A False Choice

A few months ago, Rabbi Shneur Aisenstark, one of the most veteran and respected educators in North America (as well as someone from whom I have gained much), published a Guestlines piece in Mishpacha Magazine entitled “Unconditional Love Has Its Limits,” which predictably generated a good deal of buzz. I return to that piece now in light of a pamphlet on the subject of parenting disenchanted teenagers by Rabbi Uri Zohar, Israel’s most famous ba’al teshuva and a highly respected talmid chacham.

Rabbi Aisenstark’s goal in writing seems to have been to empower parents to actually parent – to offer guidance and set limits – in an era in which many are so terrified of losing their children that they make that result more likely by giving in to every demand and succumbing to every pouty look.

The Mishpacha cover highlighting Rabbi Aisenstark’s piece read: “Do We Love Our Children More than We Hashem?” That eye-catching blurb was presumably based on the well-known story – cited by Rabbi Aisenstark — of the father of Rabbis Shimon, Mordechai, and Moshe Schwab, who banged his hand down at the Seder table at mention of the Evil Son and proclaimed, “I love all of my children very much. You must all know, however, that I love Hashem much more.” He made clear that any son who became a rasha would be no longer be welcome in the family home.

The question as posed by the Mishpacha cover, however, presents a false dichotomy. Rarely, is the choice for a parent between one’s struggling child and Hashem. Both Hashem and the parent share the same goal – i.e., that the child return to a vibrant, close relationship with Hashem. The only question is what course of parental action offers the greatest likelihood of achieving that goal.

To present the choice as one between a struggling child and Hashem is not only wrong, it is dangerous. For the parent may decide that showing his love and fealty to Hashem requires him to constantly point out to his child every way in which he falls short in his mitzvah observance – not to mention of familial expectations of dress and external appearance.

Parents may also feel that they are being judged harshly by their neighbors for their wayward child, and that they therefore must demonstrate their public disapproval of his dress and comportment at every possible opportunity. (Incidentally, I have discovered over the years that passing unfavorable judgments on others’ childrearing – about which one usually knows little other than the ostensible results – is the surest guarantee that one will experience difficulties of a similar nature with one’s own children, in short order.)

Maximizing familial tension and confrontation is unlikely to be the way to help a child find his way back. We all instinctively understand this. When we see a neighbor’s child who is struggling, most of us recognize that the best thing we can do is to greet him or her with a smile and try to reduce his or her feelings of being rejected by the community.

Parents, however, find it harder to do so because of the feelings of failure and of being judged unfavorably by the community triggered by their child’s appearance or behavior. That is why the warm embrace of a non-family member is so often the key to a child’s return to a life of full observance. The Gemara (Bava Metzia 85a) relates how Rebbi brought back the wayward grandsons of Rebbi Shimon Bar Yochai and Rebbi Tarfon by treating them with respect and honor.

IN GENERAL, RABBI ZOHAR offers two pieces of advice for parents. The first is: just wait. Most often the central problem with which our children are struggling is the gap between their physical maturation, with all the attendant material and physical desires that brings, and their much slower emotional maturation. The weaker a teenager’s inner being and more poorly developed his sense of self, the greater importance he will attach to externals, such as dress or haircut.

Unfortunately, there is no way for parents to speed up emotional maturation. Certainly external pressure will not do it.

In the meantime, parents should try to remove themselves from the equation, and not interpret every failure of their child to live up to their expectations and dreams as a rebellion or rejection of them or of Hashem. (Not infrequently, our own excessive hopes and expectations for our children are a source of their difficulties. How many fathers have damaged their sons by forcing them into “name” yeshivos for the father’s prestige, even if the son was not well-suited for that yeshiva?) In most cases our child’s failures are not rejection, but merely a reflection of his inability to yet gain control of his actions and desires.

Each of us prays that Hashem will show patience with us. We all have issues and aspects of our character or behavior that we know require improvement. Yet we remain hopeful that Hashem will give us the chance to make the necessary changes, even if they take a long time. Why should we show less patience with our children than we beseech Hashem to show us?

Hashem’s patience is often rewarded. For forty years, Rabbi Akiva despised every talmid chacham he saw and felt the desire to bite him as a donkey. Yet one day, he was born anew, and, in time, became the greatest explicator of the Oral Law. And so too will our patience as parents usually be rewarded, sometimes to a remarkable extent. How many times have you heard someone remark: The child who caused me the greatest grief is now my greatest source of nachas.

