Many years ago, when I was in high school, my mother arranged for me to get a ride to school once a week with one of the teachers. We lived in Manhattan, and as the high school I attended was in Riverdale, having a ride that morning saved me a good hour I would have spent on public transportation. It also meant leaving our apartment at 7:30 am instead of 6:30, for which I was understandably grateful. (In retrospect, I’m not certain the arrangement was purely practical, as the teacher would regularly engage me in a variety of Torah topics and philosophical questions.)
One morning as we were driving up the West Side Highway, a car barreled down an entrance ramp and slammed into our car. Thrown across the highway, the teacher managed to regain control as the engine sputtered off, and we pulled back onto the shoulder behind the offending vehicle. I waited in the car while he went off to exchange information with the other driver. Fortunately, no one was injured.
When he came back to the car, I silently prayed it would not be able to start, as I had a test I was not ready for and there was no better excuse than being stuck on the highway with a teacher! Alas, after a couple of turns, his car started. After a tentative moment, we resumed our drive up the highway, albeit with the engine making some funny noises and significant body damage to the front right corner of the vehicle.
The teacher had been in the middle of a funny story when were interrupted, and as soon as we were driving safely, he picked up where he had left off.
I could not believe he was just resuming his story. After a few minutes I could not contain myself and blurted out, “Aren’t you upset your car got creamed? The whole front of your car is messed up and you now will have to go to the garage … aren’t you the least bit upset?”
I don’t remember most of what I learned in high school, but I still remember his response: “Look, I can be upset he creamed the front of my car, or I can be happy about it; but either way, the front of the car will still be destroyed, so I might as well be happy!”
There is a fascinating thought worth noting in this week’s portion of Emor. Hashem tells Moshe: “Speak to the kohanim, the sons of Aharon, and say to them, [each of them] shall not become impure amongst his people” (Vayikra 21:1).
Rashi, noting the obvious repetition of the command to speak, quotes the Talmud (Yevamot 114a), which explains it to mean that the kohanim must also pass this on to the younger children, who are also obligated not to become impure.
The problem with this explanation is the text implies that it is all meant for the adults. Why would we take this to refer to teaching the children?
Rav Moshe Feinstein, in his Darash Moshe, notes that the word used twice for speaking here, “emor,” is a warmer, softer form of speech, as opposed to “daber,” which also means speak, but harshly and more directly. This is the tone one is meant to use with children.
The first usage of the word refers to Moshe’s instructing the kohanim in the limitations they will need to accept upon themselves, something difficult to accept and thus best given over softly and warmly. The second time the verse repeats the enjoinder to speak, it is referring to the kohanim themselves being responsible to pass this along to their children as well. It’s not easy to teach children limits, and sharing the idea is a better strategy than merely issuing a command.
Furthermore, Rav Moshe deduces that the second usage implies that the kohanim must have a positive feeling towards the mitzvot. In fact, he points out, even if your children see you are willing to sacrifice for Torah, that is not what will connect them to tradition. What really impacts our children is when they see we love it.
“Precisely when children hear their parents say that mitzvot are not a sacrifice at all, we simply love them and they enrich our lives and fulfill us, which is when the children are receiving a good education” (Darash Moshe, Emor pg. 97).
How many of us wish our kids would love learning more, but neglect to ask ourselves how much we love learning? How often do we wish our kids would be more scrupulous about wearing tzitzit, saying blessings, or even keeping Shabbat, without considering whether our kids are seeing us enthusiastic about them?
If I had to choose the factor that impacted me the most Jewishly growing up, it would without hesitation be the unbridled enthusiasm many of my teachers, and especially my parents, had for Jewish learning, Shabbat, and mitzvot.
Our children will learn far more from what they see us do and how we do it than they ever will from what we say.
The things that really last in life are the things we love, and while there are no guarantees, the degree to which we love what we do will have the most impact on the next generation’s values. If we want our children to love Shabbat, they have to see us loving Shabbat. If they perceive Shabbat as a chore that forces us to give up sports games and cell phones, why would we expect them to want to do it?
But if Shabbat is filled with moments and experiences we love and the enthusiastic energy permeates the home, who wouldn’t want that as a part of their life?
This is not to say there is no value in carrying on with the things we need to do even when we don’t want to do them. We are not talking about living life; we are speaking of the possibility of elevating our experiences to loving life.
Nike, the bastion of Western consumer culture, has taught us to Just Do It. Judaism says don’t just do it: Love doing it! The allusion to the kohanim, who are meant to be our role models, tells us the same.
And my teacher, with his one simple comment, shared with me an ideal: it wasn’t just about living life, it was about loving life.
Shabbat shalom from Jerusalem.