1. There is one God and one power.
This idea is at the root of all others. Without this idea, the world is hard and cold and random. With it, there is hope and meaning and purpose. There is loving and giving and caring. It is the source of their recognition that there are moral choices to be made and their clarity on how to make them. This is the most essential foundation I can give them. It’s an idea that needs constant reinforcement in today’s society and one that needs to be reflected in our choices and attitudes.
2. We each have the opportunity to have a personal relationship with God.
Every night, when my children were small, we said the Shema (Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one) with them. This was always followed by a long list of the people that love them, culminating in “And most of all, God loves you.” This deep, ingrained sense of being loved by the Creator of the world should help take them through life’s challenges.
I am always moved by the stories I have heard of the power of the Shema, the deathbed recognitions and recitals. But perhaps my favorite story of all is the one of Rabbi Silver after the Second World War. There were so many Jewish children hidden in convents without any papers to prove their origins. Rabbi Silver would walk up and down in from of these lost souls reciting the Shema. Whenever he saw a glimmer of recognition in a child’s eyes, he would mark them as Jewish and bring them home.
3. We all need something more important than our own lives to live for.
If we don’t have something bigger than ourselves, we will end up as very selfish, self-centered human beings. And very unhappy ones. Being involved in something transcendent lifts us out of our petty concerns. Our history is replete with tales of men, women and children who sacrificed their lives rather than giving up Torah, or circumcision, rather than converting or betraying their fellow Jews. Our ancestors knew that life was not about them and their individual concerns but about the Jewish People.
We pray not to be tested in these ways but the world still demands of us that we stand up for the Jewish people and the land of Israel and I want my children to be engaged in the fight – in whatever way is reflective of their individual strengths and talents. We were on a sabbatical year in Israel when Iraq invaded Kuwait. We stayed throughout the Gulf War, not because we were heroes (we didn’t pick up guns or work abandoned fields) but because I wanted my family to feel they were part of a people and that we don’t abandon our brothers and sisters when times are tough.
4. It’s better to give than to receive.
The old cliché may be trite but it’s true. I hope my children will recognize that. I believe that the moments of giving they experience will deepen and internalize this recognition. Even if they may sometimes be resentful, I know in the end they will appreciate that they have grown and benefited from every act of giving and sharing (even with their annoying younger siblings!). I want them to learn that a day spent giving to others, a day spent working for the community at large, leads to a greater sense of joy than a day spent at the spa (although once in a while, the spa is good too!).
When we send our kids off to school in the morning, we always tell them to “Have a good day. Remember the Almighty loves you (point 2). Learn Torah (Point 3). Do chesed – acts of kindness - (point 4) and be happy.” Being happy is connected to giving. That is how they will experience true joy. I hope to furnish them with enough appropriate opportunities to give that they will come to appreciate this idea on their own and search for more.
5. Be a mensch.
The Mishna states “If there isn’t derech eretz – basic human decency and consideration – there isn’t Torah.” I want my children to be polite (which in today’s society is no small accomplishment) but I don’t want it to be just the veneer of being civilized, something that is external only and slips off when I’m not watching or chastising! I want them to have a deeply internalized sense of respect and courtesy for others. I think that’s a crucial aspect of what it means to be a mensch. And I think being a mensch is no small goal or achievement.
The rabbi who officiated at our wedding, Rabbi Moshe Aharon Stern, of blessed memory, used to advise parents looking for prospective matches for their children, “Just look for a mensch.” He knew a mensch wasn’t so easy to find and he knew it was all that really counted.
Okay, nice thoughts, deep thoughts, but how do we inculcate these ideas in our children? We tell them stories, we learn with them, we point out instances of the Almighty’s hand in our lives. We introduce them to mentors and expose them to role models. We choose schools that embody these values and place them in communities with peers whose parents share these goals.
But the two most important actions we can take cannot be passed on to anyone else. Whatever we tell our children, I feel compelled to quote yet another cliché, “our actions speak louder than words.” Our behavior, our attitudes, our goals will have the strongest impact of all on our family. If these are the values we want to pass on, we have to do our best to embody them, to really mean it and make the (sometimes difficult) choices that reflect this.
And finally, we have to sincerely pray that our children realize these goals. Since God shares these goals, He will certainly help us succeed if we really try.