The Virtues of Family

A Nation of Families

The Seder experience is designed to make sure we focus on our families and particularly on our children.[1] The Haggodoh directs us to discuss the story of our suffering and deliverance and eat the meal together with our families. If we were offering the korban Pesach, we would be required to form groups of families with which to offer and eat it.[2]

The importance of the family unit on this occasion is appropriate because the family is the primary group from which the nation was built. When Hashem designed the model nation, He did not begin by setting up a state that would promote the establishment of Jewish homes. Rather, it was the successful transformation of the hordes of slaves into Jewish families that would subsequently form the basis for a nation committed to Hashem.[3]

Consequently, every year on the anniversary of the birth of the Jewish nation, the Creator of that nation wants us all to gather as families. Although we can no longer offer sacrifices and dine on roast lamb, we can still reconsecrate our nationhood as a community subservient to Hashem and His law every year at the Seder, as families.

The Centrality of Family to Judaism

But it is not just on Pesach that the family is central to Judaism. The connection of individuals to the Jewish nation runs through their families For example, in a Biblical census, the counting was always done by family.[4] The reason for the census to be done with reference to one’s family seems to be much more than mere practicality for purposes of identification. Although people naturally group themselves in families for many practical reasons, the Torah specifically wants Jews to connect to each other in family groups. This article will offer an explanation as to why a strong family unit is important for religious reasons. After identifying the key aspects of family life that the Torah is interested in, it will address how those factors can be strengthened. Understanding and implementing these principles can generate the rewarding experience of stronger family ties and give the pursuit of developing close family relationships the passion and benefits of a spiritual and religious endeavor.

Why Is Family Important?

Let’s begin exploring: Beyond all the usual platitudes, why is the family so important in Judaism? Drawing on the Seder model, we can also ask: Why are family mealtimes important?

The Family’s Role in Transmitting Judaism

The family structure is used (and perhaps was even designed) by Hashem to reach far into eternity and perpetuate proper values.[5] For us Jews, that means transmission of the religion and a lifelong mission of becoming closer to Hashem.

After identifying several universal benefits to close-knit families and family mealtimes we can apply them and expose their value as religious tools.

  1. Trust: A sense of belonging and mutual trust is fostered when parents and children eat together and enjoy each other’s company.
  2. Values: Mealtimes and family activities provide settings for moral and intellectual discussions that convey family values.
  3. Tradition: Family meals and rituals can foster family traditions and enhance the transmission of the cultural heritage.
  4. Obedience: Eating and spending time together improve adult-child communication skills. With enough training children can learn to listen patiently and express opinions in a respectful manner. The respect a parent earns through family interactions form the basis for genuine obedience–willingly being interested in following directions.

Clearly, these benefits can be utilized to promote avodas Hashem. Let’s elaborate how:

Trust

Most people will probably agree that in healthy families, children trust their parents. In fact, the Ramban (Vo’eschanan 4:9) explains that the Jewish religion has lasted because of children’s trust in their parents. Although Moshe was a great prophet who performed extraordinary miracles, another miracle-worker could theoretically match these feats and derail the religion. The trust children have that their parents wouldn’t feed them false information is one of the most important guarantees of the preservation of Judaism. Children will believe that the version of history they heard from their parents is accurate—but only if there is a healthy, strong relationship.[6]

Sharing Values

The second benefit mentioned above is another fundamental reason why the Torah employs the family structure to transmit Torah.

Certain aspects of a child’s education would be deficient without a parent’s love, instruction and personal example. It would be sad if we engaged teachers to be the sole educators of our children if we ourselves could do as good a job. It would be even sadder if we could do a better job than a hired instructor and failed to take advantage of that resource.

