Sh'lach L'cha for Tots

Sh'lach L'cha, Numbers 13:1−15:41

D'Var Torah By: Ellen and Peter Allard

But the notables who had gone up with him said, "We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we." Thus they spread calumnies among the Israelites about the land they had scouted, saying, "The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are men of great size.

-Exodus 13:31-32

Upon returning from their mission to scout the Land of Canaan, which God was giving to the Israelite people, 10 of the 12 scouts delivered a calamitous report. They believed that the people in the Land of Canaan were dangerous and "of great size" and that they, the Israelites, were small in comparison. The Israelites, hearing the reports, bemoaned their fate and cried out against Moses and Aaron. They again wondered why they hadn't died in Egypt instead of being brought to suffer and die in the desert. They even wondered if they should return to Egypt, if they would be better off there. Based only on the dire descriptions of the 10 fearful scouts, with no attention paid to Joshua and Caleb's optimism and faith in God, the Israelites were consumed by fear. God made it very clear that their continued lack of faith, fueled by fear, would not be tolerated.

Since their Exodus from Egypt, the Israelites had been living a nomadic existence and were not certain of their day-to-day safety; their lives were devoid of consistency and structure. Without faith in God, or at least a belief that their wandering in the desert would result in better lives for all of them, fear took over and directed their behavior.

At times, fear can be a prominent emotion in the life of a young child. Sometimes fears stem from an actual experience of loss or injury, but children also have vivid imaginations. While they are working on making sense of the world around them, it's not always possible for them to tell fantasy from reality. Whether they are afraid they might be sucked down the bathtub drain or carried away by a large bird, it is not unusual for children to have fears that may seem irrational. Fear is a natural part of human development and survival.

When children fear something, it may seem that there is nothing you can do to help them see that they will be OK. This can be really frustrating, and you can't always avoid the things that you know might make them afraid. For example, if you take your children to birthday parties, they may one day encounter a clown! Although you can't prevent these tough scenarios from happening, many ways exist to help your children develop personal strategies and tools that will reassure them of their safety and enable them to work out their fears. Whether using a nightlight to help with fear of the dark or developing goodbye rituals to help with separation anxiety, parents can empower their children to find ways to deal with their fears.

One of the most important things parents can do is to maintain a consistent, reassuring presence as their children face their fears. Judaism offers us many opportunities to participate in rituals that provide a built-in means to add structure and regularity to children's lives. These predictable and constant rituals can offer a safety net that will not only help to minimize a fear of the unknown but that also can help nurture faith in God. Here are two examples:

• Welcoming Shabbat

The weekly rhythm of Shabbat is an ideal opportunity to structure your family time in a Jewish way. Whether you begin with blessings or your own family rituals, creating a routine celebration is a wonderful way to provide security as well as to nurture joy and spirituality in your children's lives.

• Jewish Bedtime Rituals

Bedtime already may be a time of comfort and family togetherness for your children. The daily interval of a well-established routine provides comfort and security; adding a Jewish dimension to this can be an opportunity or exploring faith and spirituality. Teach and encourage your children to say the Sh'ma every night, as Jews have been saying for generations. This prayer is a declaration of our love for and belief in one God. Saying it can be part of a bedtime ritual that helps children participate in and express being Jewish every day.

Whether it's eating Aunt Faye's homemade gefilte fish every Passover or getting seven small gifts for the first seven nights of Hanukkah and one large gift on the last night of the holiday, whether it's putting money in the family tzedakah box every Shabbat or attending a community Yom HaAtzma-ut celebration every year, there are so many ways to help children experience the beauty and regularity of living a Jewish life. These celebrations, small and large, become regular ritual touchstones that help children experience the predictability and safety that living Jewishly can offer. Like the Israelites in this parashah, we all come across situations that are frightening. Routine, structure and faith are things that can help us deal with our fears in healthy and productive ways.

Questions and Ideas for Parents:

  1. Do you remember having fears as a young child?
  2. Are there any consistent Jewish rituals that you can remember clearly from your childhood?
  3. In what rituals does your family already engage?

Questions for Children:

  1. What do you do when you're afraid of something?
  2. Is there anything special you like to do before you go to bed?
  3. What is your favorite Jewish holiday? Why?
Reference Materials

Pages 977-996 in The Torah: A Modern Commentary Revised Edition, by W. Gunther Plaut.