What can the spiritual dimension of the Jewish home tell us about how to raise our children?
We all want to positively influence and encourage our children… to help them to see the good in themselves and their lot in life… to handle a distressful or difficult situation with strength, emuna, and inner peace… to build healthy relationships with others… and to know that there is a Ribbono Shel Olam Who is running this world with perfect precision in order to give good to His children.
And… we want these things for our children even if we ourselves aren’t perfect in any of these areas.
As I go about raising my own family, I’ve come to the realization that the main goal in this journey is not about becoming the perfect parents. Success in parenting really boils down to making a commitment to do the best we can at the time, to remembering to turn to Hashem and His Torah for assistance, and being big enough to accept (even come to love) the messages Hashem sends to us through our children.
To reach such a place requires an understanding of how Hashem has set up His world… to strike a balance between knowing how much is up to us as parents, and how much just isn’t really in our hands.
Of course, the environment and experiences our children are exposed to while growing up have an obvious and profound affect on them and their lives on every possible level- physical, emotional and spiritual. That’s why we as parents are responsible for not only raising our children physically, but for making the effort to give them the tools “to keep the way of Hashem, so they can do righteousness and justice [with others]” in the world (Bereshis 18:19).
In the most ideal situation, this generally means several things, such as:
- Working to create a peaceful, positive and supportive environment at home based on Torah values.
- Getting to know our children and show them that we take them and their needs seriously.
- Providing a healthy balance between boundaries and freedom, responsibilities and choice.
- Looking for the good in our children and the situations they find themselves in and reflecting it back to them.
This is typically the stuff of chinuch bonim and shalom bais classes. I’m not going to expand on it here.
But I do want to emphasize that while knowing the how of chinuch bonim is extremely important, it’s not the whole picture. There are unfortunately plenty of children from “good families,” with “stable” and “peaceful” homes who become depressed, angry and distressed individuals later in life. And, there are plenty of children who experience much instability, adversity and domestic imperfection in their early years, yet seemingly against all odds, turn into healthy, happy and motivated adults.
The truth is it’s not just the how of chinuch bonim that’s important. We also need to be in touch with the why of chinuch bonim as well as what chinuch bonim means for our children and for us as parents in order to give our children the best chance for success later in life.
We can fall in our parenting numerous times, but if we keep picking ourselves up and refocusing on the things that are the most important and keep trying to go down a good and healthy path, then the effect it can have on our children (and ourselves!) may be nothing short of miraculous.
It’s Not Just My Story; It’s Their Story
One of the hardest things to do as a mother is to watch my children struggling with issues that are causing them some kind of distress or internal emotional pain and remembering that I have to take a step back…
When one kid throws a tantrum because she thinks another kid’s present is better than hers, or the other kid’s scoop of ice cream is bigger…
When another kid struggles to understand why his rebbe is being so strict with him…
When my teen complains that her classmates have done something inconsiderate or insulting, or feels that the teacher isn’t listening to her…
Because everything that my children are experiencing – a negative character trait, a distressful emotion, a bad habit, or difficulty viewing a hard situation in a positive way- is there in order to help them do what they need to in the world. The situations that my children find themselves in is their story. I may have an important part to play in that story, but it’s their narrative and their personal relationship to Hashem… and I need to respect that.
As parents, we can (and should) try to empathize with our children, offer support, encouragement and advice where it is needed and make the effort to set healthy boundaries. But, there will always be some point at which we must be able to step back and give them the space to work through their struggles on their own… and to truly believe in our hearts that our children have the ability to successfully step up to the challenge.
As most experienced parents know (whether or not they’ll admit it), always trying to force our children to make “THE… Right… Decision…(!)” will backfire in some way- if not now, then later.
It’s Not Just Their Story; It’s My Story
On the other hand, while the experiences that my children have are indeed a part of their story, as I explained above, it is in a real and concrete way my story, too.
This isn’t a contradiction. It’s actually a very powerful idea that is missing from many approaches to chinuch bonim.
Let me explain…
It says in the Torah:
נֹצֵ֥ר חֶ֙סֶד֙ לָאֲלָפִ֔ים נֹשֵׂ֥א עָוֺ֛ן וָפֶ֖שַׁע וְחַטָּאָ֑ה וְנַקֵּה֙ לֹ֣א יְנַקֶּ֔ה פֹּקֵ֣ד
עֲוֺ֣ן אָב֗וֹת עַל־בָּנִים֙ וְעַל־בְּנֵ֣י בָנִ֔ים עַל־שִׁלֵּשִׁ֖ים וְעַל־רִבֵּעִֽים׃
[Hashem is] preserving loving kindness
for thousands [of generations],
forgiving iniquity and rebellion and sin;
yet He does not completely clear [of sin]
He visits the iniquity of parents on children
and children’s children…
How can children be given a reward for accomplishments they didn’t achieve, or held doubly accountable for the negative actions of their parents that they merely copy?
It’s a fundamental idea in Torah observant Judaism that when we were born into the world we become a new link in a long spiritual chain. We begin our lives with a spiritual connection to our parents, our parents’ parents, and all of our direct ancestors– even those who lived hundreds or thousands of years ago. And, this connection has an influence on the path that our life takes.
