Dear Rabbi Horowitz:
I am not sure if this question falls within the domain of your Q&A column, as this may be more of a hashkafa (philosophical) question, rather than a practical one, but I would greatly appreciate your response nonetheless.
When raising my children, I am often confronted with the “ideal” vs. the “reality,” and I am not sure which version to present when I am speaking to my children.
For example, I would like my children not to talk in shul and to always daven with kavanah (concentration). The problem is that I am myself not up to that madreigah (level). I sometimes (not always) speak in shul and most certainly do not always daven properly. It is upsetting to me that I am not a perfect role model to my children, but this is who I am right now.
My dilemma is – what do I tell my kids? Should I tell them what they ought to be doing, or not speak about these things at all? I really do not want to come off as being dishonest with them.
Chesky; you are in very good company. According to Rav Shimon Schwab z’tl, in a dvar Torah that I was privileged to hear from him in person, Monoach, the father of Shimshon Hagibor, had a similar quandary. (Click here for Rav Schwab’s thoughts on this topic).
I think that your excellent question is not tangential to parenting at all, but rather cuts to the very core of what our role ought to be as we raise our children. A reflective analysis of your dilemma poses some questions:
Do parents need to be perfect in order to parent effectively? When are we most effective as parents? Is it the things we say or the things we do? Is it “talking the talk” or “walking the walk?”
Chesky; here is a mental exercise that may help you solve your quandary. Think back to your formative years – say, from age ten to twenty – and try to remember the five most profound chinuch or middos lessons that impacted your life and became part of your ‘hard drive.’ I could almost guarantee that they were not things that were told to you, not things shouted at you, and most certainly not things that were presented to you in a negative connotation. They were, in all likelihood, spiritually uplifting moments that you observed.
Several years ago, during the dark days following the passing of my great rebbi, Rav Avrohom Pam z’tl, I was preparing an article (Click here to review) about his life that would later run in The Jewish Observer. As part of the process, I took a pen and paper and compiled a list of the ten most lasting lessons that I absorbed from my rebbi. When reviewing them, I was struck by how many of the messages that Rebbi lovingly conveyed to three generations of his talmidim were … unspoken ones. (Not surprisingly, I had a similar experience when writing an essay about Rabbi Moshe Sherer. Click here, and please read the story I noted regarding unspoken messages, and the incident with my rebbi that I noted in the article about his life.)
I think an excellent analogy to parenting is to consider the role of a public speaker delivering a lecture. Some lecturers think that their role is to deliver thundering rebuke and mach’os (protestations) to their audiences. I beg to differ. I think that the role of a lecturer is to inspire the members of the audience, to encourage them to reflect on their actions and lead better lives. Words of mussar are most certainly in order at times, but are most effective when delivered gently and with love. In fact, whenever someone comes back from a rebuke-shouting-type lecture and tells me how powerful it was, I invariably ask him what his ‘take-away’ is from that speech – what practical steps will he take to improve his neshama (soul). I almost always get silence or a blank stare.
Did you ever see the poster that lists all the “When a child grows up with …, he/she learns to …?” Two of them are very relevant to this discussion.
1) “When a child grows up with criticism, he learns to condemn.” And …
2) “When a child grows up with acceptance, he learns to be tolerant.”
In fact, I think that on a communal level, a great deal of the violence that is giving us such a black eye of late (click here and here for related articles) and the deep divide between our charedi society and our non-religious brothers and sisters (click here and here for related articles) can be attributed, in part, to a lack of tolerance and ne’imus on our part. (Click here and here to review 2 excellent articles by Yonasan Rosenbloom on these subjects.)
Chesky, part and parcel of teaching by example is being truthful – in word and deed. Parents don’t need to be perfect, but I strongly feel that they need to be perfectly honest. Children will fully understand that we are imperfect human beings. But they will, in all likelihood, ignore – and even resent – our well-intentioned messages to them if we are not truthful with them. To quote the words of a teen that (only temporarily, b’h) abandoned Yiddishkeit, “I have a truth beeper (something in his mind that rings when he is given untruthful messages) and … it keeps going off.”
Reading your question took me back nearly twenty years in time, when I, too, had a similar dilemma. At the time, I was serving as an eighth-grade rebbi in a Monsey yeshiva where Rabbi Mordechai Schwab z’tl was the head of the Va’ad Hachinuch (Rabbinical Supervisory Board). One day, during a faculty meeting, Rav Schwab addressed the rebbeim of the yeshiva and requested that each rebbi open the school day by learning shmiras halashon with his talmidim for a few minutes (a sefer written by the Chafetz Chaim on the topic of avoiding speaking negatively of others).
Each time that I met Rav Schwab during the following few months, he would gently ask me if I was learning shmiras halashon with my talmidim, and I would respond that I had not yet done so. The third or fourth time that this happened, I felt that I owed Rav Schwab an explanation as to why I was ignoring his request. I informed him that I am not always mindful of not speaking lashon ho’ra myself, and that I could not teach my talmidim something that I was not practicing myself. He responded by offered to learn shmiras halashon with me every day, and actually gave me a time slot where I could come to his home and learn with him. (Sadly, I did not take him up on his offer.) But he did not suggest that I teach it to my talmidim irrespective of my own shortcomings, and in fact, never broached the subject with me again.
On a practical note, I would suggest that you could do several things to convey your ideals regarding shul and tefilah to your son. One would be for you to attend shiurim or to purchase seforim on tefilah and perhaps share the thoughts with your son, and/or invite him to attend a selected shiur with you if he is age-appropriate. Be honest and say that you are working on your shortcomings in the arena of tefilah. It is a wonderful statement that you are reflective and looking to improve spiritually.
Another interesting approach may be to follow the sage advice of Shlomo HaMelech (King Solomon). He notes that the things that we praise say a great deal about who we are and what we really value (See Mishlei 27:21,” V’ish l’phi m’halolo”). I feel that it will make a powerful impression on your child if you were to point out individuals in your shul who seem to be praying properly and note how impressed you are with the respect that they have for shul and for their level of attention that they devote to their tefilah.
Chesky; your honesty and integrity in posing the question and thinking in these terms, suggests that you are already a great role model to your children. Best wishes for continued nachas.
© 2006 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved