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Explaining Corruption to Children

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When Innocence Meets Vice

But Zion said: “G-d has forsaken me; my G-d has forgotten me.” [G-d replies] Can a woman ever forget her nursing child; cease to have compassion on the son of her womb?! Yes, they may forget; yet I will not forget you! Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of My hands… Your children hurry; your destroyers and those who laid you waste will emerge from you.

Lift up your eyes round about, and see: They all gather together to come to you…The children that were born in exile will again say in your ears: ‘The place is too narrow for us; make room for us to dwell in.’ Then you will say in your heart: ‘Who has given me these? I had lost my children, and was childless, exiled, and wandering to and fro. Who has brought these up? Behold, I was left alone; from where have these come?’… Even the captives of the mighty will be free, and the prey of the tyrant rescued; for I will save your children – This week’s Haftorah (Isaiah 49:14-25)

How do we explain to our children corruption, hypocrisy, deception – and all the dissonance pervading the adult world? What should we say to our little ones when they are exposed, for the first time, to immoral educators, abusive parents, religious corruption and the basic inconsistencies they witness when supposedly good people behave in bad ways and when hurt comes from those that are supposed to love us?

Various schools of thoughts suggest different approaches.

Most agree that there is no need to initiate the subject with children until they broach it with us. Though there are those that suggest we do pre-empt the issue before children are faced with the quandary.

Some argue, that we should simply tell children the truth: We live in a cruel and hostile world, filled with selfish people, and humans are simply duplicitous by nature. According to this approach, children are just simply naïve, and when the time comes for them to grow up – when they first experience a lie – the time has come to “welcome” them into the spurious adult community of liars and hypocrites. “Lies My Father Told Me” was a popular film that captured the common attitude that adults lie to their children.

Within this approach, there are those that go as far as to say that the earlier we wake up children to the harsh “realities” of life the better it is. Let them not live in delusion about the human capacity to harm one another.

At the other extreme are those that suggest we should simply ignore the issue and avoid answering our children’s questions and addressing their confusion. “What’s the point of telling them about the deceptive world,” the argument goes, “when they will learn about it on their own?” Let children discover through their own experiences the contradictions of life, and adapt accordingly.

Then there are those that posit an approach of… lying to our children about the liars of the world. As ironic as that sounds, this philosophy (if you can even call it that) states that when out children come to us with questions about cheating clergy or corrupt educators, we should minimize the issue by telling them that in every community there are a few “bad apples,” which should not be allowed to stigmatize the entire community. We should weaken the blow to our children’s systems and blunt their disappointment by downplaying the problem.

As you can imagine, I am not about to accept any of these three tactics. The Torah approach – which I will try to convey in this column – rejects all these three perspectives.

Lying to our children, even in the name of protecting them, is not a healthy option. Obviously, we don’t have to go ahead and tell our children the raw truth about every tragedy in life; but withholding information until a person is mature enough to assimilate it, is a far cry from outright deception.

On the other hand, bluntly telling our children about the cruelty and duplicity of people can be quite terrifying, and does not necessarily prepare them for coping with this quandary. Is there any benefit in destroying children’s idealistic view of life, by explaining that all humans are selfish and warning our children to always be wary and on guard?! A strong case can be made that this “realism” is actually quite damaging to human growth. Without idealism, without the ability to dream and aspire, without hope, without enchantment and free abandon, what type of people would we be?!

Our greatest achievements come from our childish purity, virtue and innocence. When coupled with the seasoning and experience of adulthood – the combination of maturity and vulnerability, of wisdom and fascination is one of the most potent forces in life. All the most powerful breakthroughs and revolutions come from people who did not succumb to the status quo, who did not accept that everything is corruptible, who believed in themselves and in others.

Is that what we want to take from our children, by overwhelming them with the fear and hesitation that comes from knowing that all our heroes are cheaters, and that all the people we respect will ultimately disappoint us?!

A friend of mine proudly shared with me recently how he finally broke the news to his child that he should never trust anyone. “I always waited for the day that can share that truth with my child,” he told me, “now he will never be hurt and disappointed due to unmet expectations.” Knowing how my friend was hurt by people he trusted his attitude was understandable. But he was absolutely wrong. And I told him as much. He was wrong, because as painful as it is to be hurt by people you trust, it is even more painful to never allowing yourself to find someone you can trust.

Where will there ever be room for love, true intimate love, if we all are taught that all people are unfaithful – either in actuality or in potential – and that we should therefore always have our defenses up and keep a “back door open” in case wee need to escape?!

