Parents, the Quintessential Rebbes

When a parent guides sons and daughters in the right path, Scripture says, “And you shall know that your tent is peace (Job 5:24)”.

                                                Yevamot 62b

Rather than allocating the branches of human accomplishment to distinct professions, instead the more narrow purpose of career preparation, the original goal of learning was the creation of that most recent of all creatures: a human being. That task is far too precious to assign to strangers and far too consuming to reduce to a mere job search. Education is the portal to  life: talmud torah k’neged kulam, learning encompasses everything.

Talmud torah (education) is about instilling values, building character, cultivating wonder, as well as training intellect. The traditional goal  of learning is mentschlikhkeit, that untranslatable Yiddish word that signifies the very best a person can be in terms of caring, profundity, and involvement. To be a mentsch is a life-long journey, involving every fiber of mind, soul, and heart. Facts may be valuable tools for the attainment of that lofty goal; but knowledge, the mastery of facts, is rarely confused with wisdom and piety. As the Bible well understands, yirat Adonai reshit da’at, awe of God is the beginning of knowledge; but fools despise wisdom.

And who can best open a child to awe and wonder? A child’s very first teachers, the ones that can never be replaced, are the parents. It is parents who must address the profound questions that children ask: who made God? How are we born? Why do we die? Why must I be good?

The hardest questions, those which have perplexed philosophers across the ages, are first found on the lips of little children. And it is their parents who offer helpful responses, even when they themselves may not have final answers themselves. For those who would seek to nurture spiritual development without imposing dogmatic straight jackets, parents are the ones to watch; they are a rebbe’s natural role models. 

Parents as Rebbes

One night, walking to synagogue services with my 4 year old daughter, Shira, she asked me if Pocahontas was still alive. “No,” I told her. Pocahontas lived a long time ago. Shira considered for a moment, and then she asked, “Abba, people who lived a long time ago died a long time ago, right?”


“And we are living now. Does that mean we will die now?” I assured her that we would live a long, long time. She asked me if I would live until she got married, and I told her that I would live even longer, until after she had children of her own.  Again, Shira fell silent, and then she said, “Abba, when you die, I will hold your hand and die with you.”

“No, sweetheart,” I said. “When I die, I want to you to keep living for a long time.”

“Why, Abba?”

“Because you’re my little girl, and I want you to live.”

She was quiet for a moment, and then I heard a sniffle, which grew into a sob.

“Shira! Why are you crying?” I asked. 

“Because I don’t want to live if you aren’t living,” she insisted. Her tears forced to me translate my theology into concepts that a four-year old could comprehend and would be willing to accept. I rushed to hug my little girl, comforting her that I would always be with her, that I would always be in her heart, that I wouldn’t die until she was very, very old. At that point, my words and actions as a father weren’t much different from my words and actions as a Rabbi. Rebbes are parental for their talmidim, and parents are rebbes for their children.

Rabbinic legend asserts that all children know supernal truths — a heavenly Torah — while still in the womb.   At the moment of birth, an angel strikes the children above their lip, creating a dent and making them forget all the Torah they ever knew. As they begin their residence on earth, infants are open and fresh, ready to reclaim the cosmic teaching they used to know by mimicking the mundane torah of their parents’ lives and love.

Just as the Torah addresses itself to every subject under the sun, so it is assumed that the child’s first teachers, the parents, will introduce every matter the child will need later in life. Getting along with others, the physical properties of the objects in the world, songs, values, and identity are all part of the vast array that parenting should bring to children. And children are not only interested in mechanics, but, even more so, in meaning. As the parent of any young child will attest, the most frequent question asked is not “how,” but “why?” Why should we do this and not that? Why should we act this way and not that way? Why does the world work this way? Why? Why? Why?

