I am returning to a topic that I have written about in the past but very much bears repeating – even though much of it is a lost cause.
We live in an age where communication is faster, better, and more available than ever before. We are so busy communicating that we don’t bother listening to the ones closest to us, both in proximity and relationship. A lecturer speaks; our eyes are on the phone below. We cross the street and we take our lives into our hands as we are transfixed with the latest WhatsApp message. Often, we see parents pushing baby carriages into the street while their focus is still on that iPhone. You know I’m not exaggerating. The saddest is when the family is together for dinner and no one could care less what the other one is saying. A text from some friend, or from a member of a chat group somewhere, demands more immediate attention. I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.
In this age, real communication with the ones we love becomes all the more important – one that will leave an enduring impression, especially upon our children and grandchildren. One of the best ways to accomplish that is through stories.
The Torah is replete with the need to transmit our teachings to our children. “And You shall teach them to your children and you shall speak to them while you sit in your home… (D’varim 6:7)” is perhaps the best known, as it is in the very first paragraph of the Sh’ma. “So that your generations will know that I caused the Children of Israel to dwell in booths… (Vayikra 23:43)” is the basis for the Yom Tov of Sukkos. Of course, Pesach is all about communicating with our children on the Seder night. “And you shall tell your son on that day saying... (Sh’mos 13:8)” is the driving force of the entire evening.
This entire idea of communicating with our children is a thing of the past. Yes, many parents admirably set aside “quality time” for their children at which time only they are the focus of our attention. That’s wonderful, but it is also a sad commentary that we need to force ourselves into a time zone when we put all other distractions aside to pay attention to our kids: Now you are all that I care about; the rest of the day...well, maybe not so much.
The most glorious Yom Tov that surrounds our children is Pesach, with all its traditions and storytelling: all our favorite meals handed down from mother to mother, all the special stories at the Seder told by Father and Zeidie, the Erev Pesach with the rush to burn and sell the chametz and the aroma in the air – are what make our memories eternal.
What have we done with this Yom Tov? We have trashed it. Out go the family traditional meals, and in come meals prepared by some internationally known gourmet chef. Out go Zeidie’s and Bubby’s stories, and in comes a lecture on the “Future of American Jewry” by some scholar-in-residence. Out goes Erev Pesach and in comes poolside. Out goes Eliyahu HaNavi, whom we waited to greet via our imagination with bated breath, and in comes Mickey and Goofy.
Read any ad for a modern-day Pesach getaway hotel and tell me how much of the importance of the Yom Tov of Pesach is actually mentioned. Go ahead – check it out.
Yes, I know it’s easy for me. I’m a man. We don’t slave over Pesach. I, baruch Hashem, have a wonderful wife who is still willing to take on the task with angst-filled joy. I also understand many people are at a stage in life that they simply cannot handle Pesach at home. Maybe one day I’ll be in that situation. But why have we allowed the hotels and the ads to completely strip this Yom Tov of its very meaning?!
Well, if the reality is that this is the world we live in, let’s at least try to compensate the rest of the year. I have found that the very best way to develop a memorable connection with our kids is to tell them bedtime stories. It does not necessarily have to be Torah-based. That’s a plus if it holds their interest. It does not even have to be one with a moral lesson. The main thing is that they hang on to every word you say.
From my eldest to my youngest (19 years apart) and now with my grandchildren, sometimes via FaceTime, I have regaled my kids with stories that have character but not necessarily any meaning. And they sit glued and huddled around me as I relate them.
My repertoire includes Ignácz and Mrs. McGillicuddy who compete over growing the most delicious apples in the forest. Otto the bad guy is thrown in, as well, to make life interesting. Kalman Koenig, aka SuperYid, sells magazines but turns into a superhero to catch the bad guys if he says a perek in T’hilim followed by immediately performing two mitzvos. The favorite is Fat Mack, who is the fattest guy on earth but is called upon by the police to save a hapless victim from a villain, often the renowned Yosemite Sam – or, for the younger set, the Big Bulldozer and the Little Bulldozer.
All these characters I made up. Except for possibly SuperYid, they have no valuable lesson. But who cares? My kids relished them and they make sure their kids are treated to one of those stories when they visit. The stories, perhaps more than anything else, are what cemented a bond with my children as they grew up.
So in this generation, when we have destroyed any meaningful method of communications with our children, try telling them a story – but not one read out of a book by rote. Get into it. Use your imagination. You’re not going to win a Pulitzer, but the prize will be worth much more. It will last an eternity.
Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, Vice President of the Coalition for Jewish Values, former President of the Vaad Harabonim of Queens, and the Rabbinic Consultant for the Queens Jewish Link.