So the first and last options are unacceptable. As is the middle option of simply ignoring and avoiding the issue. What benefit is served by not answering our children’s concerns? Is it better that they find the answers in the street, on TV or in places that we would rather not even mention?

What is the role of parents and educators if not to address the conflicts of a growing child facing life’s paradoxes – with the ultimate paradox of good people behaving badly, and the struggle of preserving one’s integrity amidst those that do not, of being a good person amongst selfish neighbors?

Is there a more important question to be answered than the one emerging from innocence colliding with deviousness, honesty confronting deceit, seamlessness meeting duplicity?

Before we address the Torah’s approach, one vital introduction is necessary. And that is about the very nature of human beings.

If we humans are truly selfish “brutes” at heart, who have merely evolved into intelligent creatures, then taking this to the logical conclusion, people will do whatever it takes, cheat, lie, betray, to get what they want.

This, in essence, is the prevailing contemporary theory on human personality – one which we shall coin the “Darwinian-Freudian model.” The cardinal rule that drives all creatures, including humans, is “survival of the fittest.” The “Id” is the inherent selfish force within each of us, the primal, unconscious source for satisfying all mans’ basic needs and feelings. It has only one rule: The “pleasure principle:” “I want it and I want it all now.” The id wants whatever feels good at the time, with no consideration for the reality of the situation or the good of others. Yet, we have developed the rational “ego” and super-ego” which superimposes itself on the unbridled id. The Ego’s job is to get the Id’s pleasures but to be reasonable and bear the long-term consequences in mind. In Freud’s words: the human personality is “…basically a battlefield. He is a dark-cellar in which a well-bred spinster lady (the superego) and a sex-crazed monkey (the id) are forever engaged in mortal combat, the struggle being refereed by a rather nervous bank clerk (the ego).”

Based on this human model, we inevitably have to face the depressing reality that all people are capable at anytime to stoop to duplicity if it serves their self-interest. What then do we do with young, innocent children who are not yet aware of this “sophisticated” fact? We see them as naïve and simple, and at best, we hope that they won’t be exposed to the “true” secret of life – the “truth” that people are just untruthful and untrustworthy…

Well, I am happy to share with you that there is “another” approach – one that is diametrically and unequivocally opposite of the one you just read. It is based on the Torah’s human model, which sees us as fundamentally as people created in the “Divine Image.” We are first and foremost, and at heart, not brutes or beasts, but souls and spirits. Yet each of our souls was send down into a material world, dressed up in a physical body, with corporeal needs.

The soul’s radical and dramatic descent from sublime heights to decadent depths – which in itself is an elaborate study in Kabbalistic and Chassidic literature – creates the first and most powerful dissonance (originating in the great “tzimtzum” discussed last week), which will bear all other forms of dissonance in our lives, from the mildest to the most extreme forms.

We thus have two perpetual voices within us: The voice of the Divine soul aspiring to a selfless life of virtue, and the voice of the selfish body seeking to meet its needs; the subtle voice of the spirit in search for higher meaning and purpose, and the voice of the material desperate for survival and immediate comforts

We thus also have a lifelong conflict: Which voice will prevail?

Above all – and this is the most fascinating and empowering fact: Precisely this battle between soul and body is the purpose of our existence. Each of us has been charged with the mission and the resources to overcome the selfish temptations and allow our souls to direct our bodies, rather than the other way around.

And this is our ultimate response to dissonance – in all its shapes and configurations: We were given duplicity in our existence in order for us to overcome it, and transform it into a force toward unity.

Based on this human model, how do we look at our innocent children? As vast reservoirs of truth! Of all people on this earth children, as vulnerable, pure creatures that they are,  still retain and carry the secret “truth” of existence: Beneath the dissonant; dishonest surface lays profound unity and seamlessness, waiting to be released.

A pure soul manifested in a selfish body is the conflict and purpose of our lives

Armed with this attitude, we have a most powerful – can we say eloquent, under the circumstances? – response to the questions our children ask about corruption and deception in all its manifestations.

When the day comes that our children are old enough to be confused by the dissonance around us, and they approach us with their questions, here are some words that we can offer. Perhaps it’s best to phrase it in a letter form:

My Dear Child,

As pure and delicate as your precious soul is, I want to share with you an important – maybe the most important – thing that you will ever hear in your life; it may be a bit painful, but above all it is empowering:

G-d sent you and I, and everyone in this world, down to a not such nice world. A universe where G-d’s presence is concealed, and G-d’s plan for us is not easily seen. In this type of world it is not difficult for people to wander away from what they were charged to do. Instead of pursuing virtue and kindness, we can sometimes get distracted by our own needs and interests. Instead of fulfilling the “operators’ manual” for life which G-d gave us, we can get busy with other side attractions.