Sometimes the answers aren’t really answers. Sometimes, parents offer their children helpful responses when there are no answers. A congregant of mine, Jack, tells of a time when he was a young child and he woke in the middle of the night to the sounds of sirens, fire trucks, and screams. The apartment building across the street from his own was burning, and the street was in turmoil.  Jack was terrified and shouted for his mother, who ran into his room. The boy sought assurances that this couldn’t happen to him, that they wouldn’t be hurt. Of course the mother tried to soothe her son, but there were no guarantees that she could offer her boy. So, instead, to told him to put his head back down on his pillow, to close his eyes, and to recite the Sh’ma.  He did, and he felt comfort.  To this day, more than a half century later, Jack recites the Sh’ma whenever he feels overwhelmed or afraid. And he is still comforted by the sense God’s presence, and his mother’s. Providing a Jewish way to respond to life’s challenges and to life’s joys is a gift that can last a lifetime, whether it comes from a parent or from a rebbe.

The wonder of a child’s curiosity is our portal to renewed marvel and to awe. Children can remind jaded adults of the wonder of being alive, the constant novelty of life itself. With their unending stream of questions and their joy in being in their parents’ presence, children are the natural students of their parents’ words and deeds.

And children do mirror their parents’ behavior. I remember the first time I saw my little daughter stand on her tiptoes, lean forward, look into the mirror and poke herself in the eye. Only then did I realize that this is, indeed, how my wife inserts her contact lenses every day. I recall the first Shabbat that my son, at two and a half years old, proceeded to walk up and down the aisles of the sanctuary, shaking everyone’s hands and saying “Shabbat shalom” just as he had seen his Abba greet the congregants week after week. Children mimic their parents’ behavior, even when we don’t think they are watching us. As the Talmud understands, “what the child says out in the street comes from the father or the mother.” 

Because children initially learn through imitation, how we live our lives constitutes their first, and core, curriculum. Not our words, but our actions teach our children what is right, acceptable, and good. Infants don’t sit in a classroom reading their parents’s words; they imbibe their family’s values during meals, baths, and play. Children learn by watching. So do all seeking souls.

There is a special moment in just about any synagogue service that never fails to inspire me with its simplicity, profundity, and its beauty. This part of the Jewish service isn’t the cantor’s singing or the rabbi’s sermon. It’s not found in the prayerbook, although it happens almost weekly: a young child drops a Jewish book —either a Siddur or a Humash — in the middle of services. After all, these books almost the size of the children themselves, far too big and heavy for little hands. But the children want to do what they see their parents doing, so they insist on holding a prayerbook too. Inevitably, then, the Siddur goes spilling to the ground.  And here’s the silent act of rebbe-ing: Mom or Dad bends over, picks up the book, and kisses it before handing it back to the child. There is no lecture, there’s no elaborate instruction, just a parent showing a child how to show reverence to a book. And almost every time, the child’s response is to kiss the book too. We Jews have been transmitting that kiss (and a love of books) for generations.

To parent and to rebbe, then, is to be totally open before one’s children/talmidim. To share every response, concern, and joy. That holistic teaching is what rebbe-ing is all about. The rebbe moves beyond book-learning— using a growing base of Torah knowledge to refine a talmid’s ethics, priorities, and character. A midrash (rabbinic interpretation of Bible) comments on the proverb “Train up a child in the way it should go (Proverbs 22:6)” by noting that “this means that if you train your child with words of Torah until the child matures, the child will remain loyal to them.”

Our first rebbes, then, are our parents. And we, as rebbes, must be willing to be parental for our talmidim. This calling requires a recognition of how consuming and how total the task can be: we are involved in nothing less than cultivating someone’s very humanity. But, like all great Rebbe’s, we have two powerful tools at our disposal: our personalities (flaws and all) and God’s Torah.

The Tool of Personality

Children naturally love their parents. Dependent upon us for food, shelter, warmth and cleanliness, the neediness of children only begins to account for the deep reservoir of devotion that links parents and children together. Beyond any physical gain or benefit, children reach out to parents because of a universal human need to love and to be loved.  In large measure, children learn because they want to connect, to relate, and to share happiness, joy, and delight. And that desire offers an opportunity that rebbes can use to help others blossom into their better selves, into better Jews. Toward the end of Friday night services, I always invite the children to come up on the Bimah to hold a cup of grape juice while the Cantor sings the Kiddush, the blessing thanking God for the Sabbath day. One Friday night, my Shira came up with the other children, but instead of just taking one cup, she took an extra, which she walked across the platform and handed to me, saying, “For you, Abba.” Her love for her father was already merging with her feelings for the synagogue and Shabbat. And her honoring of her father was already a beautiful beginning in living out the fifth of the Ten Commandments. Our children’s love for us, and our’s for them, offers a great incentive to channel jealousy, to sublimate rage, to grow in Torah and mitzvot, and to learn to care, share, and help.

