How important a factor is intrinsic motivation and meaning for a person to achieve success in life? Who is more likely to succeed in school – a child blessed with intelligence and talents or one not so amply endowed, but who understands his own worth and the value of his efforts?
A backdrop to the entire narrative in this week’s Parsha, is the forced labor that millions of Jewish men were subjected to. The Torah tells us (1:11): they built treasure cities for Pharoah – Pisom and Raamses. The Gemara (Sota 11a) tells us these names indicate the building was done on unsuitable land, and the structures did not last; they either toppled over or were swallowed into quicksand. Rav Avraham Hakohein Pam, zt’l, asked, what was Pharoah’s purpose in initiating a project that went to waste? Why did he not capitalize on the free labor of millions of people, working for decades, to build himself a legacy of greatness and grandeur?
Rav Pam points out that the answer to that question is right there in the Pasuk quoted above: “…In order to torture them in their burdens…” Pharoah understood that no matter how hard the Jews would have worked, had they been able to see their labor bearing fruit in the form of a monumental edifice, they would have felt some satisfaction despite the brutality they endured in its construction. Pharoah, in his cruelty, was so intent on denying his slaves even that satisfaction, he was willing to let all his expenses and all his free labor go to waste.
This lesson has fundamental importance in our task of raising successful children. Every human has an innate drive to live a life of meaning and purpose. It is profound torture to rob a person of a feeling of purpose, that what he does is meaningless. How does that apply to our young children? We all know that for most children, unless they are being asked to eat ice-cream, play ball or stay up past bedtime, it’s very hard for them to appreciate the purpose of what is being asked. Why eat vegetables, why do homework, why clean up his/her room? All the prizes and rewards or threats and punishments will not make that much of a long lasting difference. And yet, there comes a tipping point in every child’s life when emotional maturity kicks in, and they do what’s right, what is necessary, because they’ve gained something of an understanding and appreciation for why it is important.
This awareness needs to guide our approach to our children even from a very young age. We can focus on helping our children understand there is a purpose to life and there is a reason for acting the way we do. Of course, at a very young age we put 98% of our energies into habitualizing children’s good behavior, perhaps saying, “because Mommy said so.” However we should always be ready with a simple, short explanation. Not that the child does things because he or she decides it makes sense, that they are somehow the final authority. But part of their chinuch is to understand there is a reason for everything, and that it’s good to ask questions and seek to understand. Surely their parents and teachers have a reason, even if it’s currently unfathomable to the child, but like the Ben Chochom, the wise son, in the Hagaddah, our children should seek an understanding of what they are doing.
This approach will produce thinking people, who have an appreciation that there is meaning and purpose in life. They are more likely to apply rational thinking to their own behavior and value judgments. They are most likely to work purposefully towards a higher goal in academics, healthy relationships and spiritual growth. They are therefore more likely to succeed. And they most assuredly will remain closely connected to the parents that made the extra effort to bring meaning and purpose to their life.
Have a purposeful, motivated Shabbos!
Rabbi Kalman Baumann