On Raising Children
It should be a truism that raising children is one of the most important things in a person’s life. Unfortunately, this is not obvious to everyone. There are people, even great people, who assign a higher priority to other matters.
There is, of course, a mitzva of chinukh, educating one’s children. Yet, the term chinukh can be understood in two very distinct ways. In the narrower sense, the term chinukh refers to chinukh for mitzvot, preparing a child for a lifetime of religious observance. The Gemara (Sukka 42a) explains that when a child knows how to shake a lulav, his father should buy him one; when he knows how to properly care for his tefillin, the father buys him tefillin; when he knows how to speak, his father should teach him Torah and Shema. For each respective mitzva, when the child reaches the appropriate age, you are obligated to train him to perform that mitzva.
The Rishonim and Acharonim discuss several aspects of this mitzva. First, upon whom does this duty devolve? Is it an obligation upon the parent, or part of the child’s own obligation in mitzvot? Second, is it a parallel obligation of the given mitzva, imposed rabbinically upon a Biblically exempt individual, or is chinukh entirely preparatory for the obligations that will be triggered when he is an adult?
In a broader sense, though, chinukh has to do with the molding of the identity and personality of the child. That itself breaks into two aspects. One aspect is the development of certain spiritual strengths, certain powers, skills, abilities, inclinations, and sensitivities. In trying to make a respectable person out of the boy or girl, the parents ask themselves: To what extent can and should we mold the child, and in which direction? Once the parents understand what the aims are, they can try to answer these questions.
There is a second, more relational aspect of the broad sense of chinukh. This entails developing what the Greeks called paideia, eliciting from the personality of the child that which is already there; moreover, this means developing not powers, but rather attitudes, relationships, commitments, involvement, and engagement. For example, part of chinukh is teaching the child the ability to relate to others. If you look around you, you see that some people have the skill of relating to others, while others cannot relate to a colleague, a child, or a spouse. Teaching a child to “relate” does not just mean giving him or her a certain skill set in the realm of personal relationships; it also means teaching one how to relate to God, to one’s immediate environs, to one’s collective and national identity, to the past and future, and to the world at large. All this is part of chinukh.
Some of the aspects of chinukh that I have mentioned have a clear normative thrust; come Sukkot time, you buy the child a lulav. Others are harder to pin down, almost by definition. You can discuss what kind of powers to develop in the child, how to develop them, at what level, etc. There is room for a great range of opinion, both in the degree of priority you assign to the whole enterprise, and also to each component within it. Does this obligation, which is less easily definable, have a halakhic address? Here an inevitable split will emerge: with regard to certain aspects – certainly yes; with others, possibly no.
One possible address is Rambam’s Hilkhot Talmud Torah. He opens the topic in a strange way. He does not begin with the obligation to study Torah; that arises only in halakha 8. Rather, the first halakhot deal with a person’s obligation to teach – namely, to teach his children. The Torah uses the expression, “And you shall teach [the words of Torah] to your children” (Devarim 6:7). Chazal explain that at one level, this refers to students, but on another level, “your children” means just what it says, your sons and daughters. This involves inculcating certain values, developing certain attitudes, seeing to it that the world of serving God is their world.
Clearly, this does not have as sharply defined lines or contours as does the world of chinukh le-mitzvot; it is a much broader enterprise, which has to do with what kind of commitments, what kind of values, you want the child to have. Now, part of this aspect of education is vague because the exact values are not so clear. As opposed to the aforementioned concrete mitzvot, where a lulav is a lulav is a lulav, sensitivity (to name one value) can be variable: sensitivity to what, to whom, what you tolerate, what you refuse to tolerate, etc. When dealing with defined halakhic duties, people who are halakhically committed will roll up their sleeves and get to work. However, when we speak to them in general terms of raising a child, giving the child values and commitments, a plethora of possibilities emerge: they can take a low-key approach, they can act intensely and intensively, they can give it a high level of priority or a low level of priority. Unfortunately, where the matters clash with other priorities, the desire to downplay chinukh may overwhelm some.
