The Fundamentals of Parenting
The Fundamentals of Parenting
Rabbi Fohrman explores what might be the Torah's guide to parenting.
Hi, I’m Beth Lesch, and you’re watching Aleph Beta.
Let’s say - hypothetically - that my 3-year-old son is having a hard time sharing his toys when his friend comes over. It’s getting ugly, fast. But then, a stroke of genius: I take out a timer and explain that each child can take a 5-minute turn with the dump truck, before handing it over to his friend. There’s a struggle at first, but then it seems to be working. A nonviolent transfer of power among preschoolers. Again, this is all hypothetical... but, hypothetically, I’m feeling pretty good about my parenting skills!
Then nighttime rolls around, and I find myself googling: “how to help kids to share” (that was probably my first mistake). Now I’m staring at this article entitled, “Throw Away your Timer: Why Kids Learn More When They Don't ‘Share.’” The author says that if you force kids to share — then they’ll develop a negative association with sharing. And... now I’m doubting myself. Am I inflicting some horrible damage on my kid? Is he going to be emotionally handicapped for life? But who wrote this article, anyway? No PhD in child psychology… but she’s written two books about parenting. But… anyone can publish a book nowadays, right? Besides, she doesn’t know my kid.
If it were just this one article, I’d shrug it off. But I keep googling (second mistake!), and when I do, I find that there are other voices chiming into this debate: The positive parenting approach to sharing. The attachment approach. The Montessori approach. And now, I feel completely lost --, and I have no clue what I’ll do the next time a fight breaks out over the dump truck.
And this is just one of 372 uncertainties that we face as parents, like how to get my kids to like vegetables, to deal with disappointment, to sleep through the night, to make friends easily, and to feel good about themselves. There are dozens of books written about each of these topics… and I’ll never be able to read all of them. And it’s not like this problem is going to go away when my kids get older. Each stage of a child’s development, all the way until adulthood, brings with it a whole new basket-full of challenges and questions: How do I teach my kids good study skills? What if I suspect that they’re being bullied… or are bullying someone else? Should I be nervous about their use of social media? How do I react when my 15-year old wants to start dating? Those fights over sharing are starting to look pretty good, right?
When you think about parenting as tackling 372 different problems, and you feel like getting even one of them wrong is going to have huge consequences for your child’s physical, social or emotional well-being - it’s completely overwhelming. But what if we could think about parenting differently? As one thing, one single undertaking? What if we could articulate, in 30 seconds or less, the one primary, overarching job of parenting?: “This is what our kids fundamentally need from us...”
So then when you come across a question about sharing, or bullying, or dating… It won’t send you into a panic. You’ll see it for what it is: that you’re a parent with a framework, a parent who knows what your kid fundamentally needs… and along the way, you confront new situations and you have to sort out the details. I don’t know about you, but having a framework like that would give me a lot of clarity. It would give me serenity.
Where could we find such a framework? More googling? I think we can agree that that’s a bad idea.
3:46 in beth video footage
I’ve got a different idea. Rabbi Fohrman created a video about Birkat Kohanim, the Priestly Blessing and its connections to parenting — it happens to be one of my favorite videos here at Aleph Beta. And when I watched it — it actually helped to put my parental anxieties to rest. It gave me that framework that I was looking for. What do my kids need from me?
I want to show you that video now, and then I’ll come back to talk to you about it. Rabbi Fohrman starts his video by taking you through the verses of Birkat Kohanim. Here you go:
I think such a framework exists in the Torah… in Birkat Kohanim, the priestly blessing. Now hold up - this notion that the priestly blessing is actually a parenting “instruction manual” may strike you as sort of random and faintly ridiculous. I hear that. But maybe there’s a logic here. Think about what the priestly blessing actually is:
יְבָרֶכְךָ יְהוָה וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ.
May God bless you and keep you.
יָאֵר יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ וִיחֻנֶּךָּ.
May God shine His face upon you and grant you grace.
יִשָּׂא יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם.
May God lift up His face toward you and grant you peace. (Numbers 6:24-26)
We are praying that God should relate to us in a positive way. And God relates to us, most fundamentally, as a Parent. God created us, gives us what we need to grow, teaches us right from wrong. So yeah, we as human parents could really learn a lot from the way that God “parents” us, so to speak.
Rabbi Fohrman offers a fascinating study of these verses, where he grapples with exactly the issues that we’re raising. I’m going to hand it over to Rabbi Fohrman to take you through the verses:
Here are the verses, yevarechecha Hashem v'yishmerecha, we usually translate this: 'may God bless you, keep you and may he watch over you.' Yaer Hashem panav eleicha vihunecha, 'let God shine his face upon you and grant you grace.' Yisa Hashem panav eleicha 'let God lift his face towards you,' v'yasem lecha shalom, 'and grant you peace.'
