“Oreos for breakfast,” Danny, my 8-year-old cookie monster, advocates.
“No set bed time,” says Gabe, 12, the nocturnal son.
“Mountain bike-riding in place of school,” adds Jeremy, 10, the future triathlete.
These are my sons’ answers to the question I pose: If all rules were suspended, what would you do?
Zack, 15, rolls his eyes in quintessential adolescent fashion. He refuses to respond, but my husband, Larry, and I know that he’s thinking, “No more dumb parent questions to answer.”
Every child dreams of a world with unlimited freedom. A world with no math homework and no broccoli, a world with unrestricted television viewing, candy bar consumption and curfews.
But the truth is that all kids, however loudly they protest, crave rules. They want structure and routine, limits and laws, safety and security. They want to know that their parents, as well as their teachers, counselors and clergy, are in command, protecting them from harm. They want to be reined in and reprimanded when they test, tease and overreach.
You need read only the classic novel “Lord of the Flies” or recent newspaper accounts of the massacre in Littleton, Colo., to discover that kids denied limits establish their own. They form gangs, cults and cliques in a desperate and often dangerous search for boundaries and a sense of belonging.
And so, as we prepare for the holiday of Shavuot, we reflect on one of the world’s first set of rules, the original blueprint for moral and ethical behavior, which preceded the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence and even the more recent etiquette book “Tiffany’s Table Manners for Teenagers.”
Yes, according to the rabbis of the Talmud, it was 3,310 years ago on Mt. Sinai, on the sixth of Sivan, amid the awesome spectacle of lightning, thunder, a dark cloud and the sound of the shofar, that God handed down the Ten Commandments. It was a sublime and transcendent moment. A day that the rabbis deemed as important as the day of creation itself. A day that sealed the sacred covenant between God and the Jewish people.
Originally a harvest holiday, Shavuot was known as the Festival of the First Fruits. But as the ancient Jews moved from an agrarian to a more urbanized society, the holiday began to lose its significance. But luckily the Talmudic rabbis, with typical Talmudic reasoning, determined that Shavuot also marked “zman matan torateinu,” the time of the giving of the Torah.
More than three millennia ago, this epiphanic event endowed a primitive and wandering people with a concise, absolute and universal moral code, a “true North” of right and wrong. And today, as we approach the end of the world’s most technologically advanced but most horrifically violent century, as we struggle to reach interplanetary destinations as well as the deepest recesses of the human mind, as we debate moral relativists, bioethicists and secular semanticists, we continue to need this same universal code to guide us.
In one story in the Midrash, the compilation of rabbinic commentaries on the Torah, God asks various nations in the ancient world if they want the Torah. Each nation refuses. Then God offers the Torah to the Jews. They accept unquestioningly, unanimously and simultaneously. “We will do and we will listen,” they say.
Today, what self-respecting lawyer would verbally agree to a contract without even reading it? And what child would agree to a new family rule without first hearing it, first refusing to honor it and then trying to renegotiate its scope and its consequences?
But the 603,550 Israelites who stood at Mt. Sinai, with no questions, debate or plea-bargaining, welcomed these divine commandments on their own behalf and on behalf of the future generations of Jews, down to the thousandth generation. And on each Shavuot, as we symbolically stand on Mt. Sinai, we renew and reaffirm this commitment to God.
“It’s a free country,” my son Jeremy proclaims when I oppose something he wants. “I can do what I want.”
Yes. We may all try to stretch the boundaries and reinterpret the ethical implications of the Ten Commandments, the most important of the 613 mitzvot, or commandments, found in the Torah. On a lesser level, we may also try to eat cookies for breakfast and play hooky from school or work.
But, ironically, for our children as well as ourselves, it is within laws and limits, curfews and boundaries that we find freedom and integrity. That we balance our natural and harmful inclinations with a need for a greater safety. That we live as solid, productive and helpful citizens in our families and our communities.
As the Jewish rabbi and sage Maimonides said, the purpose of the laws of the Torah is “to promote compassion, kindness and peace in the world.”
Jane Ulman lives in Encino with her husband and four sons.