As mothers, the way we interact with our children can mean everything in the way they view life as a Torah Jew.
One of most moving pieces I’ve read about the unforgettable Rabbi Zechariah Wallerstein zt”l was a young woman’s account of how he radically changed her perspective on living a Torah life. He did it, she wrote, not by providing philosophical mind-boggling proofs of the Torah’s truth. He did it by showing her that not only can love and happiness to be found in a Torah lifestyle—it is the only place to find the real thing. Just by being who he was, by sharing about his life and showing how rich and meaningful and yes, so fun and pleasurable, a life of Torah can be, so many young women were catapulted toward their own self-growth journey. And it all began because Rabbi Wallerstein was the first one to show them that Torah and joy are not mutually exclusive.
What a powerful lesson for us mothers! So often, I sit with young women, many of them still adolescents, and they share how their Yiddishkeit has become interwoven with so many difficult emotions. When they think of Shabbos, they feel tension mounting in their gut. When they hear the word tznius, they feel painfully small. The greatest shame of all is that for these precious children, what could have been their greatest joy in life has turned into their heaviest burden.
As much as we want to change the world, and we wish everyone would see the beauty in Yiddishkeit, there’s only so much we can do. And the so much begins in our very own homes. As the adults of the house, we are the ambassadors of Hashem and His Torah. We’re the ones through whom our children build their perception of a Torah life. Is it fun? Is it a joy? Is it the “present” they sing about in nursery?
Of course, that’s what we want them to think. That’s what we want them to feel. But how do we manage that? For starters, we parents must feel that way first. If we’re harboring negative associations toward Yiddishkeit, or a wrong understanding of the purpose of Torah and our relationship to Hashem, feeling the joy becomes a challenge, spreading the joy even more so. It’s vital for us to do some learning, and to connect with positive, warm mentors whose hashkafos are clear.
And passing it forward, the interactions we have with our children regarding Yiddishkeit also matter—greatly. Chinuch coach Rebbetzin Spetner often teaches that while there will always be some reproaching and constructive criticism in a healthy home, it should never be about ruchniyus. Yes, we should teach our kids that there are consequences for being irresponsible, for hurting a sibling, for not obeying a rule. But these less pleasant parenting moments should never be about Yiddishkeit, she cautions. The ruchniyus in the home should always be presented through a positive interaction. If a kid isn’t listening, for example, that’s not the time to lecture about the mitzvah of derech eretz. Yes, make it a rule in the home that we must listen to our parents, but don’t bring Torah into the picture. On the other hand, when a child conducts themselves respectfully, utilize the opportunity to praise her derech eretz. Compliment her on her yiras shamayim, for refraining from speaking lashon hara, for being careful with kashrus when she checks the candy wrapper. Notice when a child washes negal vasser or bentches nicely, but when that doesn’t happen, refrain from turning ruchniyus into a power struggle. Instead of saying, “How can you wear that? What’s with your tznius?” Try, “Hmm… what do you say to the way this fits? How about trying the next size so you’ll look more refined/feel more comfortable?”
It’s at once jolting and empowering to recognize how much of our children’s perceptions of Yiddishkeit are shaped by their upbringing in our home. The more joy and positive interactions they associate with Shabbos, with Yom Tov, with mitzvos, the more excitement they’ll feel in perpetuating that rich legacy. The better they feel when they daven, the more they’ll want to daven. (And yes, it’s very normal for young kids not to want to daven just yet.) The more they hear about a Hashem who loves them, about how blessed we are to be His am hanivchar, the more they’ll want to connect to Him. The more they hear us speak to Him freely, thanking and praising, the more they’ll do the same.
Our influence in the home is profound—not only through the direct messages that we transmit, but also through our behaviors revolving around the mitzvos. The Chazon Ish once overheard a father yelling at his child for speaking during davening, vocally chastising him in anger. After the tefillah, the Chazon Ish approached the father and said, “You taught your child two lessons today. One, of course, is that speaking during davening is forbidden. But you also taught him something else. You taught him that yelling when we’re angry is allowed. Which one will your child remember more? What do you think had a greater impact?”
Of course, we want to raise children who observe all the mitzvos with great care. But first, we must remember that we want to raise children. We want to raise human beings who feel happiness in their hearts, who saw firsthand what it means to be patient, to be kind, to be loving. When they see that, they want the same life for themselves. They subconsciously understand that all of the positivity they were showered with, all of the love they felt growing up, is available for them too in a Torah lifestyle. When we become the positive influencers in our home, with the help of Hashem, our children will choose to be the proud ambassadors of His Torah for years to come.