A Nation of Families
The Seder experience is designed to make sure we focus on our families and particularly on our children. 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.
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.
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. 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. 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.
- Trust: A sense of belonging and mutual trust is fostered when parents and children eat together and enjoy each other’s company.
- Values: Mealtimes and family activities provide settings for moral and intellectual discussions that convey family values.
- Tradition: Family meals and rituals can foster family traditions and enhance the transmission of the cultural heritage.
- 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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- Ethical training must be closely related to real-life situations; abstract verbal responses are not sufficient.
- A group of like-minded people concerned with moral living may help individual group members improve their character.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.