What Is Parenting?

Transmitting Jewish culture by embodying Jewish practice is part of the responsibilities of Jewish parenting.

Commentary on Parashat Bamidbar, Numbers 1:1-4:20

One of the greatest mitzvot (commandments) in the Torah, the very first command given to humanity, is that of bearing children. “Be fruitful and multiply” is the necessary underpinning of any Jewish community, since without renewed Jewish people, there can be no Torah, nor any Judaism either.

But parenting is more than simple biology. Any animal can spawn, and most animals have the necessary instincts to guide their young through a relatively brief infancy before the new generation takes off on its own, guided by its own internal barometer. Humans are distinctive in the extraordinary length of our infancy and youth, the extreme degree of dependence of our young, and our lack of instincts on which to fall back to guide us in raising our children.

Instead of biological drives, we rely on social norms and religious values to guide our parenting and to mold our children. Our friends, our parents, books, rabbis, magazines and popular psychologists all instruct us about how to raise our children and what standards and expectations we can rightly apply to them. Human parenting, then, is executed within a network of other adults, and is guided by the cumulative experience of our own communities.

In this sense, anthropologists also speak of the transmission of a traditional culture in similar terms. A culture is normally passed from one generation to another, from knowledgeable adult to learning child. Since the adult has imbibed the norms and practices of the culture from older acculturated adults, this transmission is often simply through exposure and through example — the stuff that memories are made of, i.e., watching Bubbe (Yiddish for Grandma) lighting Shabbat candles, sitting next to Zeyde (Yiddish for Grandpa) at a Passover seder.

The Torah records that point clearly in this week’s reading. The Torah portion opens by noting, “This is the line of Aaron and Moses at the time when the Lord spoke with Moses on Mount Sinai. These were the names of Aaron’s sons . . . ” What follows is a list of Aaron’s children and grandchildren.

This strange juxtaposition of Moses’ name with Aaron’s children raises an obvious question. In the words of the Midrash Bamidbar Rabbah, “Surely, ‘the line of Moses’ is not required here! Why, then, is it stated?”

The answer provided by the Midrash is that Moses’ name is listed alongside that of the natural father, Aaron, “out of respect for Moses, in order not to diminish any of his dignity.” Yet, we still must ask, what did Moses do to deserve being listed as a “parent” to Aaron’s children?

The answer is found in the commentary of Rashi (France, 11th century). Rashi tells us that Aaron’s children “are called the line of Moses because he taught them the Torah. This teaches that whoever teaches Torah to the child of a friend, it is accounted as the bearer of the child.” Moses makes himself the equivalent of a parent by providing the Jewish identity of Jewish children. By teaching them who they are and where they belong, he really does perform the deeds of parenting.

As the children watched Moses fast on Yom Kippur, study Torah, build a sukkah, care for widows and orphans, eat matzah on Passover, keep kosher, dispense justice and observe the Sabbath, they absorbed his Jewishness without even knowing it. By teaching them the Hebrew alphabet, how to pray, study and live as Jews, Moses assured the continuity of Judaism and the Jewish People. Isn’t that precisely the role of the Jewish parent throughout time?

Today, far too many of us live without the ability to be Jewish parents to our children. Instead of teaching Judaism to them, we learn from them what they have gleaned from religious school. In many homes, parents are unable to parent their children in this most important area of the child’s identity. How can we rectify that imbalance?

Every synagogue in existence is really an empowerment center, dedicated to providing Jews with the ability and knowledge to create Jewish homes and to teach their children Jewish ways and Jewish values.

Ignorance is no sin, unless it is the result of deliberate choice. Putting parenting back in the hands of Jewish mothers and fathers is precisely what rabbis, educators and adult education programs are eager to do. So, reach out to these potential parents of you and your children. Go and learn!

Reprinted with permission from American Jewish University.


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