Of all the educational goals to which parents and educators aspire, there is one that overrides them all: inculcating moral values. A school or home that excels in imparting a profound knowledge of Torah without moving the children’s souls towards moral behavior is a dismal failure. It is not the academics of Torah that is of prime importance but its practice.[7]

Sometimes it is only in the context of informal family life at home that children can be trained to submit gladly and of their own free will to the restrictions and requirements of the moral law prescribed by the Torah. The home environment is conducive for this since often it is where children’s personalities are allowed free play and where there is opportunity for the free development of each child’s individuality, tendencies, desires and aspirations. Sometimes, only in the home can a child properly acquire the virtues of truthfulness, respect for law, charity, forgiveness, humility and modesty.[8]

A teacher’s influence will rarely wield the power that the parental home can exercise by virtue of the bond that has existed between parent and child from the very beginning of the child’s life. That is why the family unit is indispensable to the proper inculcation of Torah ethics and values. You can’t count on a schoolteacher to substitute for a parent because:

  1. The study of ethics does not by itself lead to good behavior. One may know what is right but lack the motivation to do it.
  2. Ethical training must be closely related to real-life situations; abstract verbal responses are not sufficient.
  3. A group of like-minded people concerned with moral living may help individual group members improve their character.
  4. External reinforcers, especially positive ones, are helpful in bringing about desired behavior. Reinforcement may take many forms, ranging from material rewards to approval.

These elements tend to be found more in a healthy family than in the school environment.[9]

Tradition

Now let’s turn to the third benefit mentioned above: tradition and cultural heritage.

Contemporary society believes in progress, worshipping the new while intuitively distrusting anything from the past. Tradition has become anathema; current and relevant are the buzzwords of our generation.

Torah Judaism is diametrically opposed to this outlook. Its values are deeply rooted in tradition and there is a strong resolve to keep our treasured way of life intact. For the Torah-imbued Jew, seeking truth means retracing the path leading from Har Sinai. By inspiring Jews to revere and cherish family traditions, the Torah forges a link with the past while providing a source of strength to withstand the pitfalls of contemporary culture. This may be why the mitzvoh of honoring parents is one of the Ten Commandments. Impressing respect for one’s parents on the hearts and minds of Jews is not merely a humanistic teaching about repaying a debt of gratitude; it is also a means of serving Hashem and ensuring the continuity of Torah Judaism.

Genuine Obedience

Children will naturally look up to their parents. They see themselves as weaker, smaller and less capable and will naturally defer to the bigger, stronger and more capable.

However, there is another factor to consider. One of the advantages of youth is that young people are very judgmental when it comes to morality; adolescents are quick and outspoken in their condemnation of corruption and depravity. Only later do the vicissitudes of life smother the fire of righteous indignation and lead to cynicism. The young derive joy and satisfaction from high resolve and ideals that they seek to translate into reality. They admire exemplars of true human greatness.

Coupling these two pieces of wisdom together may reveal the secret to winning your child’s obedience and fulfilling your mission as a parent in the transmission of Torah and its values.

As long as you behave in such a manner that your children have reason to look up to you as their moral and spiritual superiors, they will treat you with respect. They will honor you of their own free will and will be happy to listen to what you have to say. True obedience is not elicited by the substance of the words, but by the character of the person speaking.

Any weakness that your children notice in your character will weaken their resolve to obey you. How can you expect them to take seriously your insistence that they acquire virtues that you yourself do not possess? The anger or temper you display when you tell them what to do or what not to do may frighten them into momentary obedience, but in the long run it will weaken their respect for you and hence their resolve to abide by your wishes. If you want your children to do what you want even when you are not around, you will need genuine obedience—a readiness to obey your wishes of their own free will. That is fostered by the parents leading a pure, awe-inspiring life. This will imprint a moral and spiritual image on the hearts and minds of your children.[10]

Thus, in light of this last point, although there is great significance in inviting the extended members of your family to the Seder, reading the words of the Haggodoh, performing its duties and discussing its messages together as a family; it is not enough. The importance of family to Judaism makes it incumbent upon us as parents to work on our own personalities. We must seek proficiency in everything moral and spiritual. This must be done not only because of the powerful impact it will have upon the impressionable hearts and minds of our children, but because of the degree of obedience it will generate in our children. Without genuine obedience, any effort you put into raising and educating your children will be temporary at best.

Stronger family ties are not just a universal human priority; they are a Jewish religious priority. Drawing your family closer for the right reasons is a great mitzvoh. This mitzvoh cannot be adequately fulfilled by investing one night a year at the Seder. It takes a lifetime.

