A couple with whom I’m close had their first child, so I ran to the bookstore to get them our favorite book on child care. I had forgotten the exact title (it was always “the baby book”) and the author’s name, so I thought I’d just scan the shelf until it turned up. Shelf? Try shelves — six of them, each 8 feet long and 10 feet high, and all on parenting. Need advice on building self-esteem, teaching morals, successful potty-training? There are volumes to teach it.
There is no word in traditional Hebrew for “parenting.” No term designates the set of skills, aptitudes and techniques necessary for raising children. This certainly cannot be a concept unknown to Jewish tradition. We are, after all, a tradition obsessed with children. Daily we are reminded: V’sheenantam le’vanech — “you shall diligently teach your children.” So why no word for “parenting”?
The Hebrew for “parents” is “horim”, and if we were to choose a noun form of the word describing the essence of being a parent, we would be forced to choose the word “Torah.” We have no prosaic term for “parenting,” because there is no Jewish idea of parenting skills and techniques isolated from the qualities of character, spirituality, wisdom and love. “Torah” — with all its deep, powerful and holy resonances — is the only possible word for what it takes to raise children. But don’t tell that to my local bookstore.
And that’s just the beginning. Move one shelf over, and you discover that “self-help” is now the biggest section in the store. Feeling anxious? Having difficulty communicating? Missing out on life’s joy? Here’s help. At least, here’s technique.
Americans have an obsession with technique, with doing it right. From home repair to lovemaking to parenting, we have this unquenchable thirst for a better technique. Traditional American pragmatism — the faith in the “right tool for the job” — has grown into a conviction that, for every human problem, there is a discrete technique that will lead to its solution.
Traditional American pragmatism — the faith in the “right tool for the job” — has grown into a conviction that, for every human problem, there is a discrete technique that will lead to its solution
But what about the deeper qualities of inner life, once associated with a good life — wisdom, sensitivity, integrity? I’m sure that in one of those books, there is a better way to fix a clogged sink. But I’m not convinced there’s some trick to fixing a broken relationship or some gimmick to opening a closed mind. Certainly, I’ve learned better ways to talk to my kids, to praise and to discipline, to set limits and to encourage responsibility. But, in the end, successful parenting is not a matter of effective technique but one of right living and sensitive loving. It is “Torah” in the broadest sense.
In the 10th chapter of Leviticus, which we read some weeks ago, the two elder sons of Aaron are killed in the process of offering aish zarah — alien fire. And the issue is raised again this week: “The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron.” Still, the exact nature of their infraction is a mystery. So are the circumstances of their deaths: Although they were burned to death, their bodies were carried out of the camp “by their tunics.” What sort of fire burns a man to death but leaves behind his tunic intact?
The Midrash posits a fire that entered the nostrils and destroyed in the inner man. From this, we can extrapolate the infraction: Nadab and Abihu entered the holy place with precise technique and skill. But that’s all they brought. No heart. No compassion for the people whose offerings they carried. No awe in the face of God’s presence. They had the technique down perfectly, but there was nothing inside.
Religion, too, can become a cult of technique — obsessed with detail and oblivious to higher purpose, disconnected from the qualities of depth and inwardness. But reduced to mere technique, religion, as with parenting and loving and so much of life, brings only emptiness. In this week’s portion, Aaron is invited back into the sanctuary — the inner place of holiness — to cultivate compassion, forgiveness and wholeness. And we are invited to go with him.
Ed Feinstein is the associate rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom. He replaces rabbi Steven Leder, who will be completing a book (along with synagogue responsibilites at Wilshire Boulevard Temple) during the next six months.
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