May 19, 2024
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Setting Limits and Expectations

In the middle of this week’s parsha, Moshe (14:1) issues a rousing and inspiring description of our unique connection to the Almighty, as he declares, “Banim atem laHashem Elokeichem,” “You are children to Hashem, your God…” then abruptly the pasuk continues with instructions to the nation not to cut themselves nor make a bald spot between their eyes when mourning the dead.

The flow of the pasuk is difficult to understand. The meforshim struggle to find the connection between the two parts of the pasuk—between our status as God’s children, and the prohibition to self-mutilate out of mourning. There are many other mitzvot or prohibitions that could have been mentioned to highlight our unique relationship with God- why did the Torah specifically mention this prohibition?

But I believe an even more fundamental question should be asked.

When we imagine God as our father, we think of a loving parent who sustains us and gives us all that we need. Based on that imagery, we would’ve expected the continuation of the pasuk to describe the many things that God gives us as an expression of this father-child relationship. Why does the Torah instead reference restrictions that Hashem places on us? In what way are restrictions, any restrictions, a demonstration of His being our Father?!

It appears the Torah is teaching us an incredibly important lesson about the parent-child relationship, and about parenting in general. Although the foundation of the parent-child relationship is the unyielding love the parent has for the child, that love is often expressed in two different ways: endless giving and setting limits.

The aspect of giving is the most obvious and evident of the two. As parents, we not only give our children life itself, we also dedicate our lives to caring for their every need. As we have mentioned previously, often such endless giving is not simply the result of our love for our kids, but also forms the basis for that love.

There is, however, another way that we express our love and concern for our children—by setting limits and creating expectations for how they should act. While it seems counterintuitive to consider these acts of love, they are in fact true expressions of love. When we set limits and create expectations for our kids, the underlying message we relay is that we care about them, as our love is the basis for these limits. If we didn’t care about them at all, then we wouldn’t care about their actions. Only because of our care for them do we place rules upon their behaviors.

This idea is expressed in a Midrash Torat Kohanim (2:2) describing the reason for the laws of Kashrut. The Midrash explains that God places restrictions upon the foods that we eat because of our special relationship with Him. Due to His love for us and His concern for our spiritual health, He demands that we avoid eating certain foods that negatively impact us spiritually.

This idea also manifests itself in the world of psychology and mental health. While there are various forms of what is known as “child neglect,” one form is when parents do not properly supervise or set boundaries for their children. When a parent fails to set rules for his children, the underlying message the parent gives is that he doesn’t really care about them, and therefore allows them to do whatever they want. While initially, the child may enjoy the complete freedom, ultimately the child feels a deep sense of neglect and abandonment by the parent.

Of course, this aspect of parenting isn’t simple or easy. Kids have an aversion to rules or limitations being placed on themand especially as teenagers, they often fight us tooth and nail over such rules. This is particularly true in today’s society, which places a premium on the wants of each individual, and rejects the concept of others imposing their standards upon us.

Sometimes, our childrens’ push back may cause us to give in, so as not to anger them. We may think that we need to give in to their demands so that they will “like us.” Unfortunately, this has become a prevalent phenomenon, where parents try to be their kids’ friends.

But we must remember that our job is to be our child’s parents, not to be their friends. Despite the push back our kids give us, deep down they understand that these rules are put in place because we care. Of course, we must be thoughtful about the rules we put in place, and when possible, involve our kids in our decisions by creating meaningful discussion surrounding the rules we establish. But we should never make the mistake of thinking that establishing rules is itself problematic.

I heard many times from Dr. David Pelcovitz that the key to parenting is the two “l”s—love and limits. As we see from this week’s parsha, one manifestation of Hashem being our father is that He demands we act in a certain way and places limitations upon us. In doing so, He shows fundamental concern for us and how we act in this world. We, too, show deep love for our children when we create expectations and set limits for them. While they might fight us on the rules, deep down they know that we set them because we care for them.

Wishing everyone a Shabbat Shalom!


Rav Yossi Goldin is the menahel tichon at Yeshivas Pe’er HaTorah, Rebbe at Midreshet Tehilla, and Placement Advisor/Internship Coordinator for the YU/RIETS Kollel. He lives with his family in Shaalvim and can be reached at [email protected]

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