B'haalot'cha for Tots

B'haalot'cha, Numbers 8:1−12:16

D'Var Torah By: Ellen and Peter Allard

So Moses cried out to the Lord, saying, "O God, pray heal her!"

-B'haalot'cha 12:13

Have you ever hired someone to coach or tutor you? Perhaps you needed help getting back into exercising (or starting in the first place), and you began working with a personal trainer. Or perhaps you were preparing to take the LSAT exam to get into law school, and you hired someone to help you prepare for it. In learning a new skill, it helps a great deal to work with someone who is experienced in that field.

The responsibilities of being a parent of young children include that of "emotional coach." One of the many important components of emotional development in which young children need "coaching" is the skill of empathy. To understand the feelings of others, one must be able to empathize with them, to think about what they might be feeling. To empathize with others, one must be able to identify and label feelings, your own and those of others.

People are not born with empathy. It is an emotion that must be learned. By guiding children from the time they are infants, by assuming the role of "emotional coach" and by consistently modeling empathetic behavior, adults can be important role models for their children or their students. Children who are given plenty of opportunities to recognize and identify their feelings are likely to grow up being aware of how other people feel and of how their behavior affects other people.

While it is true that some children are more naturally empathic than others, in all cases, empathy is a skill that requires practice and coaching. What can you do? Where and when should you start? As with anything we try to teach to young children, your interactions with them are a great place to start.

Show them how your want them to treat others by modeling the behavior you hope to encourage. Parents can begin their "emotional coaching" while their children are babies. In fact, laying the foundation for experiencing and practicing emotional attachment at the youngest ages has a tremendous effect on lifelong emotional development and development in general.

Let's take a look at some practical, real-life examples. Your baby is fussy. Do you ignore her cries, or do you pick her up and try to comfort her? By responding to the cries of an infant, you teach her that her feelings matter. You give the infant a vital opportunity to bond with a significant adult in her life, thus laying the foundation for future emotional development.

Another example: Your 4-year-old son is playing with Legos when his younger sister grabs some of them and begins building her own structure. Your son grabs them back and refuses to let his sister play with them. How do you handle this? If you think of this as an opportunity to teach empathy, you could sit down with your son and talk gently with him, asking how he would feel if he wanted to play with his sister's toys, but she refused to allow him to join her. He may not change his mind about sharing his toys, but he will have had an experience through which he is made aware of another person's feelings. Ideally, at some point, he will be ready to draw on this reservoir of emotional modeling that you are providing and put it into play in his own interactions. By responding to your infant's cries, by modeling that you care, by asking questions that will help children articulate their feelings, by helping your children learn to identify and label their feelings, you help nurture their empathy, and you help them learn to act with compassion.

Because it can take years for children to learn to have empathy, you can't start too early to model this behavior. By doing so, not only will you strengthen your ability to notice and act upon teachable moments early on in your parenting career, but your children more likely will develop the skills they need to become caring, loving, responsible, kind, compassionate and empathic adults.

Perhaps Moses was chosen by God to lead the Israelites because of his great depth of emotion, his ability to be compassionate and empathic. In this parashah, Moses tries to intervene on behalf of the Israelites who are complaining about the difficulty of their life in the dessert. He is exhausted by their expectations of him and asks for God's help in dealing with them. On the surface it looks as if he is asking for God's help because he is tired of listening to all the whining, but this also shows that he truly is listening to them. He feels their pain, he has empathy for them. Later in the parashah, Moses pleads with God on behalf of his sister Miriam. She has been stricken with scales for speaking out against Moses. Even though God is punishing Miriam for an offense against Moses, Moses does not want to see her suffer. He still cares greatly for his sister, enough so that he feels compelled to ask God to heal her. The Talmud states that Jews are to be rachamim b'nei rachmanim, compassionate children of compassionate ancestors. May we teach our children, by example, to be compassionate, and may this compassion be passed on, l'dor vador, from one generation to another.

Questions and Ideas for Parents:

  1. In what ways can you model empathic behavior for your children?
  2. Can you think of an adult who taught you, by example, to be compassionate?
  3. Can you think of a 20th century leader who has demonstrated compassion and empathy? How?

Questions for Children:

  1. How do you feel when you see someone crying or laughing ?
  2. How do you think you would feel if another child took your toys away from you?
  3. What could you say to someone whose feelings have been hurt?
Reference Materials

Pages 950-973 in The Torah: A Modern Commentary Revised Edition, by W. Gunther Plaut.