But, please know, my dearest child, this is exactly what G-d intended. He gave us a challenge. Will we follow our hearts’ desires and satisfy our immediate needs, or will we see through the concealment and live up to our true selves? Will we be fooled and seduced by the darkness, or will we bring in light and warmth? Will we ignore everyone around us, or will we work on inspiring everyone we meet?

G-d entrusted us with His world. And gave us this choice. Every moment of our lives we will be confronted with this choice. As children the struggle may take on the shape of how we share or don’t share with our friends. As adults the conflict takes on other forms.

Sadly, people often succumb to their baser instincts and do things that is not consistent with their souls. Sometimes they may even know that they are doing things that are inconsistent with their own values. All of us have a yetzer hara (a selfish inclination); none of us are immune to these inconsistencies.

But always know, that just because others have fallen, you don’t have to. Always remember that you have the power to rise to the occasion and live up to your soul’s highest aspirations. And you have the ability to also help lift others who may have fallen.

As a child, you have something to give us adults that we desperately need: hope. You give us trust, beauty, innocence – and we in turn want to give you love and nurturing, strength and power to use your purity to conquer the world with spirit and soul.

With love.

“The hearts of the parents will return through the children,” the prophet tells us.

But we adults and parents have to allow our children in. This also refers to the “inner child” within each of us. Never allow it to be extinguished.

As the prophet states in this week’s Haftorah – which carries many of the points stated above, and would be worthwhile studying this week:

“I will save your children.”

Even when we experience dissonance all around us and we feel that “G-d has forsaken me; my G-d has forgotten me,” we are promised: “I will not forget you,” even if our mothers and fathers may forget us.

“Even the captives of the mighty will be free, and the prey of the tyrant rescued; for I will save your children.”

“For G-d has comforted Zion. He has comforted all her waste places, and has made her wilderness like Eden, and her desert like G-d’s garden. Joy and gladness will be found there, thanksgiving, and the voice of song.”

I will save your children. Now that is a promise worth remembering.

Photo by Adam DeClerq/Flickr.

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12 Responses to “Explaining Corruption to Children”

  1. Nechama

    You state that there is a conflict in this world between the forces of physicality and spirituality. I think that every person actually faces conflicts between good and evil WITHIN both realms. We face selfish interests both in the physical and spiritual/emotional realms. For example, one can love selflessly or love selfishly, without a physical component. Ones worship of God or Torah learning may be honest or motivated by dishonesty (such a helping to rationalize falseness). The struggle is not a simple one between physical and spiritual. It is one of integrity within the physical or spiritual.

  2. Patti

    Rabbi-
    Thank you for instilling hope, understanding and guidance into my life as I try to make sense and move on from an abusive relationship with a corrupt person and the bewilderment of feeling naive.

  3. Norma Eiberson Hillman

    Your Torah explanation of course is absolutely correct . Torah is never wrong. But, I fear this esoteric letter that is written to a child, while informative, is not what the child needs when a long time friend betrays them in a horrible way for example. The child already knows most of the Torah comments, he needs to know at that moment, why? how? and a concrete example of how to handle the situation…..and to elaborate further, the child needs to know how to conduct himself in the future with other people.
    He needs his Mother (Father) some adult to tell him exactly what we are all capable and related to the discussion at hand. Textbooks just cant do it for a child…..or even a young adult facing these traumatic realties of life.

  4. eileen

    Well I feel this struggle going on everyday and my friends in AA say that we have two dogs within us, one good and one bad, when asked which won wins, the answer was, the one we feed. Thank you, children do give me hope and I never realized that what adults must nurture more than anything is the holy gifts of faith, hope and love.

  5. Rabbi Jacobson

    Professor Roy Turner posed the question to me this way, with regard to hypocritical politicians: Is there no redemption for the hypocrit? Would it be a better world if those who fall short of the standards and ideals they publicly espouse did not speak of them at all?

  6. Sholomke

    From your beautiful article it is unclear what stance the Torah takes in regard to WHEN this information should be shared with a child.

    Should initiative be taken, or should a parent wait until he is approached.