Our ancestors have passed on to us a spiritual inheritance. On one hand, our sages explain that we receive a portion of the reward for the mitzvas and moments of teshuva that they fulfilled while they were alive.
But, what exactly is this “reward” that is passed on to us and our children’s childen?
Rav Dessler explains that it is the spiritual sensitivity and light that the individual achieved in his or her lifetime. This light gives their descendants a greater sensitivity to and desire for an even higher level of mitzvah performance and connection to Hashem. We don’t have to work hard for this influence. We can just tap into it and continue it; it’s a free gift.
Most of us, for example, have heard of the concept of doing something l’illui nishmas for a deceased person, doing mitzvos for the elevation of a niftar’s soul.
Rabbi Elazar of Worms, The Rokeach, taught that if during the deceased person’s lifetime he or she made an effort to perform acts of chesod, tzedaka, and other mitzvos, then God reciprocates the merit of those good deeds.
The kindness that Hashem brings to the descendants of the one who observed these mitzvos is the Divine Assistance needed to fulfill even more mitzvos within the same or similar area. Whenever any of the descendants then perform such mitzvos, the reward they earn will simultaneously increase the ancestor’s merit and elevate his or her soul in Olam Haba (the next world).
On the other hand, this spiritual inheritance is not just of positive qualities and behaviors, but of the negative ones, too. This includes the places where our ancestors fell short in their Torah observance and avodas Hashem as well as the character traits that they needed to rectify. If we choose to take on these shortfalls as our own, and continue in their destructive path instead of distancing ourself from them and working to fix them, then all the spiritual darkness and influence they generated extends to us as well:
He visits the iniquity of parents on the children
Rashi: when they hold onto the deeds of their parents
in their hands [i.e., emulate their ways]
The Parent-Child Dynamic in the Jewish Home
All of this gives us a profound insight into the spiritual dynamic of the parent-child relationship.
According to Rabbi Elijah de Vidas a child is tied to the parents’ minds and the parents’ actions, from conception throughout life. Their level of tznius, the purity of their thoughts and what they pay attention to in the world, the level and quality of their shalom bais, the care they take with the laws of family purity- all of these factors have a tremendous effect on children yet to be born and on those already grown (Reshis Chochmah, Shaar HaKedusha, chpt 16).
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov takes it a step further. On the possuk:
…וּמָל ה‘ אֶת לְבָבְךָ, וְאֶת לְבַב זַרְעֲך
And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart
and the heart of your seed..
הַיְנוּ כְּשֶׁיָּמוּל השם אֶת לְבָבוֹ, יִמּוֹל גַּם לְבַב זַרְעוֹ
אֲזַי מְחֻיָּבִים בָּנָיו שֶׁיַּרְגִּישׁוּ גַּם כֵּן הִרְהוּר תְּשׁוּבָה עַל יְדֵי שֶׁנִּמּוֹל לְבַב אֲבִיהֶם
That is, when Hashem circumcises his heart [i.e. removed the internal blocks that separate him from Hashem], the heart of his seed [his children] will also be circumcised…then his children will of necessity also experience thoughts of repentance due to the circumcision of their father’s heart.
Lekutei Moharan 141:1
In other words, when one (or both) parents do teshuva in a particular area, the children are given Sciata D’Shamaya in that very area and are inspired to return as well. When we work on ourselves as individuals and when we seek to return to Hashem, it creates a spiritual reality that extends out beyond us. Our actions in this world are affecting our direct ancestors in Olam Haba, and they are also affecting our children.
What all of this means is if we really want to give our children the best chance for success and help them to make healthy decisions in life, then we must be willing to take an honest look inside. In particular, we need to pay attention to the very areas where our children are struggling since this is a Heaven-sent message to us revealing what we still need to work on ourselves. The world is a mirror- even more so when it comes to our children.
This idea is particularly important for us as mothers since the woman sets the tone in the home, and everything revolves around her. In creation, everything is drawn to its source. The mother is the source of her children (since she gave birth to them) and her husband’s completion. Thus, everyone in the home is drawn to her– whether consciously or unconsciously. What we care about and yearn after, what we say and do, can all have a very big impact, not just on our families but on those who are connected to us.
But, if we keep falling in a certain area then how can we really expect our children to be any different? The answer is, keep yearning for better, make an effort to change and keep davening. It is in Hashem’s Hands. If your efforts are sincere, a yeshua can happen…
Many years ago I attended an asifa on the topic of Tznius. At one point one of the speakers said something that has stayed with me ever since:
He said, even if you are struggling in the inyun of tznius, if you are making an effort and can do even a little, it can have a big impact on your children. We know this because we see in the world that two blind parents can have children who can see…
And our children’s actions will in turn effect us not just in the Next World, but in the here and now in this world.
All of this could be hinted to in the final possuk of Malachi, the past of the Jewish noviim (prophets):
וְהֵשִׁ֚יב לֵֽב־אָבוֹת֙ עַל־בָּנִ֔ים וְלֵ֥ב בָּנִ֖ים עַל־אֲבוֹתָ֑ם
and may He turn the heart of the fathers back through the children,
and the heart of the children back through their fathers