January 27, 2020

Parenting by Example

I remember how amazed I was by the story. Tom and Pauline Nichter and their 11-year-old son, Jason, were on the nightly news, speaking with reporters from the police station. They had found a lost wallet on the street; it contained more than $2,000 in cash, a credit card, a passport and a plane ticket.

What made the story so memorable was not that they had turned it all over to the police (who did manage to find its rightful owner), but that Tom and Pauline were both homeless at the time — out of work and living in their car.

I watched the Nichters being interviewed as the police looked on with wonderment and respect. When asked why they did it, Tom said: “Of course, it was tempting to keep the money. But I kept thinking, ‘What if this is all the money this person has in the world, and, by keeping it, I end up putting him where I am today?’ And I just couldn’t have lived with myself after that.”

Pauline just laughed and said: “It’s my mother’s fault. I looked at that lost wallet and kept hearing my mother’s voice in my head saying, ‘Pauline, do the right thing…Pauline, do the right thing,’ and I couldn’t not do the right thing.”

But what I remember most from that news story was the look on the face of Jason. Here he was, living in his parents’ car, enduring one of the most emotionally destructive experiences that can happen to a child, and he was standing there in the police station, beaming with pride.

What could be a more powerful parenting lesson in what it means to “do the right thing” than to experience all the attention, adulation and respect that his parents received from the police, media and community for their act of tzedakah? Knowing that they did the right thing in spite of their current state of despair and homelessness made the lesson all the more powerful for any of us watching that night, and surely for Jason as well.

Teaching ethics and values to our children is, without question, one of the most difficult and challenging tasks that every parent must face. Yet this week’s Torah portion gives us a simple, straightforward answer to that dilemma when, in Chapter 22 of Deuteronomy, it teaches: “If you see your neighbor’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your neighbor. If he does not live near you or you don’t know who he is, you shall bring it home and keep it with you until your neighbor claims it.”

Hidden within this text is perhaps the most important parenting lesson that Jewish tradition can teach. It is simply this: “Be the kind of adult you want your children to grow up to be.” Act as you would want your children to act in all things. Accept the reality that you are always the primary moral role model for your children, whether you want to be or not. James Baldwin captured this fundamental reality of parenting when he wrote, “Children have never been good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.”

When a friend leaves his or her sunglasses at your house, call and return them immediately, and your children will see and learn. When a child in your carpool leaves a book or pencil or sweater in the back seat of your car, call his or her parents that evening and return the item to the family; your children will see and learn.

That same Torah paragraph ends with these words: “You must not remain indifferent.” That is the real parenting challenge — to demonstrate by our actions and our lives that we are not indifferent to the lives of others. That is a lesson worth learning.

Steven Carr Reuben is senior rabbi of Kehillat Israel, the Reconstructionist Congregation of Pacific Palisades.