With Shavuos upon us, it is worthwhile to focus on the lead-up to Kabbolas HaTorah – accepting the Torah. Our Chazal teach us Derech Eretz Kadma L’Torah (Vayikra Rabbah 9:3) – “appropriate behavior is a prerequisite for (acquiring) Torah.” Before we can set our sights upon great accomplishments in Torah learning we need to set our inner compass to a path of civility, responsibility and consideration for others. Seemingly insignificant issues within our communities may be indicative that we have a very long way to go in this area.
A few years back, a renowned educator wrote about a common (mis)behavior of many children. He portrays a typical scene at a shul Kiddush where an elderly man with a walker searches for a place to sit. He was standing by a table, but every seat was filled with “sweet, wonderful, ehrliche children….!” Not one child got up to offer a seat – not deliberately ignoring the old man, but because of their preoccupation with the cholent, no one noticed or cared. This problem of a lack of Derech Eretz, specifically of not fulfilling the Mitzva of Mipnei Sayva Takum, standing up for the elderly, is commonplace, and we need and can do something to help our children improve their ways.
The most effective means to making a change in a person’s midos and behavior is “through action that requires physical and mental involvement and has a `cost’ as sociated with it.” The mindless exercises that we have our children go through, such as putting our money in a pushka does not really create a Ba’al Tzedaka. It’s only when the child donates his own money, many, many times, does his behavior and attitude start to conform to what he’s been doing. (Quoted from Rabbi Shneur Aisenstark)
Our responsibility as parents and teachers is to look carefully and analyze what behaviors we want to see in our children, and come up with a specific plan to achieve it. If we value Derech Eretz, we need to notice the challenges and opportunities our child is confronted with when he or she spends time in shul. We need to come up with a short list – including being quiet during Davening, Davening for a few minutes, not eating before Kiddush is made, not sitting if there’s an adult who needs a seat, and not running in shul. We need to articulate the need for a certain standard of behavior in each area. We need to help our child envision possible challenges and how to deal with it. Brainstorm together. One example might be when your child is sitting quietly next to you in shul. Two of his friends come over and invite him to play with them outside. What do you want to happen and if what you want is for your child to politely decline, how have you trained him or her to achieve that? How have you helped him to feel good about himself doing the right thing, or the better thing?
There is no one or only way to fashion your child’s behavior and attitude. Offering rewards for reaching specific goals (e.g. sitting quietly for 20 minutes, offering an adult a seat, bringing an elderly person some item from the Kiddush etc.) is effective, when preceded by a reminder of what the expectations are. Most effective is for your child to be able to observe you displaying these very behaviors. Our children can reach tremendous heights in mentschlichkeit if we would focus on the specific issue at hand, take some time preparing them by outlining expectations and then following through with a reward for their efforts. You will be setting your children on the path to great happiness and fulfillment, you will be giving them the best preparation for accepting the Torah and you will be sowing the seeds for future generations that will bring great pride and nachas to their forbears.
May this Shabbos be a harbinger of a wonderful Shavuos to come,
Rabbi Kalman Baumann