That gift of personality—sharing our humor and our humanity with our talmidim—finds expression in one of my favorite rebbe stories found in the Talmud. A rich man put an odd provision in his will: he insisted that his heir inherit nothing until he was willing to act the fool in public. What could such an odd stipulation mean? And would it invalidate the will according to Jewish law? Could the stuffy and distant son successfully contest his late father’s impetuous decree?

To find the answer, a group of rabbis went to consult the great sage, Rabbi  Yehoshua ben Korhah, one of the greatest rabbinic authorities of his time. “When they peeked in from outside [his house], they saw him crawling on his hands and knees, with a reed sticking out of his mouth, and being pulled along by his child. Seeing him thus, they discretely withdrew, but they came back later and asked him about the provision in the will. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korhah laughed and said, “As you live, this business you ask about—acting the fool— was precisely what happened to me a few moments ago!” 

I love this story because it is a rebbe story within a rebbe story. Here is the great Rabbi Yehoshua, willing to share every part of his personality with his children. The great sage is not above getting on the floor and acting like a donkey so his children can laugh and play with him. Here is a great rabbi being a great father. And, like all play, this one conveys some serious points just under the surface: about leadership, about work, about connection.  But Rabbi Yehoshua isn’t just a rebbe to his children, he is a rebbe to his colleagues as well, sharing his donkey games with his fellow rabbis too. Is he teaching them about the provision in the will, or is he showing them what involved fathering is all about? Is he offering his playfulness as a way to rebbe his children, or as a way to show how to rebbe to adults?

This wonderful father/rebbe uses his personality as a tool, guiding his children and his colleagues to important lessons of character and identity by offering the full range of his emotions and his involvement to make learning fun and to connect a new insight to the warm emotional connection that his personality evokes. His children would never again sever their new understandings from their love of their father; his rabbinic colleagues have linked their teacher’s legal insight to his playful braying.

In my own life, I know that this fusion of caring and teaching has made all the difference. I know that part of my passion for the Bible emerged from my affection for my childhood rabbi. Rabbi Joseph Asher was the head of a large urban synagogue, yet he always had a smile and a kind word for me, and he always made time to talk. During a particularly difficult incident during my teen years, he spent time in his study helping me understand and regroup.  As a result of my feelings for him, I paid particular attention during his confirmation class, which was an introduction to the Torah.  Later in my life, when Rabbi Saul White offered to study with me one-on-one, the thrill of being able to learn with a great rabbi, coupled with its implicit expression of affection was a powerful inspiration for my pursuing the rabbinate. Both men were great rebbes because they understood that my feelings for them had the power to reshape my feelings for Judaism and for life. Both men were willing to let me into their lives for the sake of establishing my own life and of deepening my loyalty to God and to a life of Torah.

To rebbe, then, is to use one’s affection as a tool to help others grow. Cultivating love between rebbe and disciple, using emotions to allow new insight to bloom, is a fundamental instrument of being a rebbe, and one that emerges from active parenting as well.

The Gift of Presence

Of course, one can only offer personality through the gift of presence.  Spending abundant time together is the sine qua non of talmidim learning from their rebbe’s personality. As with the tool of personality, this basic ingredient of being a rebbe—offering the gift of time—emerges from the world of parenting: parents spend countless hours with their infants, toddlers, and children. In their endless attention to seemingly small details, how much and when the child ate, patterns of napping, what the child likes to play, parents are able to read their children like no one else can. Their “intuitive” understanding of their children is really the result of so much exposure, such abundant interaction. Even in talk of “quality time,” no amount of emphasis on  “quality” can eliminate the need for “time.”

