Friday, September 12, 2008

Positive Parenting through Tzimtzum (Derashah Ki Tetze 5768)

(This is, I think, the longest derashah I have ever delivered on a 'normal' Shabbos, but the topic is very much on my mind and heart. The advice I present here is probably obvious to everyone, but, speaking for myself, I am so not living up to it... yet.)

As a general rule, I would not recommend looking at the Torah for Parenting models; the Torah presents many examples of dysfunctional families, and very little guidance in terms of what parents can do right. Kayin and Hevel, Yitzchak and Yishmael, Yaakov and Esav, Yosef and his brothers - this is not the place to look for advice on raising kids.

But at the start of Parshat Ki Teitzei, in the controversial law of בן סורר ומורה (ben sorer umoreh), the rebellious 12-year-old who is put to death, the Torah teaches us a very important lesson in how to raise a family.

I am not the first to say this; Rav Shlomo Eliezer Eidels, in his 16th century commentary to the gemara, argued that the whole point of the בן סורר ומורה segment is to teach us about parenting.
The gemara noted that because of legal nuances, the בן סורר ומורה is physically impossible; it has never happened and it cannot happen. It is recorded in the Torah for us to learn it and thereby receive reward. This promised reward, says Rav Eidels, is the fruit we will receive when we follow the lead of the story of the בן סורר ומורה.

Rav Eidels viewed Jewish parents in his day, the late 16th century, as grossly irresponsible. He wrote, “בזמן הזה אין נותנין לב לזה, וכל אחד מחפה על בנו אף שהוא באמת חייב מלקות ומיתת ב"ד, ואין מוכיחין אותן, והנערים הולכים רוב ימיהן בביטול תלמוד תורה…” “In our day, no one pays attention to [their children’s wild behavior], and each one covers up for his son even though he is liable for lashes and capital punishment. No one rebukes them, and the kids go most of their days without learning Torah.”
So Rav Eidels contended that the purpose of recording the law of בן סורר ומורה in the Torah was to teach Jewish parents to scold their children. In Rav Eidels’s own words: ע"י זה יוכיחו וייסרו את בניהם, when parents read this section and see what can happen, they will be inspired to rebuke their children.

I agree that this law presents parenting advice - but, במחילת כבוד תורתו וגדולתו, to me, the message is precisely the opposite of what he intended. It does not teach parents to rebuke their children; rather, it teaches parents that, often, the best approach is more sophisticated.

My proof is in the law ofבן סורר ומורה itself. This child who is off the rails, who is such a danger to society that he must be put away, is not unrebuked, he is not the product of parents who fail to teach him. As the Torah itself says, ויסרו אותו ולא ישמע אליהם, his parents rebuke him and he fails to listen. The parents report, איננו שומע בקולנו, He won’t listen to us! And the beit din whips him for a warning, and he continues to sin anyway.

The message of בן סורר ומורה is not, “Go rebuke!” Rather, the message is that although sparing the rod may spoil the child, using that rod can do a fair bit of damage, too!

Let’s look more closely at the בן סורר ומורה, and understand the nature of this child’s problem, and then we’ll understand what the Torah is teaching us.

The בן סורר ומורה is, essentially, an addict. He loves meat and wine - but, stresses the gemara, he doesn’t eat especially fine meat, he doesn’t drink especially fine wine. He isn’t a gourmet; he’s stuffing his face with whatever he can find.

The בן סורר ומורה steals in order to feed his habit. The gemara stresses that he steals from his parents, because that’s a money supply that’s always around, and so he is able to develop the addiction.

And eventually, according to the gemara, he will kill in order to be able to feed this addiction.
בן סורר ומורה is a lesson in immunizing our children to addiction.

Rabbi Dr. Avraham Twerski is a world leader in addictions treatment and founder of at least two drug rehabilitation centers, and he points out in many of his books that addiction often comes from a search for happiness, or, at least, a desire to escape unhappiness. The addict is not happy with himself, he’s not happy being himself, and so he seeks an escape. Our בן סורר ומורה finds a way to lose himself in gluttony and alcohol, and he becomes so dependent upon them for escape that he will do anything to get them.

Others have other addictions. Look at Paroh in Tanach, and his addiction to power and control. There are people who are perennially convinced that their next relationship will be the one to bring them happiness. Look at people who spend on the newest fashion, car, extension for their home, whatever, seeking that which will end the misery that is their current life and bring them lasting joy.

