By Laura Seymour
There are so many things that we can learn from the sages, but often the learning is hard to explain to kids. Sometimes we end up not talking about the big ideas and lessons. So when I find a book that helps teach those big lessons, I get very excited. There is a new book out for children titled “E Is for Ethics — How to talk to Kids About Morals, Values, and What Matters Most” by Ian James Corlett. Corlett is not Jewish and the book is not a “Jewish” book; but the values are for everyone and he teaches in a typically Jewish manner — through stories! There are 26 stories on everything from honesty to politeness to integrity to responsibility. Each story has a series of questions you can use. And, for those who are technological parents, you can even get the book on Kindle, which means that if you have a few minutes while you are waiting with your child somewhere, you can just pull out your iPhone and think.
So what’s Jewish about this? Judaism is a religion of action — it’s not enough just to feel something, we must do it for it to “count.” For all of us, but especially for children, the question is always what the value looks like. I know integrity when I see it, but how do we define the actions that go along with the idea?
Rabbi Hillel, in Pirke Avot, taught us many things. “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And, if not now, when?” Simple words — but what do we do to live these ideas? When I read Corlett’s book, the Hillel mishnah that came to mind was, “In a place where there are no men, be a man!” When everyone is doing the wrong thing, many give in to peer pressure and say, “Well, everyone is doing it!” Hillel says NO! If it is wrong, stand up and do the right thing. It is hard to teach our children this and even harder to do — at all ages. Talking with our families about the hard decisions we must make helps us make the next one. Stories like those in Corlett’s book help us learn about the many specific values that we should strive to emulate. Hillel tells us to not only do the right thing, but to be a person who strives to do the right thing. What are the words that you want people to use to describe you? You must show respect if you want people to say you are a respectful person.
At camp at the J, we sing songs with the words of Hillel and many of our other sages. Music is a way of teaching and making the words part of who we are. We are standing on the shoulders of those who came before us and we must know their words to know what they stood for — and then we will be the leaders of the future.
Laura Seymour is director of camping services and Jewish life and learning at the Jewish Community Center of Dallas.