Now when we think about these three verses, they kind of strike us as biblical poetry. Biblical poetry is hard to understand even under the best of circumstances. It’s poetry, first of all, it is written in another language, second of all, and in very general overarching terms, these verses seem to be suggesting or praying that God should have some sort of positive influence and involvement in our lives - but can we nail it down a little bit more specifically than that?
So let's try it and let's begin with some very basic questions.
For example, how do each of these verses differ from each other? Are they just kind of saying the same things in different words or are they saying three different things? And if so, what are they? Notice, for example, that the expression panim appears often but it appears only in the second two verses. Panim means face. It does not appear in the first verse. Is there a reason for that?
And if we can discern a difference between the three different verses, is there a progression between them? Does verse one lead to verse two in any kind of way? Does verse two lead to verse three? How do the verses connect? These are the questions I want to focus on with you.
If we answer those questions effectively, we will not just find windows into the textual problems here with how the blessings hang together, we will also understand how they guide us as parents.
Here's blessing number one, yevarechecha Hashem v'yishmerecha, 'may God bless you and keep you.' The first question you have to ask is: What does the word 'Bless' really mean? It is a nice spiritual-sounding word; can we pin it down?
Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, a principle student of the Gra, the Vilna Gaon, he lived a few centuries ago – he writes about this in his classic work Nefesh HaChayim, and he argues that the word “blessing” doesn't just sort of have vague, spiritual qualities but has a very concrete meaning in the sense of “increase.” The word 'blessing' is associated with the idea of multiplying, increasing something. When we ask God to bless something, we are asking him to increase it. So for example, in Deuteronomy chapter 7, when it says, “uberach pri-betnecha upri-admatecha,” that God will bless the fruit of your womb, will bless the fruit of the earth, it means that He’ll increase these things. You will have lots of children, you will have plenty of food coming from crops. And indeed that notion of blessing has been associated with increase is actually hinted at in the very letters that comprise the word. The word bracha comes from the three letter root, barech: bet, resh, chaf. And you may be familiar with the notion that the various letters of the Hebrew alphabet are associated with numeric values; aleph associated with one, bet associated with two, gimmel three, and so on, and if you follow these numerical values known as gematria, you can see kind of a pattern here in this word: bet, numerical value as two, resh, the numerical value is 200, chaf, the numerical value is 20. They are all about twos, twos, that number of multiplicity, increasing: increasing in the ones, increasing in the tens, increasing in the hundreds, it’s all about increase.
So if you think about this word in the context of the blessing of the kohanim and in the context of parenting, you might say that we are asking God to be a wonderful parent to us. What does it mean to be a wonderful parent? Very first thing it means is to bless your child, to seek to multiply their strength, to build them up in whatever ways we can. It is the fundamental obligation of parenthood. To build up a child's physical strength, to nourish that by feeding them, to build up their emotional strength, to give them resilience, to build up their intellectual strength through education, to build up their moral strength by helping them to discern right from wrong in all sorts of ways, to build up their own power to provide, to provide for their families by giving them the tools to learn a trade, to learn a profession.
Our fundamental job as parents is to increase our children in all sorts of ways and whatever ways we can, to help them grow — but that's not the only obligation we have because it is coupled with another one: yevarechecha Hashem v'yishmerecha, 'may God bless you and keep you.' Yishmerecha means to watch over you, to guard you.
The second fundamental obligation of parents which goes in tandem with blessing is watching over them, ensuring their safety, keeping them from harm. Sometimes that harm can come from the outside. You give your kid rules, only cross at the crosswalks. Look both ways. Sometimes the harm can come from the inside, children can veer off in irresponsible directions and there the need to discipline the child emerges, to protect them, sometimes, from themselves. But discipline is always a function of keeping the child safe in some way or another. It’s really the only rationale for discipline. You don't discipline a child for your needs as a parent. You don't discipline them because they make you look funny at the mall or “What will the neighbors say if Junior acts out like this?” That’s not for the kid, that's for you. The rationale for discipline is to watch over them so that they can grow. Yevarechecha v'yishmerecha, 'Bless and watch over.'
So these are the first two fundamental obligations of parenting but they are not the last. The rest of birkat kohanim outlines the rest of the parenting package, what else it is that we are required to do with respect to our child.
