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Parshas Ki Sisa (5771)

"Family Day" and Kissing Babies

By Rabbi David Zauderer

This coming Monday is both Presidents Day in the U.S. and “Family Day” in most of Canada. Which can only mean one thing … that most North Americans will be taking advantage of the extra day off from work to do the things they enjoy – and likely not spending too much time thinking about the Presidents or about their own families (Okay, so maybe some Canadians will be doing family trips on Monday, but I can pretty much guarantee you that the names Washington and Lincoln will not be mentioned this Monday by anybody south of the border).

I must confess that I am not a big fan of this “Family Day” business. The subtle (or not so subtle) message of this newly legislated holiday in Canada is that the we don’t spend enough time with our families like we used to, so Big Brother is going to fix things by ‘forcing’ us out of the office one Monday a year to get us to go somewhere with the kids.

Now don’t get me wrong – I think it’s great to have family time. What bothers me is that this Family Day holiday is a really cheap, patchwork solution to a much bigger problem. You see, the amount of time the average North American family spends together is pitifully small.

As per a recent study done by the Annenberg Center for the Digital Future at the University of Southern California, in the first half of the decade, people reported spending an average of 26 hours per month with their families. By 2008, however, that shared time had dropped by more than 30 percent, to about 18 hours (!). The Annenberg Center is reporting this week that 28 percent of Americans it interviewed last year said they have been spending less time with members of their households. That's nearly triple the 11 percent who said that in 2006.

And with all the latest technology and gadgets invading our homes and our lives, things are bound to get even worse. (BTW, spending 3 hours on the couch with your Dad watching the football game is not family time! Not in my book, at least!)

Yet somehow we think that if we spend so-called ‘quality time’ together – like maybe a day off in February or whatever – our children will be getting what they need.

I don’t know the answer to this perplexing problem facing all of us in modern society today - the lack of serious family time, which has been proven to bring so many benefits to both parents and children in so many ways - but I do know that one lousy Monday in February sure ain’t gonna solve it! Our kids don’t need ‘quality time’ spent with us – they need ‘quantity time’ – and lots of it!

Now you’re probably wondering – what does all this have to do with kissing babies? Well, just hold on there for a second … I’m getting there.

You see, this misguided notion some of us have that we can fill our ‘quota’ of much-needed family time with the kids by taking a day off here or there, instead of investing quantity time with them, has carried over into our practice of Judaism as well.

In my years of giving classes to Jews of all backgrounds about prayer and the synagogue etc., I have heard many a man complain that all he wants is just to sit and pray together with his wife and kids, and that the mechitzah (a partition used to separate men and women during services) in Orthodox synagogues ‘breaks up the family’.

To which I often respond that during the prayer services at the synagogue is not the time for bonding with one’s family. That’s what the home is for. Shul (synagogue) is the place we go to develop our relationship with G-d, our Father in Heaven, through public prayer and private introspection, and is not the time to work on getting closer to one’s family. (If they like, the family members in an Orthodox synagogue can bond all they want at the Kiddush following the services.)

To illustrate this point, I like to quote a little-known Halachah (Jewish law) that is cited by the Rem”a in Shulchan Aruch O.C. 98:1 in the name of the Sefer Chassidim (255) who writes that a father is not allowed to kiss his children in the synagogue during the services – in order to set in his heart that there is no love like the love for G-d.

The Halachah here forbidding kissing babies is teaching us something very powerful about the nature and purpose of the synagogue and the prayer service. It is all about focusing on and building our love relationship with G-d …. and nobody else, not even our cute little baby, should be the focus of our attention, at least while we’re praying in the synagogue.

(I also wonder whether the guy who complains about not having enough ‘quality time’ with his wife and kids praying together at shul actually spends any ‘quantity time’ with them outside of shul – but that’s a whole other matter …)

The truth is – and this might surprise some of you - that just as the shul is not the place for doing all our family bonding, it is not even the place for doing all of our Judaism. The synagogue is not the center of Judaism, and never has been. Judaism is a lifestyle to be lived 24/7, not just something we ‘do’ three times a year, every weekend, or even three times a day. As such, Judaism must be centered around the home, where we spend most of our time, and not around the synagogue.

I should tell you that there are some Jews who believed that it is the synagogue and not the home that is most central to Judaism – but that is not our long-standing tradition.

Dayan Dr. I. Grunfeld, in his introduction to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch’s classic work Horeb: A Philosophy of Jewish Laws and Observances, gives us a little bit of the history of this important debate over the center point of Judaism. He writes that in an attempt to assimilate Judaism to the dominant faith, the German-Jewish Reformers of the 19th century introduced the idea into modern Jewish thought that worship of G-d in the synagogue is the central point in Jewish life, whereas in reality, the law of the Torah should permeate and rule the whole of life. Against this fundamental error of ‘localizing’ G-d in the House of Worship instead of allowing Him to become a central force in our life, Rabbi Hirsch wrote some of his most trenchant essays, in one of which he had the courage to exclaim:

“If I had the power, I would provisionally close all synagogues for a hundred years. Do not tremble at the thought of it, Jewish heart. What would happen? Jews and Jewesses without synagogues, desiring to remain such, would be forced to concentrate on a Jewish life and a Jewish home. The Jewish officials connected with the synagogue would have to look to the only opportunity now open to them to teach young and old how to live a Jewish life and how to build a Jewish home. All synagogues closed by Jewish hands would constitute the strongest protest against the abandonment of the Torah in home and life.”

So as we enjoy this Monday off from work, hopefully spending quality and quantity time together with our families, let’s not forget that – as cliché as it may sound – every day is Family Day, whether we live in Canada or the U.S. or anywhere else. Have a great vacation!

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