My six-year-old daughter loves to bentch.
She bentches – that is, gives thanks to G-d – after she eats bread. She bentches after she eats two slices of pizza. She bentches after we eat our Shabbat meals.She also bentches throughout the day. At any given time, I can hear my daughter singing parts of the bentching niggun, whether it’s when she’s playing, sitting in the car, or getting into pajamas.
And as much as it can become somewhat tiresome hearing the same song all day, every day, it also serves as a constant eye-opener that my child, our children, are so finely attuned to what they hear and what they learn.
Bottom line – I would prefer to hear her bentching, speaking words of Torah and holiness, than hearing her mimic some of the profane and immoral parts of pop culture.
I’m reminded of the time, a few years back, when my daughter learned about Antiochus and the Chanukah story and several weeks later was taught about Pharaoh and the Jews living as slaves in Egypt. She peppered me with questions about each story, wanting to know all the details of what life was like as a slave all those years ago in Egypt and what it meant to be living under a hostile Greek ruler.And then, one night she asked: “Who was worse – Pharaoh or Antiochus?”
This query was repeated for weeks on end. My daughter would weigh the pros and cons of each, and invariably come up with a well thought-out answer. She insisted I give her an answer as well. My husband and parents were also grilled.
On a different occasion, my daughter learned about Yaakov’s death in school. (Never mind that a topic of this nature was covered in under ten minutes in pre-school. That’s a discussion for another time.) She came home from school that day and began questioning me about how Yaakov died, where he went, how it happened, and other related issues.
And these questions continued for months.
I was completely shocked at her fascination with this. But it underscored just how much children absorb and internalize, even when we don’t expect or realize it.
I’m a big fan of Pirkei Avot – Ethics of Our Fathers. It’s a treasure trove filled with wisdom and inspiration and has something to say about everything. “Elisha ben Avuya said: One who studies Torah as a child, to what can he be likened? – to ink written on fresh paper” (4:25).
Studies note how quickly children pick up languages. The same is true of how quickly children discover what we feel is important and what we let fall by the wayside.
We all have funny stories about how our children finally repeat something we’ve been impressing upon them or mimic our words when least expected. They hear what we tell them even if we don’t think they’re listening. And they’re absorbing our words even when they appear not to.
My younger daughter is constantly quoting her morah, her teacher. “Morah said we should do this,” or “Morah said not to do this.” Not only is her teacher her educator, she is also her role model.
Still, as parents, we are the most important teachers and role models in our children’s lives.
There are so many small but important ways to teach by example. Sharing words of Torah and acting out the parsha at the Shabbat table, saying our brachot, blessings, out loud, and singing Shema with our children are wonderful ways for us to encourage Torah thoughts.
We can speak respectfully and enthusiastically about our parents and in-laws and give our children an opportunity to bond with their grandparents, so that they can view this time as something special, not a chore to be hurried through. I have such fond memories of spending time with my grandparents. We would play games, eat snacks, and talk about our day. I often went in search of my zaide, who lived with us for many years, when I needed help with my Chumash (Bible) or history homework. And, especially now, I cherish all those moments we shared.
When our children answer the phone and a telemarketer asks for us, do we frantically shake our heads “no!” and whisper, “I’m not home?” (Let’s be honest here.) Instead, we can politely decline to contribute or simply reply that right now is not a good time. Our children will instantly see that telling the truth matters, even when it’s not easy or convenient. Don’t wait for your child to fake “A”s on his report card to scold him for lying. Be his role model before the need arises.
How do we greet our neighbors? Do our children see us hurrying past them or pretending not to see them if we’re in a rush? Or do we take one moment out of busy lives to stop, say good morning, and perhaps bring some joy to an otherwise lonely day?
Let’s make our kids active participants in their Judaism. It’s an endless task. It’s a grueling task. But it’s one, we all know, that’s well worth the effort.