Educate Your Child Your Way

Most parents realize that educating their children is not as simple as finding out where the neighborhood kids go to school, packing lunches, arranging for transportation and meeting the teacher twice a year. Nevertheless, there is a tendency to leave education to the "experts," i.e., the school. Often parents act as if they carry little responsibility for child-rearing and the school is meant to provide a formal and moral education for their child.

It is hard to say how this started, but many schools foster this perception and treat parents as if they were incapable of transmitting authentic Torah values to their children. A lot of energy is expended on making sure that the parents do not get in the way of their children's Torah education. For some families this approach may be a lifesaver. Parents who feel inadequate in training children toward the lofty goal of becoming a wholesome individual capable of making the proper, free-willed choice to do the right thing can hand their child over to the educational institution, pray and follow instructions. If parents recognize that they cannot give their children the spiritual strength to rise above the threats to human character from both extremes of fate-joy as well as suffering-they can give the local school the chance to impart yiras shomayim and the skills for disciplined living (i.e., the strength to exercise control over natural inclinations). If their child succeeds, they can be proud of their offspring. If not, they can blame the system.

For other families, the opportunity to imbue a youngster with love of life and learning, with Torah values and ethics, is what makes parenting so rewarding. What may not be plain is that raising, training and educating the children whom Hashem granted a family is not just a privilege; it is a duty. Hopefully, most parents in our Torah community cherish their obligation to guide their children in being (or becoming) the best servants of Hashem (ovdei Hashem) they can be.

Technically, the Torah placed the full responsibility for Jewish education squarely on the parents. The true role of a school is limited to that which the parents delegate to it. However, since the objective of Jewish education (i.e., the successful transmission of values and practices to the next generation) is vital to the survival of the Jewish nation, when the system became inefficient, allowances were made and the formation of schools became a necessary aberration in order to ensure the future of Judaism.[1]

Education as we know it encompasses two elements. The first is a formal program of instruction in which a professional teacher imparts information and intellectual stimulation. This usually follows a fixed curriculum. The second, more important component is informal training in Jewish values and ethics, which requires role models and practical examples. Moral training is only minimally effective when done by sermonizing and the frontal, classroom-style of instruction.[2] It is most effective when modeled by personal example or when one "learns by doing"which is the halachic definition of the term chinuch. So when it comes to moral training, it is the parents who are the prime teachers, whether they like it or not. By divine design, children naturally look up to their parents for this kind of guidance. This puts parents in the best position to inculcate morality in their children. Hence, parents should consciously commit themselves to doing a good job.

The healthiest approach is for parents to assume full control for both elements of their child's education and view the school as an agent to convey specific aspects of the curriculum. The parents might want their child to learn Chumash, math, reading and Mishna, but they may not have the time, patience, or knowledge to do a good job, so they ask the school for help. If the parents want some other course that the school does not offer, they will have to pursue it on their own.

Although a school may say it will take care of both types of educational needs of your child, in reality this is not possible. Schools tend to offer formal, not moral education. Unless children's behavior at school has a direct bearing on their studies, their ethical and moral training there will be negligible. No school can afford to devote much attention to remedying students' moral weaknesses. Such an emphasis would be at the expense of meeting the educational requirements of other students. Teachers usually see their students in terms of their scholastic achievements. Even if they do get to know their students' character, they may have no idea how they behave towards their parents or in other more relaxed settings.[3]

It is critical, therefore, for parents to assume the full burden of responsibility for training their children in ethics and morality. For religious Jews, success and happiness in life are dependent on whether we use our knowledge and skills for moral purposes. If our children are endowed with the highest level of knowledge and skills and can solve practical problems but are not adequately prepared to make the right moral choices, what have we given them? If they are going to be swayed by personal inclination and outside influences, even the best schooling, despite good intentions, is practically meaningless. A school can facilitate instilling ethics and moral development by offering workshops for the parents and introducing programs in which the children do activities-both in and out of school-that elicit derech eretz. But ultimately the job must be done with love, complete knowledge of the individual and repetitive exercises. This demands that parents spend a significant period of time with their children on a regular basis.[4]

