By Rav Mordechai Burg
יַסֵּ֣ר בִּ֖נְךָ וִֽינִיחֶ֑ךָ וְיִתֵּ֖ן מַעֲדַנִּ֣ים לְנַפְשֶֽׁךָ
Chastise your son, and he will give you rest and grant pleasures to your soul. (Mishlei 29:17)
The Vilna Gaon explains this passuk: “Give Mussar to your child, and you will rest” that even a great Tzaddik will join his child in Gehenom if the child is not raised correctly. A tzaddik who raises his child properly can “rest” in Gan Eden and is not taken out.
On the other hand, “And he will grant pleasures to your soul” – a righteous child will be an eternal merit for the parents even if the parents are not righteous. Avraham Avinu is a zechus for his father Terach. Chazal (Kesubos 62b) tell the story of a young boy whose father had died and came to Rabbi Akiva and asked him to teach him how to say Kaddish. Despite the boy’s youth, Rabbi Akiva agreed to teach him and spent a year teaching him the prayer and its proper pronunciation. The boy was so dedicated to learning the prayer that he would repeat it over and over again until he had memorized it perfectly. After a year of study, the boy returned to Rabbi Akiva and recited Kaddish flawlessly. Impressed by the boy’s dedication and hard work, Rabbi Akiva declared that the boy’s father’s soul had been elevated in Gan Eden due to the merit of the boy’s learning and recitation of Kaddish.
It is clear from the Vilna Gaon that the parent-child relationship is an inseparable bond. The parent continues to be accountable for the child even after death and the child continues to be a merit for the parent even if the parent has passed on.
But perhaps hidden within these mystical explanations, the Gaon is teaching us something more. Something about the very nature of parenting.
The primary responsibility of a parent is to ensure the transmission of the Mesorah. Every child is another link in the chain of our tradition. As parents, we seek to raise our children to be strong links who will in turn, raise the next generation of Klal Yisrael. Bringing the world to its ultimate destiny takes thousands of years. No one generation can bring Mashiach alone. Every single Jew, every single Mitzvah is of infinite importance. Judaism teaches that the culmination of all of our hard work yields a world in which Hashem’s presence is clearly manifest. The continuity of Judaism has been tested time and again throughout history and we have prevailed even under extraordinarily difficult circumstances. We are getting closer and closer to the final stages of history.
Every generation has its unique challenge. One of the challenges we are confronting today is that we live in an increasingly boundaryless world. While there are many positive impacts to the global age in which we live, there are also clear negative implications. There are certainly many examples of the negative impact; this article will focus on the issue of how we raise our children.
“Just love them” has become a catchphrase for raising children today. It is a beautiful sentiment, to be sure, but what does love mean? We should not confuse loving our children with being absolutely permissive. It is a parent’s responsibility to teach their children that boundaries are essential. There are times when we say yes and times when we say no. From a very young age, we educate our children that not all foods can be eaten. That we wait between eating meat and milk. That we have daily responsibilities to daven, learn Torah, and that these responsibilities supersede some of the other things we may want to do. To give Mussar to our children does not mean to yell and scream or to chas v’shalom degrade them in any way. It does mean setting appropriate boundaries. To teach our children what is and is not ok, each child according to their particular needs.
Setting boundaries requires egoless parenting. Parenting is hard. No one likes to have to deal with unhappy children. How many parents have been shaken to their core when they hear from their children how they hate them? That everything they do is wrong and if only they would be like other more permissive parents? Yet parenting is not a popularity contest. It is not about us. It is about what is good for this individual child. How we can raise this particular child most effectively. And if a parent, not from a need to control (which is also a function of our own ego) but from a place of providing the child with proper guidance and structure, determines that it is time to say no then we must put aside our ego and give Mussar (boundaries) to our children. The child may say hurtful things, but it is our job not to take these things in too deeply. Ultimately we are obligated to be the adult in the relationship, which means serving our children even when they are understandably angry and frustrated by the rules of our home. And, despite their anger, in an honest moment, our children know that boundaries are important. Deep inside them, they know that the more permissive parent is abdicating their responsibility. Parents who truly care create reasonable boundaries.