With בן סורר ומורה, the Torah tells us that we can’t tell these addicts to snap out of it. We can’t yell at a child for pursuing pleasure, and expect that he will suddenly become happy with his lot. When it comes to protecting our children from addiction, “Just say no” is of limited use.

Some parents try another tack: Rather than fight it, they try to provide the happiness that their children seek. Disneyworld, the latest toys and fashions, school and camp wherever the kids want to go... This is the anti-בן סורר ומורה - but, as we all know both instinctively and empirically, this doesn’t work, either.

King David had a son named Adoniyahu, and Tanach tells us that he refused to rebuke Adoniyahu, he never saddened this son of his. So Adoniyahu, accustomed to getting his way, launched a coup to take the throne. And when he was defeated, and his life was spared, he tried again!

You can give a child every object in the world, every experience imaginable, but that will not give a child happiness.

Rather, to quote Rabbi Dr. Twerski from his wonderful book, “Positive Parenting,” the job of a parent is to provide a child with the skills for achieving happiness on his own. When children grow up to become adults who can make themselves happy, then they don’t need to pursue food or alcohol or drugs or power or acquisitions - they are happy on their own.

Parents can do this, parents can provide these tools for their children, if they embrace a mystical concept called צמצום (Tzimtzum). צמצום means withdrawal. In mysticism, it refers to the way that Gd creates the universe and embraces all of it, but simultaneously withdraws immanent control and permits us freedom of choice.

In the parenting world, צמצום means that we step back, that we are careful not to overshadow our children, that rather than rebuke harshly, we show our children respect as individuals and we help them learn to make themselves happy.

*צמצום means that when a child breaks a rule, we don’t take it personally and demand an apology for having broken our rule. An apology may be appropriate - but it should never be about our parental egos. צמצום - our egos are not present at all.

*צמצום means that we don’t put ourselves out there as stars; we don’t excel in front of them in a way that will intimidate them. If I think my daughter might be insecure about how fast she can run, I don’t show her how fast I can run. If I think my son might be insecure about his reading skills, I don’t comment in front of him about how many books I have read. צמצום - we remain in the background, rather than make ourselves the focus.

*צמצום means that we don’t solve problems for our children to make them happy; rather, we help them figure out how to solve problems and make themselves happy. Rabbi Dr. Twerski tells the fictional story of a child, Notti, who comes home from school and complains about a teacher. Notti had answered a question in class, and the teacher had said it was the dumbest answer he had ever heard in his entire life. Of course, what the teacher did was grossly inappropriate, and the parent can talk to the principal - but telling Notti that he’s going to intervene is the opposite of צמצום; the parent is now solving the problem, instead of teaching Notti to do it. As Rabbi Dr. Twerski asks, “Are Notti’s parents going to intervene 20 years later when Notti’s supervisor at work mistreats him?” Rather, Notti’s father could say, “Boy, you sure got yourself a humdinger of a teacher this year.” Then the father and son can talk about tough teachers, and Notti can come to the confident conclusion, on his own, that he can withstand the ineptitude of a poor teacher. This is צמצום - stepping back and allowing the child to be the one to solve the problem.

Of course, צמצום does not mean that the parent is absent. Absentee parenting is criminal negligence. צמצום is the art of being home, being present, being involved, and yet removing one’s ego, not being the overshadowing star, and helping our children gain self-confidence and learn to solve their own problems.

I should note that this concept of צמצום is important not only for parenting, but also for the way we interact with each other. True, we aren’t each others’ parents - but the more we employ צמצום, avoiding overshadowing others, avoiding taking control of situations, the more we can help others to shine.

Rabbi Dr. Twerski never uses the term צמצום in his book; that’s just my own watchword. Nonetheless, the message of צמצום is there throughout his book. I’ll close with one story, which I believe encapsulates the message perfectly.

