Does Hashem Want Me To Be a Better Parent, or a Better Jew?

In the past few years, I have had this conversation dozens of times with Rabbanim, friends, colleagues and members of our community. Something has changed our generation. The change has not been sudden, but not subtle either. The problem is simple: In general, observant millennial Jews are less inclined to show up. This is true of minyanim, shiurim, programs and commemorations.

Practically, the reasons I get for this all converge on one explanation: Parenting is exhausting, expensive and time consuming. “I wish I could come... but...”

While the answer is noble, the facts on the ground are bothersome to me as a Rabbi, but also because this is my generation; the world in which my children are growing up. I want to see more people doing more things in shul. While I'm not particularly interested in pointing fingers or pontificating on “what changed and why,” I am extremely interested in trying to fix it.

To be very clear, people still show up for the big things and no one has exchanged our value system for any other. Everything is still in place, but the day to day obligations of an Eved Hashem are often less apparent.

To allegorize for a moment, we are much better at the “sound and light show” of Matan Torah than the daily living of Parshas Mishpatim. And it's precisely this transition that might shed light on how to traverse these challenges.

Moshe's Most Difficult Question

After the great heights of Har Sinai, our Parsha opens anticlimactically with the laws of a Jewish slave. Fire and smoke, thunder and lighting, the sound of the great Shofar are exchanged for technicalities of jurisprudence. The contrast is stark enough to give us textual whiplash, and the Meforshim grapple with explaining how we got from Matan Torah to Mishpatim.

Rav Shlomo Kluger (כת״י חכמת התורה תקסח), however, disagrees entirely with the premise of the question. While the laws of Mishpatim were taught at Sinai, the narrative of Parshas Mishpatim is simply a continuation of the episode that occurred just before Matan Torah.

To review: Moshe is standing all day judging the people. His father in law, Yisro, offers some advice. “You can't do this alone. Appoint some assistants...”

וְהָיָה כׇּל־הַדָּבָר הַגָּדֹל יָבִיאוּ אֵלֶיךָ וְכׇל־הַדָּבָר הַקָּטֹן יִשְׁפְּטוּ־הֵם Have them bring every major dispute to you, but let them decide every minor dispute themselves.

Moshe takes this advice, but with a twist. He appoints a team of assistants, and empowers them to judge the nation. However where as Yisro differentiates between matters, great and small Moshe instructs: אֶת־הַדָּבָר הַקָּשֶׁה יְבִיאוּן אֶל־מֹשֶׁה – the difficult questions they would bring to Moshe.

The Alshich HaKadosh explains: In Torah there are no minor matters especially regarding personal and interpersonal questions. We don't have a court system that differentiates between small amounts of money and large sums. Every question is important. However, Moshe tells Yisro, there are questions that are more difficult, more subtle and more sensitive. These are the questions that the people should bring to me.

Rav Shlomo Kluger explains: Parshas Mishpatim opens with the questions that the Jewish people brought to Moshe. Hashem then instructs Moshe on how to answer the most challenging and difficult Halachik questions that couldn't be answered by anyone else. It begins with Eved Ivri.

The Eved Ivri's Problem

Let's unravel this question. The Eved Ivri enters Moshe tent:

“Rabbi Moshe, I don't know what to do. I am a Jewish slave, sold into slavery to pay back the money that I stole.”

“When my life fell apart, I was rescued and acquired by a wonderful person, a generous person, a pillar of the Jewish nation. Before I met him, I had no friends and no support system. My master took me in; and in his home, I have achieved some measure of rehabilitation. He found me a wife, and I have built a happy, healthy family in this insular world of Jewish slavery.”

“It has been some years now. My debts have been repaid. I am ready to re-emerge as a functioning member of society. First the first time in my life, I want to be free to be an Eved Hashem. But I can't do it. How can I just leave? My world right now is my job, my wife and my children. How am I supposed to choose between Hashem and my family?”

Cutting to the heart of the question, the Eved Ivri is asking: How should I prioritize the two most important things in my life? My family or Hashem?

