracks in Ateres Naava Seminary. He is a highly anticipated speaker on TorahAnytime.com where he speaks live most Wednesday nights at 9:00pm EST.
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