The Soul of Parenting: When Our Children Dread Yom Kippur

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fasting, empty plate

I vividly recall sitting in Rav Soloveitchik’s class one day near the beginning of the year when, rather than starting to teach the gemara, he began to speak about his inability to think about anything else before Yom Kippur but the upcoming encounter with the Divine. He said that there were two days that stuck out in his mind from his youth, one of which was the night of Kol Nidrei when the lights burned brightly and the mood in the shul until the wee hours of the morning was one of exaltation and exultation. He described the feeling of holiness and an intimate meeting with HaKadosh Baruch Hu. It was a mesmerizing presentation that I take with me into every Kol Nidrei night.

Compare this with some of my own childhood recollections of Yom Kippur: though I do remember the scene in shul at Kol Nidrei with some amount of childhood wonder and anticipation, I also recalled the long painful repetitious cantorial singing (I did not have the patience), lots of standing up and sitting down (for no apparent reason); running around with my friends in the lobby (until adults chased us outside or inside), playing machzor baseball (don’t ask), and, of course, the blowing of the shofar that marked the end and told us it was time to eat. Needless to say, I was not the Rav and even had I grown up in his world, it is unlikely that I would have experienced what this extraordinary man was able to. Indeed, it was only after I was in his class that I read the frequent lament in his writings that he was unable to truly share with his students the essence of his religious experience during his encounters with God or, as in the case of Yom Kippur, for example, his inability to share what it was truly like to watch his grandfather R. Chaim recite the Avodah service (On Repentance, p. 149).

How, then, can we communicate an experience of Yom Kippur to our children, especially younger children, so that we can begin to nurture within them the mesmerizing sanctity of the day? Herewith are some suggestions.

There is a special blessing of the children that one can bestow upon one’s children before Yom Kippur. Make a big deal about it. Leave enough time to say it without having to rush through it. Create a ritual out of it by having everyone line up or join you privately in a separate room. Let your hands linger on their heads a little longer and a little more firmly than one might otherwise do on a Friday night. Finish it with a hug and some private words shared just between the two of you about your relationship or your wishes for the coming year. In doing so, you let them know that you think and feel that this night is different than all other nights, and so they will come to think and feel that way too.

It’s mitzvah to eat on the day before the fast. Let young children know that and give them a rare favorite treat for lunch that would otherwise seldom if ever appear. Tell them they are getting it because it is Yom Kippur, something to look forward to. And while we are on the subject of food, make something special for that final meal before the fast, not only the usual fare, but something that conveys that there is some correlation between feasting and fasting – both can be ways of acknowledging God’s presence in our lives.

If they are old enough, of course, then one can always talk about teshuvah, not in a general way but rather in a very specific and personal way. What are the things we regret, what would we each like to change, why is it important to say you are sorry rather than just think it in your head, why is saying sorry important for a relationship between you and other people, between you and Hashem, what are the obstacles to the change we want to see, what concrete steps can we see ourselves taking to make the change going forward. All of these are what the day is all about and even young children can understand them on their own level. Sometimes, I have found, they are able to answer these questions far better than I.

The davening should be a way for us to get closer to Hashem, not to distance us. Figure out which times would be most beneficial for your child to be there. If it is a time that is particularly meaningful to you, then all the better. Tell your child which songs you love the most and make sure they are standing beside you then so they can watch you sing with fervor and encourage them to join in. Tell them which prayers are the most meaningful for you personally and make sure they are standing beside you so they can watch you say them with intention and perhaps even with tears. Tell them which prayers are the most meaningful for the community (and why) and prepare them for the experience of everyone screaming out in one voice, especially during Neilah. In short, let them know, each in their own way, that prayers are not something uttered but something felt.

For some children, the message may be that while you cannot or need not yet fast, Hashem wants everyone to do mitzvot on this day to the best of their ability. Perhaps that can mean taking care of siblings, or keeping oneself occupied so that parents can daven or rest. Of course, all of this needs to be told in advance to kids so that they can prepare for it and especially so that they know that this isn’t just babysitting, or just staying out of mom and dad’s way, but it’s about helping themselves and the family come closer to Hashem.

Enable them to participate in the pageantry of the day to the best of their ability and do chesed helping the community at the same time. Let them know about the notion of saying 100 blessings each day but that on Yom Kippur we are unable to do so and therefore the custom arose to pass around spices to enliven the spirit and add a blessing that will help us get closer to Hashem. Give them spices (make a project beforehand of creating a special container) and allow them to go around the shul offering and empowering people to make a berachah. Let them pass around paper towels for everyone to use beneath their knees when bowing, if your shul has that custom, but make sure that they are beside you so that you kneel together and that you explain to them that you are recreating the experience of being in the Bet HaMikdash at that very moment.

In the end, it is about the experience, the informed experience, the shared experience, the anticipated experience, the religious experience. For while the Rav was correct that an actual religious experience is too personal to be conveyed, too intimate and idiosyncratic for another person to adopt as their own, we can at least be our children’s spiritual guides and mentors, pointing the way to their own personal encounter with the Divine so that they too will one day be able to tell their children what a meaningful if not mesmerizing day Yom Kippur can be. Gmar chatimah tovah.

Rabbi Dr. Jay Goldmintz has been a day school educator and administrator for more than 35 years who currently teaches full time at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School. He is Educational Director of the Legacy 613 Foundation, runs tefillah education workshops for teachers and has served as an adjunct at Azrieli Graduate School. He is author of the Koren Ani Tefilla Siddur series, winner of the 2014 National Jewish Book Award.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.