We learn many things from our parents: how to eat properly, how to brush our teeth, and, I hope, how to greet strangers. Others we learn through observation: how to love, how to care, and even how to mourn.
Jewish tradition speaks at length about parents’ and elders’ obligations toward children and the young. The Talmud, for example, instructs parents to teach their children Torah, in essence, by modeling proper values. The ancient rabbis expound upon this obligation, adding that parents must teach their children a trade and, according to some, also to swim.
In fact, religious wisdom, adheres to the principle that older is better, and the closer the words are to Mount Sinai, the more revered and wiser they are. It lives by the ideal that older generations must impart teachings to younger generations, that decades of accumulated wisdom count for more than newfound knowledge. It often distrusts the new, the innovative, and especially that which veers from thousands of years of tradition. It looks askance at what we can learn from our youth and contemporary society
The tradition does not imagine the values we might learn from children. Yet it is this new wisdom that moves us forward. Although it is a somewhat mundane example, think about technology. We learn how to use the remote, how to text and even how to Snapchat from our children. More significantly, we learn important values by observing our children.
An important example. I have had many conversations with my children about their lesbian and gay friends, and I marvel at their acceptance, their nonchalance in the face of such an historic shift. Theirs is a world in which friends can come out (mostly) without fear. Theirs is a world in which high school clubs are devoted to LGBTQ rights, and whose members’ ears are attuned to harmful words leveled against gays and lesbians. Their mouths are primed to defend their friends’ rights to be who they genuinely are, to be authentic to their truest selves.
I did not grow up in such a world. In my world, the locker room was replete with anti-gay slurs, and the punch line of most jokes included anti-gay sentiments. At the time, I did not realize the potential for hurt, the possibility that these jokes wounded. I had no understanding that there were, among my friends, those who might be gay or lesbian, and that our jokes further isolated them, forcing them to laugh out loud but perhaps also to cry silently inside. I did not realize then that my posture may have forced them and others to closet themselves, betraying who they really were.
The Talmud also teaches. “I have learned much from my teachers and even more from my colleagues, but the most from my students.” In an age in which people are murdered because of who they love, we would do well to learn the values of acceptance and tolerance, opening our arms to all.
In the recent past, my children have, in fact, taught me some remarkable lessons. Thanks to their lack of even the slightest of doubts, to their unequivocal acceptance of lesbians and gays, I have learned a great lesson from my children, from my students. Indeed, their acceptance, their resounding support for LGBTQ rights, makes for a better world. Their nonchalance has changed my world for the better.
What a blessing when the teacher becomes the student.
What a blessing when the younger generation reminds the older that there may well be instances when their age-old wisdom offers not a solution, but presents instead a stumbling block.
What a blessing when the students’ teachings can make our world more loving and more accepting. Need we more reminders than the murderous events in Orlando?
What a blessing (with thanks to William Wordsworth) that the child is father of the man. For then: “My heart leaps up when I behold / A rainbow in the sky…”