I once interviewed a great-grandmother about the early days of Zeirei Agudath Israel of America. She was one of those involved in obtaining visas for desperate Jews seeking any way out of doomed Europe. And after the War, she joined other young Jews packing packages for the survivors in the DP camps, late at night after classes or yeshiva studies.
American Orthodoxy has flourished in countless ways since then. In those days, most children from Orthodox homes did not remain observant. There were no Bais Yaakov schools, few yeshivos and no kollelim. Religious standards were far lower than today.
Yet when I put to her the question, "Which was better, then or now?" she did not hesitate: "Then we really lived. Today we only compete." Those actively involved in the rescue and relief work in America or in the many projects of Zeirei Agudath Israel in Eretz Yisrael had an outlet for their youthful idealism. They were participating in life-saving work. Too few of our children have similar outlets.
No one would wish a return to the circumstances of the rescue work of the 1940s or to the situaton of the 1950s in Israel, when young Peylim activists spirited children from Arab lands out of Jewish Agency absorption camps, where they were being stripped of their Jewish identity. But we need to find new ways to tap the idealism of our youth.
In that earlier period, those who did not excel in their studies could find many other ways to feel good about themselves – for their dedication to the rescue work, for the enthusiasm that they brought to the group activities of the fledgling Bnos and Pirchei groups. And that is no less necessary today: Young people who do not feel good about themselves will not feel good about their Yiddishkeit either.
A constant emphasis on the mission of every Jew to sanctify Hashem's Name in the world is one means of instilling a sense of idealism in our youth. Let us fill them with stories of the powerful impact made by young Jews, through their chesed, their refinement, their erlikeit, on both non-Jews and not yet religious Jews. Those stories abound. And their heroes and heroines are not drawn just from the ranks of those blessed with genius IQs.
By instilling an ongoing consciousness of the potential in each moment to bring about a Kiddush Hashem, we help our children understand the mitzvos not as just as a long list of "Do's" and "Don't's" – a checklist that has to be gotten through so that they can get on with those activities that really command their attention – but as the means given us by the Creator to fashion ourselves into the ideal human being.
At the recent convention of the Association of Jewish Outreach Professionals (AJOP), Rabbi Yitzchak Berkowitz spoke of the need to always emphasize the positive with ba'alei teshuva. Thus in introducing the concept of lashon hara, the emphasis should not be just on the dinim, but on fashioning oneself into a different type of person – one who can rise above petty irritations, one who looks at others in a generous and favorable light. (The more we train ourselves to recognize the tzelem Elokim in others, the more we become aware of it in ourselves.) In speaking of modesty in dress, don't focus only on the length of the hemlines, but on what it means to be a person of dignity, someone who values herself for who she is and not as an object of another's fantasies.
Those principles apply no less to our own children than to adult ba'alei teshuva. But in our headlong pursuit of covering ever greater amounts of material in the classroom – which is too often the criterion by which our educational institutions compete – we have come to view middos development or explaining the deeper meaning of the mitzvos as something not quite serious, something "ba'al teshuvish."
Yet there is no more important gift we can give our children, including those who will spend the next forty years in the bais medrash, than the knowledge that the Torah way of life is the source of the greatest possible pleasure. That is not something that needs to be taught or for which children must simply accept our word; they can experience it themselves. All we have to do is provide the opportunities and the tools for doing so.
To be a giver to others is a far greater pleasure than to be a taker. As a wise woman, quoted by Rabbi Dessler once said, "Everything I retained for myself I lost; everything I gave away remained with me." The former were consumed or disintegrated over time, while the latter last because they create a relationship that endures. If we ensure that our children have opportunities to do chesed and teach them to find those opportunities, they will discover the truth of that observation by themselves.
Similarly, there are few satisfactions that can rival gaining mastery over our desires. On a recent trip to America, I asked an old friend whether he would be going to a certain shiur I knew he attended regularly. Not that week, he told me: it conflicted with his Overeaters Anonymous group. The latter, he said, had changed his life: Gaining control in one area had helped him gain control in every area. Now when he spoke to his children about their dietary habits, he confided, they looked at him as a person of integrity, who practiced what he preached, not as a hypocrite. The sense of self-worth that prevailing over his yetzer provided is available to all, but first we need to develop the tools for winning.
If we can help our children become aware of their mission to mekadesh Shem Shomayim and provide them with the opportunities to experience the unique joys of a Torah life through acts of chesed and self-mastery, they too – all of them – will feel they are really living, not just competing.