The historical evidence in this regard is mixed. I come, indirectly, from Brisk and from Volozhin. In Brisk, a very high value was attached to raising children, and particularly to raising them with the paramount values that epitomize this community, specifically, the analytic approach to study. In Brisk, Reb Chaim did not have a yeshiva. He started learning with his children, and people heard about it, so other people joined the group. Today, Yeshivas Brisk in Yerushalayim is an empire!
Not everybody did that. Many of the Torah giants in Eastern Europe, and not one or two, devoted themselves to their own studies, to writing their chiddushim, and let their children grow up as they might within their society. Some even grew up to be irreligious Jews; and I am not referring here to some local, isolated, unknown rav.
This is not a simple matter. Chazal say this about Moshe Rabbeinu himself. In Parashat Chukkat we read that Aharon’s sons succeed him in the priesthood, and in Parashat Pinchas, the daughters of Tzelofchad successfully inherited their father. Moshe, upon seeing all this, assumed that his sons would inherit his position of leadership. Therefore, he came to plead with God regarding his own successor: “May God, Lord of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the community” (Bamidbar 27:16). But this was not to be. In a somewhat audacious midrash (Bamidbar Rabba 21:14), God responds harshly: No; your sons sat idly and did not occupy themselves with Torah. Yehoshua devoted himself to you and honored you; he would come early to the study hall and leave late; he arranged the benches and spread a canopy for shade. Since he served you with all his strength, he is worthy of serving the people of Israel. Your sons did not take care of the business of the Jewish people, and they will not succeed you.
The Gemara (Bava Batra 109b) goes even further: it states that Moshe Rabbeinu’s grandson and the latter’s children were idolatrous priests. Moshe Rabbeinu’s grandson! Far be it from me, God forbid, to judge Moshe Rabbeinu’s priorities; he clearly felt the whole weight of the Jewish people, the future of Jewish history, on his shoulders; but was it at the expense of Gershom and Eliezer?
I feel very strongly about the need for personal attention in child-raising, and have tried to put it into practice. I, too, was raised that way. A number of my rebbe’im also used to speak of the value of learning with one’s children. The Rav once said that when one gets to Olam Ha-ba, he is going to be asked, “Based on what do you deserve entry to Olam Ha-ba?” Personally, he mentioned three things, one of which was that he learned with his children.
I remember a derasha that Rav Yitzchak Hutner z”l gave around Shavuot one year when I attended Yeshivat Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin. He discussed the gemara in Bava Batra (21a) that “Yehoshua ben Gamla is to be remembered for the good,” because he founded a network of Jewish education. Before his time, everybody had studied with his own child or hired a private tutor, but he founded schools. The rosh yeshiva said that historians, secular historians in particular, think of this as a great event, resolving the chaos of home education with something systematic: schools, buildings, educational infrastructure. To the contrary, Rav Hutner said, it was a sad day; the ideal is to follow the literal meaning of the verse, “You shall teach them to your children” (Devarim 11:19). The rosh yeshiva would frequently discuss with us the need to study with one’s son or one’s daughter, just as verse states.
According to the Rav, talmud Torah is an important aspect of the interpersonal, emotional, and existential bond between a parent and a child. When the love for Torah embraces an intergenerational link, that enhances the learning. When our first son was born in the early 1960’s, I was strongly involved with Yavneh (the national campus organization of American and Canadian religious university students) as a member of its National Advisory Board. The Rav thought that my considerable involvement might divert my energies from other, more important things. At the bris we spoke, and he quoted the verse, “For Yitzchak shall be your true offspring” (Bereishit 21:12). God tells Avraham: Do not worry too much about Yishmael, for Yitzchak will be your successor. What the Rav was telling me was: Remember, raising your son is the priority.
One pays a price for this attitude to child-raising. I am not telling you that were it not for my children I would be a “gaon olam,” but you pay a price. However, that is a price that you should be very well ready and willing to pay, and thank God every morning for the ability to pay it. It is a source of joy beyond words.
Let me digress momentarily for a personal anecdote. My eldest child is Rav Mosheh. We made aliyah when he was ten, and when he attended high school at Netiv Meir, I spent a lot of time learning with him and with our second son, Rav Yitzchak. When Rav Mosheh finished high school, we sent him to the States to study with the Rav. I drove him to the airport, and when he was about to leave – I was going one way, he was going the other – we embraced and did not exchange one word. My wife was then visiting her father in the States, and I wrote to her, “It was worth spending seventeen years of learning, of chinukh in Torah and mitzvot, for a one-minute embrace.” And my son came away with the same feeling.