Image the scene when this question first arose somewhere in the Machaneh, and someone raised this question to their local Zakein. Most likely, he thought, he paused and considered, and realized that there is no simple solution to this question. This questioned was then referred on to Rabbis and teachers with greater wisdom, until it finally reached Moshe Rabbeinu.

Are We the Eved Ivri?

We deal with this question as well. Perhaps in our generation more than ever before. We deal with it every time we need to choose between Maariv and bed-time. Or when we consider if we should take our small kids into shul, knowing that doing so is to sacrifice any kavanah.

We debate between coming to Shachris and driving carpool, attending shiurim and assisting with homework. Our choices, very often are not unlike those of the Eved Ivri. It is a zero-sum game. If we want to be an Eved Hashem, carpool will not be driven, and homework will not be done.

Which means that, fundamentally, we do not have a choice, short of abandoning our family.

This issue is somewhat unique to our generation of dual-income households and a society and culture that requires intense parental involvement. In previous generations, these concerns were simpler to navigate. (Please note, I'm not here to wax nostalgically about a world where parents had no idea what their kids were up to all day. Aside from my doubts that it was better or healthier, it's not helpful to our world in 5783.)

Our reality requires all parents to be actively involved with their kids from infancy until adulthood (and often beyond.) But certainly as it pertains to young parents of young children, we don't often have the time and resources to be the Avdei Hashem that we know we “ought” to be.

This is neither an excuse, nor a free pass. There are places where could be doing better. We all know how much time our generation wastes on frivolous and meaningless activities. We know that there are hours and hours of mindlessness that we could harness for more meaningful activity. And we should. But I'm also acutely aware that by the time many parents have gotten their kids to bed at night, it is hard to muster the energy required to do anything meaningful.

So what is the Torah's solution to the conundrum of the Jewish parents torn between their family obligations and Hashem?

וְהִגִּישׁוֹ אֶל־הַדֶּלֶת אוֹ אֶל־הַמְּזוּזָה וְרָצַע אֲדֹנָיו אֶת־אׇזְנוֹ בַּמַּרְצֵעַ וַעֲבָדוֹ לְעֹלָם He shall be brought to the door or the doorpost, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he will serve him until the Yovel year.

The Torah's response, on the one hand, is extremely validating. If you really feel like you cannot be an Eved Hashem right now, you may stay where you are.

But on the other hand, the Torah obligates that the person choosing job security and family over the freedom to serve Hashem needs a permanent reminder that life is not supposed to be this way. We are supposed to live a life that is structured to give us the latitude to do both. And if we have not achieved it yet, giving up is not an answer that Hashem is willing to accept.

Thus, the slave is take to the doors of the city, and his ear is pierced – publicly – so that no-one will think that this is ok (ראב״ע).

For many families, regular minyan and shiur attendance is impossible right now. But the real question is what will happen when our kids are a little older? What will happen when our child-raising responsibilities are not so franticly time consuming? Will we then fill our time with Avodas Hashem?

Rav Yonasan Eibeshutz (תפארת יהונתן) notes that the Torah commands that this piercing must happen specifically at the door. This is to remind the Eved that Hashem is still trying to open a door for them, and if they're will to listen, they will see that there is always a way to a better life.

I would like to suggest that we too adopt some reminders of how we wish things to be. To make some kind of regular commitments to our aspirations in Shemiras HaMitzvos. It could be as small as is manageable – one weekday Shachris a month? There are very few people that cannot manage that. The same is true of every positive habit; Talmud Torah, exercising and learning new skills.

Perhaps you might feel that such minor commitments are meaningless, but consider the difference between sometimes and never. Sometimes carries the message that “this is something that I value, and want to be able to do.”

When it comes to Avodas Hashem, we may not be able to do everything all the time, but we can certainly keep a foot in the door. We can anchor ourselves in what we want to be able to work on when we can.

Eventually, even the Eved Ivri is released. When the great Shofar of Yovel sounds, he returns home; he land is restored and his life is once again his own. The only question is whether or not he is ready for that freedom.

Hashem should help us to escape our confines, rediscover our freedom and find a way to keep out foot in the doorway.