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Raising a Child with Soul
How Time-Tested Jewish Wisdom Can Shape Your Child's Character
By Slovie Jungreis-Wolff
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2008 Slovie Jungreis-Wolff
All rights reserved.
Raising Spiritual Children
I gave birth to my son Eli on the holy day of Shabbos. Mendy and I couldn't wait to share the excitement with our family. As soon as the Sabbath was over, my parents drove our children to the hospital to see their new baby brother. We marched to the nursery, looking anxiously through the glass window. Bassinets were lined up in even rows, filled with little blankets of pink and blue. The distinct cries of newborns permeated the air. Finally, we spotted our baby. His soft brown eyes were wide-open. My father's face was aglow with joy. He turned to me and whispered, "This little soul has just arrived from heaven. Our sages teach us that in the heavens above he was learning Torah from the mouths of angels. He came into this world the purest of the pure. Watch over him, Slova Channahlah, and teach him well."
We are given these precious souls, and they are indeed a gift from Above. Parenting is not a simple road. There are many detours and challenges along the way. How do we know which direction to take? How do we know that the path we are leading them on is the best route available? What happens when we lose our way?
I have always been amazed at the amount of planning parents put into the minutest details of their babies' lives. Months before the baby is even born, the baby nurse, nursery colors, the brand of stroller, and even the preschool have all been discussed. As the child grows, so, too, does the List. Swim, karate, ballet, art, French, chess, and tennis lessons from the time they're tots — all ingredients that spell overload for both parents and children. We strive to give our children the best that we possibly can. We worry that they receive proper nutrition, cultural experiences, and an excellent education. What is most painful to me is the fact that rarely have I heard parents discussing their plan to develop their child's soul.
We have become so consumed with thoughts of our child being in the right place, with the right crowd, in the right clothing, but what have we done to help this child become a spiritual being — a person of substance and character? The problem becomes even more acute as our world becomes more obsessed with the pursuit of materialism. When was the last time you heard parents discussing their hopes for their child's moral development? I am afraid that more time is spent researching the type of car we buy than the type of child we hope to raise. We must ask ourselves which qualities we desire for our children. What kind of character traits do we wish to imbue in them?
Each week women are given the unique opportunity to pray for their children. As Jewish women all over the world kindle their Shabbos lights, they utter a plea that has been passed down from mother to daughter for thousands of years. Growing up, I watched my mother encircle the flames with her hands, cover her eyes, and whisper her prayer through her tears. Today, my children observe me each Friday night as I do the same.
I believe that this Sabbath prayer gives us the direction we need when raising our children. We ask G-d: "privilege me to raise children and grandchildren who are wise and understanding, who love G-d, children of truth, holy offspring ... who illuminate the world with Torah and good deeds."
I kindle my Sabbath lights and beseech G-d to help me raise children who will contribute goodness to mankind, children who are blessed with kindness, honesty, compassion, love of G-d, and spirituality. I ask that my children discover courage and inner strength in a world that has been overwhelmed with fear and terror. I want so much more than merely polite children — manners is not a complicated subject. I pray for children who will possess a moral compass pointing them in the right path no matter how difficult the situation. In Yiddish, we call such an individual a mensch.
It is true that there are numerous books written by psychologists and psychiatrists on the subject of child-rearing. The problem is just that — an overabundance of books! Every few years new theories and ideas are introduced. We are told to discard the old techniques and try the latest new-and-improved approach. What is a parent to do? The beauty behind the Torah path to raising children is the fact that Torah is immutable. It is a constant, neverchanging, eternal truth.
The holy Torah was given to the Jewish people by G-d thousands of years ago. We study that very same Torah today. If you open your heart to its wisdom, you will find solutions for every situation you encounter, a way to approach and live your life. Since family is the center of Jewish life, the Torah is a virtual storehouse of information and knowledge concerning the creation of our home.
Decorating an apartment or renovating a house is easy. It is a far more arduous task to transform that house into a home, a haven of spiritual comfort and serenity. I have visited some incredibly beautiful homes. There were magnificent marble floors, lavish powder rooms, endless arrays of bedrooms, and toys enough for an entire kindergarten. As soon as I entered, though, I felt something was missing. A vital ingredient was absent. I realized that it was a sense of peace acquired by living with a spiritual connection that was absent. We try to provide physical and emotional security, but what about our children's spiritual security?
