As Jewish parents, it is our responsibility to take care of our children, guide them, teach them, love them, and raise them to be good Jewish adults. We want them to be productive and successful, to embrace good values and morals, to be community service minded, and to be healthy and happy in their personal lives. Not a small feat. The Talmud mandates that parents are required to teach their children only three things: Torah, a trade, and to swim. Interestingly, even though it was written ages ago, without the knowledge of current societal issues, these teachings make sense today and encompass the broader spectrum of teachings.
Learning “Torah” involves much more than learning a portion to chant at one’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah. “Torah” refers to the whole of moral and ethical learning, as exemplified in Jewish texts, history, and community. Teaching our children the Torah involves teaching them about correct behavior and includes instilling in them the value of taking care of themselves, others, and our environment. It also encompasses remembering our historical stories, struggles, and triumphs, and being sure that future generations learn about those things. Really learning the Torah involves learning about our past Jewish history and ancient wisdom and using it to respond to the pressing issues of today’s society.
The teaching of values is one of the most important roles of a Jewish parent, often the most difficult, but certainly the most rewarding. For our family, this month of September marks the “one year out” date for Jacob and Michela’s B’nai Mitzvah. As with Harrison, we are going to do a “12 Months of Jewish Values” challenge in our household, where we challenge each other to learn about and practice a different Jewish value each month. (For a description of twelve important Jewish values, see my April 2008 column.)
Teaching values requires that parents lead and teach by example and by actually doing. Although it is daunting, we have the benefits of experience, study, and practice as our guide and the advantages of our Jewish community as our support. Judaism has created a three-point approach for the teaching of values, which includes Torah study, spiritual community, and ritual practice. By engaging with all three in relation to our choices and understanding about our lives and our society, every person will have a strong foundation for teaching Jewish values to the next generation.
Often just before I sit down to write my column, something happens that leads me to a topic or provides an interesting way to begin. Some “drama” yesterday at Kohl’s was a good reminder about embracing and practicing Jewish values. I went in to shop with my Kohl’s charge card, my receipt from my purchase a few days prior (that earned me Kohl’s cash), my 30-percent-off coupon, and my $70 Kohl’s cash certificate in my pocket.
During my shopping, a salesperson asked me if I had a 30-percent-off coupon, because, if I didn’t, he had an extra. I pulled my coupon out of my pocket to check. I must have dropped the Kohl’s cash, because, when I got to the register, I no longer had it. I told the cashier and asked if the store would honor the $70 off, and she said it would since I had my original receipt with verification code, as long as she called and verified that it hadn’t been spent. The person on the phone advised her that it had been used at “register 3” (I was at register 5) just about one minute before he checked, which was while we were waiting on hold on the phone! She looked to register 3, and there was an individual just leaving with his purchases. She told the cashier to “stop that man,” and within seconds at least three managers came and escorted him back to the register “to discuss a problem with his purchase.”
When asked, he vehemently denied that he found the Kohl’s cash in the store, but upon examination, it revealed my verification code and my Kohl’s charge number, so there was no question. The items were taken back, and he was advised that he could leave without them or pay for them another way (which he did). I made my purchase using the Kohl’s cash, and everything was fine. When I relayed the story to my family members, they all agreed that the Kohl’s cash should have been turned in to customer service, especially since it would have been very easy for the store to return it to its rightful owner because of the codes. Turning it in is just the “right thing to do,” and we know this because we learn and practice good Jewish values.
Teaching our children a trade does not necessarily mean training them for any particular job. It is more about “practical living” in general, preparing our children to be productive in society, have a career path, and to be able to function in the world. The requirement of teaching our children a trade reminds parents that children need direction and support in practical matters, while still giving them room to grow and think and act for themselves. We do not need to tell them exactly how to live their lives, but we must give them the practical tools to be able to make good decisions. Whereas educating about values involves helping our children decide how they want to act and what kind of people they want to be, teaching them a trade is more about helping them discover what they want to actually do.
The final instruction is to teach our children to swim. This one is about basic life skills, teaching our children how to recognize danger and to avoid it or overcome it. Swimming can be viewed as a metaphor for surviving life’s twists and turns. When we get into a pool of water, we can either sink to the bottom, barely stay afloat, or swim to the other side. Similarly, when faced with challenges, we can either “sink, float, or swim,” – i.e. succeed, barely cope, or fail. We want to teach our children to be independent, adventurous, and take risks, but to know where the “shore” is and how to return to a place of safety. Learning about life skills and potential dangers can range from learning to boil water on the stove or crossing the street to avoiding drugs and alcohol and getting annual physicals at the doctor.
Even if our modern-day lives are not so completely governed by the teachings of the Talmud, if we follow its lead and teach our children Torah, a trade, and to swim, we’ll be doing a good job of parenting them.