By Yochanan Gordon
I’ve learned to reevaluate the conversations that I have with my kids. While in years past I may have listened half heartedly to the typical shooting-the-breeze talk that my preschoolers, just as any others, tend to engage in, I have admittedly been caught off guard a number of times hearing them raise some profound ideas amidst the preschool chatter.
I believe this idea is substantiated from a Gemara in Bava Basra 12b. The Gemara asserts that following the destruction of the Holy Temple, prophecy would be transferred to children as well as imbeciles. In most cases a prophet could only receive his prophecy in a state of unconsciousness. It’s the aspect of saying something without realizing what is being said that equates this Gemara with the idea of children saying things that possesses depth well beyond what they had in mind to say.
On that note, earlier this week, after I had attempted to clandestinely take a can of Coke from the refrigerator, my five-year-old, Nison, who was not too far away, immediately asked if he too could have some. Now, I know that soda during the week is a touchy subject in the area of parenting. I agree that it is not the healthiest of beverages and that it is best to be designated for Shabbos or other special event. Let’s just say this was one of those instances where rules were meant to be temporarily suspended.
Once I was caught pouring for myself, notwithstanding any excuse I could have fabricated, I felt it would be a little hypocritical and therefore more detrimental not to pour him the soda than the harm the soda would cause his teeth. I threw in the caveat that he should be careful to brush his teeth before going to sleep in order to decrease as much as possible the decay that would be caused by the excess soda that would remain on his teeth. That was all that was necessary to set his curiosity in motion.
It’s only natural that we see ourselves as children or sometimes even a little older than just children. I always say that while as parents we have to discipline our kids to overcome things that we at their age had trouble with, it’s hard at times to be upset in a situation that we know is a result of their disposition. So if my kid is lazy with brushing his teeth and had a horrific first visit to the dentist, I know that he is my kid. While as a parent I am obligated to teach him the importance of basic hygiene, I find it awkward even expressing resentment or displeasure as a result of this laziness, knowing where it originates—and so our conversation ensued.
He initially asked me why we have to always brush our teeth. If you’d ask my wife, she would tell you that I am not qualified to answer that question. But knowing that a good opportunity presented itself, I donned my parenting hat and answered, “Since we eat every day, in order to keep our teeth healthy and clean, it is important that we brush away all the remnants of food that get stuck around our teeth.” If I wasn’t just trying to end the conversation, I would have anticipated the next question and made sure to answer it before he could ask it. That is, “What if we wouldn’t eat? Would we then not have to brush our teeth?” To which I responded, “Believe it or not, not eating for too long a period of time is also not healthy for the teeth, since our teeth need nutrients to stay strong but at the same time require our constant care and attention in order that they remain healthy despite the damage that could be done as a result of our eating.”
This touches on an important subject in Chassidus. Many of us were taught about a yetzer ha’ra and a yetzer tov. Later on in life, we learned that we are given our yetzer ha’ra at birth and only begin to experience the opposing voice of the yetzer tov when we reach the age of manhood. Later on, I came to learn that in addition to these two inclinations, we possess as well a G-dly soul and a vital or bestial soul that is situated in our mind and heart.
There is a fundamental difference between the two inclinations and the two souls. The arguments presented by the yetzer ha’ra have to be avoided at all costs. The yetzer ha’ra is the representation of the primordial snake back in the Garden of Eden who caused Adam and Eve to eat from the tree of knowledge. In contrast to this, the bestial soul is presenting us things that are necessary or vital to our existence but only become defined after we have channeled them one way or another. Ultimately, G-d expects us to use the amenities of this world to develop a relationship with him. If we abuse our rights and use these things as a means to indulge for the sake of our own fleeting pleasures, does that mean that everything that society has to offer is bad? Not at all! All it indicates is that we have to reset our priorities and learn the discipline of restraint to realize the ultimate purpose for which these pleasures were created.
Although throughout time there were those who denied themselves the pleasures of this world, the Baal Shem Tov and his descendants have written extensively not to adapt these practices. The Baal HaTanya, whose 200th yahrtzeit was observed on the 24th of Teves, writes in Tanya that our makeup is of a different nature, disenabling us to adapt such self-negating practices and still serve G-d with joy and overall contentment. Therefore, our job in this world is to use what life has to offer to internalize the existence of G-d in our own lives and promote those ideals to a world that doesn’t seem to quite get it.
It’s after 10:00 in the evening and thankfully Nison and his other two brothers are sleeping. I imagine that if he is dreaming at all, it’s not about brushing his teeth—probably something much more interesting. Yet, here I am plumbing the depths of this seemingly innocent, unassuming question that in reality contains some of the most ethereal concepts of Jewish thought and philosophy. Chazal teach us that in our quest to attain wisdom we ought to learn from everyone—yes, I believe our children are up there on the list. v