Rabbi Grossman's Reflections

Character Education Through the Timeless Wisdom of Pirkei Avot

One of the strongest points of pushback educators encounter in teaching teens to be Torah observant Jews is when we instruct them that halacha demands particular emotions. Children, by and large, accept that Judaism mandates that they do certain things: eat certain foods, put on tefillin, wash before eating, light Shabbat candles, give tzedaka, and refrain from using electronics on Shabbat and Yom Tov. To be sure, students often do not want to actually do these things, just as they often do not want to do their homework or do their chores. But in principle, they understand that God demands actions and behaviors in the same way that they understand that parents and teachers make similar demands. In short, they know and accept that there are things they should do that they don't necessary want to do.

(As an aside, one should not be deceived by protestations such as "this is so pointless!" or "why do I need to do this?" which are part of the stockpile of artillery in the teen arsenal of verbal weapons-to-get-out-of-doing-things. To use a popular political idiom, such statements should be taken seriously, but not literally. These remonstrations are almost always expressions of frustration at the need to fulfill obligations, and not challenges to the underlying assumption that there are responsibilities that need to be carried out.)

In my experience, this is not the case when it comes to religious demands on emotions. Here, young adults express what appears to be a genuine antipathy for the idea that anyone – parents, rabbis, other adults, or God Himself – could tell them how to feel. Take, for example, the three-week period in the summer, including the first nine days of the month of Av, during which Judaism expects us to experience – in the bright and cheerful days of July and August – sadness and grief over the loss of the ancient Temple. In working with Jewish children in the time before Tisha B'Av, the sentiment I encounter often is, "how can you tell me to feel sad when I don't?"

Or the inverse: Just as halacha tells us that we must reduce our joy when the month of Av begins, we are told to accentuate our happiness at the onset of the month of Adar. But what if you are just not feeling it? How can we require children who are stressed or even sad in the middle of the school year to spontaneously feel cheerful simply because that is what Jewish law demands?

Religious requirements on our feelings are not limited to particular seasons, but are in fact a daily demand: the opening words of the Shulchan Aruch, the main code of Jewish Law, admonish us to wake up each day for davening energized, like a lion roused and ready to serve its master. I have met very few teens – and not a great number of adults either – who embrace and exhibit this early morning exuberance as they enter Shacharit services.

Teaching that halacha makes emotional as well as physical demands is a part of religious child rearing that is critical to character education. While we must always be sensitive to what our children are feeling, if we are to raise children who are mensches, we must teach them that sometimes the world around us requires us to feel a way that is counter to our own emotions in the moment. This is what is meant by empathy – the idea that we must mimic the feelings of others if we are truly to relate to them in a deep way. If our children attend a friend's bar mitzvah, bat mitzvah, or birthday party, it is important that they do so in genuine good spirits. Conversely, if peers are experiencing sadness and loss, it is important that our children adopt an attitude of sorrow in their presence, even if their own lives at the moment are, we hope, happy and content.

Halacha trains us to reach beyond ourselves and be cognizant of the emotional state of others and of the community. When the Jewish people are collectively celebrating, we celebrate together, regardless of how we are feeling as individuals; and when it is a time of communal mourning, our personal contentment takes a back seat to the sad spirit of our nation.

We are in a period now, which began with Pesach and continues through Rosh Hashanah, when it is a minhag, a custom, to study Pirkei Avot every Shabbat (Rema, Orach Chaim, 292:2). One of the most compelling explanations for the practice of studying Pirkei Avot particularly during the months of spring and summer, is that this is the season when we are most likely to become lax in our own ethical thoughts and practices. Pirkei Avot, more than any other text, focuses on good character and the importance of Torah study for becoming a better person; how to put the feelings of others before our own feelings. Rabbis over the generations were keenly aware that the long lazy days of summer could provide too much idle time for improper ideas and actions.

Daniella Moffson Pirkei Avot
The Ramaz Pirkei Avot, written in memory of Daniella Moffson z"l, is filled with commentaries by our students and teachers that will bring this text alive for your family.

With a lighter schedule and with students away from their studies, there is more time for gossip and focus on social dynamics rather than for Torah and other matters of substance. Regular summer study of Pirkei Avot is meant to ensure that even when we are enjoying our own well-deserved feelings of relaxation and freedom, we must always think first and foremost about the feelings of others.

I encourage you take the opportunity this summer, ideally on Shabbat afternoon, to read Pirkei Avot as a family and discuss with your children the importance of always being sensitive to the feelings of others.

Posted by webmaster on Monday June 5 at 12:12PM
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