Raising children is a lot of work, and it is one of the greatest joys in the world – one of the greatest responsibilities and greatest privileges. There are very few people about whom it can be genuinely be said that there is something objectively more important in their life than raising children. Every child is a world unto himself, and should be treated with sensitivity, understanding, warmth, and love.
These things are not in textbooks; you will not find instructions about what kind of mixture to have between the assertion of authority, on the one hand, and warmth and love, on the other. People often presume that Halakha has the answer to everything. Press the right key, push the right button, open up to the right page, look it up, and it is there. And if it is not there, it is only because we have not gotten around to it yet; you have the misfortune of being born twenty years before somebody will write the answer to your question. But if you wait twenty years, the answer will be there. This attitude is absolutely incorrect!
We do not do any favors to God, or to the world of Halakha, by pretending that it has what it does not have, and what – from my point of view – it does not need to have and does not want to have. Though the world of Torah is rich and demanding, though it encompasses so many areas of human life, it does not have the precise answer to everything – and this is true in some of the most significant areas of human life. For example, I wrote an article in Tradition about an area which I am not going to discuss now, marital relationships. There are certain elements of marriage which are halakhot, and so many elements that are not Halakha. What kind of relationship do you have with your spouse? How intense, how superficial, how cordial? Halakha does not tell you.
To return to the issue at hand, what kind of parent are you? Do you intend the relationship to be formal or chummy? The Gemara (Kiddushin 32a) teaches that a father who foregoes the honor due him may do so; does it say anywhere whether a parent should do so? There are differences between cultures and families. When we are at home, my children can poke fun at my wife and at me. It is part of the scene, and we take it in stride and with joy. One would never have spoken in that way in my parents’ home, and it would never even have occurred to anyone to speak that way in the Rav’s family. It is not that the degree or quality of the love is different, but the manifestation is different.
To be sure, a parent must have the ability to be assertive and to radiate and communicate authority. A parent is not just a playmate, an older sibling. The parent represents values, represents the world of Judaism; a parent is to the young child, and subsequently to the adolescent child, God’s plenipotentiary. He represents the Ribbono shel Olam in his home! Parents represent moral, spiritual, and religious values. As such, to some extent, one must speak with a voice of authority. Still, Teddy Roosevelt’s aphorism, “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” requires modification: I would say that a parent must learn to speak softly without carrying a stick, and yet with a clear voice of authority. A parent should not just be a schoolteacher; it is a relationship of Ve-nafesho keshura be-nafesho, “And his soul is bound up with his soul” (Bereishit 44:30).
In this vein, there are certain issues that need to be dealt with, to which I do not think one can give a single answer; every person must provide his own answer. I mentioned that I come from the Brisker tradition. Brisk was very, very authoritarian, and this in two respects. First, although in learning one could challenge a parent’s authority, one could not challenge it in practice. Second, they set a very high standard. It was very demanding, and the result was like “swinging for the fences” in baseball: more home runs and more strikeouts. In almost every generation there were people who paid a price, a price in simple mental health, because they cracked and could not advance. But, at the same time, this environment produced Torah giants.
Parents must ask themselves to what extent they want to “swing for the fences.” The night before one of my children married, he raised this issue with me. I described to him how I saw other contexts where a steep price had been paid for swinging for the fences, and I said that a double is also enough. But it is a personalized, individual decision.
One of the most fascinating autobiographies of the nineteenth century was written by John Stuart Mill. His father did not just swing for the fences, he wanted to hit it out of the ballpark. In his autobiography, Mill describes the education he received. When he was a toddler, the father would let him “play” with Aristotle. If he went for a walk with his father, he was to discuss Aristotle and logic, or Plato and metaphysics. There were no playmates: he never even realized that there were playmates in the world; he simply was raised in a separate environment, and he was a marvel. But at the age of twenty he had a nervous breakdown. What pulled him out of the nervous breakdown was not Plato, not Aristotle, not Aquinas; it was Wordsworth’s poetry.