What are the next two fundamental phases of parenting — 'Let God shine his face upon you and grant you grace' — how is it different from what comes next, 'Let God lift up his face towards you and grant you peace.'
The theory that I would like to suggest to you is that hidden within birkat kohanim, expressed within these words, are three different aspects of parenting that build on each other. You can't get to the second phage without doing the first and you can't get to the third without doing the first two. The fundamentals are blessing and watching over you but that opens up a door. It gives you the ability to move on to the next stage of parenting and once you get there and you master stage number two, it gives you the ability to achieve the third level and to integrate that with how you relate with your child as well.
Each of these three phases of parenting, I want to suggest to you, is associated with a certain phase in the child's life. At different phases, different kinds of parenting are more appropriate than others. So if blessing a child and guarding over them is something we must do as parents throughout a child's life, is there a particular phase within a child's life when those obligations are most prevalent? Let me ask you this: When do they begin, these obligations, to bless and to guard over? Many of us might say that they begin at birth — but I would like to argue that that's wrong. They actually begin before birth, they begin in the womb. Indeed that's what a womb does. The fundamental job of the womb is to increase a child, to literally physically build them up, to build the child. That is the source of the idea of blessing and the womb is also the source for the idea of guarding, of watching over because the other thing the womb does is it provides a pristine environment that protects the child from all sorts of harm. It gives them a place, a safe place in which they can grow.
Throughout a child's life, we have those two obligations: to provide a safe place for our children and help to build them, but those obligations start in the womb — and in fact if you think about it deeply, those two obligations, yevarechecha v'yishmerecha to bless and to guard, actually boil down to one Hebrew word, a word that is derivative from the word for womb.
What is the word for womb in Hebrew? It is rechem. There's a quality that parents evince towards the child and we call it rachamim. Rachamim is compassion. Compassion has two sub-categories: what does it mean to have compassion upon someone? It means to nurture them, to help them grow and to keep them safe so that they can grow. That's what the womb does, that's what compassion is.
But compassion is not the only thing that we do as parents. A good parent does more, because if compassion is the fundamental building block of parenthood, you can build on those blocks. And that brings us to the next two parts of birkat kohanim.
So, what are they about?
"Ya'eir Hashem panav eilecha v'yechuneka," how should we translate those words? Ya'eir means to shine or to illuminate. Now a little puzzle presents itself. Ya'eir is a verb; what is the direct object of the verb? One way to read the verse is that the direct object is eilecha, you, which is to say: let God shine His face upon you. But there is another possible way to read the verse, a way suggested by Rashi. What if the direct object of the verb was not you, but is panav, God's face? What if you read the verse this way, "ya'eir Hashem panav," let God illuminate His own face towards you.
It means, let God light up His face when He sees you. He can't help but beam, His whole face lights up. This, in fact, is how Rashi asks us to translate this phrase. "Yir'eh lecha panim sochkot," Rashi says. Let God smile, let Him show you a beautiful, happy disposition.
"V'yechuneka," let Him grant you grace. What does grace mean? The Hebrew word chein comes from the word lechanein, also related to chinam, for free; to give for free. It's completely undeserved love. It's what we might call unconditional love. It's different than rachamim, compassion. Compassion is the love that I bestow in order to attain something. It is conditional. I'm trying to build you up. I have a goal. Theoretically, if a parent would see that a child has absolutely no potential, there would be no room for compassion kind of love. It's impossible to build. Indeed, a womb is very discerning about the rachamim that it bestows. It bestows this compassion, this nurturing, only if it perceives potential. If it does not perceive potential, there will be a miscarriage.
Rachamim is not unconditional love, but chein, grace, that is unconditional. It's love that has no goal. It's love for its own sake. It's love because you are my child, and I can't help but smile when I look at you. It's the kind of love that every father and mother knows, when their eyes meet the eyes of their child, and they can't help but smile.
Now, if you think deeply about this, chein doesn't really come from nowhere. It comes not from the future, goals that I will achieve by virtue of bestowing this upon you. It comes from the past, by what I've already put into you. I built you up, I safeguarded you nine months in the womb. Here you are, and I can't help but smile. The moment, the paradigmatic moment of chein, is the moment after birth, the moment when parent holds child, looks down at child, meets eyes of child, and can't help but smile. It's unconditional love. That unconditional love, that meeting of the eyes, ironically is the greatest nourishment that a child's soul can ever get.
Ironically, this kind of love truly fuels the child's growth. It's what a child lives on. Once you have bestowed rachamim, once you've bestowed compassion, once you've cared for your child, safeguarded them, invested in them, built them up, then you can't help but feel chein. The giving of chein is the second kind of love that a parent gives a child.
