April 20, 2024
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Salty Fish or Sweet: Empowering Our Children to Choose (Wisely)

There is a well-known story with Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev who was having a Shabbos meal at the home of Rav Boruch of Mezibuzh. Rav Levi Yitzchak was offered a choice of salty fish or sweet fish. Rav Levi Yitzchak could not make a decision and was becoming so excited by the prospect of having fish l’kavod (for the honor) of Shabbos, he jumped up in excitement as he was known to do, and hit the fish tray in the air. The fish sprayed everywhere and a piece ended up on Rav Boruch’s tallis (which many rebbes wear at their Shabbos meal). Rav Boruch was so inspired by Rav Levi Yitzchak’s inability to choose between the two fish and his love for Shabbos, it is said that he never cleaned his tallis after that Shabbos.

While sometimes it is difficult to choose between two kinds of fish, it is sometimes just easier to choose both kinds. In Rav Levi Yitzchak’s case, his excitement for the mitzvah is inspiring and either choice would be satisfactory. In contrast, we are called upon to make difficult choices, whether in the realms of hashkafa, Halacha, our professions, our relationships with others or our relationship with God that require decisive and hopefully Torah-true decisions. In order to prepare our children to make difficult decisions as adults it is crucial that we prepare them and teach them how to make decisions while they are children and adolescents. The challenge is exactly how to do that, how to teach our children. While this could be the subject of an entire book, I want to look at just two examples in the Torah that are relevant to our current time period that can begin to shed light on this chinuch challenge.

In the haftorah of Parshat Ki Tisa (Melachim Chapter 18), Eliyahu Hanavi was trying desperately to convince many Jews not to worship the idol Baal and to believe in the one true Creator. At the last moment before Eliyahu was going to stand against the prophets of Baal, Eliyahu Hanavi yelled out, “How long will you hop between two ideas?” meaning you can’t serve Hashem and Baal. Eliyahu Hanavi wasn’t preaching to the Jews who already believed in Baal. He was preaching to the Jews who were not sure what they believed in. He was telling them, be strong in what you believe in, don’t be wishy-washy. When we want to teach our children to be strong and make responsible decisions through the prism of Torah, we have to communicate to them clearly what we as parents believe in and help them develop those hashkafot for themselves in a clear and lucid way. Sometimes we as parents are not sure what our outlook and priorities are. We first need to know what we believe in and what we prioritize so we clearly explain those hashkafot to our children. An adolescent who has a mesorah, a tradition from his parents of a clear moral code and a set of priorities, is much more likely to follow that code when difficult decisions arise. His or her parents’ ideals will become a beacon of light in the murky and sometimes confusing situations that will arise throughout life.

As we begin to think about the Purim story, Queen Esther had one of the most difficult decisions a person could ever make. Here she was, a young girl cut off from her people and her support network, in a hostile environment where her predecessor had been violently removed for a little transgression. Yet she had to decide whether to approach her husband, the king, at an improper time, which could get her killed. On the other hand, the meeting with the king could yield in the salvation of her entire people. She was in a state of uncertainty about what to do. The key to her brave decision to confront the king came from her deep emotional trust in Mordechai Hatzadik who emotionally supported her and acted as her confidant throughout this entire emotional ordeal. It wasn’t until Mordechai said to her (Esther 4:14), “וּמִ֣י יוֹדֵ֔עַ אִם־לְעֵ֣ת כָּזֹ֔את הִגַּ֖עַתְּ לַמַּלְכֽוּת,” who knows if maybe you have attained this position for this moment? This crucial piece of encouragement that Mordechai gave Esther changed Jewish history forever. Our children, especially our adolescent children, sometimes feel that only their friends understand them and their parents are just there to physically provide for them. Like Mordechai, we need to constantly remind our children that we are there to support them emotionally and not just physically. When Mordechai originally asked Esther to go to Achashverosh to plead for the Jews, she pushed back with her concerns. Mordechai didn’t dismiss those concerns; he listened to her and replied with a statement of positive affirmation to help Esther flip her doubt and difficult situation into an understanding of the tremendous opportunity that lay before her. We need to earnestly listen to our children and adolescents and validate their concerns.

Adolescents will sometimes (dramatically) portray the particular decision or challenge in front of them as insurmountable and all-encompassing in that their entire (social) life or future rides on a particular decision. Encouraging them to make their own decisions all starts from listening to them and affirming that they are facing a significant challenge even if we as adults might not view it as so significant. The process of strengthening their priorities, solidifying their trust in their parents and affirming their challenges will allow them to make the right decisions even when they are not with us.

By Rabbi Shimon Schenker


Rabbi Shimon Schenker is associate principal of YUHSB.

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