What do we teach our children?
Passover is coming fast upon us. It is my favorite holiday in the year, because I love symbolism and ritual and I love the enactment of coming face-to-face with redemption for my people and my family and myself. It is also a holiday based around the concept of teaching our children. Indeed a seder isn’t a seder without our children’s questions, that lead to the explanations.
So what we teach our children is of vital interest to me.
Recently, I have been participating in an amazing project started by a friend who also is mightily concerned with what we teach them. She invited mothers she knows to write a letter to our young daughters, telling them the things that they might not hear at this point of their lives (mostly teens and young 20s). All the letters are filled with love and pride. Some are also filled with worry, some with sadness of distance between them. Most are filled with beautiful words of wisdom that show caring, thought and beauty of soul.
But what has been most striking to me is my reaction to the lessons in a few of the letters. I thought as I read these, “Really? This is a message you want to make sure your daughter embraces?”
One mother was telling her daughter that there is no such thing as right and wrong. No such thing.
Another mother told her teenage daughter that she should trust her own instincts and reject everything that came before her if it didn’t sit well with her gut.
Another told her daughter that everything is a choice: she would have to live with the consequences of her choices, but they were hers.
These three messages, coming all at once, triggered something deep in my own soul. I pushed back, and my friend reminded me, that what triggers us is probably another opportunity for growth. It is an opportunity to explore why these three ideas—no right or wrong, reject what doesn’t sit with your instincts, and the choice is yours—run counter to my most deeply held beliefs, as well as my concepts of what we teach our children. So, I have been sitting with this, to see if my push back is hiding something deeper.
Later that same weekend, a man, driving with his parents and wife to dinner in Santa Rosa, near where I drive regularly, lost his wife and mother because his car was struck by a truck driven by someone alleged to be under the influence who admitted to have been texting. It was the second driver’s choice to drive distracted, and while he may have to live with some pretty serious consequences, the first man also has to live with consequences of someone else’s choices. And indeed his wife and mother will not get to live at all as a result of the truck driver’s choices.
Life is fragile. We take risks just stepping off the curb sometimes, or getting in our cars, or riding a bus, or getting on a plane.
Yes, we have choices, yes, the decision is ours. But the repercussions are rarely just for ourselves: our decision to drive distracted does not just effect ourselves.
Judaism’s mystical strand teaches that each choice we make can either make the world a better place or a worse place. Each decision matters on an individual level and on a cosmic level, potentially changing the course of the history.
I pray that our children absorb this message, and while we teach them that everything is a choice, we remember to imprint on them the realization that there are good choices and bad choices that will have consequences for more than themselves. We can decide whether we pay our taxes, stop at a red light or run through it, abuse our children for child pornography, or buy chocolate or cotton farmed by child and adult slaves, hit our girlfriends, or bully someone who is different, or speak words of hate. We can decide to treat people with kindness in the face of hate, to help a child learn to calm herself, to support energy savings—to not stand idly by in the face of hatred or indifference.
Because I believe that there is right and wrong in this world. At the same time, I recognize that it can be complicated. For example, there are people who I think would be better off no longer in this world, but I am firmly against capital punishment and don’t generally support assassination, or revenge killings. I’m pretty sure murder is wrong, but believe that there are exceptions that prove the rule. Last year’s film Looper raised the question of whether someone who could time travel would do well to kill Hitler as a child rather than let the world go through the Holocaust and World War II. I’m not sure I know the answer to that possibility.
People I respect tell me that they do not believe there is evil in the world. We may DO bad things, make bad choices, but there is no evil. I’m less sure. Like Pharaoh hardening his own heart through years of choices that separated him from truly caring for his people, years of bad choices can coalesce into evil. Of course people may have different opinions of what evil is: for me, it includes genocide, abuse of children, using rape as a form of control, slavery that still exists in our world, cutting food stamps and poverty programs for poor families, polluting the planet and refusing to see that climate change is bringing damage we are not prepared for. For you, dear reader, evil might take other forms.
Rebbe Nachman of Breslau taught that even within the person guilty of the worst deeds, we can find a point of light that can be encouraged to grow to illuminate a beautiful soul. I pray that’s true, but wonder whether Pharaoh, Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot or Jim Jones might have been redeemable or whether there is a point of no return, just as there might be for the planet.
So, for me, to suggest to a teen that they should trust their gut in deciding how to make choices seems destined to lead to problems. First, of course, teens are in the midst of a period when they think they know more than any adult around them. Their hormones are flying, and their brains are undergoing a growth spurt that needs time to mature. And their executive functions have not come on line entirely. That’s just their own bodies undergoing rapid change.
To suggest that they not listen to anyone flies in the face of all we know about resilience and caring adults. They might not talk to their parents, but they do best when there is someone—teacher, aunt, grandparent, older sister, rabbi or pastor, coach, for example—who listens, guides, encourages.
David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, once wrote, “Without a tradition, everything is impermanence and flux” in an essay that spoke eloquently about the need to learn from those who came before us. I, who do not often agree with him, completely agreed with his statement that, “Applying an ancient tradition to a new situation is a creative, stimulating and empowering act.”
Indeed, my (Jewish) tradition is exactly about that—applying ancient teachings to our own reality. But it requires knowing what came before us as well as critical thinking skills that allow us to evaluate that body of knowledge. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the Conservative rabbi who reconstructed Judaism in the 20th century in many important ways, famously stated that “the past has a vote, not a veto.” Before we can reject, reform, renovate, we must know from whence we came and understand why we might want to change it. And indeed, there is much I have wanted to change and have been grateful has changed in Jewish practice: the role of women, attitudes toward our LGBT sisters and brothers, attitudes toward people with intellect disabilities are just a few. But the tradition offers ways for the change to take place, within the context of critical thinking.
Even Maimonides, the great 12th century thinker, challenged certain aspects of the Torah, the Jewish holy scripture. In his Guide for the Perplexed, he explained the two main purposes of the Torah: “The general object of the law [Torah] is twofold: the well-being of the soul, and the well-being of the body.” However, in the first book of his Mishneh Torah, Sefer Madda (Book of Knowledge), he explained that the images of God—hand, finger, back, even sword of God—are there only to help us limited human beings understand something beyond our grasp. He re-interpreted the words in a way that made sense to him in his time (and to me in our time).
Right and wrong might be complicated, evil might be in the eye of the beholder, choices might seem beyond our grasp, but I want our daughters and sons to have the opportunity to see how they fit together, how they require much from us—before we step behind the wheel of a car, before we decide not to go to our family celebration, before we choose to harm or heal.
Thinking critically, weighing the evidence, giving the past a vote, and recognizing that our choices make a difference to more than our own lives—these are lessons I hope we teach our children.