First Awe, Then Love

There is excellent parenting advice in this week’s parasha.  We just need to be ready to hear and internalize it.

As I made my way through my summer pile of books, I gained a great deal of chizuk from Dr. Leonard Sax’s The Collapse of Parenting. Dr. Sax, a pediatrician and psychologist, has seen a sea change in the interactions between parents and their children over the last thirty years. Whereas he used to see respectful children and parents who were in control, he writes that he now sees many cases of the opposite behavior — behavior that ultimately hurts the children.  He explains that today kids value their relationships with their peers more than they do the relationship with their parents, which leads to a number of serious issues.

In this week’s parasha of Ekev, after recounting the story of the sin of the Golden Calf and the two sets of tablets, Moshe tells the Children of Israel: “what does God want from you now?” ve-ata Yisrael, mah Hashem Elokecha sho’el me-imach?  Not much: ki im le-yir’ah et Hashem Elokecha la-lechet bechol derakhav, u-le’ahava oto… “Only to fear Hashem your God, to walk in all His ways, and to love Him…”  Many of the commentators pick up on the order of verbs in this verse.  First comes the awe or fear of God, and only then comes love.

Rabbi Ḥayyim ben Moshe ibn Attar, the Or HaChaim Hakadosh, writes that ha-yir’ah hi petach likanes le-sha’ar ha-ahava, “awe is the doorway to enter the gate of love.”  Fear is a lower-level emotion, he explains, but a necessary stage to reach the level of truly loving God and connecting with Him in a deeper way.

Dr. Sax writes of the need to “educate desire” in our children.  Sometimes we need to redirect those desires: if all they want to do is play video games and refuse to go outside, for example, we need to put our foot down.  If they are so fragile that a B+ throws them into a funk for days, he writes, we need to give them coping skills to deal with life’s disappointments.  How are we to do this as parents?  We can accomplish this by not being our children’s friends, but by being their parents.  “Your job is to be the authoritative parent, not the cool peer,” writes Dr. Sax.

I often speak with parents whose only goal is their child’s happiness.  I agree with that goal, but it’s important to remember that we’re talking about kids, who may not understand what will really make them happy.  At school, we place them in classes, give them grades, and find all kinds of ways to encourage their growth.  Sometimes those experiences may require what seems like unhappiness.  As the adults in their lives, it’s our job to recognize what’s really in their best interest, and help them make it to the other side.  As I said, it’s good advice, but we need to be ready to hear it.  We can’t be afraid for our kids to struggle a little bit.

We also can’t be afraid of our kids not liking us once in awhile. Awe, after all, leads to love.  The Talmud in Berachot learns from this verse that hakol biydei shamayim, chutz mi-yirat shamayim, “all is in the hands of heaven, except for the fear of heaven.”  As parents, the awe we instill in our kids — an awe first of ourselves, then an awe of God — will ultimately lead to a much deeper love than anything else we can give them by indulging them.

I hope you are enjoying the last days of summer.  We are hard at work on our buildings and our programs, and we can’t wait to see everyone back in a few short weeks!

Shabbat shalom.