WAITING FOR ONE’S CHILD to mature is not a purely passive process. During that waiting period, the key is to keep the lines of communication open. That means showing an interest in his thoughts and feelings, and waiting for those moments where one can gain access to his heart.

That is much easier if those lines of communication were established in earlier years, before the troubles developed. Rabbi Zohar recommends setting aside time, when children are young, to speak to them daily about what concerns them or is currently on their minds – time that is not for learning or testing them on what they have learned.

Above all, minimize confrontation. To the extent that parents don’t make an issue of a particular item of clothing or haircut the child will feel less need to hold onto that item of dress for dear life. I once heard of a wise father yet in Poland, whose son began wearing a type of collar worn by those seeking the “modern world.” On a business trip, the father purchased ten such collars for his son, and thereby succeeded in completely removing the latter’s temptation to wear one.

One famous rosh yeshiva, whose teenage son sported a bushy head of hair and was often seen around town in shorts, made a point of always calling his son over to him whenever he saw him on the street and demonstrated no embarrassment over his appearance. That son is today a major figure in the Torah world.

Our children, writes Rabbi Zohar, are going through the same trial that any ba’al teshuva does – the effort to forego experiences and pleasures on behalf of kedushah. Pointing out to them their inability to properly observe mitzvos will only force them to deny that they are incapable, and cause them to assert that their failures are worked out choices. At that point, their religious failures become an “inyan” for them.

FINALLY, WE NEED NOT FEAR that by turning a blind eye to our children’s failures that we are betraying Hashem, or that our children will understand us as condoning their behavior. We are doing nothing less that Moshe Rabbeinu did when he broke the first luchos, and thereby chose to relate to Klal Yisrael at a level of kedushah they were capable of absorbing.

The Maharal (Tiferes Yisrael 35) points out that only the second luchos are referred to as good, for only they were appropriate to the nation. The first luchos were too high for the spiritual level of the bnei Yisrael at that moment, and thus incapable of being absorbed by them. Moshe Rabbeinu could have held onto the first luchos and lost the nation, or broken the luchos in order to save the nation.

He chose the latter, and received the Divine approbation for his decision. We should do no less for our children’s sake – and Hashem’s.

This article was originally published in Mishpacha.

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14 Responses

  1. ben dov says:

    My understanding of the 4 Sons in the Hagada is that all of them are welcome at the Seder. How did the rasha get to the Seder in the first place? Give the rasha credit for at least showing up.

    -ben dov

  2. mb says:

    ” “I love all of my children very much. You must all know, however, that I love Hashem much more.” He made clear that any son who became a rasha would be no longer be welcome in the family home.”

    I find this most peculiar.
    The God of love, who loves His children, and taught us how to love our children, and despite the rebellious of His children, he never rejected them. Quite the opposite in fact.

  3. Yair Daar says:

    “Both Hashem and the parent share the same goal – i.e., that the child return to a vibrant, close relationship with Hashem.”

    Is this really the only reason that a parent should exhibit understanding towards their children’s non-observant behavior? What about the natural compassion that a parent should have for their child? What about a child needing their parents’ unconditional support? Our children are not kiruv cases, and making them more religious should not be our main agenda.

    Granted, in the situations you set up, it makes no difference. By being patient with our children, we can both give them the compassion and support they deserve from us and keep them within the fold. But what is our mindset? Are we looking out for G-d first or our children first? The practical outcome might be the same, but in our minds, there is in fact a real choice. And if we choose to focus on the sinning and not on our children’s emotional well-being, we will be acting as sub-par parents.

    Additionally, there are plenty of instances where a parent may have to choose between a child and religion. What happens if a someone’s child chooses to intermarry or reveals him or herself to be homosexual? And I think the important thing to realize is that it isn’t so clear cut what G-d wants in such a situation. Does He want us to stand up for our religious principles or to support our children? These are important questions to answer, and say so much more about the place of compassion in Judaism.

  4. David says:

    Nice piece that gives the chizuk that many of us parents need, thank you.

    A few months back I attended a lecture on parenting by a certain Rosh Yeshiva who pointed out that when you open the Tanach, it is hard to find a ‘normal’ family without major problems. Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, Moshe, Aharon, Shemuel, Dovid, etc. – they all had issues of one sort or another with their kids. It’s kedai to remind ourselves that as in all areas of life, we’ve got to do our best with the understanding that the results are not necessarily up to us.

