Sunday, September 19, 2010

Tempting children with their talents

[This week’s Haveil Havalim is here, sans chulent]

I was built for Yom Kippur, as well as for Rosh haShanah, Tisha b'Av, Purim, Shavuos night, etc. – like many people, I thrive on intense emotion, and these days designed for extended periods of intense emotion are perfect for me. They seem more authentic, more alive, than the rest of the calendar.

The result is that I never want to come down from Musaf on Yom Kippur; I want to carry it right through to Minchah and Neilah. And so it was that yesterday I continued my tradition of teaching a class through the Yom Kippur break. I’ve been doing it since my Rhode Island days, and thank Gd I’ve had the health to sustain it. This year, thanks to Toronto’s situation at the west end of the time zone, we had a hefty two and a half hours.

So we learned Orot haTeshuvah from the text itself yesterday, covering the first, fifth, sixth and seventh chapters. One particular point of interest was Rav Kook’s statement (fifth perek) that a person is meant to develop his natural abilities and tendencies, and not to squelch them in pursuit of idealized perfection. Even though following one’s core nature might lead to error and sin at times, it would be, in Rav Kook’s words, a far greater sin to deny that inherent nature, like the nazir’s self-denial in pursuit of purification.

To use Rav Kook’s own words:
שלמותם של החיים היא דוקא עם המשך התגלותם על פי טבעם העצמי. וכיון שהטבע מצד עצמו אינו בעל הסתכלות והבחנה, הרי החטא מוכרח הוא מצד זה, "ואין אדם צדיק בארץ אשר יעשה טוב ולא יחטא." וביטול עצם טבעיותם של החיים, כדי שיהיה האדם בלתי חוטא, זהו עצמו החטא היותר גדול, "וכפר עליו מאשר חטא על הנפש."

On one level, this seems to say that one shouldn't refuse to enjoy humor in order to rein in his character, and one shouldn't decline to enjoy hiking, if hiking is something he enjoys, in order to spend 100% of his time in the beit midrash. But it also speaks to developing one's talents and abilities, in general.

This reminded me of a story I once heard about Rav Ruderman at Ner Yisrael in Baltimore – that he had accepted a student who was gifted as a pianist, and he told the student to continue to set aside time to develop his piano talents. [I’d love verification on this story, from anyone else who has more information.]

But then I heard another story, about a young Jewish woman who is a contestant on America’s Next Top Model, and is facing serious decisions on Shabbos and dress in order to develop as a model. We must develop our talents, right? It would be a sin to squelch them, right?

And it reminded me of a family I know whose pre-teen daughter was developing into a star athlete, with her team coach talking about the Olympics. How far could they take her before they would be misleading her into thinking that chillul Shabbos and other competition-related transgressions were an option? Or before she would decide for herself that these were an option?

I don’t think career-long violation of Shabbos is what Rav Kook had in mind when he noted that following one’s core nature might lead to error and sin at times.

Rav Kook’s words here are loaded. They work well for adults, encouraging us to find out who we are and what we can do, and not to lock ourselves in boxes in pursuit of perfection. But I wouldn’t recommend these words, carte blanche, as a strategy for raising children. For children this advice needs moderation, because children cannot necessarily put on the brakes when necessary.

To use the example above: Training a child for Olympic-level competition is cruel, if you don't want the child to compete on Shabbat.

I do believe that every talent can and should be used in a positive way, and I’m behind the idea that squelching talent is denial of a Divine gift. I hear Rav Kook’s point about this being a great sin. And I believe we should support our children in discovering their talents, and in developing them. But there are limits to what we can do with those talents, and I fear that this is an adult challenge, not one meant for kids.


  1. Funny you should pick athletics on the world stage to use as an example of where a child's talents should not necessarily be developed. Parents can still help those children develop those Olympic dreams if they stop thinking that it is either/or--either be a top athlete or be an observant Jew.

    Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg refused to play ball games on Yom Kippur, world series and all, and they weren't exactly top of the line frum. A whole lot of people who applauded their actions. If they can do it this way then there are quite possibly ways for younger children to circumvent being mechalel Shabbos in order to compete. I wouldn't dismiss it out of hand as being impossible to pursue just because it's difficult to pursue.

    Unless one believes that God acts randomly and without thought c"v, why would He give unique talents to some if they are not meant to be developed?

  2. Hi ProfK,

    Thanks for commenting. I picked athletics because the reality is that success in professional sports demands full commitment. I learned this from conversations with professional athletes; the state of sports today demands it.

    Re: Koufax and Greenberg - Certainly, their decision not to play on Yom Kippur was powerful, and I don't know that I would have had their strength, in their shoes. However, is Yom Kippur observance and Shabbos desecration really the goal we have for our children?

    Re: Gd-given talent - Certainly, there is much that can be done with athletic talent besides excelling in the professional realm.

  3. Great post! What a beautiful statement by R. Kook! He never disappoints me.
    As to your comments - wouldn't stifling a child's talent lead to similarly to disillusionment and and rebellion? And who is to say that adults would be so much more mature?

  4. I should add on another point: doesn't your interpretation miss the point of R. Kook? Do you think he was really referring to something as innocuous as hiking? It would seem to me that given the audience he was addressing - which, incidentally, would have been the youth, a large percentage of which were leaving orthodoxy in droves at the time precisely because they felt it to be intellectually stifling - he may have in fact been addressing more serious choices. Why would he use the term "sin" if he didn't mean it? Perhaps we can identify the nature of the "sin" (Het = "to stray")in a way that is different from the standard popular definition, but let's at least start from there. I would think that people who have a talent for dancing, music, sports, etc. would fall into this category. Couldn't he simply have been saying that one shouldn't not develop his talents because of fear of sin, even if it risks sinning, but one should then deal with the challenges as they come? Otherwiswe, Jews could never go into politics or business, since he is sure to stumble at some point.

  5. Maybe I am misreading Rav Kook's statement, but I don't see this as advocating basing one's career on natural inclinations at the expense of Halacha. Just because someone has an interest in gymnastics does not mean he has to train at an Olympic level in order to derive satisfaction from it, even if he is capable of Olympic level performance. We assume that the best gymnasts compete in the Olympics, but the best gymnast in the world who is more interested in video games will likely compete in video game competitions.

    Regarding Olympic level gymnasts, how many of them are fully self-motivated and how many are pushed by parents who want to live vicariously through their children? I suspect that those children who are pushed into gymnastics would be happy to have the excuse of Shabbath to not have to train at such a level.

    In conclusion, it seems that Rav Kook is talking about hobbies, not careers.

  6. Right on, Rabbi. We don't want anyone following in Yeshmayal's footsteps, off murdering, etc., because they're good at it. (Loved your piece on him, thanks so much). I'd like to think that we can be ourselves and be frum, too. It's that being yourself thing that parents really discourage, unfortunately, so locked into the image/appearance of the right way to be. Chag sameach.

  7. Joseph-
    1. I think there is a difference between stifling, and directing in a less conflicted direction.
    2. Adults tend to be better able to make values decisions - but I agree that adults may well have trouble, too.
    3. I think hiking is in there as well as the areas you mention.

    I hear, and that's my general approach with this. I'm just not certain.

    Thanks for dropping by, and glad you liked the Yishmael piece.
    This business of balancing promoting our kids' development with guiding it within parameters isn't easy. Parenting is tough.