That is an extreme example. I am not suggesting that everybody who is strict with his children or demanding is running the risk of inducing a nervous breakdown. But at some point, and this is true of the mitzva of chinukh generally as well, you have to decide upon the proper mix – particularly in the home, where it is so critical, even more than in the classroom. In a classroom, too, you have to decide: you can be strict and get results, but at what cost? The result may be that the student knows the material very well, but will develop no love for it – and also no love for you, and no love for God, whom you are representing. Alternatively, you can be gentle and pleasant: he may love you, but he may not know much.
This is a tug which I have always felt as an educator, and I never know whether or not I provide the proper mix. Every so often I read about people who are not as concerned as I am with values, but are concerned with getting results. When I was running the RIETS Kollel in the States in the 1960s, Vince Lombardi coached the Green Bay Packers. Lombardi’s results from his players were unparalleled, astounding! But they hated him. Perhaps if you are a football coach and you are hated, it is one thing. However, if you are a parent and you are hated, it is something else. And if you are an educator who is hated, it is something else entirely.
In particular, if you are concerned with raising children religiously in today’s environment, there are risks that one could have taken at one time, but are now much more problematic. I sense this regarding chinukh in general, and regarding the primary educator – the parent – as well. At one time, if you were very hard on students, and they didn’t like you, they left your school, and went from one educational framework to another. Today, a child drops out of school, he drops out of Shabbat, he drops out of God. Teachers, and even more so parents, must find the proper combination of communicating values and making demands but radiating love; this is the mix that defines raising children.
A comparison with the appropriate role of grandparents will help sharpen the complexity of the parental relationship. Chazal expound the verse, “So shall you say (tomar) to the house of Yaakov and tell (tagged) to the children of Israel” (Shemot 19:3): “tagged” means those things that are harsh, and those should be told to the men, who are more assertive, more authoritarian; “tomar” indicates softer language, which is directed at the “house of Yaakov,” that is, the women. There is an analogous verse, “Ask your father and he will tell you (ve-yaggedekha); your elders and they shall say (ve-yomeru) to you” (Devarim 32:7): the father is authoritarian, assertive; the grandparent is softer. I have occasionally quoted C.S. Lewis’s statement that many people “want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in Heaven.” I think that grandfathers represent and inculcate values, but the nature of the relationship is such that they cannot be as stern.
This approach should occasionally influence the parents as well. In translating the verse, “We have an elderly father, and a small youngest child” (Bereishit 44:20), Onkelos translates the phrase “elderly father” as “Abba sabba,” literally, a father who is a grandfather. Sometimes the father has to learn to be a grandfather, too.
Recently, a student quoted me as saying that a father should be ready both to learn with his children and play ball with them. He said I then added that if you want the child to want to learn with you, you have to play ball with him. I am not sure you have to; but despite not remembering making this particular statement, it is the sort of thing I would have said. Still, there is one clarification I want to make. I did not play ball with my children as a trick, as a tactic. I did not think, “Today I’ll play basketball with him, and in a year we will learn Minchat Chinukh.” I don’t think one should approach it that way. There is joy, there is wonder, in the ability to play with one’s children; it is not simply a tool, not just instrumental. It is a joy in its own right, and one of the joys which I think God fully permits us and wants us to participate in. I don’t harbor any guilt about playing ball with my children, nor do I regard it as a wasted day. It is part of what being a family is all about.
Raising children is part of an educational endeavor, both in terms of Torah learning and in terms of ethical, religious, and spiritual growth. What kind of person is this child going to be? That is very often a direct educational endeavor. But no less important is the indirect educational endeavor. How you behave towards the child, what climate you create in the home, impacts him definitively. Children are very smart. If you bluff, they will see straight through you. You cannot expect a child to study Torah if you do not learn yourself. But I don’t want to focus too sharply, too exclusively, on the cognitive development: communicating knowledge, love of Torah, love of knowledge. Developing character is more important than knowledge. That is true in a yeshiva, and it is true in a home. This is what we mean by “yirato kodemet le-chokhmato,” one’s fear of Heaven must precede his wisdom.
A home is a total environment that encompasses many dimensions – not only the cognitive and the moral, but the joys, the labors, and the tensions; all of these arise, and you have to know how to handle them. There are indeed tensions; to see that, you need merely open Sefer Bereishit. You have to be ready to meet the challenges. Some issues are very deeply ingrained and cannot be altogether eliminated. But you can channel, you can soften; you can try to have quiet conversations.
