Torah Tuesdays

Torah Tuesdays: the Environmental Factor

Nope, not talking greenhouse gas emissions here.  This is more along the lines of the cultural environment we find ourselves living in.

This post was inspired by Rebbetzin Heller’s (usually) weekly email to Neve alumni. This week’s letter was entitled “Upward from Depravity,”  referencing to this week’s parsha, where the Jews are living in Egyptian society which was, shall we say, less than moral (cough, cough, understatement).

Two things in her email struck me:  The first, how much or little to share the details of one’s past with the next generation.  The second, that Hashem chooses each person’s beginning point with care.  Let’s look into these ideas a little more.

Sharing versus Withholding

Rebbetzin Heller wrote:

Some of you, their future parents, will be able to bring their pasts with them, and show them how their grandparents, aunts and uncles, did the best that they could, given the fact that their circumstances robbed them of their heritage.  They will be able to talk about Aunt Lisa who gave blood every half a year, or Uncle Rob who sent his kids to Day School even though he didn’t have the opportunity to go himself, and how impossible it is to guess how great they may have been if they had had more to work with,  just as you can’t guess how great you would be if you had every opportunity to live inspired all of the time.

Others would have suffered so deeply in the course of their struggles that they will treat their pasts as some Holocaust survivors do, saying as little as possible about their lives when they were still Out There.  Is there a right or wrong way to deal with coming from a past that is different than your present?

I tend to be a bit close-lipped about my past, maybe sharing things here and there, but generally I like it to stay where it is – back there.  However, some have asked why one wouldn’t want to share the potentially inspiring story of one’s journey to full observance.  I mean, it’s not easy to turn your life on its head to become what many would consider to be a zealot.  So, to those who are born into a Torah observant life, it’s tremendously validating to see those born into the “outside” world come and join the shtetl.

But as Rebbetzin Heller so poignantly put it, some of the journey may have induced suffering, and who wants to revisit painful memories with acquaintances and friends?  How much more so would a person not want to share those memories with their children, to whom they are the paradigm of what life is supposed to be (up to a point, of course)?

Is there a right or wrong way to handle discussion of the past?  I doubt it.  I think it depends on the past, the emotional connection to it, how curious your children are, what you want them to learn, how close you are to your unobservant family and probably a gazillion other factors I wouldn’t be able to think of.  This is all purely theoretical for me, as my oldest isn’t yet two.

You started there for a reason

Rebbetzin Hellers goes on to say:

The truth, of course, is that Hashem chooses each person’s beginning point with care.  Your individuality beings with you inherent traits, but the environment in which you grew up certainly is a major factor in making you the person that you are today.   Discovery of what is true and right, when the world that you observe is unwilling to use these words, isn’t easy, and the path is always rocky.  The result is that when you choose to go for the light, you elevate the darkness as well, which makes the trip worthwhile.

That’s right.  If you started out your life as a farm girl in the countryside of Montana, it was because Hashem wanted you there, because that was the place you needed to start in to become who you are.  This would maybe be an easy way to explain to children why you didn’t grow up going to Day School, or keeping kosher, or whatever.  Hashem wanted you to have the experiences of your childhood.  Maybe it helps you be more empathetic to people.  Maybe you needed to learn a certain skill set which will prove to be valuable in the Orthodox world.

Environment is certainly a large factor in personal development.  In Pirkei Avos, chapter one, paragraph 7, it says

Nittai of Arbel said, distance yourself from a bad neighbor, do not befriend a wicked person, and do not despair of punishment.

Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld of brings Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch:

Regarding bad neighbors we are told to distance ourselves, while regarding the wicked we are told only not to befriend them.  The reason for this difference is that it is possible to choose one’s neighbors — by selecting a neighborhood in which to live.  Regarding the wicked, however, it is impossible to entirely avoid contact with them — in business (particularly) or on the street.  Thus, we may have to interact with them on some level, but we must take care not to closely befriend them.

I’ve also learned (though I no longer remember the source), that a bad neighbor can, G-d forbid, do more harm than a wicked person, as a neighbor has around-the-clock access to your home, and thus, your personal life.  Dealing with unpleasant influences at work is perhaps a necessary evil, but when there’s a negative influence next door, or across the street, it can become a great source of stress.

Living in America is generally pretty easy.  We have an amazing amount of religious freedom (read any of Rabbi Berel Wein’s works on Jewish History to get an idea of how good we have it), material comfort on a high level (even with the economic downturn), and thriving Torah institutions.  But still, the immorality and irreverence which is found in plenty in general society seeps into our little world.

So even though we are not physically threatened by our surroundings, we are in a spiritual sense.  This is one reason Orthodox Jews tend to live close together (that and the need to be by communal structures such as shuls, etc.).  This may also be a reason why some may choose not to share the details of their past with their children.  While it’s not possible to shelter children entirely from the realities of secular society, why bring it up unnecessarily?

So, in the end, it’s up to you how much you want to share the details of your past with your children.  Are there lessons which could be valuable?  Surely.  Are there anecdotes better left unsaid?  Perhaps.  But no matter the course you choose, know that you are creating the environment which will help mold your child, and that Hashem gave your child specifically to you.

9 thoughts on “Torah Tuesdays: the Environmental Factor

  1. Whatever people might say, you are truly right: we have an abundance of religious freedom. Even if people threaten to take it away. Sigh.

    The past can be tricky. I believe as you come to an awareness of your future you can fully integrate your past without the feelings of guilt/shame that once might have accompanied that maneuver.

  2. I, even thought my conversion isn’t complete yet and in fact only in the beginning stages, wonder this too. I’m not ashamed from where I came… I don’t mind telling anyone about it who truly cares. In fact I am delighted to be a convert. But do I want to constantly be reminded I’m not *really* one of gang? hmm… not so much. do I want people to always think of me as “that convert”, or my children as “those convert children”? probably not. yeah… it’s a confusing topic. I am sure that depending on the community and time in my life my feelings will change about it.

    1. Yes, it’s definitely a confusing topic! Those of us who’ve come from non-religious backgrounds certainly have cause to be proud of our journey, but there is a line between being proud of where we come from and deciding how much to divulge. This is a good topic to receive rabbinical guidance on, IMO.

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