Bringing Spirituality Home
In Judaism we are taught that the key to our survival is the strength of our home. The Torah commands us: Veasu li mikdash veshachanti besocham. "They shall make a Sanctuary for Me so that I may dwell among them." Our sages teach us that these words include the understanding that if we build a home enveloped in sanctity, then G-d promises His presence within. We call this unique home a mikdash me'at — a sanctuary in miniature.
Understand that this is not about creating a physical place of worship. You don't need to build a temple or set up an ark in your living room to discover holiness within your life. It is, instead, a spiritual outlook that encompasses your home and that you take with you wherever you go. The Torah is giving us a personal invitation to embrace holiness in our daily moments of living. It is the way you speak, the way you conduct yourself, the way you relate to your spouse and children as you build your life together. Your entire perception is transformed as sanctity accompanies you throughout your days. It remains embedded deep within your soul.
Children who grow up in a home where the presence of G-d is consistently acknowledged are spiritual children. These families experience genuine warmth and blessing. They develop an awareness of G-d that provides comfort and fortitude even in the face of life's travails and difficulties. There is no life that is completely shielded from problems and pain. Yet, a child raised in a mikdash me'at sees all of life's challenges through a spiritual eye.
My family suffered a tremendous blow when my father was diagnosed with cancer. I vividly recall the moment when I heard the news. I had just finished teaching a class at the Hineni Center. As I was walking down the hall, I met my mother climbing up the stairwell. A single tear was rolling down her cheek. Her face was ashen. "What, Ema, what is it?" I asked, my heart pounding. When she told me of the doctors' diagnosis, I felt as if I would crumble. My father was ill? Impossible! Throughout his entire life, I had seen him only full of life and laughter. His six-foot-two frame and broad shoulders easily carried the weight of the world. There was no burden too heavy for him to bear. Whether it was his family or his congregation, his strong yet kindly presence was a constant reminder of his personal faith and courage. After taking leave of my father, you left the room filled with hope and gladness. His positive spirit was contagious. I can still hear his voice, as he would smile and say, "Shayfelah, my sweet little dear, don't worry. Everything will be all right." He had an extraordinary ability to allay my fears and apprehensions, and I always felt so much better after talking with him.
Now it was my father who had to face worry and fear. He was admitted to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, enduring excruciating treatments and extraordinary pain. Through it all, neither he nor my mother ever lost their faith. I watched, in awe and amazement, as my father transformed his gray hospital room into a place that exuded sanctity. He requested that his holy books be brought from home and transformed the windowsills into bookcases.
My mother never left my father's side. She was a constant companion to him, both day and night. My siblings and I spent every moment we could in the hospital, cherishing each precious second. One afternoon, my father and I had a few moments alone. He motioned to me to come closer. "Please bring me a Chumash, one of the five books of the Torah, and sit beside me," he said. "There is something that I want to tell you, shayfelah."
I brought him the Chumash and he asked that I open it to the portion of Vayechi, in the Book of Genesis. He went on to say: "I want you to read the portion where Jacob is ill. He is ready to leave this world, but before he does, he gives a blessing to his children. Read this out loud, Slova Channahlah."
My heart felt as if it was breaking, shattering into a million pieces. I turned to the verse my father pointed to and read aloud as he had requested. My voice trembled, yet I summoned the strength to read.
And it came to pass after these things that someone said to Joseph, behold your father is ill. So he took his two sons, Menashe and Ephraim with him. ... So Israel exerted himself and sat up on the bed. ... He blessed Joseph and he said, G-d before Whom my forefathers Abraham and Isaac walked ... G-d who shepherds me from my inception until this day, may the angel who redeems me from all evil bless the children and may my name be declared upon them, and the names of my forefathers Abraham and Isaac.
There was silence in the room. "Listen to me," my father began. "When I came to this country so many years ago, I was all alone. I had lost everyone I loved, everyone. I walked through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Where should I go? What should I do? I was all alone. I didn't even know a word of English, but Hashem, G-d, surrounded me with angels. Do you know how I know? Because I met your ema, your zaydah, and your mama. Hashem gave us beautiful children. We started a family and I saw life again. I never thought that I'd see life again."
I began to sob loudly and buried my face in the soft crevice of my father's neck. "But I had the angels of Jacob with me," he continued. Tears rolled down his cheeks slowly. "And now I know that my time has come to leave you. So what could I possibly give you, my child? I was thinking, what would have a lasting meaning? A piece of jewelry? Some money? Of course not." He took my face in his hands and said, "I leave you with my blessing, the blessing of our father Jacob. I leave you with the blessing of the angels. May they always surround you and watch over you and your children and your children's children."
* * *
I will never forget that day. My father's voice remains in my memory, engraved in the depths of my heart. I know that he gave me and my children his most precious gift; he gave me his final blessing.
