The prophet Yirmiyahu challenged not only his own generation (and not always successfully) but also continues to challenge ours. He says, in G-d’s name, “just add your burnt-offerings (that are entirely consumed on the altar) to your other offerings” (Yirmiyahu 7:21) that may be eaten by those who bring them, and eat it all. Eat them too, Rashi comments, since G-d says “I won’t accept them anyway, so why should you lose out and let good meat go to waste?”
Why doesn’t G-d accept them? Because they are insincere: “I didn’t speak to your forefathers nor did I command them on the day they left Egypt about offerings. What I did say to them was obey Me, I will be your G-d and you will be My people. You shall follow My path that I will command you, so that it will be good for you” (ibid 7:22-23).
Of course, we might fairly ask, why does G-d reject some offerings? I can hear a modern questioner asking, “well, at least they showed up, at least they came to the Bet Hamikdash and went through the ritual. That should count for something.” And the learned among them would even add “doesn’t the Talmud (Masechet Pesachim 50b) state that “through doing something for ulterior motivations you will come to do it for the right reasons?” Didn’t Woody Allen assert that “showing up is 80% of life”? Apparently, he was wrong about that too. G-d would rather not have us show up than show up for the wrong reasons. Why is that?
The answer is very relevant to us. Motivations matter as much as actions.
I often get the feeling that we are driving our children crazy and not in a good way. Parents tell me how busy they are; they work, and then after school, there is barely time for kids’ homework or dinner, because the children have to be driven to basketball, hockey, baseball, soccer, dance, tutoring, parties, study groups, volunteer work, and who knows what else. And parental pressure on coaches is often intense – to choose the child for this team, and then they badger the coach for playing time, and some will badger the referees at games for bad calls. There is pressure on teachers to ensure that the children all receive good grades and are never disciplined because that might hurt their self-esteem.
There are Jewish schools that shy away from teaching young children about the true events of Purim and even elide the ten plagues G-d inflicted on Egypt before the Exodus, fearing the possible trauma it might bring to young children. Is it that our children are too fragile to handle the truth – or have we made them into fragile creatures?
The recent college admission scandal surprised no one and I am sure it is still going on in some form. Whatever tactic is used – bribes, cheating on tests, and (the worst of all!) faking athletic prowess – is obviously a poor reflection on parents. But why are so many so quick to let the children off the hook. Of course, sometimes they are just pawns, but children certainly know when they do or don’t deserve something, certainly they know whether someone is taking tests for them certainly they know when they are pretending to be top athletes when they struggle to tie their designer sneakers.
For parents it is partly about shielding their children from pain and disappointment but it is mostly about ego, status, bragging rights – and they don’t care whether the accomplishment is real or phony. (Why did it have to be the lawyer who said, “To be honest, I’m not worried about the moral issue here. I’m worried about …if she’s caught doing that.” Why couldn’t that have been one of the actresses? Why did it have to be the lawyer?!)It is sometimes hard for parents to let children be children, to let them make mistakes, to let them learn from their mistakes, and even not to let them have something they want but they think they need. It is even difficult for some parents to acknowledge that their children possess any imperfections.
But parents must balance idealism with realism. They must be idealists – seeking the best for their children, maximizing their talents, and exploring all the possibilities that the world has to offer. That idealism, though, must be tempered by realism. Not every painting by a four year old child heralds a future Rembrandt, and not every layup made by a six year old is the second coming of Michael Jordan. There is a bright line that divides between being supportive and encouraging…and being delusional, and parents should situate themselves on the right side of that line.
Parents who are always giving their child a leg up are really tying a ball and chain to their feet. And one sin engenders the next: those who cheat to get into college will have to cheat to stay there, and then cheat to be admitted and remain in graduate school, and the cheat in their profession of choice. And when they are eventually prosecuted for something, they will claim it is their first offense and appeal for leniency, when in reality they or their surrogates have been committing these offenses since they were five years old.
If you never stumble, you will never know how to stand up on your own.
This is a classic case of the Talmudic dictum (Masechet Megila 6b): “if a person says ‘I didn’t exert myself at all but I was successful anyway,’ don’t believe it.” But aren’t there people who coast, and do succeed without real effort? Yes, but R. Chaim Shmulevitz explained “don’t believe it” to mean that we should not believe that such success has any value. We should not believe that the person has really achieved anything meaningful that is earned with an absence of effort. And he added, in a beautiful simile, that self-development, always gradual, is like a field that is strewn with rocks that have to be cleared one by one to make the field productive. “I tried and I succeeded.” But if you just fly over the field or someone carries you over the field, what have you really gained? The field is as unproductive as before.
Yirmiyahu informed us that G-d admonished us to combine our burnt-offering with our other offerings, and eat them all, because the offerings were valueless. When people perceived the institution of korbanot as a shortcut, a ceremony, lacking any substance or sincerity, evincing no genuine change in the person, and certainly no effort in its offering, then what good was it?
Too many parents routinely try to rig the system – doing their children’s homework for them just so the parents can get it over with; falsely claiming their child is learning-disabled so they can have more time for tests; falsely claiming their child has ADHD to get a medical letter so they do not have to wait in line at an amusement park; etc. – and they are doing their children a huge disservice. They are ruining them – perhaps because they themselves were ruined. The accused here are people who have become such great manipulators that it will be shocking if there are any real legal repercussions to this scandal. Why, there is a 40% chance they will plead their way into a fine, probation and some type of community service, because after all, you know, it is their first offense.
A child’s worth, in the real world of the spirit, is determined by his or her goodness, and not by which Ivy League college she attends, how much money will will earn, or how many of their accomplishments feed their parents’ insatiable ego. These days, indeed, one can make a cogent argument that attendance at most of these so-called prestigious, elite colleges impairs one’s pursuit of good character rather than advances it. And the objective of parenting is to maximize a child’s strengths while minimizing and rectifying, but not denying, any flaws. Children are allowed to be imperfect – just like their parents are, and to occasionally fail – just like their parents did.
“The reward is proportionate to the effort” (Masechet Avot 5:23). Shortcuts in life, like in Torah, are usually spiritually destructive. That is not what G-d commanded us or why He liberated us from Egypt to be His people. What He did impart to us was this eternal message (Yirmiyahu 9:22-23): Do not boast about your wisdom, your athleticism, or your wealth – they all mean nothing if misused. If you wish to boast, boast about this – about understanding what
G-d wants from us, to perform acts of kindness, righteousness and justice, for our own benefit and for that of the world, and transmit that ultimate value to our children.