Picture the following scenario: A 10-year-old boy is sitting down during Kaddish. He isn’t davening alone, but as part of a cheder class. The rebbi comes over to the boy and motions to him to stand up for the Kaddish which is currently in progress. The boy shrugs and does not respond as the rebbi had wished. So, to further prod the boy to do his bidding, the rebbi begins to use not only hand motions and facial expressions, but actual words — in the middle of Kaddish! Now, it so happens that the boy is Sephardi, so he is used to sitting down for Kaddish when he davens with his father in their Sephardi shul.
Granted, that scenario was a bit on the extreme side of the spectrum (yet 100 percent true nonetheless!), but it brings into sharp focus an important point.
If you look around a bit (which, truth be told, we really ought not be doing during davening), you may notice an almost universal phenomenon: Many fathers who have their young sons with them in shul seem to spend a disproportionate amount of time and energy on getting their little charges involved in the davening, rather than focusing on getting themselves into the davening. A classic scene is a father bending over during chazaras ha’shatz or Kaddish and, in a somewhat-louder-than-usual tone, saying amen or amen yehei shmei rabbah right in his son’s face, expecting that said son will excitedly follow suit. Alas, this approach seems to be, for the most part, a dismal failure. Usually, the boy either gives his father a blank, uncomprehending stare — generally the reaction of younger tykes — or, if he is a bit older, deliberately ignores him and focuses his gaze on all the other men in shul, who are for some mysterious reason far more interesting to him at the moment.
Healthy dollop of sarcasm aside, this really is a curious phenomenon to ponder. I say that not only as someone who likes to consider himself a thinking person, but also because I know first-hand how strong the pull is toward this type of behavior. When my son was 5, and I was learning in a beis medrash right next door to his cheder, he, together with a number of his friends, would often find himself next to his father during the mid-day Minchah. The innate desire to lean in his direction and deliver him a loud, encouraging amen was powerful, indeed. It took a lot of willpower — and I really mean a lot — to prevent myself from doing so. And I was not entirely successful. Knowing full well that he knew how to answer amen quite nicely, and that he was even familiar with the words of Kaddish and Kedushah, I asked him a few times — albeit before davening began — if he would like to answer together with all the men in shul. At the time, I was baffled by what appeared to me to be stubborn refusal on his part. After all, if he can so cutely scream amen at the top of his lungs in cheder, why not in shul? Well, whatever may be the psychological explanation, the fact of the matter is that we fathers seem to be off the track a bit — at least sometimes, and at least in part.
Harav Yaakov Kamenetsky, zt”l, was asked how he and his wife went about teaching their children to say brachos. Rav Yaakov’s response speaks volumes: “We didn’t. They saw us making brachos, and they also started making brachos.”
The natural drive to be like Tatty and Mommy is a real force, far stronger than we are consciously aware. That being the case, we really ought to pause and consider precisely what image it is that we are demonstrating for our little ones’ likely, eventual emulation. Try to project: your son is now 27 years old. He is standing in shul during chazaras ha’shatz or Kaddish, and instead of saying amen or amen yehei shmei rabbah with kavanah, he is bending over, practically yelling it at his kid, upon whom it is not having an impact. Is that what would give us nachas? But what if we were to see this: Your 27- year-old son is focused on one thing only, concentrating properly during davening. His amens and amen yehei shmei rabbahs are clearly emanating from somewhere deep within him. Your impressionable 5-year-old grandson is mesmerized by what he sees his father doing. He sits there (yes, sits, despite the tzibbur reciting Kaddish), gazing intently at the awe-inspiring sight of his father; his mind not fully grasping what he is seeing, yet his neshamah thirstily drinking in every bit of it, nonetheless.
Suffice it to say, that it is that latter depiction that would really provide us with the nachas we yearn for. Well, if that is the picture we would like to see of our sons after they have grown and come into their own, then we’d better start modeling that type of behavior (or at least as close as we can get to it) for them now. Their innocent impressionability lasts only so long.
But there is another, perhaps even more pressing, reason we should seriously consider opting for the “osmosis” approach over the frontal approach. In the extremely enlightening pamphlet, “Al Techet’u Ba’yeled,” the author recounts many a heartbreaking story of kids who went off the derech. One of these describes a boy of about 14 years of age who had cast off practically everything, and the thing he despised most was davening. That, despite his continued adherence to the mitzvah of tefillin. When queried about this curious dichotomy, the boy volleyed back, “I keep putting on tefillin, because I like my tefillin. Every single cheder boy looks on with envy at all the big bar-mitzvah boys who already have tefillin. Getting to wrap up an older boy’s tefillin is a singular privilege. The day I started putting on tefillin, I felt so big. My tefillin made me feel amazing. But davening? Every day my father would be breathing down my neck, and if I so much as glanced out of my siddur for even one split second, his insistent ‘nu-nu’ and accusing finger would accost me. So of course I hate davening. I can’t stand it!”
When the father of this boy was told that davening is the aspect of Yiddishkeit that his son is most estranged from, his reaction was intense: “I can’t believe it! Davening is what I put the most effort into when to trying to be mechanech him, more than anything else! Do you have any idea what mesirus nefesh it took for me to rearrange my entire schedule so that I would be able to daven with him every day? And it wasn’t as if I could just have him next to me, and I could focus on my own davening. Even that was sacrificed because I had to constantly watch over him to make sure he would daven properly. And that is what he has thrown away more than anything else?”
As outsiders, we can empathize with all parties involved. But we need to learn a serious lesson from it. Whatever psychological motivation may be pushing us to act in a particular way vis-à-vis our children, we would be ill-advised to give in to that urge without first giving the matter due consideration. This is not to say that chinuch does not involve direct instruction. It certainly does — but in the right place and time, for the right things, and in the correct measure. In any event, behaviors that at best will leave us frustrated by their ineffectiveness, and at worst leave us heartbroken by their destructiveness, need to be eschewed. Instead, we can do much better by refocusing inward and allowing the ripples of kedushah to draw our charges into the world in which we hope and pray they will forever remain firmly ensconced.