In any case, the school should employ teachers who are fully conscious of the ethical ideal and who reinforce the moral training that students receive at home. The behavior of all mechanchim must reflect yiras shomayim; reinforce proper appreciation of authority and demonstrate fine character. This serves to maintain proper moral training, but it cannot be counted on to produce this crucial aspect of education.[5]

The children would benefit most if both parents and schools adopted this separation of roles. In this ideal model, the school would recognize its own limitations and far more would be achieved within the narrower scope of textual and formal education. The staff would not feel compelled to emphasize nuances of hashkofoh in the classroom that are debated among committed Jews, since that would be recognized as the parents' domain.[6] With the reduction of conflicting messages, families would gain greater ability to influence their children. Nor would the school attempt to educate the parents to be in line with the school's philosophy or circumscribe their behavior. The fresh perspective would enable the school to be open to parental requests for more personalized curricula; students could take private lessons in areas of greater priority to their parents.[7] There could be greater tolerance for different approaches to avodas Hashem. The school could encompass a broader cross-section of committed Jews, and the students and the Jewish people would gain. With more resources freed up, the school could accomplish more of its academic objectives. As long as the parents and administration share fundamental values in Judaism and the children are not exposed to influences that will negatively affect their capacity to absorb and process the formal education, there should not be conflict.[8]

Unfortunately, in most schools none of this is happening. Perhaps the schools sense that parents are not interested in playing a prime role in their children's moral development, so by default they assume this job. This makes the weight of responsibility tremendous. The school administration now feels that Jewish survival, and nothing less, is on its shoulders. As long as parents were molding their children, individually perfecting them as true ovdei Hashem, the rebbi's job was manageable. The instructor was only responsible for the classroom studies; strength of character and moral fortitude came from the family. Now the school must devise a way to ensure the continuity of the heart and soul of the Jewish people. Instead of developing a strategy for building up each individual, they have found a way to preserve the masses, to transfer the bulk of what we have today to the next generation. The new scheme seeks to protect the purity of the community and buffer Jewish children from negative influences. Consequently, the students' individuality is lost and uniformity becomes an educational goal; many defensive walls are erected. This system has numerous negative by-products.

It is possible to right things and reintroduce family involvement in moral education. Schools can be relegated to their proper place and viewed as the parents' agent. Even if this cannot be fully done, any attempt in this direction will surely have at least some positive effects on the children's character. A secondary benefit may be that the schools will drop their goal as the preservers of Judaism along with some of the defenses that take the form of rules and regulations that frustrate parents. The change in atmosphere would reduce distortions of Judaism that many children have absorbed. Children would come to appreciate Yiddishkeit as a dynamic and meaningful way of life. But before any of the benefits that will result from a change in the schools' attitude can take place, the parents must win the confidence of the school administrators and convince them that they are taking their job as parent-educators seriously. This last provision may make such dreams unrealistic. Yet a change in the attitudes of parents, even if the school will not see things their way, can significantly help their children.

As parents you must identify your priorities in educating your children and seriously consider whether you are meeting your goals. If not, ask yourself what you can do about it. Chances are the educational institution your child attends cannot offer a comprehensive formal, ethical and moral education. In the final analysis, parents are responsible and will be held accountable for their children's education-or lack thereof.


[1] בבבא בתרא כא. אמר רב יהודה אמר רב, זכור אותו האיש לטוב ויהושע בן גמלא שמו שאלמלא הוא נשתכח תורה מישראל שבתחלה מי שיש לו אב מלמדו תורה, מי שאין לו אב לא היה לומד תורה ,מאי דרוש ולמדתם אׁתם (חסר ויו) ולמדתם אַתֶּם, התקינו שיהו מושיבין מלמדי תינוקות בירושלים, מאי דרוש, כי מציון תצא תורה ודבר ד' מירושלים. ועדיין מי שיש לו אב היה מעלו ומלמדו מי שאין לו אב לא היה עולה ולמד, התקינו שיהו מושיבין בכל פלך ופלך ומכניסין אותו כבן ט''ז כבן י''ז ומי שהיה רבו כועס עליו מבעט בו ויצא, עד שבא יהושע בן גמלא ותיקן שיהו מושיבין מלמדי תינוקות בכל מדינה ומדינה ובכל עיר ועיר ומכניסין אותם כבן שש כבן שבע עכ''ל הגמרא. הרי שדרשו מקרא שהאב צריך לְלַמֵד, ואח''כ דרשו שֶיְלַמְדו אותם מלמדים אחרים בירושלים, ואיך יש ב' דרשות סותרות זו את זו. וכשראו שגם העלאה לירושלים איננה יעילה תקנו תקנה אחרת, ואיך העלימו עין מהדרשות הקודמות. ומדוע שינו וחזרו ושינו.