Consider another of my favorite rebbe/parent stories, this time from the Jerusalem Talmud:

Every Friday afternoon, Rabbi Joshua regularly listened to his grandson’s reading of the weekly Torah lesson. Once he forgot to do so, and, when he had already entered the baths of Tiberias … he remembered that he had not listened to his grandson’s reading of Torah. So he turned around and left. Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba asked him, “Rebbe, did you not teach us that one may not interrupt if one has already begun [to bathe]?” Rabbi Joshua answered, “Hiyya, my son, is it a small matter to you that one who listens to his grandson’s reading of Torah is as though he were hearing it at Mount Sinai? For it is said, ‘Make them known to your children and your children’s children, as if it were the day that you stood before Adonai your God in Horeb (Deuteronomy 4:9-10)’.”

Rabbi Joshua had a weekly practice of listening as his young grandson recited what he had learned that week about the weekly Torah portion. One can imagine just how proud the child would be to be able to “study Torah” with his learned grandfather, and what joy the two must have taken in being able to share this passion together. The boy’s love of his grandfather and his love of Torah became intertwined, the latter becoming stronger by its connection to the former.

With this story too, we see the way that being a rebbe springs from a willingness to parent one’s students: Rabbi Joshua refers to his student as his son, and explains that it is permissible to deviate from normal legal practice (not to interrupt a bath once started) for the sake of hearing one’s child or grandchild recite Torah. Indeed, the very scenario of a great rebbe taking a bath with his student is itself one of great intimacy! But the intimacy is used in the service of teaching the human side of Torah: a procedural rule is waived because of a more important value: linking grandparent and grandchild in the timeless unfolding of Torah, and fusing the love of Torah with their love for each other.

As much as Rabbi Joshua is willing to use the tool of his personality to educate both grandson and student, he is also aware that such a tool takes abundant time to become effective. So he refuses to skip a session with this expectant grandson. Every chance to be together is precious, offering another opportunity to know each other and to learn from each other. Love simply takes time, as we can see in a often-quoted passage in the Book of Psalms: “your children shall be like olive saplings around your table,”  which Rabbi David Blumenthal explains to mean “love as a virtue is an ongoing pattern. It is a commitment to plant, to weed, to water, to prune, and to harvest.”   The love of our talmidim, like that of our children, is a worthy harvest, but one which requires the investment of time, patience, and abundant access.

What to Do With Personality and Time

Good rebbe-ing, like effective parenting, requires the gift of time and the tool of personality. But access and openness are just the beginning. Children look for their parents to shower them with encouragement, with commitment, and with love. Those are the building blocks that permit a child to erect the structure of a happy, open personality. I recall one funeral of an elderly man. In the chapel, one of his children rose to deliver a eulogy, and spoke about how her father’s unfailing confidence in her had allowed her to succeed as a professional and as a wife. Those are the gifts that rebbes must bestow on  their talmidim as well.

It does a child little good if the time spent with a parent is filled with criticism, disdain, and contempt. Of course, good parenting (and good rebbe-ing) requires appropriate analytical critiques. But those critiques must be presented in a manner that is constructive and supportive. Essential to the content of any parent-child interaction is the constant message of parental approval. Even when a parent disapproves of what the child does, that criticism can never eclipse the fundamental approval of who the child is. So too for a rebbe: as a teenager, I borrowed my stepfather’s car often. One day, driving a bit too recklessly, I dented the car on its side. I was terrified of how my stepfather might respond, and timidly walked into his study to tell him the awful news,

“Kurt, I dented the car.”

He looked up from his paper, looked in my eyes, and said to me, “Weren’t there already some dents in it anyway?”  I was stunned. To a teenage boy, there was nothing as terrible as damaging someone’s car. Although Kurt did sit me down and explain that I needed to drive more carefully, I have never forgotten his first response, which taught me that in his eyes I was more important than his car.

One clear way to demonstrate a basic encouragement is to engage a child or a talmid in discussion and in explanations of consequences. There is certainly a need for limits and for clear standards; not everything is open for debate or rejection. But even in those areas where a certain behavior is a non-negotiable expectation, providing the reason for such a standard offers access to an internalizing of the standard as proper and desirable. Rather than simply establishing rules that rely only on  authority, providing reasons allows the child to grow into an understanding of why a rule is necessary or valuable. No less an authority than Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, great Kabbalist and authority in Jewish law, insists that

When one wants something from the family, it is not proper to force them against their will… Rather, try to persuade them as much as possible to want to do it of their own volition, for that is better than forcing them to do it.

