One of the major themes of this year’s Orthodox Union (OU) convention was the primacy of mesorah. Learning from some of the leading scholars and thinkers of our generation about our unique heritage, which has held us together as a people over the centuries, was enlightening and inspiring. While there are many ways our mesorah is conveyed from one generation to the next—rebbe to talmid, rabbi to congregant—the primary vehicle of transmission is parent to child. In other words, while no one questions the importance of the role of the shul and the yeshivah in affecting the health and strength of a community, neither can be as effective or as fundamental as the home and family. The shul and the school are vital support systems for the family, but it is the mother and father who bear the ultimate responsibility of passing the richness and totality of a Torah life to their children.
Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik delineates between the “musar avicha,” the mesorah of fathers, and the “Torat imecha,” the mesorah of mothers. The father teaches his children the rigor of halachah, the science of the legal principles, the discipline required of a Torah Jew. The mother shows her children that there is a heart and soul in a Godly life. She passionately instills love and commitment, and she infuses detail and routine with warmth and meaning. Nothing can substitute or replace the impact of the parents and the extended family on the healthy development of a child, the link in the chain that binds one generation to the next.
In his book Unlocking the Torah Text (Jerusalem, 2007), Rabbi Shmuel Goldin questions why the Torah begins Jewish history with the stories of our Patriarchs. He suggests that the era of the Avot and Imahot “establishes the importance of the Jewish family and home . . . that before we could become a nation, we had to be a family.”
The message of the struggles of our forefathers, culminating in Yaakov blessing all of his sons, including them all in the legacy, is that our survival as a nation is directly dependent upon the health, strength and success of the family unit. Children learn to think, feel and act based on what they experience at home. The home must be a sound, solid and safe haven for children to absorb and internalize the mesorah of their parents.
This is perhaps one of the gravest challenges our community faces today: the breakdown of the family unit. Divorce, the literal breakdown of the family, is more prevalent than ever in the Orthodox community. And even in cases where the divorce is amicable, study after study shows that it has devastating repercussions upon the psychological well-being of the children.
But even in cases where there is an intact home, things are not as they should be. It is a real challenge to live an Orthodox lifestyle. Tuitions for numerous children, the cost of living in frum neighborhoods, the expenses of making semachot, the clothing and hospitality budgets, supporting children who are learning or in chinuch—the financial demands feel endless if one lives the life of an Orthodox Jew in America today. Both parents have to work, and even so, oftentimes still can’t make ends meet.
The stress can be unbearable. How much time and energy are left for educating the children at the end of the day? How much patience is there to really listen to what our kids are saying? How many families are able to eat dinner together on a regular basis? How many families actually spend Shabbos together, as opposed to socializing with their own adult friends while the kids go off to play. Parents become dependent upon the school and the shul to do the job that they have abdicated, and often become critical that it isn’t being done well. But we can’t blame the school or the shul for not successfully inspiring our children to be Torah Jews. They were never meant to do to do this job in a vacuum; the education our children receive from the shul and school is meant to complement the morals, values and ethics that we imbue in our children.
This can only be done with quantity time. Quality time is prized and treasured. But the once-a-year vacation or once-a-month night out with mom or dad cannot substitute for the day-in, day-out lessons our children are exposed to from watching how we speak to others, how we speak to God, how we spend our time, and in general how we handle the minutiae of everyday life. That is the rich mesorah we are charged with transmitting. That is the enduring mesorah we are entrusted to pass along to our children. Sadly, that is the mesorah we are slowly losing our connection to because our families are unraveling.
Like all serious challenges in life, this one does not have an easy solution. I believe the first major first step is acknowledging that the responsibility for the formal and informal education of our children lies with us, their families. We can turn to the rabbi, rebbe, or morah for support and enrichment, but we must always remember that the home we create for our children, and the example we provide for them within that home are what ultimately shape their identity as people and as Jews.
Next, we must make a commitment to make certain lifestyle changes to accommodate that responsibility. We must try to be home for dinner during the week; we must reassess our social lives on Shabbos so we can spend more time with our children and we must cultivate experiences and activities that lead us to be actively engaging our children. In short, we must find a way to be more of a presence in our children’s lives, to share more quantity time, and to be the role models they look up to.
Finally, I believe we have to appreciate that the impact of our success or failure is felt not only by our own children, but by all of Klal Yisrael. Our eternity as a people hinges on the mesorah that started with Moshe at Mount Sinai and has become the bridge that has spanned thousands of years of Jewish history. We have lived in peace and persecution; we have tasted independence and subjugation; we have dressed differently, spoken many languages, inhabited every corner of the globe. But we have always upheld the sanctity of our families. It is the hallmark of our people and the miracle of our endurance. Without the family, the mesorah, the very character and distinction of the Jewish people, is lost. “Before we could become a nation, we had to be a family.”
The primacy of the mesorah only has meaning when we see it in the context of the primacy of the family. May Hakadosh Baruch Hu bless each and every one of our families with the love, commitment and strength necessary to withstand the challenges that threaten us, and may we merit seeing our children and grandchildren take their rightful place in the chain of the mesorah, ensuring its eternal impact on all of mankind.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.