ונראה דודאי לכתחילה ראוי שאב שהוא ת''ח יְלַמֵד את בנו תורה, שהרי מכיר כשרונות בנו ואופיו ואיזה ענין מסוגל לתפוס וכדומה, ויש ע''ז דרשה דהכי עדיף ולמדתם אַתֶּם, אבל כשנתרבו עמי הארץ ושאר מניעות שאין האב מסוגל ביותר לתפקיד זה העדיפו התכלית (הקנאת ידיעת התורה לילדי ישראל) על פני הדרך להגיע אל התכלית. כלומר לא הקפידו שהאב ילמד את בנו אם כתוצאה מכך הבנים לא ילמדו כהוגן, אלא חפשו פתרונות שונות עד שהתלמידים היו לומדים כראוי. ומ''מ משנה ראשונה לא זזה ממקומה, ובודאי ת''ת הוי מצות הבן המוטלת על האב כמבואר בסוף פ''ק דקידושין (כט.), אלא דחז''ל הבינו שאף שהתורה חייבה את האב לְלַמֵד את בנו תורה, מ''מ עיקר הקפדת התורה היא שהבן יֵדַע כה''ת, וכשהיהדות עומד כתיקונו גם ראוי שהאב עצמו הוא יְלַמֵד את בנו, אבל כשאין הדברים כתיקונם אין להקפיד שרק האב יְלַמֵד את בנו אלא ראוי לתקן על צד היותר טוב באופן שהבנים ילמדו תורה ויר''ש. וע''כ מתחילה תקנו שילמדו בירושלים שיתרשמו מהקדושה ויקבלו השפעה מהכהנים העוסקים בעבודה (עיין תוד''ה כי בב''ב כא.), וגם זה לא הצליח, וחפשו תקנה אחרת המתאים לבני נוער, וגם זה לא הצליח, עד תקנת יהושע בן גמלא. הרי דבענין חינוך לעולם משנין ומתקנין עד שיושג התכלית, וזה הטעם שיש בתי ספר בכל מקום, וכן נפסק בשו''ע יו''ד סימן רמ''ה ס''ז, ומ''מ לא זזה עיקר חובה על האב ממקומה ללמד את בנו תורה כמפורש בשו''ע שם בסעיף א'. ואם אינו יכול ללמד את בנו תורה בעצמו חייב להשכיר מלמד לבנו כמבואר שם בסעיף ד'. וכעי''ז כתב בספר אמת ליעקב פרשת משפטים (כד:י''ח), אלא דכתב דהטעם לכל השינויים הוא שגדול התלמוד שמביא לידי מעשה, וגם ביאר בזה השינויים לדורות בתכנית הלימודים ע''ש.

[2]  Sometimes, however, recounting the stories of our heroes can make an impression. Some teachers will teach Chumash and Navi with this in mind; by bringing the moral dilemmas to life they try to influence the students to hone their decision-making skills and behavior.

[3] Furthermore, many teachers use the competitive spirit to motivate their students. This tool, although effective in the classroom setting, can be detrimental to the moral development of those same students who benefit from it in their formal learning. An atmosphere in which students pursue praise and recognition is helpful to a degree, but this can easily degenerate into conceit, selfish ambition and malicious glee at another's embarrassment.