The Gemara in Shabbat (10b) says that a person should not discriminate between his children, to privilege one over the others, and the proof is from the book of Bereishit: Yaakov did it, and look what happened to Yosef! Rambam goes even further than Chazal, adding a small phrase: “One should not discriminate between his children even in the slightest way” (Hilkhot Nachalot 6:13). I am not sure that one can live up to such a high standard. Usually, however, even if in certain areas you favor one child over another, you can compensate: one goes to camp, the other takes piano lessons. As I said at the beginning, it is an awesome responsibility; but it is a marvelous joy.
Unfortunately, not everyone experiences this joy and privilege. Nechama Leibowitz, one of the most prolific and influential educators of her generation, once said she would give up everything – all her studies, all her books, all her teaching – to have had a child. The tragedy of childlessness is one which is mentioned in Tanakh, Chazal are sensitive to it, and one should be cognizant of it.
Many years ago, on Rosh Ha-shana night, I spoke, inter alia, about the question of childlessness, with reference the Torah reading and the haftara for the first day of Rosh Ha-shana (regarding Sara and Chana, respectively). Afterwards I felt badly, because I saw among those assembled one of our alumni who had been married for five or seven years and still did not have a child. When he later stood in line to wish me a good year, and to be wished a good year, I asked him if I had gone too deep. He said that he had no words to thank me for my understanding of his plight.
Chazal ask why the matriarchs Sara, Rivka, and Rachel were childless, and conversely, why Leah did not experience this problem. Regarding Leah, the Torah answers: “God saw that Leah was hated, and He opened her womb” (Bereishit 29:31). She was rewarded, compensated for being hated. Regarding the others, one remarkable opinion in the midrash states that their childlessness stemmed from God’s desire for the prayers of the righteous. Whatever this difficult passage means, God yearns, thirsts, longs for the prayers of the righteous. And what can be a better impetus to prayer than childlessness?
So, those of us who are fortunate to have children have been blessed, and should be appreciative. As such, we should construct our lives in accordance with the aforementioned principles.
As I mentioned, when my sons were in high school, I used to devote several nights a week to learning with them. Once I met one of the ramim at their high school, and he remarked, “What a wonderful thing! As busy as you are, you find time to come learn with your sons.” I looked at him, and could not understand: “If I can’t find time to learn with my sons, for what will I find time? What is my time for?” But he did not seem to understand a word of what I had told him, so I let it be.
There is a selfish aspect to this as well. We look at our children as a continuation of ourselves, and rightly so. Yet one has to be very careful not to overdo the selfish element. There are parents who destroy their children because they want their children to do what they themselves could not do. I know a woman who wanted to go Barnard College but was not accepted; she made her daughter go there, even though the daughter really wanted to go to Stern College. You have to be able to see things from the perspective of the child, without losing your own perspective. It is not simple. Again, it comes back to the question of authority and the love: to see things from the vantage point of the child while maintaining your vantage point, representing values and representing a certain world order.
Overall, parenting is a tall order, but it generates some of the most beautiful days in your life. In a sense, it is the small things, the really small things, that can matter most. When my youngest son, Shai, was ten, we had occasion to visit my sister in Kiryat Shmuel, which is on the northern outskirts of Haifa. One summer day, the rest of the family went away, and he and I were left home alone. Since Kiryat Shmuel is about ten kilometers from Akko, I suggested bicycling to Akko. We rode up to Akko and came back by train. One may ask: what is the value of riding a bicycle or taking the train? Yet it was, for him and for me – without exchanging words at the time – a formative, bonding experience, trivial as it may seem. Sometimes, within the context of a relationship, it is the trivial things that are most profoundly meaningful. Without being bombastic about it, without blowing anything out of proportion, that is where bonds are forged and relationships are developed. And you have to start when they are young.