There's a third kind of love, too, and it appears on the last of the verses of birkat kohanim. The third kind of love is built on the first two. Once you have invested in your child with rachamim, with compassion; once you have spent years bestowing chein, grace upon him, just enjoying the child; you are finally in a position to be able to offer a third kind of love, a much more difficult kind of love to offer. "Yisa Hashem panav eilecha v'yaseim lecha shalom," let God lift up His face towards you, and let Him grant you peace. Interesting. The last two verses of birkat kohanim speak of God's face; the first did not.
The paradigmatic moment of the first type of love, rachamim, compassion, the love of the womb, in the womb the child cannot see the face of the mother. After birth, then the child can see the face of mother. Then what is the job of parent? Parent only has one job at that point: to meet the gaze of their child.
There are two kinds of ways to meet the gaze of their child. The first one, "ya'eir Hashem panav eilecha v'yechuneka," that we just discussed, is unconditional love. It is top-down love. It is when I gaze upon my child vertically, I, the parent, am above, the child is below. The child is defenseless. He can do nothing. Indeed, this love is undeserved. It comes completely from the parent. It is truly top-down love. But there is another kind of love, too, another way to meet the gaze of your child. It's not when you look down at your child; it's when you look across at him and you meet his gaze.
"Yisa Hashem panav eilecha," let God pick up His face. It's as if God's face is downcast. Why would God's face be downcast? It's a moment later in life, after child has become someone that I can look across at horizontally, equal to me. Someone who can choose just like I, parent, can choose. There is, of course, the possibility then that he will choose differently than me.
The parent, in those moments, has a choice to make, a choice whether to avert their eyes or a choice to meet the gaze of their child. If child tries to reconcile with me, to reason with me, to try to explain themselves and I refuse to meet their gaze; if I keep my eyes downcast, what am I really doing? I'm playing with you. I'm keeping you tethered to me. Don't do that, birkat kohanim says.
The blessing that God teaches us to ask of God is God, when we make choices and those choices are not, perhaps, the choices that You would have wanted us to make, allow us the chance to truly reconcile with You, and grant us peace. Look us in the eye. Rashi, "yichbosh kaaso," sublimate your anger. Don't keep us in the state of guilt forever. Meet our eyes. "Veyaseim lecha shalom," and grant us peace.
When we are separate from God, even when we have sinned before God, at the end of the day when all the words have been spoken, let God lift His eyes from the floor and meet our gaze as equals look across at us. When our eyes meet, again it's a moment of love. It's a much more difficult love for a parent to give, but to truly be a parent, it means to be able to let go. It means to able to accept your child, even in moments when they disappoint us. It is one thing to look down at a child and to meet his gaze; that is chein. It is a much harder thing to look across at a child and meet his gaze and give him shalom, give him peace.
I love this reading of Birkat Kohanim — but before we reflect on it, there’s one last clip that I want to share with you, a kind of personal suggestion from Rabbi Fohrman about how these ideas can come alive in your life:
Birkat kohanim is something which I would say to my children every Friday night. This understanding gives me personally more of a handle on what it is that I'm saying. It makes those moments with my children more meaningful to me. If you don't bless your children on Friday nights or any other time regularly, consider doing so. Consider using these precious words of Birkat Kohanim, and bestowing them upon your child. Children love it. They're so delighted to be blessed by their parents.
As your child comes over to you, use those few moments to think about these three kinds of parental love and ask yourself, at this stage in my child's life, which one of those kinds does this child use? Do they need to be built up? Do they need to be guarded? Maybe they need the smile that says I'm just so delighted with them. Maybe they need to see more chein. Or maybe they need peace. Maybe they need me to pick up their chin, to look them in the eye and to tell them that I can go forward with them in love, even when they've chosen differently than I have.
So let’s reflect. I don’t know about you, but I find this video to be very powerful, this notion of the three different kinds of love.
The first kind of love: rachamim. The love of blessing and guarding. It’s the love that says: “I’m going to do everything in my power to help you to grow, and to protect you from harm.”
The second kind of love: chein. Unconditional love. The love that says: “I love you just the way you are. There’s nothing you need to do to earn my love. And there’s nothing that you could ever do that would make me stop loving you.”
And the third kind of love: shalom. Peace. “I recognize that you are your own person. You have my blessing to go your separate way.” It’s love between equals.
These three kinds of love - they’re the big picture. They’re what parenting is really all about.
