Friday, April 04, 2008

Parenting: Modeling Desire

Being a parent, as evidenced by the Hebrew word for the term, הורה, is first and foremost to raise a child to its full potential through education. Although we may accomplish this goal through lecturing and discipline, the most effective way to impress our values on our children is through modeling. We act as models, as examples, living a life consistent with the ideals and principles we hold true. This is much more impressive and long-lasting than a stern reprimand.

Indeed, the philosopher, Rene Girard, has developed a system to explain how people develop needs that are on a higher level than the basic needs for food, shelter, and the like. He states in his book, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, that people borrow their desires from others. A subject's desire for an item is not directly from the subject to the object, but is triangulated by a model for that desire. In essence, we "need" something only after having, consciously or subconsciously, seen someone we wish to imitate "need" that object first. Girard calls this doctrine "mimetic desire", or imitative desire. This may seem simple, but what it says is that desire we have, bad or good, is first cultivated by witnessing some model, another subject, desire it.

Girard goes further, and explains that the desire for the object is really an attempt to be more like, or closer to, the model. We want an object because, deep down inside, we want to imitate the model. The need for material objects really resolves to a metaphysical desire to be more like an idealized model.

This is fascinating. It is easily applicable to individuals who constantly seem to need the next invention, the next item that can be bought. This obsessive need for newness, the thrill of owning the next object, is really a steroid shot of temporary emotional and psychological growth. We enjoy buying something new, because satisfying that desire brings us closer, at least on a superficial level, to our better selves. It is a short-lived substitute for the organic happiness of true emotional, psychological or intellectual growth that brings us closer to our image of perfection.

And yet, mimetic desire can find positive outlet, as well. Our sages teach us that when the Torah states, "והלכת בדרכיו", it means to try to be like God. "מה הוא רחום, אף אתה רחום", just as He is merciful, so shall you be merciful. This is the concept of imitatio Dei, imitating God. We bring our actions and traits into line with God's, and we find ourselves become closer to Him.

Our children look up to us as representatives of God. Indeed, part of the reason of the commandment to "honor thy father and thy mother" is to teach children the concept of honoring God. Parents are a metaphor for the divine in a child's world. And so, when we imitate God, when we model for our children a selfless servant of God, our children learn from that what their aspirations should be for their personal relationships to Hashem and spirituality. Indeed, Rav Hirsch points out that the word for "son", is בן, which shares the root meaning "to build". Children are, for better or worse, built by their parents -- shaped by their parents' example. Our children absorb what we desire, what we aspire to, and make that into what they want. It is up to us as parents to make sure that the things our children soak up under our tutelage are things that are of value. We must teach our children by example that we are here to serve God, not our own desires. This is a lesson that the Chafetz Chaim felt had to be nurtured by parents even before their children are born. Regarding it, Rav Hirsch wrote (in his Collected Writings, Vol. vii) that the single most important thing a parent can do to assure the proper education of his child is to make sure that, to the best of their ability, the parents model perfection.

However, no man lives who does not sin. And so, in addition to modeling the best way to live, we must model to our children the appropriate way to make amends when we err. When a woman gives birth, she brings two offerings, an עולה and a חטאת. The burnt-offering is mentioned first, while in the Talmud (Arachin 21a), we learn that the sin-offering is brought first. Why this inconsistency?

Rabbi Menachem Sacks of Chicago, in his work, Menachem Tzion, suggests a resolution that seems correct in light of the above. He says that the burnt-offering, one that implies no sin, and is completely positive, represents our ideal lives. Ideally, we hope to live perfectly, and not sin. However, in reality, we know that we can never completely rid ourselves of mistakes. So, the Torah mentions the עולה first to remind us of our ideal, and provide us with a model towards which to strive. No matter how often we make mistakes in raising our children, we must remember the ideal and constantly strive to that first. On the other hand, by bringing the sin-offering first, we acknowledge our imperfections, and resolve include in our children's education the gamut of human reality, which includes sin and a process to achieve atonement and forgiveness. Thus, the offerings of the mother upon the birth of a child truly remind the parents of the awesome mimetic responsibility they bear, and the appropriate way to share the lessons of humanity with her offspring.