When Parents Learn from Children

At synagogue services recently, I saw a profound lesson in Jewish identity transpire between a young daughter and her father.  It was during the Shabbat services, and the little girl was struggling to hold up a siddur (prayer book) that was almost as big as she was.  At one point, it simply overwhelmed her, and the book came crashing to the ground.  Without pausing in his davening, the father bent over, picked up her siddur, kissed it, and then gave it to her to do repeat his gesture of piety and respect.  Once she had also kissed the book, he returned it to her to hold.

That was it--the entire act took just a few seconds.  Yet in those few moments, the father had transmitted an ancient heritage and a spirit of veneration that linked his daughter with her Jewish heritage in a natural and simple way. 

In fact, that's how Judaism has been transmitted throughout the ages--by parents acting as role models for their children.  In watching their parents live Judaism, without lengthy sermons or complicated explanations, children absorb their parent's commitment to Torah and mitzvot as naturally as they internalize their sense of humor or their taste in movies.

One sign of the danger facing Judaism today is that this logical transmission--parents passing on their heritage to the children--is the exception in contemporary family life. 

Today, most parents learn about Judaism from what their children bring home from religious school.  A synagogue, then, becomes an institution to join when the kids are old enough for religious school and to quit as soon as they finish with their bar/bat mitzvah celebration.  For they are especially devoted, it is possible to hang on until after Confirmation.  But, synagogue membership is "for the kids" and Judaism is a religious school curriculum more than it is a focal point of life in the home.

The problem with this approach is that our children are pretty bright, and they soon catch on: Judaism is kid stuff.  Grown ups impose it on children but don't grow in it themselves.  So the parents' spiritual and intellectual growth is stymied, and the children learn not to take Judaism too seriously.

Even in our Torah portion, during Moses' final peroration to the Jews, he stresses the necessity of parents who live and breath their Judaism.  He knows that a link with the past, a connection to a sacred way of living can only come from the parents and their own spiritual and religious commitment to their faith.  He tells his listeners:

Remember the days of old,
Consider the years of ages past;
Ask your parents, they will inform you,
Your elders, they will tell you.

Moses knows that the unbroken link that binds the generations is the surest way of transmitting ancient wisdom to a thirsting world, the only way to allow holiness to pervade our lives. That mission has characterized Judaism from his time to our own. 

Rashi (11th Century France) makes that tradition explicit when he paraphrases Midrash Sifrei Devarim:  He explains that the failing of Moses' generation of Jews (and of each subsequent age) is that "you have not directed your hearts to the past."  Each age presumes that its trials and insights are unique and without precedent.   As a result, innovation is valued above tradition, and the acquired wisdom of experience is ignored.

In our own day, ignorance of Jewish practice and learning is no sin--so many of us were born into homes already bereft of our ancient ways and wisdom.  But a willingness to remain ignorant, to accept the crumbs our children bring home from Religious School while neglecting the more substantial nourishment that our own spiritual quest could satisfy is a policy that can only lead to further attenuation--of family ties and of Jewish identity.  We owe it to our children to pick up where our parents or grandparents were unable, to begin the task of regathering the sparks of Jewish light.  And we owe it to our own religious needs to take the first faltering steps toward living and learning as Jews.

"Ask your parents" is not only sound guidelines for children, it's also an invitation to parents. 

Do a mitzvah.  Go and learn.

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson is the Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism, where he is Vice President. You can subscribe to his weekly Torah email commentary, “Today’s Torah,” at http://www.bradartson.com