I was recently talking with my oldest about the pride I felt when she started school at two years old and her teachers commended her knowledge, and conscientious recitation, of berachot. It was an easy thing to teach her; she saw me saying berachot when I ate, and at that age she longed to do whatever I did. She would ask which to say and practice it with me, and it wasn’t long before she was saying them regularly on her own. I remember, too, the joy and satisfaction it brought me the first time she said the words of Shema herself before bed. I loved watching her catch on to the rhythm of our religious life, learning to recite the same words that millions of her ancestors recited before her, beginning to take her place as a link in the chain of Jewish tradition.
Even as I watched my little girl’s Jewish habits with such pride, however, I began to realize that I wasn’t talking to her about Jewish ideas; in fact, the notion of doing so made me oddly uncomfortable. In a conversation with her school’s psychologist about how to address certain behavioral challenges, the psychologist asked whether we ever talk to her about Hashem, and I had to say “no.” I stumbled over my words, realizing as we talked both that I probably should be talking more about G-d if I hoped to raise a religiously mindful and committed individual, and that I really didn’t want to. When my daughter began coming home telling me things she had learned about Hashem at school, I recoiled. And I didn’t know why.
As a believing, committed, observant Jew, why didn’t I want to talk to my child about my beliefs and the roots of my commitment? Why was it that I found such value in teaching her the rituals and habits of observance, but shied away from introducing her to the meaning behind those behaviors? Was this an indication that my own observance was empty of meaning, that there was something lacking in the connection to G-d that should have been inspiring the way I lived my life? Had I fallen into a life of intellectual Torah study and practical Torah observance without spiritual faith?
After talking to a good friend, I came up with two answers. First: As painful as it was to admit, yes, G-d was in some ways missing from my life. In the modern(ish), intellectually-oriented, halachically-observant circles in which I spent most of my formative years, there was often an odd discomfort with talking about Hashem. We believe in G-d, but we are afraid to encounter Him; even in discussions about meaningful spiritual experiences, I would rarely hear “Hashem” mentioned explicitly. If a member of another religion mentions G-d as a real presence in their life – it feels awkward. We’re uncomfortable. We might study Tanach, Talmud, and philosophy with vigor, but don’t necessarily translate that intellectual connection into the emotional realm. It often seems that many of us have traded the simple faith of our ancestors for a more distant awareness of the truths that direct our life. Somehow, I absorbed the message early on that peppering my speech with “baruch Hashem” would sound “too frummie” (What, exactly, is wrong with being “frummie”?) – but I’m not sure we’ve found a better way to acknowledge and embrace G-d’s presence in every facet of our lives.
Recently, I saw two articles from very different religious perspectives – one coming from a more yeshivish (if you’ll pardon the labels) writer; the other, a disenchanted young woman from a modern Orthodox background – bemoaning the lack of true spiritual education in much of the Orthodox world. Many of our schools don’t even mention Hashem in their statements of core beliefs and goals; many of our families don’t know how to bring Him into everyday life beyond the rote observances (and occasional catch phrases, as long as they don’t sound too frum).
With Yom Haatzmaut this week, I can’t help thinking about how the values of “Am Yisrael, Torat Yisrael, Medinat Yisrael” pervaded my religious Zionist upbringing and adulthood so deeply, while I can’t remember talking much about Elokei Yisrael – thought of course we believe He is behind it all.
Little wonder that I was afraid to talk to my daughter about Hashem in any real sense, if I had so little experience – even in a life filled with Torah study and mitzvah observance – talking to anyone about Him.
