We grew up hearing childhood stories about the brave Maccabees in their fight against the wicked Greeks who threatened our Jewish identity. But I often wonder to myself what about our battle today? Who are the modern day Hellenists today who are threatening us into cultural oblivion?
I know that we can always say the threat of assimilation is alive and strong among the Jewish people. Surely, it’s the Jews who are alienated from Judaism, and feel no connection to their heritage or culture. That is certainly tragic and an overall theme in our existential battle for Jewish identity. Maybe you can say it’s our battle with antisemitism. The senseless hatred we face seems to surround us on all sides. Whether its Kanye West’s recent tirade, the UN’s blatantly obvious bias towards Israel, or the myriad attacks and hateful slurs launched at Jews throughout the world, we certainly have our hands full. But recently, I found myself wondering if this raging battle, our modern day Maccabee battle, is far more subtle and insidious.
As a parent, there is one battle that threatens me right now more pervasively than any other battle. I can’t help but draw parallels between that historic and ancient battle and the herculean task of battling a social media culture embedded within the screens of my children. Despite parental controls, setting screen time limits, adding additional extra-curricular activities that involve active play, I find myself in a losing battle. My children seem hell bent on maximizing the hours on their screens and phones, and no amount of quality time, reward, or punishment seems to quench this unyielding thirst.
I am sure many of us, as parents, share this pain, and it feels as though it has become almost a universal pain, and a collective theme that currently plagues parents across cultural, socio-economic, and even religious divides. Many well-meaning professionals and experts often have simply encouraged parents to set limits, whether with usage of screens or the content they are exposed to. However, most parents I have spoken to find that this approach doesn’t really help, and it seems like an oversimplification of the real issue at hand. At this point, screens have become such a pervasive part of our society, that setting limits often feels to our children as though we are cutting off their air supply. They feel detached from their friends, their source of relaxation, even their sense of joy. Personally, in my own journey as a parent, I have found that setting limits, while important, is just not enough. Something far more pervasive is at play here, and I am hoping that we can gain some clarity on the source of it through this article.
Before I go any further, let me give a little background. I have been an educator for over twenty years, and a mother to five children of my own. I have worked extensively with the youth at risk population, who are often estranged from their parents, their religion, and namely themselves. I developed and ran my own school program for this population, and I was often faced with the task of finding a point of connection with kids who often felt so alienated from everything that they were taught. How do I create a bridge for those kids who hate Judaism, hate God, and more importantly, hate themselves?
And as a result, I am used to thinking of education, and of Judaism on a broader scale. What’s the bigger picture here? What do we want to impart on our children? What is the single most important lesson you want your kid to know? If you only had until tomorrow, what would you tell your child today?
And I think when you start to think about Judaism in these broader terms, you begin to realize that our values become the priority. And then the battle takes a completely different tone. Because the battle is an internal one. It’s a battle about who you are in your essence. Some call it your soul, others your consciousness. Whatever you call it, it’s that part of you that endures or lives on. In other words, your light.
And I believe this is the real battle of Chanukah. It’s the battle for your light. The Hellenists wanted to absorb us into their culture. They valued beauty but an externalized one. They didn’t see our light, and likely it was because either we didn’t see it in ourselves, or we lost touch with it.
And as I had this realization, my outlook on the battle of the screens with my children completely shifted. I understood that our children are telling us that they aren’t in touch with their light. They are facing a world that is almost entirely externally driven. They are defining themselves by their social media likes, by photoshopped images, and carefully curated moments in time. And it’s intoxicating and seductive to perceive yourself in this way.
But what would happen if our kids were aware of their inner light? If they knew that within them was an infinitely expansive landscape, called a soul? That they have reservoirs of wisdom within them? That they are so incredibly precious to us, far more than they can possibly imagine, far more than a cute photo?
And the question then gets raised, why don’t our children know that they are precious to us, that they are infinitely expansive beings? Is this part of our vocabulary? Do we relate to them as the incredible beings that they are?
This has become a bit of my passion, so I speak to parents a lot about this. Why don’t you tell your kids they have a soul? Parents often give me strange looks, even observant Jews steeped in Jewish practice. Often they tell me, “because it’s too hard to explain.” “I, myself don’t know,” or “I’m just not qualified to answer those questions.” And I get it. Talking about the soul, our inner light, can be really hard. How do you go about breaking down these spiritual and abstract concepts in a way children can understand?
When my kids reached that age when they started to pepper me with questions, “why is the sky blue?” “What’s our purpose?” “Where is God, and why can’t I see Him?” I realized I needed to find a way to impart some of these important values to my kids. I needed to teach them about their inner light. I had some practice teaching teens who were very removed from their own inner light, and I often drew back on those experiences as a guide.
And so, our storytelling rituals began, usually on Friday night. I sat with my kids, spinning outrageous tales that packed a powerful message. What is our purpose, you ask? Let me tell you about the journey of a little ball of light, named BIM. BIM stands for “Best In Me,” a phrase I often use to give my kids a simple working definition for the soul. And that’s how my journey began building a vocabulary of spirituality with my kids. I even created a series of picture books on spiritual concepts to really help bring those concepts to life. I found that as I exposed them to these concepts and they had the words to describe them, the concepts became less out of reach. Our storytelling led to discussions and more questions that created an opening to share my values with them, and to give them the tools to discover their own inner light.
My children still use screens. However, something is different. It’s under the surface and it’s subtle, but they have been raised in a home that talks about their inner light. Soul language is a regular part of our dialogue. Friday night discussions around our table often include celebrating their “inner light” moments.
This Chanukah, I hope all of us who light their candles, also remember their inner light. Hellenists, eat your heart out, we Jews are alive and well, while you are in the dust bin of ancient history. But remember that, as Jew, your greatness is your inner light, the part of you that endures. Remember to cherish it and teach your children to cherish it too. This Chanukah may your inner light, and the inner light of your children glow immensely brighter than those screens.