[4] Ritualizing family dinner time can go a long way in developing family cohesiveness. Sometimes a father may have to weigh his need for an evening learning program against helping the kids wind down before bedtime by reading them a story, helping with homework or engaging in some other activity. Learning Torah is extremely important-but so is keeping the father-son relationship alive and strong. The Ramban (Vo'eschanan 4:9) explains that our Jewish religion persists because of children's trust in their parents. Moshe was a great prophet and had performed extraordinary miracles, but another miracle-worker could theoretically match these feats and derail the religion. The trust children have that their parents wouldn't feed them false information is one of the most important guarantees of the preservation of Judaism. Children will trust that the version of history that they heard from their parents is accurate. It follows that a breakdown in the transmission of Judaism from one generation to the next can have its roots in a lack of confidence or communication between father and son. In our society we have seen too many people stray from their family traditions; sometimes it can be attributed to this failing. In order for children to have trust in their parents, there must be a relationship, and that relationship must be healthy and strong. Learning with a chavrusa in the beis hamidrosh won't do it; having dinner with the kids or putting them to sleep at night might. It is worth making an effort to try to make time for both.

In some high schools students return home very late or may even stay a week or more in a dormitory. In these circumstances, the children will shift their search for moral guidance from their parents to some other influential instructor. These adolescents will really be receiving all of their education from the staff. That is why it is essential when parents are seeking such a high school to make it a priority that the staff be warm, caring and family-like. Adolescence is still an age at which youngsters need family love and connection. If there must be a substitute, get the best substitute possible and find people whose character you admire.

There is a great advantage to studying Torah in a yeshiva away from home (Chasam Sofer, Choshen Mishpat, responsum 9). This can be done after high-school age.

[5] Communication and cooperation between the teacher and parents are powerful tools for both and should be fully exploited.

[6] An elementary school can unabashedly espouse a specific narrow hashkofoh, and be run on that basis; but without making it a central part of the curriculum. When points of friction arise between the school's philosophy and that of the parents in regard to specific activities, the clarity gained by the separation of roles can make tolerance easier. A simple formula of "when in school, do as the school does and when at home do as your parents do" is straightforward enough for parents, school administrators and children to accept and implement easily.

This is only true of elementary school. At the high-school level, the students' minds are open to evaluating and embracing shades of Torah life and specific subtleties of hashkofoh. It is impossible to continue espousing a general hashkofoh in the classroom, since at that level of intellectual maturity, such a presentation would itself be a hashkofic statement. Nuances in hashkofoh during those formative years can be quite influential. Parents should ascertain the hashkofos of the various high schools and use that information when deciding on the best match for their child.

[7] Presently, some schools restrict extra-curricular activities that are not within the hashkofic parameters of the school even if they do not affect the students' capability to excel in his school work.

One benefit of the approach I am describing would be unique to the cheder system. Chadorim might allow parents greater flexibility in choosing continuing education instead of feeling entitled to dictate post-primary education options. Imagine a cheder that could provide the necessary infrastructure for parents to make such determinative decisions. For example, chadorim could offer a curriculum that would let parents choose between a yeshiva ketanoh and a high school. Parents should do their best to determine if their son can excel in limudei kodesh; if so, in Eretz Yisroel they should encourage him to pursue a yeshiva education. Sometimes, however, preparing a young man to earn an honest livelihood may be just the right step in his specific avodas Hashem. By adolescence, strengths and weaknesses can be accurately detected and you can tailor an appropriate path for your child.

[8] When differences of opinion arise as to what constitutes a negative influence on the formal education, the school administration should be allowed to make the decision. If there is a lack of confidence as to whether the administration is using inappropriate considerations, the parents will have to find the right forum in which to raise those concerns. Regularly watching television, for example, can be extremely distracting for a student in school. The story and visual stimulus of a favorite show are usually much more interesting than the most riveting Mishna. If the rebbi maintains that your child is preoccupied with a television show and is consequently not absorbing or processing the classroom material, the parents should be accommodating. If the school administration makes a rule whose apparent goal is to align the family with a specific social group (e.g., a restriction on the parents' style of dress beyond the requirements of halocho), the parents should have a way to lodge their objection and be reasonably confident that it will be evaluated fairly. This may seem unrealistic to some, but the paragon school should at least be described so that it can be an aspiration.