Why Be Mechanech?
By Rabbi Yossi Rosenberg
A man was digging a tunnel which was to provide a means for transporting people and goods from one location to another. As he dug and hollowed out space under the ground, the man continually placed beams and support columns at critical junctions. Often, the placing and anchoring of the supports took him longer than the actual digging of the tunnel itself. Still, the man persevered, keeping at his difficult task, focused solely on his goal of completing the tunnel.
While he shvitzed and shlepped, someone else walked in, beheld what was going on, and looked around incredulously.
“You dug out such a nice tunnel,” the newly-arrived individual exclaimed. “You cleared out a really spacious passageway. What possessed you to then block so much of the space you worked so hard on clearing with these unwieldy beams and columns?! And not only are you blocking so much of your own tunnel, but you’re even breaking your back putting in these blockages! What’s wrong with you? You had such a beautiful, spacious tunnel. Why not leave it as is, clear and unhindered? It could even have provided so much more transportation room to boot.”
The hardworking fellow laughed at the second man’s naiveté. “What you fail to understand,” he explained, “is that had I not expended time, energy and resources putting in all these beams and support columns, we would have been left not with a wider tunnel, but with no tunnel at all! Lacking support and reinforcement at critical junctions, the entire tunnel would simply collapse. The columns that you view as narrowing the passageway are exactly what keep it open and unobstructed with impassable debris.”
Like the fool in our story, many of today’s “progressive” thinkers view our age-old Jewish chinuch ideas and ideals as not only outdated, but as stifling and restrictive. “We don’t want to force Yiddishkeit on our children,” they say. “We want them to choose it of their own volition. It is we,” they insist, “who believe so strongly in Yiddishkeit that we’re okay leaving our children unsheltered and independent and having them choose Yiddishkeit for themselves.”
Lovely words. Words that put us parents who still subscribe to Torah-true ideals of chinuch on the defensive. Words that, for all their beautiful-sounding sentiment, are as foolish as the remark of the man who wanted to keep the tunnel clear, wide and “unobstructed.” Lacking supports, the most beautiful passageway would collapse within seconds. Similarly, a way of life, a belief-system, the most precious heritage we can hand down to our children, needs to be supported and reinforced. Leaving it devoid of any critical support in the name of keeping it from becoming “narrow” or “stifling” is a fool’s recipe for disaster.
Life, by nature of how Hashem created it, is almost never simple or clear-cut. Distractions, doubts, desires and uncertainties pull us on all sides. This is true of educated, mature and believing adults. How much more is it true of children and teenagers who have yet to have their ways and principles solidified.
A lifestyle left wide open and unrestricted will not lead to more of that life, but to its complete collapse. This is simple logic which we all recognize in other areas of life. Supports do not hinder a wonderful structure. They keep it strong, secure and viable. The yeitzer hara which tells us to let our children be, to not “stifle” our lives or their lives with too many rules and restrictions, is just that: a yeitzer hara. It preaches a good game, but it is totally illogical.
Sure, life is easier the less we have to say no to ourselves - and surely to our children and teenagers. We excuse our taking the easy way out, our permissive version of Yiddishkeit, by convincing ourselves that it is we who are the good parents, giving our children a “non-stifling,” more well-rounded and open-minded version of Yiddishkeit.
Such “chinuch,” we tell ourselves with a pat on our backs, will surely last longer.
Yep. About as long as a tunnel can last without any supports or beams before its very openness causes it to collapse in on itself.
The fact is that when it comes to anything else of value, we never take such a lackadaisical attitude. We wouldn’t give our children or teens a twenty-thousand dollar piece of jewelry to run around with as they please, telling ourselves that surely, because they recognize its value, they will be continuously careful and vigilant, never letting their guard down. We wouldn’t trust ourselves to walk around with such an expensive item before placing numerous restrictions and taking protective measures on ourselves.
Simply because we recognize that something of value deserves forethought and constant vigilance. Does it stifle our lifestyles somewhat? Surely it does. We understand, though, that the very restrictions are what will allow us to keep that which we value rather than cause us to lose it.
When Hashem chose Avrohom Avinuto be the father of the Jewish nation, He did so because, “Ki yeda’ativ lema’an asher yetzaveh es bonov ve’es beiso acharov veshomru derech Hashem. I know that he will instruct his children and his household after him, so that they will keep the ways of Hashem” (Vayeirah 18:19).
Hashem Himself, Who understands the value of that which He gave us more than we ever can, clearly spelled out His trust in us to carefully instruct our children to continue in the beautiful ways of Yiddishkeit. He doesn’t expect us to take a back seat and allow things to “develop” on their own.
Does this place us in a position of responsibility, decision-making and rule-enforcing which is not always easy?
Hopefully, though, we believe that our Yiddishkeit is worth more than a twenty-thousand dollar piece of jewelry. Do we allow anyone free and open access to our homes when we have those kinds of valuables in it? Do we freely bring items of such value any place and anywhere, with little regard for our surroundings? Surely we don’t.
Our Yiddishekit and our children deserve no less. How can we ever excuse a lackadaisical attitude to what comes into our homes and what kind of environments we or our children frequent?
We tell ourselves that we are being open-minded, but wouldn’t we be a lot more careful with an envelope of cash?
Children pick up on what’s important to their parents. When a parent obsesses on styles and brand names, the average child picks up an equal respect for those items. In homes where yichus is idolized, children will exhibit similar reverence towards pedigree. When being a mentch is an overriding priority for parents, children of that home will pick up on that as well. The same goes for virtually anything.
Someone recently brought up the question of how a mother, for example, can influence her son to not only respect, but enjoy,Torah study. Mothers, after all, are not exactly sitting down and learning gemara with their children.
The truth, though, is that parents have an overwhelming influence on their children even in areas that they will never do any actual teaching or practicing. Lema’an asher yetzaveh es bonov ve’es beiso acharov. Our attitudes, our level of concern, the amount of resources we spend, and the excitement we exhibit - when it is heartfelt, not a show - impact our children’s psyches deeply and enduringly.
Chinuch doesn’t just “happen.” We must be actively mechanech our family if we hope to see lasting results.
Luckily, Hashem did not leave us to grope in the dark in this area. The Torah, the words of Chazal, and our Rishonim and Acharonim - men of far-reaching wisdom and Divine inspiration - left us with detailed, loving and effective guidance for virtually every personality-type and situation we may ever come across. Not surprisingly, we see time and again how the thousand-year-old words of Chazal are more in tune and relevant in addressing and understanding the most current situations and complexities than the overwhelming majority of non-Torah-based parenting or educational advice or advisors proliferating nowadays like mushrooms after a rain.
Seems that the ever-changing, often-clueless and virtually always ultimately unsuccessful “ingenious” methods and innovations we’re constantly bombarded with can’t hold a candle to the penetrating and far-seeing wisdom of the Torah.