So to return to my opening dilemma: does Birkat Kohanim tell me which is the right way to teach my kids to share? Sorry to disappoint you, but I don’t think it does. But it solves the issue of anxiety and overwhelm anyway. Because what it does tell me is that, in parenting, some things are high stakes and some things are low stakes. What’s high stakes is the love. Rachamim, chein, and shalom. Our kids need that from us; each one is critical for their growth, and if we’re giving them that, we can go to sleep at night feeling confident that we’re giving them what they need. Everything else —— it’s just a detail. But that immense, overwhelming pressure that we feel to get it right? We can just let that go. Secure in our love, and with God’s help, our kids are going to be fine, timer or no timer.
Now, you can turn off this video here, fully confident in your new-found abilities to be the amazing, calm, self-assured parent you were always meant to be. But, before you go, there’s one other thing I wanted to share - something that, to me, is one of the most powerful implications of Rabbi Fohrman’s teaching. You see, Rabbi Fohrman talked all about how we can look at God, and hopefully learn something about how we parent. But I wonder - does the opposite hold true? Can we look at how we parent, and learn something about God?
Personally, I think the answer is yes. That the experience of being a parent can help you connect more deeply to God.
I don’t just mean that we find ourselves praying to God for our children’s well-being, perhaps more powerfully than we’ve ever prayed for anything before — although that may well be true. I’m thinking about something else.
You see, when I first became a parent, I was completely unprepared for just how crazy I was going to feel about that little dude in the bassinet. I would gaze down at him when he was sleeping, and would just find myself smiling, uncontrollably. It bordered on infatuation — I would miss him so much when he slept that my husband and I, we would actually open up our computers and look at pictures of him, sometimes pictures from earlier that day… it was ridiculous. There was this pure unconditional love, and I knew that there was nothing he could do that would make me stop loving him.
And at some point, it hit me — if this is how parents feel about their kids then… is this how God feels about us? About me? I was totally bowled over. I’d heard people say before that God is our “Heavenly Parent,” that God “loves” us, but it always sounded so fluffy, it never clicked for me. But for the first time, I started to get it.
I would feel this most powerfully in the middle of the night, when my son would wake up and I would go into his room and pick him up and rock him back to sleep, and I’d be standing there, swaying, in this dark room, with my arms wrapped tightly around him. And then, I’d think about God as my parent, and it was almost as if God was there, holding me holding him, arms wrapped tight, swaying. And the whole universe was just us three. The Almighty loved me, unconditionally, He was watching over me. In those moments, I felt it.
But, the truth is, I think there’s also a flip side to this God-as-parent business. Because, as Rabbi Fohrman suggests, being a parent isn’t just about the feel-goodness of loving your kid; there’s a painful side of it, too. The relationship isn’t balanced. We love our kids more than they could ever love us. And there’s something about that which is really, really hard to face. You see, right now, my son is crazy about me: he comes home from school and comes running over with his arms wide open and in those moments, my heart is so full that it hurts, and time seems to stop. But… time never stops. Time keeps marching, and one day, if I do my job right, he’ll become his own person, and I won’t be the first thing he runs to when he gets home. He’ll move out of the house, he’ll go out into the world and make a career and find his true love and they’ll have a baby, and do you know what will happen then? He’s going to make his own life — his own home, his own family — and that’s going to take center-stage… and I’ll be on the sidelines. Sure, he’ll still call, and we’ll see each other, he’ll ask me for advice about how to calm the baby or how to talk with his boss about a raise, and I’ll babysit the grandkids, I’ll be kvelling when he gets the promotion, but… it’ll never be what it is now. He’s always going to be the center of my universe, but I won’t always be the center of his. That’s just how it is.
I know that I’m supposed to want nothing more than for him to grow up and become self-sufficient and make his own life but… if I’m being honest with myself? I think I’ve been half-dreading that day ever since I first held him in my arms. That, I think, is really the ultimate challenge of parenting. Can you do everything in your power to phase yourself out: to raise a kid who is confident, independent, who doesn’t need you? And when the time comes, can you let your kid go?
If that’s how I feel as a parent, it makes me wonder - does that same imbalance exist between us and God? Does God love us more than we love Him? Are we the center of God’s universe, even though God isn’t always the center of ours? And is it hard for Him, whatever that might mean, to let us go, and lead our lives?
When I think about God like that, it sets off a whole chain of thoughts and emotions that I have trouble putting into words. It makes me feel a little bit sad, but also it makes me feel closer to God, the way you feel closer to your parents after you become one yourself. And in a way, it leads me to feel empathy for Him. And that’s not a feeling that I ever expected to feel towards God. But parenting is full of surprises, isn’t it?