When my son Yonatan was about 2, we began instructing him in the fine art of acquiring a bagel. We helped him learn that you have to wait in line, patiently, and not cut in front of other people. When it’s your turn, you have to ask for the kind of bagel you want (sesame, toasted, with cream cheese, in our case), and say “please.” You have to give the nice lady your money, and take the change back, and then in the end say “thank you!” when she gives you your order. It’s a lot of things to remember! He would frequently forget something or need coaching, so it’s a good thing we gave him a lot of opportunities to work on his bagel-ordering skills.
There are a lot of ways that we help train our kids in the way things work down here on this planet. This is how you use a fork. Here’s how you respond if you see someone is hurt. We don’t draw on the walls. Hands are really—and I mean really—not for hitting. Giving them these skills helps them grow into the kind of people who know that you have to wait your turn when other people want bagels, too—that their bagel isn’t more important than anyone else’s.
It could be argued that every religious tradition has its own training mode—a set of laws or principles that can inform how we move throughout the world. Just as we try to offer our children the tools that they need to grow and flourish in this world, so, too are there tools available to us, if we want them.
According to traditional accountings, there are 613 mitzvot—commandments—in the Torah. A lot of them don’t apply to most Jews today—some can only be fulfilled by those farming in the land of Israel, some relate to the once-functioning Temple in Jerusalem, some are only relevant to a specific person in ancient Israelite society. But there are plenty of commandments meant for everybody, including some that were developed over time in the Talmud and other Jewish legal writings.
So there are a lot of Jewish opportunities to go around—observing Shabbat, keeping kosher, laws about conducting business relationships and wealth, and how to relate to those who are financially marginalized. If you live your life according to Jewish law, it informs your day in a thousand ways. Someone has a juicy story to tell you about a mutual acquaintance? There are rules about gossip. There are rules about how to observe each of the holidays, and when to pay your employees. If you’re cooking and there’s a possibility that something funky’s gotten in your soup? Oh, there are rules. So many rules.
I think how Jewish law functions is, in some ways, similar to how training works with our kids. It’s a system for living that is meant to help us navigate the world: We don’t hit! We share our toys! We don’t gossip meanly about others! We pay our workers promptly! And in deeper ways, it helps to transform us into the kinds of people who have internalized the values of the training. At a certain point, one hopes, your kid chooses not to hit not because he knows there might be a time-out if he does, but because he’s learned to become the kind of kid who doesn’t hit.
So, too, with us grown-ups. When we become more conscious about guarding our tongues and not saying every mean, snarky thing that comes to mind, we—little by little—become the kind of people who don’t bring nasty speech into the world. When I choose, with intentionality, to connect to the sacred through blessing and prayer, I become the kind of person who is more aware of the sacred. And that feeds and nourishes me in ways that I wouldn’t necessarily seek out on my own.
We put our kids down to nap because it’s good for them, because it helps regenerate them, even if they wouldn’t necessarily choose to sleep if left to their own devices. That’s kind of how I am with ritual practice a lot of the time, honestly—whether prayer or Shabbat or other things. It’s the rejuvenation I didn’t know I needed, and often the thing without which I’d be a whiny, cranky mess.
Some kids are more naturally empathetic than others. Some kids just naturally go give the crying child at the playground a hug, or share spontaneously and with ease. Some adults are, perhaps, more likely to choose caring behavior, giving charity money and welcoming the orphan and the stranger into their home, unprompted.
But it’s also true that the empathetic kid still needs other kinds of training—maybe to learn not to pick his nose in public, maybe to remember to say thank you to the nice lady at the bagel shop. And it might be true as well that there are other kinds of growth that even the more ethically-inclined grown-up needs—maybe they need prompting to make mindful food choices or to be patient with their colleagues.
Why this matters for us is the same reason that it matters for our children: because the process of learning how to be a person in the world—a better person, a kinder person—is never really completed. The same part of us that wanted to cut in line at the bagel shop when were 2 is still in us when we’re 22 or 42, even if it manifests in different ways.
Our children have us as their teachers and guides, but even as grown-ups, we always have the opportunity to grow into a kinder, softer, more-aware-of-the-sacred, more empathetic version of ourselves. For me, anyway, a spiritual practice is one thing that helps me to get there—at least a little bit.