In the family of Rav Ahron Soloveichik z”l, the first three children were boys, born relatively close together. At the bar mitzva of one of his sons, Rav Ahron quoted his mother – an idea he later found in Chizkuni – about the reason for Levi’s name: “This time my husband will accompany me” (Bereishit 29:34). Why did Leah think that specifically “this time” her husband would accompany her? He quoted the midrash that the children were born to Leah in very short order, after seven-month pregnancies. When the first child was born, Leah figured she would take care of him; Yaakov was busy with other things. When the second child was born, she could still carry them both on her own, one child in each arm. But then, soon after, Levi arrived, and she said, “This time my husband will accompany me”: now Yaakov has no choice, for she only has two arms. Rav Ahron mentioned this because he had very much liked the midrash on the verse, “For from the top of rocks I see him, and from the hills I behold him” (Bamidbar 23:9): “‘Rosh tzurim’ – these are the fathers; ‘gevaot’ – these are the mothers” (Bamidbar Rabba 20:19), which expresses the concept of differing roles in parenting for the mother and the father (an idea less popular nowadays). When his children were born, he figured his wife would take care of them as infants, and when they were ready to learn Gemara, he would enter the picture. But he soon came to see how wrong he was. When I was in his shiur in Yeshivat Rabbeinu
But you do not play the professional parent; you play the human parent, who works at parenting out of the depth of his love and commitment: the love of the child, the love of the family, and the love of God.
Let me close with a brief anecdote. On Yom Ha-atzmaut 1973, just prior to Yom Kippur War, there was a big military parade up Keren Ha-yesod Street in Jerusalem. We were new olim, having just come in 1971, and we took our children to see the parade. We went to the home of someone who lived on Keren Ha-yesod, up to their porch, and watched the parade with a number of other people. On this porch we met a Mr. Cohen from Cardiff, Wales. Cardiff is not Bnei Brak, yet all of Mr. Cohen’s children were religious and all of his grandchildren were religious. He himself was not a rav but a simple layman; many Torah giants did not merit what Mr. Cohen did. My wife and I asked him, “Mr. Cohen, how did you raise such a family?” He responded in Yiddish, “To raise children properly, you need two things: good judgment, seikhel, and divine assistance, siyata di-shemaya; and to have seikhel, you also need siyata di-shemaya.”
However, even if you have seikhel and siyata di-shemaya, your heart has to be in the right place. You have to be willing to give, and willing to receive. Family life is all about giving and receiving reciprocally, to children, to parents, to a spouse, in all areas of life. Superficially regarded, raising children is massive giving. But I tell you that it is massive receiving, but massive! The joy and nachas are beyond words.
This sicha was delivered to second-year overseas students at Yeshivat Har Etzion on July 1, 2007. It was adapted by
 Although the Gemara later limits “Torah” to teaching the young child “Torah tziva lanu Moshe” and keriat Shema to the first verse only, the Rambam naturally expands the thrust of the Gemara to correspond to the growth of the child: “Afterwards he should teach [the child] little by little … all according to his development” (Hilkhot Talmud Torah 1:6).
 In this context, the discourse usually relates to the Gemara in Chagiga 6a. Someone who limps is exempt from the pilgrimage to the Temple on the three holidays. What happens if you have a minor who, at this point, limps? On the one hand, were he an adult now, he would be expressly exempt. However, if we determine that by the time he reaches halakhic maturity, he will be able to walk properly, do we say that the obligation of chinukh for pilgrimage is present now? In other words, do we train him for later, or do we relate to the present reality? Of course, it is possible that you do both. The novelty of that Gemara, according to one view, is that whether or not the present obligation exists, the Gemara asks whether there is an additional obligation for the future on top of that. There are many rich discussions relating to the obligation of training children in mitzvot, but that is a subject for another forum.
 “Of Marriage: Relationship and Relations,” Tradition 39:2 (2005), pp. 7-35; reprinted in Gender Relationships in Marriage and Out, ed. Rivkah Blau (New York, 2007), pp. 1-34, and in Rav Lichtenstein’s Varieties of Jewish Experience (Jersey City, 2011), pp. 1-37.
 The Problem of Pain (New York, 1944), p. 28.
 Grandparents are an important piece of the equation. I come from a generation in which, unfortunately, many people did not get to know their grandparents. Because of the war, I saw only one of my four grandparents; when I was three or four, I went in the summer to Milan and met my father’s father. That was it. But, thank God, today grandparents can play a role in their grandchildren’s lives.