  5. Allan Katz says:

    This article has been discussed here before. I recommend to all parents and teachers to read the beginning of the Tomer Devorah to get an understanding of ‘unconditional love’ – ‘ Thus, this attribute of being tolerant, is one that man should emulate. Even when he is insulted to such a degree , he should still not withdraw his benevolence from the recipient.’

    Unconditional parenting is a book by Alfie Kohn where he explains that unconditional love is not ‘ permissive parenting ‘ – it is loving kids for who they are and not what they do. You don’t use love to leverage behavior ,or show more love when kids do well etc. It is a way that you set limits and solve problems – doing it in a collaborative way , working with kids rather than ‘ doing to ‘ them with rewards and punishments ‘ , it is helping them to do Teshuvah in an autonomous way.It is relating to the ‘ whole child’ , not just behavior. The thoughts, feelings, and motivation behind behavior – the p’nimiyus is very important. The Chazon ish is quoted as saying ‘ what kids need more than love is respect.Alfie Kohn reminds us that it matters more what kids actually learn than what we teach- we think we are teaching them a lesson , but they learn something different – that we are unfair and don’t care or understand them.The more kids trust their caregivers and feel that their needs and concerns are understood and addressed, decisions are made together with them they are more likely to listen to us when we feel it is a situation where ‘ they have to ‘ follow our unilateral decision.

    A parent who has legitimate concerns about for eg a teenager living in the home can with the help of an outsider if needed meet with the kid and try to find a mutually satisfying solution that addresses both the concerns of the parent and the kid- the process of cps – collaborative problem solving also involves the setting of limits because your concern is also being addressed

  6. lawrence kaplan says:

    A very thoughtful and nuanced article.

  7. SA says:

    This doesn’t answer a major question that I have had as a parent: How does one remain patient with one child’s deviations from the family norm and still successfully parent the other children?

    After all, most parents still believe in a certain set of standards, and are now being forced to accept one set of (child-dictated!!!) standards for one child, while still trying to maintain their standards (which sometimes include demands) for the other children. How does one prevent the problematic child from “infecting” the other children? How can parents run a household with two different sets of rules?

    I once sent this question to a chinuch columnist. He couldn’t (or didn’t) answer the question.

  8. rachel w. says:

    Did He not exile (throw us out of) His home? That, seemingly, does not equal total rejection.

  9. Mr. Cohen says:

    Around ten years ago, I explained that the underlying reason that
    children-in-shul vs. synagogue-decorum is an unsolvable problem,
    is because we love our children more than we love HaShem,
    and our loyalty to our children is greater than our loyalty to the Torah.

  10. L. Oberstein says:

    Rashi on this week’s parsha comments that the parents of the engaged girl who is beng stoned have to be there when the sentence is carried out. “See the one you raised” seems to me to be public shaming of the mother and father for having a child go far off the derech. Does the Torah really mean that if a frum family has a child who leaves Yiddishkeit, becomes an addict, gets into big legal trouble, that his father and mother should be publicly held accountable? Isn’t that what Rashi is saying and does it not negate much of what we have learned subsequently . Can you imagine how hurtful this is for anyone who isn’t fortunate enough to have 100% sucess with all of their children. This affects people from the very best families.

  11. CJ Srullowitz says:

    I heard this story from Rav Shimon Schwab, zt”l, himself – more than once. But in the telling I heard, his father simply said, “I love you all very much, but I love Hashem more.” He never said anything about rejecting his children. It was never my understanding that this was about the children’s behavior; it was a declaration of the paramount importance of Ahavas Hashem.

  12. DF says:

    A child of non-religious parents becoming frum (baal teshuvah) is 100% the same as the child of religious parents becoming non-religious. These are mirror-image opposites, ie, the same. From the persepctive of the parents, in both cases they and that child are a failure. Yet we in the frum community still practice kiruv, and still expect and hope the parents will resepct their children’s wishes and remain part of their lives. Should we not be doing the same when the shoe is on the other foot?

  13. Ben Waxman says:

    I wonder what advice Rav Zohar would give to a) a resident of Maatersdorf, a rav in chareidi kollel, whose son announces that he wants to learn at Har Etzion and serve in the army. b) a resident of Alon Shvut, a rav in Har Etzion, whose son announces that he simply wants to learn and doesn’t want to serve in the IDF.

  14. Gershon Seif says:

    Is that pamphlet from Rabbi Zohar available for the public in chutz la’aretz?

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