A wonderful perk of my position as JFNS Program Director of “Ikkarim: Parenting Through a Jewish Lens,” has been the enrichment of my own family life. A session we ran this past December, in the midst of the “holiday season” had particular resonance for me.
Some people call this “the season to be jolly,” but for me it’s the season of guilt. It is heralded in by Salvation Army representatives, ringing their bells in the grocery stores and subway stations. I know they are only asking for small contributions, but I can’t shake the feeling that the ringing bell is also to solicit larger contributions, so necessary for healing the world’s ills; working with Haiti’s orphans, rebuilding schools in New Orleans, teaching literacy in Africa.
But how can I contribute to the world, when I can barely keep order in my own little corner of the universe? With this question gnawing at my conscious, I found myself looking forward to attending the session “Caring for your Family, Caring for the World,” that Dr. Ronit Ziv-Kreger would be teaching as part of the recent series of “Ikkarim: Parenting through a Jewish Lens” (the program I direct through the Jewish Federation of the North Shore).
And I was not disappointed. Over a muffin and coffee, I savored the hour-and-a-half to engage with others who were preoccupied with similar questions. Ronit opened the session by reading a sentence from Pirkei Avot: “The world stands on three things–the Torah, the [Temple] service, and acts of loving kindness.”
“Why did the sages name these as the three pillars upon which the world stands?” Ronit asked us, and “how might we personally contribute towards strengthening them?” The group was particularly interested in dwelling on the third pillar, “acts of loving kindness.” Given the context of a parenting course, the discussion turned to acts we might do with our families. People listed projects in which they had engaged their children: Volunteering at a soup kitchen, delivering meals to the homebound, buying toys for needy children. I was moved by the earnest dedication of the others in the room, and for a fleeting moment started planning to undertake one of these projects myself.
But that moment passed when I thought back to my long to-do list; diapers, laundry, carpools, play-dates, doctors, lunches… Never mind work. Realistically, how could I reach out to repair the world, with so many needs inside of my very home?
Our discussion helped me find an answer to this question. Judaism takes seriously the individual life-cycle; The sages teach that at different points in our lives we are expected to concentrate on different sorts of endeavors. When I was single, I did take advantage of many wonderful opportunities to engage in acts of loving kindness that sent me traveling across the world, and hope to later in life as well. Now, however, as a mother of young children, it may be alright if I turn inward for a while.
This does not mean abandoning the task at hand. Rather, shifting focus to my three daughters by teaching them to treat one other with loving-kindness; so each learns to empathize with her sisters, to respect them, and to recognize one another’s needs and longings. Such educational moments present themselves in the most mundane household activities; in the way they play together, speak to one another, and share with each other. Success, however, is not mundane at all. Like all of the work we do as parents, it is a noble task to instill in our children the ability to act toward one another with loving-kindness. For this character trait is basic and foundational. It ensures that our children will become adults who can contribute to strengthening the pillars upon which the world rests.