Nurturing the Souls of Our Childrenby Rabbi Bruce E. Kahn, D.D.
We maintain such a high level of intense living that there hardly seems time to think about, let alone act upon, what it means to nurture the souls of our children.
Let me read a few words from a parents prayer:
Our babies, our children are gifts of God. Do we adequately grasp the significance of saying so? Are we clear about what we intend to do when we say that we intend to enter them into the covenant of Abraham and Sarah? How will that help us keep them from harm? How will entering them into the covenant provide them with care and affection, wisdom and understanding? Do we want them to be faithful servants of God? Shall they grow up to think of themselves as that? Do we mean it when we say we want them to grow up to be faithful servants of God and to do so as Jews? What does that entail? We must know the answers to these questions if we are to nurture Jewishly the souls of our children.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohein Kook wrote of his soul and its connection with the Jewish people:
to me, my people, I speak to you from the soul.
He felt the power of the covenant. He knew the connection between his soul and the soul of the Jewish people, a living soul. It nurtures the individual Jew. But to receive that nurturing one has to know that the soul of the Jewish people exists and something of what it consists. "One has to feel [as Abba Hillel Silver wrote] what it means to walk with our people in the Wilderness, to stand before the Holy of Holies in Jerusalem, to go into exile and return again, to experience Masada and a thousand other events, both good and bad, through which we have marched as a people to reach this very night."
A soul needs a context to be nourished, as a body requires food, and a heart requires love, and a mind requires knowledge. Your children's souls are their conduit to God, a two-way flow of seeking and receiving Gods inspiration, guidance, and help. Your sons soul, your daughters soul is a pathway to a bolstered sense of purpose and wisdom and confidence and positive sense of self that no amount of money can purchase. A soul needs a context to be nourished, a context in which to place all the other important pieces of one's life. It is a penetrating context, a context that permeates all the nooks and crannies of your childs being. And if your child is a Jew, the context is the way of life and learning of the Jewish faith and people.
Think of your son or daughter. Do you want this child you love so much to be close to God? Do you want your child to possess reverence for what is holy about life? Do you want your child to be uplifted by faith and by an understanding of behavior that is noble, right and good? In the abstract these wants cannot possibly be realized. They need a context. They need a context that is real and alive and tested and proven in worth and purpose. For Jewish children the context that nurtures the soul is Judaism itself. And you, dear, dear parents have the privilege and the task to prepare the Jewish nutrients on which their souls may flourish. It is up to you to nurture their souls with the context of Jewish life. You can give them no greater gift other than the gift of life itself.
Can you imagine the warmth and comfort, the peace and affirmation that comes from a family that eagerly gathers to greet Shabbat and savor the richness of the Shabbat experience? Can you imagine the impact of your familys kiddush cups and Shabbat candlesticks and of the challah so fresh and pretty and delicious? Can you imagine singing Shabbat songs together and sharing in a fine meal and saying the blessings together, making time together sacred on Friday nights and Saturdays? Can you just imagine such treats and the impact they have on your children over months and years of such exposure? Think of the cumulative impact!
Do you want your children to feel themselves to be a part of the Jewish people? But what will it mean to them to be part of the Jewish people? How personally will they connect with the story of our Jewish journey through time? How profoundly will they feel themselves to be a part of the sacred myths of Torah?
How well will they grasp, for example, the Joseph story and be able to use its wisdom in their lives? Will they use it to enhance their ties to their siblings and with you their parents? Will they identify with the greatness of Moses, of Deborah of Isaiah and Micah, of Hillel and Akiba and Meir? One needs a context for Jewish peoplehood. Jewish peoplehood cannot do a thing if it remains an abstraction.
To nurture souls Jewishly requires a living context that is seen and felt and treasured. It is a personal an intimate bond. We can talk about it and try to teach of it in the classroom. But the classroom provides only a meager number of hours to do the job in a somewhat artificial environment. Parents, make of your home a living context for learning of and experiencing the life of Jewish peoplehood and faith, both past and present. Share in the events of the Jewish community, especially at the synagogue. Bring Judaism into your home as you peruse Jewish books and newspapers and magazines.
Do you want your children to embrace Jewish values? What does that even mean -- Jewish values? If one wants to end hunger or homelessness or violence or drug addiction must one be Jewish? Does one have to be Jewish to pursue peace, to honor the aged, to heal the sick and free the captive? These are Jewish values, but they are also values that are important to other religious groups.
Other religious groups have not had the same experience with these values, as have we. We have over the millennia experienced these very values both applied to and withdrawn from our lives as the Jewish people. Our experiences through the ages and our sacred texts provide a context to these values, a context that nurtures the soul Jewishly and effectively. And how we have reacted to what we have encountered on the way to today?
Are we aware of a disproportionate number of leaders, movers and shakers on the social justice front coming from within the Jewish community? Are we aware of a disproportionate number of Jews who become physicians and Nobel Prize winners and leaders in every field of human endeavor contributing to the progress of humanity? It is not an accident. It is not a result of some socioeconomic position. It is the Jewish context at work.
Two hundred years ago, how many groups of people on the face of this earth advocated that their children should spend ten to thirteen years in school? How many groups did so five hundred years ago, making learning a religious requirement? How many did so a thousand years ago? How many groups of people advocated 2000 years ago that a child be thoroughly well educated? One. One group did so. You can read it in Pirke Avot and its message on the stages of life. It is part of the Jewish context, the living Jewish context, that nurtures the Jewish soul.
There is a depth to the Jewish context, a richness, a beauty, which provides our children a conduit to the holy, the sacred knowledge and experience of life. It gives them their roots and their sense of belonging, a sense of peoplehood. It gives them confidence and uplifts their spirits. Without abstraction it gives them purpose. It gives them a conduit to God and Gods help and support and grace and goodness and wisdom and understanding and inspiration and reassurance and guidance and love and mercy.
Slowly begin to rethink your way of life. Slowly begin to see what matters even more than what seems to matter so much now. Slowly begin to adjust your orientation. Slowly begin to learn and to do and to rejoice in the Jewish faith and people. Step by loving step, step by intentional step, step by purposeful step, adjust your habits and ways of doing and looking at things. Learn a little, do a little, then learn a little more and do a little more. It is not a matter of adding to your plate, it is a matter of moving some things from that plate and replacing them with that which nourishes the Jewish soul of your child. And parents, dear, beloved parents, doing so will nourish your souls as well.
O God, let us give thanks to You for the gift of our children who have entered into the covenant of Abraham and Sarah. Keep them from harm, and grant that they may become sources of joy to us and to all who love them. Be with us and give us health and length of days. Teach us to raise our children with care and affection, with wisdom and understanding, that they may be faithful sons and daughters of our people and a blessing to the world. We give thanks to You O God the Source of life.