Notice that Rabbi Horowitz doesn’t prohibit force, he merely notes that it is preferable to enlist consent. Enabling a talmid to understand why something is permitted or prohibited, why we do behave this way and not that meets their need to understand and conveys a message of trust essential to their own sense of self-esteem. By engaging their in the process of understanding and choosing, parents can use their gift of personality and of time to enable the child to feel capable of making moral choices and of shouldering responsibility. Once, during my high school years, I faced a dilemma between doing what I was supposed to do (a chore) and what I really wanted to do (which involved my friends). I went to my mother, expecting that she would simply tell me to do the chore, but instead she just told me “you do what you think is best. You know what to do.” Well, with that very openness, she forced me to take responsibility for my own actions. She also assured that the chore was no longer her burden, it was now my own internalized responsibility. Encouragement, as a complement to an appeal to authority, is an essential component of nurturing parenting. And it is no less essential to a caring rebbe.

Implicit in an approach that emphasizes encouragement as a pedagogical tool is the recognition that no two children, no two students, are ever at precisely the same level. Each brings unique character traits, life experience, and ways of understanding that shape how they perceive the world and what they do with their perception. To reach another human being’s heart, mind, or soul, a parent/rebbe must be able to speak to where they are, not merely from where the teacher stands. In the words of the Talmud, “the parent should teach the child on the level of the child’s understanding.” 

In the words of the Hasidic master, Rabbi Menahem Mendl,

You have two choices. You can force your children to study Torah, and they in turn will grow and force their children to do the same. Or you can devote some of your own time to your own Torah study. If you do the latter, you will find your children learning by your side.

Himself a great rebbe (the Kotsker Rebbe, in fact), Rabbi Menahem Mendl well understood the difference between lecturing and exemplifying. Coercion can compel behavior, but it can’t hope to win the heart. A parent who forces a child to act teaches the child that the act is intrinsically undesirable, that only compulsion would motivate doing it. But a parent who chooses, for example, to study Torah in the presence of children, shows the children that Torah study is a wonderful use of an adult’s time. By offering one’s own behavior as an example, we make it possible for our children, and our talmidim, to grow in the love of what we, ourselves, cherish.

The Dynamic of Honoring

The Torah relays the commandment to “honor your father and your mother”  at the fifth of the Ten Commandments. By giving this mitzvah such prominence, making it the pivotal commandment linking the contents of the two tablets together, God seems to emphasize the central importance of treating parents in an elevated fashion. Indeed, the rabbis of the Talmud are so taken by its importance that they equate the honor due parents to the honor due God: “When people honor their father and mother, the Holy Blessing One says, ‘I consider it as if I have lived among them and they had honored Me’.”  Yet honoring parents may be emphasized so strongly precisely because it is such a difficult mitzvah to observe. Not all parents make honoring them easy, and some parents seem less deservant of honor than do others. A seemingly one-sided mitzvah (nowhere in the Torah does it mandate honoring children), this is one of those commandments where apparent simplicity gives way to deeper complexity upon reflection.

The great rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes “The problem I as a father face, is why my child should revere me. Unless my child will sense in my personal existence acts and attitudes that evoke reverence—the ability to delay satisfactions, to overcome prejudices, to sense the holy to strive for the noble—why should he/she revere me?”   Parents have it in their power to make it possible for children to fulfill this mitzvah wholeheartedly, and they have the power to make it virtually impossible to fulfill without a hole in the child’s heart. Parents who have abused their children, who have neglected them, or withheld affection and care are not easy to honor. Such parents put their children in the position of having to squelch their own integrity and well-being or to turn their back on this biblical mitzvah. As the medieval mystics insist, “Parents must not so exasperate a child that the child cannot withstand rebelling against them.” 

Because the parents shape the context of their child’s “honoring”, I find it more helpful to see this mitzvah as a dynamic, linking parent and child in a context which both, together, create. In truth, parents must earn the honor of their children, and children must grow to recognize just how much their parents have done to deserve the honor due them. The challenges on both sides are enormous.

