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What’s The Best Way To Inspire Our Children? (Chukat – 06/23/18)

Rabbi Neil Schuman

What’s The Best Way To Inspire Our Children?
Do we try to influence them by sharing with them our loves and passions, or do we let them seek and discover their loves on their own?
While searching for material for this week’s sermon, I came upon a famous rabbi’s weekly discourse.  In it, Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz quoted a Midrash that I used to abhor:
“Jethro agreed to let Moses marry his daughter, Tzipporah, but only on the condition that their firstborn son be raised to worship foreign gods; the other children could be raised ‘Jewishly’.  Moses acquiesced.”
I’d always dismiss this midrash, because Jethro, according to other midrashim, had already abandoned his previous idolatrous beliefs, and had come to true belief in the One, Universal God.  Why would he insist on raising his grandson in an erroneous faith system, and, moreover, why would Moses agree?
Rabbi Shmuelevitz had a fascinating insight. Fresh converts to a religion always have the greatest zeal.  Newborn Christians and Ba’alei Teshuva Jews are renowned for their intensity and sincerity.  People born into a religious system sometimes act and serve out of rote.  They’ve been trained this way their whole lives, so it can be hard for them to find passion and excitement in their daily practice. Jethro was a seeker, always yearning for the true service of the heart.  He explored and moved on from many different religions until he became a worshiper of the One and Only God. He worshiped God with his all, for he had seen the falsehood of the other systems, and he had embraced the truth.  Jethro wanted this level of love and service for his firstborn grandson and felt the best way for him to achieve it would be for him to follow his own path of trial and error.
Jethro’s thinking rubs us the wrong way.  Our whole Hebrew School-Bar/Bar Mitzvah system is designed to teach our children what we love and adore about Judaism with the hopes that they will embrace it themselves as well.  Whether it’s Shabbat meals or lighting the Menorah or staying up late at a Seder, we’re accustomed to living Jewishly with our children, not only because we enjoy it, but also so that they’ll learn how to be the next link in the Jewish chain.
On the other hand, Jethro is correct, if we want our children to feel passionate about Judaism and God, it would be best if they found it on their own.  I became a “Ba’al Teshuva” when I was 19.  I learned in beginners’ yeshivot for a few years and then moved on to mainstream yeshivot a few years later.  By and large, the “frum (religious) from birth (FFB)” students envied our devotion and passion for Judaism. We Ba’alei teshuva had lived the secular life and abandoned it for a spiritually fulfilling and devotional life.  It was meaningful for us for we had seen what our options were and we chose our Judaism.  The FFBs never had those choices.
I think then, the best way to raise our children is with a hybrid of these two ideals.  We want to inform and show our children the meaningfulness of our heritage and religion, but without forcing it upon them.  We need to provide them with the beauty and knowledge of Judaism so that when then go out into the world and see other cultures and religions, they will be educated enough to make smart comparisons.  We need to give them leeway so that when they do attend a Hillel Shabbat or light the Menorah in their homes, they do it because of their own convictions.
Education without indoctrination, sharing our passions without imposing them, may be a challenging task, but one we should try to embrace and master.

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