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Kurt Vonnegut wrote in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater: “Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—’God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.'”
Up here at Camp Tawonga in Northern California, the Jewish theme of the summer is “being a mensch.” One of those Yiddish words that has found its way into the English lexicon, a mensch is a good person. It could be argued that Judaism, as well as every religion, is built around making us good people. A related Jewish term is “derech eretz,” or, how we are in the world as human beings.
I often talk to my kids about this idea. There are many things I hope for my children: happiness, success… But if they aren’t kind, if they aren’t at a basic level good people, none of the rest matters.
A great tool for figuring out how to be a good person (and raise a good person) is the Making Mensches Periodic Table. It lists 43 of the attributes Jewish Mussar (ethics movement of the 19th century) named as mensch-like qualities, for example: compassion, love, joy, modesty, justice and integrity. This chart can be particularly helpful to interfaith couples. When partners come from different backgrounds, it can be difficult to figure out which tradition to emphasize or how two religious traditions can be expressed side by side.
Try this exercise that I ask of every couple I marry: Figure out what values you share. Some couples value education more than saving money, others value a shared sense of human responsibility toward the natural world. For others, a peaceful home is more important than hospitality. These values are, most likely, part of what attracted you to one another, how you saw yourself intertwined with that person, or maybe even what one of you lacked growing up that you value in the other. Think about these values that underpin your relationship.
If you need ideas, scan the Table. Which five values or qualities are most important to you? Which are lower on your list? Have your partner do the same. Talk about why certain values rose to the top for each of you and why. What do you share? Where do you differ? Do you express your commitment to those values in unique ways based on where you first learned about them? Who passed them on to you? Don’t worry if they aren’t completely aligned. Talk about what you want this shared life to look like so you can start to intentionally live according to those values and make them come alive in your home and your relationships.
Many of us were raised with some iteration of the Golden Rule. In the Torah, Leviticus 19:18 teaches us to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Whatever you name it, wherever you learned it, “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”
My kid taught me a good lesson today. I was pulling out of our driveway as the usual flood of people were walking by, oblivious to my own tight morning schedule. I muttered to myself how they should be paying attention to the cars rather than being engrossed in their conversations and that I had a schedule to keep. “Come on, people, move!” I seethed, unaware that my kids heard me. My son proceeded to open the window and yell, “Come on, people, move!” at the passersby. I was mortified! But why? He did nothing wrong. He merely saw me as a model and said aloud what I was too cowardly to share. If I want my kids to be patient, kind people, I need to walk the talk because they are watching my every move.
This aspect of parenthood terrifies me. I want to present my “best self” all of the time and be a model of the values I say I live by. But it is exhausting! I fall short of those expectations on a daily basis, and try to have compassion for myself. But I also want to push myself to walk the talk, to be consistent and live what I preach.
So much of my energy as a parent focuses on my children’s behavioral shortcomings, but being a mother has also made me more aware of where I fall short of expectations for my own behavior. When I fail to walk the talk in any aspect of life, they push me to return to my goals, values and expectations. If I tell my kids they should be patient, kind,and express their needs directly rather than passively, but then contradict these values in the way I behave, I might as well have saved my breath. If I want them to respect the rules, how can I explain the instances when I bend them myself? If I hope that they own their mistakes, I need to model that I do that as well. Kids watch, imitate and yes, at times, rebel. But even then, if I have walked the talk, hopefully they will know what I stand for.
Walk the talk goes for religious life as well. The interfaith couples I work with often ask me how they should go about raising Jewish children. My advice is that if you aren’t living a Jewish life in any way (and I define that broadly), your kids most likely won’t either. If living a life according to certain values and practices is becoming important to you, or was previously more present in your life, this is the time to start exploring or re-exploring it. Couples who are anticipating having children and like the idea of Shabbat often ask me when they should start lighting Shabbat candles. I tell them to begin now. If it becomes meaningful to them, they will transmit those values and sentiments to their children organically if and when they arrive. It will be part of their routine.
If we expect kids to learn how to lead a Jewish service, we had better spend some time in the sanctuary as well. Back when I was a tutor preparing kids to become Bar or Bat Mitzvah, I had a telling conference between a child and his parents. He wasn’t meeting his weekly assignment goals and we were talking about how to proceed. Suddenly, he got up and argued, “This doesn’t mean anything to you. Why are you making me do it?” His parents were stumped. They were not walking the talk. And their child saw that.
Walking the talk does not just apply to the observance piece of religious life either. I decided early on that if I hoped my children would uphold values of tikkun olam (repairing the world) through volunteerism, I’d better get out there and find time to volunteer, and tell them about why it is so important to me. If I wanted them to be the kind of people who stop when someone is asking for food, I’d better model doing that as well. I want to be careful that I am not trying to fulfill my own hopes for an ideal life—or resolving my own shortcomings—through my kids. I don’t want to be the kind of parent who thinks she can live vicariously through them, pinning hopes on what they become that I can’t live up to myself.
Sometimes doing things primarily for the benefit of children is just fine. But how much more powerful and resonant are those spiritual practices or ideas if the adults modeling them are experiencing them for themselves as well and, hopefully, discovering deep meaning in them?
This approach requires more from us. It means we have to spend some time thinking about why we are interested in a religious or spiritual path, ritual or teaching, and we have to examine what it means to us. And when partners come from different backgrounds, we need to take the time to figure out how practices or ideologies match our shared values as a couple and how it feels to bring those ideas into our families. We need to see ourselves as modeling behavior, belief or practice—which can be terrifying, especially when we worry that we aren’t good models. But we don’t need to have it all figured out; each of us is a work in progress. If we are exploring and struggling, walking our own talk, we are the best of models.