For the parents, the sheer strain of raising children is an onerous burden. Often parents try to influence their children into filling the emotional deficits of their own childhoods. Often, faced with the challenges of earning a livelihood and attending to the chores of life,  it becomes difficult to provide the steady love and approval children need. As the midrash notes, “It is easier to see a whole forest of young olive trees mature than to rear a single child.” 

From the children’s perspective, it’s hard to recognize just how much work goes into being a parent. Focused on their own needs and growth, children don’t often see their parents as real human beings with shortcomings and foibles like any other fallible person. Rare the parent who is able to leave the pressure and disappointment of work and the world outside of the home. More often than not, our children feel the brunt of frustrations we endure elsewhere. Again, the midrash speaks to the heart in observing that  “it is typical of human beings that anger in one’s home rests on the littlest member.”   With less experience under their belts, and with their dependence on their parents so total (and so frightening), it is often impossible for children to comprehend their parents behavior. Honoring parents is a heavy challenge indeed.

So the ability to observe the commandment of honoring mother and father requires the active participation of both parents and children. Here too, as with so many mitzvot, the proper context is within a relationship — there is a brit, a covenant linking parent and child. And it is only within such a brit that honor can be expressed with sincerity (or at all).

Just as with parenting, the art of being a rebbe to someone requires making it possible for the talmid to want to learn by example. As a rebbe, one accepts the obligation to behave in a way that enables the talmid to relate, to empathize and to grow. Just as there is a command to honor parents, so too is there one to honor one’s rebbe. And just as the mitzvah of kibbud av (honoring parents) presumes the dynamic give-and-take of commitment and love, so too does the mitzvah of kibbud Rav (honoring one’s rebbe). The rebbe must act in such as way as to deserve the talmid’s honor.

From Parenting to Rebbe-ing

To be a rebbe requires the same skills and orientation as being a parent, as the midrash says, “just as disciples are called ‘children,’ so the teacher is called ‘a parent’.”   Good parents use their personalities as tools to help their children make sense of the world. By sharing their own reactions, humor, interests and their warmth, parents help children to cherish and cultivate these rich gifts within themselves. And by spending lots of time together, parents ensure enough exposure for children to explore the full extent of personality, to test limits, and to find their own way. Good parenting is rebbe-ing one’s own children. Being a good rebbe is parenting someone else’s child. Both are a way of sharing love and shaping lives.

Indeed, being a rebbe is taking a step beyond parenting. A rebbe is also a transitional figure, allowing the individual to transition from total reliance on the parents to a gradual recognition that other significant people can assist in the process of spiritual growth and Jewish passion. As children grow to differentiate themselves from their parents, growing into their own unique identities, these other caring adults can help smooth their paths and keep them connected. The rebbe is part of a team, a link in the chain that connects each Jewish individual to community, heritage, and faith. There are times in life when parents cannot assist, there are locations where parents cannot go. In such times and places, rebbes can fill a void, helping the questing Jew know that they are yet loved and precious still.

Good parenting requires a willingness to share feelings, to commit unconditionally, to connect and to trust. Lucky those children whose parents can provide those gifts consistently and abundantly. And happy the parents who see their children grow in security, compassion and wisdom because of the safety and example they provide.

Becoming a rebbe involves a good deal of skill. But those skills rest on a foundation like sound parenting. A rebbe is someone willing to serve as a second parent to a seeking Jew. By offering our talmidim—whether children or adults—the tool of our personalities and the gift of our presence, we stand in relation to them like parents do to children. And like parents to children, we can provide the warmth and security to allow our talmidim to flourish and to bloom.

Working is another way of praying.

You plant in Israel the soul of a tree.

You plant in the desert the spirit of gardens.

Praying is another way of singing.

You plant in the tree the soul of lemons.

You plant in the gardens the spirits of roses

Singing is another way of loving.

You plant in the lemons the spirit of your son.

You plant in the roses the soul of your daughter.

Loving is another way of living.

You plant in your daughter the spirit of Israel.

You plant in your son the soul of the desert.


Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson ( is the Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University, where he is Vice President. He is the author of The Bedside Torah: Wisdom, Dreams, & Visions (McGraw Hill) and Jewish Answers to Real-Life Questions (Alef Design).