I remember well the year that our Yeshiva created a curfew rule. Understandably, many of the boys were initially frustrated. But all that changed when one of the most popular boys in Yeshiva, Ori, got on board with what the Yeshiva was doing. Ori was in Yerushalayim one night, hanging out with boys from a different Yeshiva, one which did not have a curfew. With curfew approaching, the boys started making fun of Ori that he had to leave early and return to Yeshiva. Ori responded, “At least I go to a Yeshiva that cares enough about us to ensure that we have a meaningful year and doesn’t allow us to do whatever we want.” Ori returned to Yeshiva and proudly shared that story with his Rabbeim and friends. After that, the rhetoric around curfew changed dramatically. Yes, it was annoying to boys who wanted to hang out with their friends late into the night. Still, they understood what we were trying to accomplish and appreciated it. At the end of the year, the boys could articulate how critical the curfew was in ensuring that they had a growth-oriented year. There were many painful moments, to be sure. Uncomfortable conversations where the talmidim expressed their frustration with the Yeshiva. But in the end, it was a matter of integrity. The curfew was the right thing for the talmidim. It would have been far easier to be popular. The Rosh Yeshiva taught us that it was time to set aside our ego and do what was right for the talmidim.
It goes without saying that parents must make far more deposits in the emotional bank account they share with their children than withdrawals. Rules without relationships equal rebellion. Children may crave boundaries, but only from people they know genuinely care about them. If we do not make the time to have close relationships with our children, our boundaries will fail. Additionally, we need to be smart enough to say yes far more than we say no. When we say no, especially if it is something our children really want, it is a withdrawal from the account. Even if it is the right thing to do. There is a time to hold and a time to fold. Sometimes it is worth folding on a more minor issue because we have more critical boundaries to uphold. The ability to say to our children, “We say yes as often as possible because when we say no it is important” is a wonderful way to let them know that we care about them and that this is when the answer is no. Lastly, if it truly is about the child and not our ego, then we will set boundaries according to what the child needs.
I remember sitting with a very well-respected educator in a camp dining room when one of the teenage waiters behaved very inappropriately. In an exceptionally calm fashion, this educator turned to me and said “watch this.” He walked over to the waiter and, in no uncertain terms, told the young man that his behavior was absolutely inexcusable. He did not threaten the waiter with any particular punishment. He did not yell or scream. There was no need to. His message was conveyed with absolute clarity. This behavior was not going to be tolerated. Then he sat down and continued eating his lunch. I was young, and this educator was a major role model of mine. I asked him if he could explain what had just happened. “It’s simple,” he explained. “I have done a tremendous amount for this young man. He knows I care about him. But what he just did was outrageous and inappropriate. Most of the time, I speak with him calmly, but this time he needed something different, so I spoke more intensely.” Many years have passed since that episode but what stands out to me until this very day is how obvious it was that this educator was focused only on that particular child’s needs. It had nothing to do with his own ego.
Returning to the explanation of the Vilna Gaon above. A parent who raises their children without boundaries will be treated middah k’neged middah. The parent may be righteous in their own personal Avodas Hashem. Still, if they fail to set boundaries for their child, they do not get to stay within the boundaries of Gan Eden. Furthermore, if the child is in Gehenom, then the parent’s job is not over. There is no “rest” so to speak. The parent must be with their child even when they have fallen into the lowest place. Only a loving parent can raise the child up out of the depths of Gehenom.
Chazal expressed apprehensions about the times of the coming of Mashiach. “Let Mashiach come but let me not see him.” (Sanhedrin 98b) The Gedolei HaDor of the last several generations have assured us that we are now in the final moments before the arrival of Mashiach. We are responsible for confronting the challenges of these precious times in a Godly fashion, and the challenges are not insignificant. What were once considered normative boundaries have been replaced by an ideology of do as you wish. No doubt that these sentiments have crept into our community as well and some of our children are paying the very steep price. As parents, now more than ever, we have a responsibility to love our children. To treat them with kindness and compassion and to educate them to live within appropriate boundaries. Tragically, some of our children are already tasting the pain of Gehenom in this world. We must not abdicate our responsibility. We cannot rest on our laurels, safely ensconced in our boundaries, and take solace in our pure Avodas Hashem. We must set aside our egos and remember that a parent’s responsibility to their child is never over.