  7. David Aharon Lindsay

    While this is a start, it needs to be followed with a reason G-d made the world this way… one needs to understand the Great DIFFERENCE between CHAI [animal bird and fish] and the MEDABER-CHAI [the HUMAN] Rabbi Waldman writes the story of Bessie the Cow who is given her her green pasture to eat grass and thats all she does eat her quota every day until she dies …. The Medaber-Chai [I deliberately phrase it this way rather than the still unproven Evolution theory that man is an evolved ape]. A closer look at the creation of man in Breishit 2 shows that mans body was taken fron all ground and lay lifeless until Hashem Elokim breathed into him a NISHMAS CHAYIM. it is this that gives man the powers he has of free choice as a rabbis tell us to be a tzaddik like Moshe or to be a Rasha like Yeravam and all the shades of either in all levels of the human species DEPENDING on how he uses these forces. The body [Guf] is powerless without the Soul [in all the Hebrew words used for Soul – see Tanya]

  8. Natan

    Adoult is oblidge to learn children, special his, to recognize falsity or distortion and cure. But first of all is love – the only reson to make effort.

  9. John W. McGinley

    Rabbi: This was a thoughtful and timely article. However, I beg to differ with you on some points.

    I believe the fault-line of the article occurred with these words: A pure soul in a selfish body. I believe the bifurcation here is not true to the human reality. It makes facile what is not facile at all.

    First of all, we are all endowed with the “yeitser ha-ra” by God.* And as You yourself would especially realize Rabbinic commentary makes it quite clear that that the most basic drives of being human, including self-preservation and the sexual drive which allows for procreation, are not possible without the “yeitser ha ra.” Yet this inclination/formation is specified as “ha-ra.” Already we have a mystery in so far as good and necessary features of our humanity come our way through and inclination/formation which is specified “ha ra.” There is even reason to believe that if the “yeitser ha-ra” were somehow killed or eliminated ” the world would be destroyed.” So, quite independent and separable from any considerations about the “yeitser-tov,” it seems that the “yeitser ha-ra” itself is the very condition without which the “yeitser-tov” [itself thirteen years younger than the other yeitser] would not obtain. The whole situation leads to a theology which raises sobering questions about God’s motivation in creating a world which, arguably, cannot obtain without the “yeitser ha ra.”

    *. [A non-domesticated reading of Isaiah 45:6-7 makes this perfectly obvious.]

    I realize of course that you would be inclined to reformulate my wording concerning this “yeitser ha-ra.” You would speak of “self-interest.” Doubtlessly many of the manifestations of the “yeitsr ha ra” can be properly designated as “self-interest.” But there is something diabolical in and of the “yeitser ha-ra” which remains unacknowledged when one tries to restrict the meaning this God-given formation/inclination to the phrase “self-interest.” Such is not being linguistically honest. And, after the Holocaust, Jewish learning lies when it is not linguistically honest.

    Further it is precisely the neshamah itself, along with ruakh and nefesh, which runs, so to speak, on the energy of “yeitser ha-ra.” The physicality of our humanity is only incidentally and derivatively “self-interested.” Again, this too is a sobering thought.

    Somehow the “tov” of Hashem (Exodus 33:19) can prevail if mankind ((but really, the people Israel as the chosen surrogate for mankind)) honestly confronts and channels the power within us which can both create and destroy. There is, in the final analysis, no gentle way or siferotic story by which to get across this reality to our children. An overlay of a false idealism only makes the situation worse since such inevitably leads to a cynical souring when the truth becomes clear. The good can prevail only when the seal of Hasehm is honored. Our children are more resilient than we think. We dishonor them when we dishonor the seal of Hashem. “Nora” is the most essential middah of Hashem.

  10. Pat Grossman

    You make a strong case at the very beginning that we live in a cruel and hostile world. It is in the eye of the beholder. A new underlying political approach seems to be coming from your op-ed. Write from your soul not from what you think people want to hear. Then, it will be coming from G-d.

  11. Gershon Overlander

    Nice piece. Reb Yossi, I am sure you would agree that it is also crucial to make very clear to our children the dimension of teshuva. Children need to know from early on that together with our abilities to rise to great heights and choose the right way (against the urgings of the yetzer horah we are all subjected to) is the knowledge that even if we fail – and, sadly many of us do Hashem tells us we can always pick ourselves up again and do Teshuva. This not only rectifies our errors (corruption, dissonance etc) but can even convert those mistakes into merits (zechios) and thereby achieve even greater spiritual heights.

  12. Naomi

    wonderful article, All the points argued are to the point and exactly.

    Be blessed and let more children read this. It has to be a made booklet and given to childrens.
    naomi

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