The second answer, I think, stems from the same conflict; in fact, it may well be the reason the conflict exists. With all of my intellectualized background, I didn’t know how to talk about G-d in the simplistic terms of a two-year-old. I couldn’t join her in a round of “Hashem is here, Hashem is there” without thinking of my friend’s philosophical critique of its lyrics and worrying that I was misrepresenting truths about G-d. I couldn’t tell her “we believe X,” when I knew there were Jewish thinkers who actually argued in favor of Y. I struggled even in certain areas of halacha – “The Torah says…” “Hashem says…” – well, actually, it was a later Rabbinic enactment…
As I was coming to see the risk to simple faith that intellectual study carries, my intellectual side recoiled against anything that smacked of simplified faith or that lacked the rigor I love in my studies. How could I talk to her about G-d when I knew His complexity was beyond my own understanding, and the concept of such complexity was beyond hers? How could I help her develop emunah peshutah when that ship sailed for me long ago? I don’t see anything in life as peshutah, simple. Even as I realized she needed me to talk to her on her level, I couldn’t do it; I tripped over my words and preferred avoiding the conversations entirely.
Over the years, I’ve tried to work on that, to find the balance and bring Hashem into conversations with my kids in simple ways. While I talk about davening as something I have to do, with certain words and by a certain time (“Uh, oh – it’s almost shkiyah – can you hold that thought and tell me in ten minutes?”), I also try to frame it in terms of Hashem (“I need ten minutes to talk to Hashem, and then I can talk to you, okay?”). I try to remind and enforce the recitation of blessings, but not as empty ritual. (“Did you remember to thank Hashem for that delicious cake?”) I watch for opportunities to point out the wonders of the natural world – including human achievements – and to frame them in terms of G-d. (“Wow, look at that building. Isn’t it amazing that Hashem created a world where people could come up with ways to produce something like that?”)(Okay, maybe sometimes it gets a little more complex.)
I try – but I often forget, or let it slide. It’s embarrassing how uncomfortable those few words feel on my tongue. “Hashem,” my Father in Heaven, the One to Whom I should turn with everything, throughout my day, and the One to Whom I, in theory, ascribe everything – why should I be uncomfortable mentioning Him?
My youngest has proven a particular challenge in this regard, because she has not shown the precocious interest in ritual that her older siblings had. She rarely accepts an invitation to help her say a bracha, and often insists we sing a favorite song and skip Shema at night. At the age of almost-three, that’s really fine, though it rattles my own ingrained sense of ritual. She’s also more resistant than I remember her siblings being to the idea of leaving lights and muktza toys alone on Shabbos (though perhaps hindsight colors my perception of their righteous obedience), and that’s also fine. And when I think about it, I realize I’m glad for the challenge, because it reminds me that just instilling habits isn’t enough, and won’t work; she reminds me to practice stepping outside my comfort zone. I try out phrases on her that I often forget with the others, suggesting she say that bracha to thank Hashem for her food, pointing out that Shema is a special way to daven to Hashem.
I think about how we cover our eyes for Shema, offering a moment to block out the world and connect with Hashem. I think about how my older children accepted that part of the ritual without question, and how my youngest treats it like a game, sometimes playing and sometimes refusing. I think about how I will explain to her (maybe not quite yet) why we cover our eyes, that it’s a chance to only think about Hashem. That maybe if we take those moments of Shema seriously, we will learn to think about – and talk about – Hashem throughout our lives.
I admire and treasure my friends who do seem to manage this, bringing Hashem into their speech and their lives and their families in real, intimate ways, without self-consciousness. I try not to feel awkward when talk of Hashem flows in their conversation, and I long to emulate them.
I hope, with my family, to move beyond intellectual appreciation of the model of Halakhic Man, to truly experience our rituals and habits of observance not as empty and routine, but as a framework from which to explore the world and our relationship with Hashem – embracing and engaging all our uncertainties, philosophical and otherwise.
After all, if I can hope to instill habits of observance at such young ages, maybe I can also help my children build habits of speech and thought; maybe we can make Hashem an active part of the rhythm of our lives.
Sarah C. Rudolph is a Jewish educator and freelance writer. She has been sharing her passion for Jewish texts of all kinds for over 15 years, with students of all ages. Sarah’s essays have been published in a variety of internet and print media, including Times of Israel, Kveller, Jewish Action, The Lehrhaus, TorahMusings, and more. Sarah lives in Cleveland with her husband and four children, but is privileged to learn online with students all over the world through www.TorahTutors.org and www.WebYeshiva.org.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.