When Rabbi Dr. Twerski was a child, one Rosh haShanah, his family hosted a visiting rabbi. On Rosh haShanah afternoon the rabbi invited him to play chess. Young Avraham Twerski thought this was inappropriate for the day, but the rabbi assured him it would be fine. They played two games.
Later that day, Rabbi Dr. Twerski’s father called him into his study. Here is the rest of the story, as he tells it in his book:
When I entered his study, he was engrossed in a sefer, and I stood by respectfully silent, awaiting his recognition. After a few moments he looked up and said softly, “You played chess on Yom Tov?”
“Yes,” I said. “Rabbi C. said it was allowed.”
My father said nothing. He returned his gaze to the sefer, and slowly, barely perceptibly, shook his head in the negative. The message was clear: Even if technically not forbidden, it was not in the spirit of Rosh haShanah to play games. I felt terrible. I had desecrated the holy day.
I remained standing respectfully, waiting to be dismissed, digesting the reprimand I had received. Then my father looked up, with a twinkle in his eye, and said, “But you did checkmate him, didn’t you?”
“Twice,” I said, softly but happily.
My father returned to his sefer, and after a few moments smiled. “Geh gezunterheit.”

There was none of the ויסרו אותו rebuke of the בן סורר ומורה. There were no lashes, there was no courtroom drama, no apologies were demanded. The father said as much as he needed to say, and then, in an act of צמצום, he withdrew himself and his disapproval from the scene and allowed his son to re-establish his self-esteem.

Regarding this story, and the overall lesson of צמצום, I echo the words of the gemara and Rav Shlomo Eidels for all parents: דרוש וקבל שכר, Learn it, and you will receive reward.

1. The comment from Rav Shlomo Eidels is in Maharsha, Chiddushei Aggadot to Sanhedrin 71a. The Hebrew I quote from Maharsha is what I believe to be the correct text. The one printed in the Vilna shas has מכפה instead of מחפה, but is clearly a mistake by a sofer thinking of יכפה אף.

2. Many are bothered by the point I raise, that the parents of the בן סורר ומורה did, in fact, rebuke him. This leads them to analyze the Torah's text and find hints at why their rebuke was inadequate - such as the idea that the parents did not rebuke with the same voice.

3. "Just say no" is an incomplete approach. In his book, Positive Parenting (pg 307), Rabbi Dr. Twerski points out that in the early days of the “Just say no” campaign, research psychologists looked at kids’ responses to this approach, and were surprised to find 13 and 14 year-old kids responding, “Why? What else is there?”

4. The fictional story of Notti is on pages 65-66 in Positive Parenting; the chess story is on page 236.


  1. But surely there has to be more to the ben sorer umoreh than that, no? Rashi comments that it's not his current actions per se that are deserving of death, but the fact that inevitably he'll spiral further downwards into a life of crime. But if it's simply that he's an addict, then shouldn't the Torah be telling us to try to pull him out of that self-destructive spiral via treatment and counseling, rather than saying that there's no hope for him and that he's better off dead?

  2. Hi Alex,
    As I see it, the warning here is that addiction can lead to a point at which there is no breaking the spiral. Addiction, left unchecked, can go past the point of no return.

  3. What a beautiful, beautiful post. Your examples of צמצום really clarify the crucial nature of this parenting style. A good therapeutic relationship, while vastly different from parenting in many ways, shares certain aspects of a healthy parent-child relationship, and I think this is one of them.

    I hope you publish this post in many additional places.

  4. I very much enjoyed this posting, finding within it much of value. But I would like to add this, referring to ”the job of a parent is to provide a child with the skills for achieving happiness on his own. When children grow up to become adults who can make themselves happy, then they don’t need to pursue food or alcohol or drugs or power or acquisitions - they are happy on their own" it is also the job of a parent to inform/teach a child that having the skills to achieve happiness does not guarantee happiness, nor is happiness necessarily a 24/7 achievable state. The Declaration of Independence gave as an "inalienable right" the pursuit of happiness. It did not say that happiness itself was such a right. We need to give children the skills to be good "fishermen" but also the knowledge that the fish don't always bite, regardless of our skill.

  5. ALN-
    Thanks, and thanks for linking. I firmly agree re: therapeutic relationships; I was just talking to another rabbi the other day about precisely this point.

    Fully agreed; in truth, I think that this point - not expecting happiness 24/7 and being equipped to deal with the downturns - is one of the most important tools in achieving happiness.

  6. I have been looking for this post for over an hour now. I am so thankful that I found it in your blog. It is a very well written article and I think it is a must to read.

  7. Thanks for this lovely and informative blogpost. I plan to use it in my classroom.