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How to Teach Your Children to Think

Updated: Feb 7

The Torah portion of Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:18) is replete with statutes and laws regarding commercial and interpersonal relationships. The introductory words delivered by Hashem (God) to Moshe (Moses) are, “These are the judgments that you should place before them”.  Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105) wonders why the Torah uses the uncommon phraseology “you shall place before them”? Why not use the more familiar words, “you should say to them”?  The answer provides a timeless lesson for parents and teachers. 

Rashi explains that “you shall place before them” is a hint to Moshe to do more than teach these rules once, twice, or even a few times for proficiency.  Rather, in addition to teaching what the laws are, Moshe needed to give the Jewish people clear and  complete explanations of the reasons behind the laws.  It isn’t enough for us to know what to do, we also need to understand why we do it.  This is why the Torah says “place before them”, describing a metaphorically complete placement on a fully set table. The commandments taught in this Torah portion need to be presented and explained, fully and completely.

Funnily enough there is a category of mitzvos (commandments) that are presented without any explanations. These laws, called chukim, are taught without attempts to understand their reasons. Chukim are laws we must keep despite knowing we cannot ever understand them. However, the laws in this Torah portion are “mishpatim” and these need to be taught in a way that ensures we understand the reasons and explanations. At one and the same time, human beings need to try to discern Hashem’s lessons for some laws, while also accepting others simply because He gave them to us, without explanation.

There are some commandments we should analyze and some we must simply accept. We need both approaches as we relate to Hashem and children also need both as they relate to their parents. There are times we expect our children to obey us without giving any explanations and there are other times we share with them the reasons behind our decisions, giving them a glimpse into our thought processes.  Both approaches are important and need to play a role in raising our children. Children should learn to obey their parents without question and also learn the reasons and explanations behind some parental decisions.

What is the benefit of sharing our thought processes with our children?  Raising children is a long term undertaking. Our goal as parents isn’t just to get through the current stage, but to train and raise our children to live full, healthy lives as adults. We don’t only want to teach blind obedience, but also to hone their reasoning skills, develop their judgment, and train them to evaluate situations that they will have to meet on their own later in their lives. In order to help them learn how to make their own thoughtful choices, wise parents give children a window into how and why they make decisions.

As children grow they begin to make decisions for themselves, but they must learn how to do so. When parents share their deliberations with their children, they are demonstrating the types of questions and considerations involved. Furthermore, if our children have already had conversations with us about our reasoning, it opens the door for them to share their thoughts with us as they begin to make their own decisions. Recently there was a children’s book on our kitchen table that had arrived as a freebie in the mail.  My daughter asked if she could read it and although I said yes, I added that I would be giving the book away as I didn’t want it to stay in our home.  After she read it, my daughter came back to me to share her perspective on what was problematic in the book. This gave me a chance to share my concerns as well.  By sharing our thought processes with our children, we are helping them prepare for their lives as they grow and mature into independent adults, which is the ultimate  goal of all parents.

This article is dedicated to the memory of Livia Dickman, 24, a young wife, teacher, and expectant mother, murdered by Hamas in a terrorist attack in Jerusalem on November 30, 2023. May her memory be for a blessing.

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