Vayechi: Are You a Hypocrite? On the Essence of Education
A professor was giving a big test one day to his students. He handed out all of the tests and went back to his desk to wait. Once the test was over, the students all handed the tests back in. The professor noticed that one of the students had attached a $100 bill to his test with a note saying “A dollar per point.”
At the next class the professor handed the tests back out. This student got back his test and $56 change.
The Talmud relates the following episode:
When our father Jacob was on his deathbed, surrounded by all of his children, he suddenly felt that the Divine presence, the Shechinah, departed from him. He was overtaken by dread and fear that one of his children present in the room was living an immoral life, and that is why the Sechinah has left him. The old father confronted his children asking if perhaps one of them has corrupted his ways, betraying the values he, Jacob, had attempted to inculcate within his children.
His sons responded with the most famous Jewish declaration: “Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokenu Hashem Echad. Listen Israel – Jacob’s name was Israel — the Lord is Our God, the Lord is One. Kishem Sh’ein B’libcha Ela Echad, Kach Ein B’libeinu Ela Echad. Just as in YOUR heart there is only One, so too, in OUR heart there is only One.”
At that moment Jacob responded and said, “Boruch Shem Kevod Malchuto Le’olam Va’ed. Blessed be the honorable name of His kingdom forever and ever.” (Talmud Pesachim 56a).
Their response raises a question. Let us listen to their words carefully: “Just as in YOUR heart there is only One, so, too, in OUR heart there is only One.” The first half of their statement seems superfluous. We know that in Jacob’s heart there was only One G-d. That was not up for discussion; no one was suspecting Jacob’s heart and faith. The question was what was going on in THEIR heart. All they needed to say was, “Listen father, in OUR heart there is only one?”
The answer is that in this very expression they have encapsulated one of the great themes of education. The first half of their sentence was notsuperfluous. Jacob’s children were explaining why Jacob need not fear about his children’s moral destiny. Jacob our father, if there is One in your heart, the children told their father, you can be assured that in our hearts, too, there is only One. Children are the mirror of their parents’ hearts, not of their words. Since in your heart there was one, our heart too is saturated with the one living G-d.
All too often, parents think that they can impart values to their children without internalizing these values in their own daily lives. They teach their children about integrity, faith, love and discipline, but they do not necessarily embody these principles themselves. They preach of One G-d, but that One G-d does not challenge them in their personal lives. They will speak up against anger, animosity, envy and selfishness, but they themselves fall prey to these traits.
This usually does not do the trick. Children do not respond to what the parents say as much as to who they are. Values are like colds: they are caught, not taught. If in your heart there is One – in his heart there will also be One. When your child experiences consciously and subconsciously your purity and integrity, it is likely that the values that shaped the parents will continue in the lives of their children. It may take some years or sometimes decades, but the seeds planted by your heart in the heart of your children, will produce the results.
Political scientists have long found that four out of five people with a party preference grow up to vote the way their parents voted. In fact, while many people experience a temporary rejection of their parents’ politics in very early adulthood, virtually nothing is more predictive of your political ideology than that of your parents—it’s more of a determining factor than income, education or any other societal yardstick.
When asked about the greatest challenge he faces today, the principal of one of the largest Jewish high schools in the United States related this thought: Parents spend thousands of dollars a year in tuition to send their children to our school where, along with calculus and chemistry, we are expected to teach some basic ethics. Then, on Sunday, the parents take their child to an amusement park and lie about his age in order to save five dollars on the admission fee. To save five bucks they destroy a $15,000 education.
Most parents and teachers realize that values and perspectives must be planted by personal example. However, in practice we sometimes try to build into our children and students behavioral routines that we personally have not yet mastered. We insist that our children eat properly, even though we survive on coffee and donuts. We insist that they don’t sit by the TV for hours, while we fall short of these expectations. In short, we find it easier to work on our children than on ourselves, and so that is sometimes what we do.
This hypocrisy has negative results: Too many children legitimately view their parents and teachers as insincere. Disrespect burgeons slowly until, around ages 12-15, it shreds the parent-child or teacher-student mutual trust. Then children reject the moral authority of the adults in their lives. They isolate themselves emotionally from parents and teachers, and begin making their own (often self-destructive) decisions.
In a famous study regarding the transmission of values from parents to children the following question was asked of many children: What do your parents want you to be when you grow up—rich, smart, famous or good? Most of the children, from a variety of demographic and cultural sectors, ranked rich, smart or famous as most important. And the characteristic that ranked lowest was being good. Ironically, parents across the same sectors responded that they favored good as the preferred characteristic for their child.
Why was there this disconnect between the desire of the parents and the perception of the children?
The answer may be that preaching to children demands parallel practice by parents. True goodness is not taught in books, it is transmitted by living example. Parents may tell their children that they want them to be good people above all, but what are the children experiencing from their parents? Are they—the parents—placing goodness above all other comforts?
If you want to touch the heart of your child, make sure that your own heart was touched. And work not just on your conscious, but also on your unconscious identity. Children often respond to the unconscious of their parents even more than to their conscious selves.
This was the message of Jacob’s children to their Jacob: The reason there is in our heart only One, is because our hearts reflect and mirror YOUR heart, and in your heart there is only One. This is true concerning every parent and teacher.