About a year ago I was speaking with a successful writer and marketer named Dan. He had grown up in a broken home and dedicated himself to creating a different experience for his children. Though he is not Jewish, he wanted to raise them with Jewish family values.
I asked him what he meant. He replied with a question of his own.
“Why,” he asked,” are Jews so good at keeping families together? There must be some special set of Jewish family values.”
I was taken aback.
As a rabbi, I constantly counsel families going through difficult situations. I’ve worked with couples going through divorce, estrangement, drug addictions, adultery and much more.
My friend’s rosy view of Jewish family values seemed naive. I told him I didn’t think we had anything special to offer.
But then he pushed me. He told me many of the intact families he knew growing up were Jewish. He saw parents obsessed with their children’s education. And then he told me about one experience in particular. It captured Jewish family values for him.
An Extraordinary Story
A Jewish friend invited Dan over to his home. It was Friday after school. They played for a while, and the friend asked him if he wanted to stay for dinner. He said sure. He really had nowhere else special to be.
They sat down for dinner, and Dan said he was surprised when his friend ’s mom put candles on the table, lit them, and then took out a big loaf of a type of bread he’d never seen before. The mom then asked Dan, his friend, and his friend’s sister to come and sit down, and she and her husband said a prayer for good health and happiness over all three teenagers.
Dan’s friend, sister and parents then began singing a series of blessings. They taught Dan the words and got him to sing along. After a while, they had a wonderful meal and ended it with some more singing.
That experience had happened 30 years ago, and yet it still stood out in his mind. It was his one and only Shabbat dinner. To him it represented Jewish family values. It demonstrated family togetherness at its best.
The 3 Core Jewish Family Values
In asking me about Jewish family values, he was asking how he could bring that sense of togetherness and harmony into his own life and family.
I didn’t have a great answer at the time, but after thinking about it, three core values stood out. The first, as he had experienced, is Shabbat. The second is the centrality of the home. And the third is a recognition that the meaning of life transcends our individual life.
1. The Sabbath (Shabbat): The Jewish Sabbath begins Friday evening and ends at sunfall on Saturday. The central part of the Sabbath is the Friday night family meal. Jewish legend says that the angels accompany families who eat together on the Sabbath.
In an ideal world, we could share family meals every night. The business of life today makes it challenging to do so. Yet, we can take at least one night week when no one needs to rush off. We can take a couple of hours to discuss what is important rather than what is merely urgent.
It matters. Those are the times our children, grandchildren, friends and students will never forget. They are a taste of what makes life sacred.
2. The Home: The most sacred place in Judaism is not the synagogue. It is not even the land of the Israel. It is the family home.
As Jonathan Sacks puts it, “it’s in the home that we are tested, there that we learn the love that is respect, consideration, gentleness, the capacity to listen as well as speak, sensitivity, graciousness and the willingness to make sacrifices for one another.” In other words, home is where we learn the most important lessons of life.
Author Bruce Feiler, for example, made this case brilliantly in the best-selling book The Secrets of Happy Families: How to Improve Your Morning, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smart, Go Out and Play, and Much More. The thesis of the book is that every family has a narrative.
It can be either an ascending narrative: we came here with nothing, we worked hard, and are enjoying the fruits of our labor. That’s the American dream. Or it can be a descending one: Once we had it all. Now look at us.
But the most common and, in fact, healthy, is what Feiler calls the oscillating narrative: this one goes, “We’ve had ups and downs in our family. We built a family business. Your grandfather was a pillar of the community. Your mother was on the board of the hospital.
But we also had setbacks. You had an uncle who was once arrested. We had a house burn down. Your father lost a job. But no matter what happened, we always stuck together as a family.”
Do you know your family narrative? If not, you should, because knowing your family narrative makes you a happier and healthier human being.
3. Generational Continuity: Our culture tends to value the solo individual. We focus on individual choices, happiness, and rights. We also focus on the short-term. We want to do what is easy and convenient right now.
But too much of a focus on the individual undermines the centrality of the family and community. Too much of a focus on the present moment ignores the importance of the span of history.
Sometimes we have to fight the tide to hold on to what is most important. Sometimes we have to make sacrifices for others so that we can find the ultimate happiness. It works out in the end.
I learned this truth from one of my professors in college. When his children were teenagers, they did not want to stay home on Friday nights for Shabbat dinner. They wanted to go out with their friends.
He said no. They fought him. They complained. But they ultimately gave in.
His children are now in their 30s. Their dad reports that they occasionally say to him, “Remember those great Shabbat dinners we used to have on Friday nights. We miss them.” Now they look forward to establishing the same set of rules with their children.
We can all bring these sacred Jewish family values into our own lives. They matter now more than ever.
Do you have any sacred family practices?