Parents who create a mikdash me'at, a small sanctuary, can bring light and peace even into a dark and dismal hospital room. They can infuse their children with unique fortitude and strength. I will always be my father's daughter, replete with his blessing to face the challenges of life with faith and resolve. As a parent, you have the awesome opportunity to offer the same precious gift to your child. Mikdash me'at is the key. Let us now unlock our hearts.
Creating a Mikdash Me'at
One Sunday morning, Mendy and I took a trip into Manhattan with our children. We decided to spend the day at Chelsea Piers, an enormous sports complex on the Hudson River. Once inside, the kids decided to attempt the rock-climbing wall. My then four-year-old son, Akiva, insisted on joining his older siblings as they began their ascent. I watched him, harnessed in ropes, as his little figure grew smaller with each step. My heart beat just a little quicker until he finally made it down. I ran over and hugged him hard. "Akiva, weren't you scared?" I asked. "You were so high, so far away!"
He looked at me for a second and then replied simply: "No, Mommy. Of course I wasn't afraid. Why should I be? I was connected!"
It dawned on me that this small child had just uncovered a significant truth. You can go through an array of life experiences, some quite difficult to bear; however, if you feel connected to a higher source, you never have to be afraid.
* * *
There is no question that today's world can be awfully frightening. We are the generation of 9/11. Newspapers are glutted with painful images of war and human suffering. Our children's vocabulary is vastly unlike our own when we were growing up.
Terrorists, suicide missions, roadside bombs, and high school massacres are now common terms in our vernacular. We need only enter the island of Manhattan to see soldiers with machine guns checking out suspicious vans and trucks. Our televisions and the Internet vividly bring the world's disasters into our living rooms. Portraits of grief and terror can shake our children to their very core. Sadly, our children are subjected to this, all before we even attempt to deal with the many difficult childhood struggles that life brings our way.
Enter the world of mikdash me'at. No matter how burdensome a child's day has been he returns to his haven unafraid. Here walls are fortified with more than expensive hardware. A powerful, spiritual bond allows him to rise above life's challenges with renewed strength.
A life imbued with moments of personal sanctity help us create meaning and purpose as we transmit this wisdom to our children.
We, as parents, can enable our children to forge a unique connection with G-d. We have the ability to harness them with pure faith as they scale the various mountains of life. Though there will surely be deep crevices along the way, this spiritual bond allows each child to go forth, motivated and empowered. The challenge we parents face is: how do we construct this mikdash me'at? How do we build this metaphysical sanctuary so that the essence of G-d becomes a constant presence within its walls?
It is not an easy task for families today to prevail. One out of every two marriages ends in divorce. Those marriages that do survive are often riddled with strife and miscommunication. Financial pressures may consume the serenity that was once found within the walls of our homes. Many parents work all day and are exhausted upon returning home at night. When dad (and often mom), finally walk through the door, the children are too busy on their computers, PlayStations, or cell phones to notice. Some families don't even talk together anymore; instead they text message each other to keep in touch. Instead of growing closer, our children end up growing apart from one another and from us. We have become like two ships just passing in the night. Tragically, our mikdash me'at is crumbling. The fabric of our homes is unraveling and fraying at the edges.
In creating our haven, our first priority is to develop a personal relationship with G-d. Most people believe that there are two partners in creation; father and mother. We are taught by our sages that this thought is erroneous. There are really three partners in creation; father, mother, and G-d Himself. From the moment a couple discovers that they are to become parents, this personal relationship begins. There is so much to pray for, so many hopes and dreams for which we yearn.
The Creator of the Universe has chosen this specific soul to be brought into this world through you. Raising this child with soul becomes your life mission. What an awesome and holy task! Take time each day for a few private moments with G-d. Ask that this new life be blessed with good health, a love of G-d and family, joy, inner peace, wisdom, compassion, courage, and the strength to endure life's challenges. Pray for insight and an understanding heart so that you may parent wisely. These are the precious gifts that no amount of money could ever buy. These are the precious blessings that we ask G-d to bequeath to us and our children.
* * *
Once we decide to bring G-d into our lives, it is with great ease that we are able to transmit this spiritual bond to our children. Children who observe parents committed to faith and spiritual pursuits become individuals who are familiar with G-d. They grow up with a profound awareness of the sanctity that lies within each and every one of us. They grow up with soul.
Excerpted from Raising a Child with Soul by Slovie Jungreis-Wolff. Copyright © 2008 Slovie Jungreis-Wolff. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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