A child takes her lunch box from her backpack and brings it to the kitchen. How can this be a sacred act? This question came up in the Parenting Through a Jewish Lens class that I am leading at Shir Tikvah in Winchester. Why is it sacred you may ask? Isn't it just common courtesy to help out by bringing the lunchbox in, rather than requiring the parent to hunt for it? This past week we read Jewish texts about having responsibility for others. One of the texts struck us deeply. Abraham Joshua Heschel said that 'No one is lonely when doing a mitzvah, for a mitzvah is where God and man meet....Such meeting, such presence, we experience in deeds.' (God in Search of Man)
One of the highest goals for our children is for them to know that when they do things that help others, when they take responsibility to help others, they make real connections with other people, and with a sense of the Divine. It is the way we meet the soul of another, and the way we reveal the best of ourselves. It is one way we feel most human in the best sense of the word. When we help another, connect with another, we meet God, and ourselves. In another text we read during this session, Emmanuel Levinas took the idea of helping and connecting to others a step further. He suggested that we want to inculcate into our children the automatic desire to make those connections with others. 'To be a decent human being means that I should have an immediate and overwhelming sense of obligation for the other....' According to Levinas, we want our children to know the value of helping another so deeply that their first instinct will be to reach out.
Neuroscience has discovered that we can change our brain patterns, and create new physical 'grooves' in the brain by behaving in certain ways. Changed behaviour results in changed thinking. Therefore in our class we discussed a 'take home' assignment that I am trying in my own home. At the end of every day I am asking everyone in the family to recall kindnesses they did for others during the day. My hope: the more we all notice the kindnesses done by us or to us, the more conscious we will be of the good feelings such actions engender and the more kindnesses we will do. In effect, I am hoping that by noticing the good, we will all do more of it, and helping others will become more and more natural and instinctive.
Watch this space to see if it works!
By Rabbi Marcia Plumb