How to Have Good Children

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One of the recurring foci of Ran’s Derashot is the relationship between the natural and supernatural worlds. In this second part of the fifth Drasha, he points to the heart as the crucial center of the body. It links our intellects and more physical sides, playing a role in our natural and supernatural involvements. As such, what we do with our hearts, good and bad, has more significance than what we do with any other part of ourselves.  If we instinctively translate heart as emotions and/or character—the aspects of our personality that aren’t intellectual or fully conscious—we have a good question already: do we think of what we do with our emotions as significant for the kinds of people we become?

Prior essays in this series

Ran comes at this from a surprising direction, why Yitzchak preferred a daughter of Lavan to the women of Canaan, when Lavan was an idolater. Since idolatry is one of the worst sins we can commit, what could have been worse about the Canaanite women?

Ran starts by saying that even as we have freewill, we also have natural tendencies. Some of us like gossip more than others, some of us like eating more than others, and so on. We don’t start with a level playing field; I might struggle with what is simple for you and vice versa.

Canaanite Character

The Canaanite women’s flaw, Ran says, would pass to their descendants (where Lavan’s would not). Some of our actions, according to Ran, make a mark only on our souls whereas others impact our bodies and souls. It is those latter ones that we pass on to our children.

This sounds like the long discredited view of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, that traits acquired in parents’ lifetimes pass to their subsequently conceived children. Recently, scientists have found that some parental experiences do indeed seem to pass to children. Of course, Ran is postulating this at the level of good and bad deeds (and the character traits those engender), which is much harder if not impossible to test scientifically. Ran says that character is passed on (my wife pointed out that Lavan seems to have had a bad character as well, where Ran seems to think that aspect of his wouldn’t transfer to his children). For Ran, just as our physical being, our hormones or whatever, make us more likely to exhibit certain traits, our freewill actions shape our character, which affects our physical being, in ways we can pass on to our children.

In modern terms, Ran is claiming our characters affect our genes or the epigenetic environment, whereas sins that don’t involve our characters do not. So that while Lavan was an idol-worshipper (and a cheater), that didn’t necessarily pass to his children. The Canaanite bad character did.

Thats a question certainly worth asking: do we recognize or believe that our characters affect how our children come out? Are those of us who are vigilant about what foods our children eat, how much exercise they get, what educational opportunities they have, equally vigilant about developing themselves so that their children have the best possible shot at a good character?

Analogies and the Importance of the Heart

To support his view, Ran quotes Mishlei 4:23, which reads מכל משמר נצור לבך, from everything that needs to be guarded, guard your heart” (I note that the JPS translation reads “heart” as “mind,” which is telling, given that Ran is distinguishing idolatry, which affects our souls, from character, which affects our hearts). In contrast to Rashi and other commentators, Ran reads the verse as meaning that we have to guard our heart particularly, since it is the source of all life (the end of that verse).

Ran wants to explain why the verse emphasized that the heart is the source of all life, but he pauses to explain the use of analogies as a tool of communication. Pure intellect, Ran says, deals with ideas, whether or not they have a practical application (like in math or Gemara). But human beings generally need ideas to  connect to reality for them to resonate. Analogies give pure ideas a more practical expression.

This verse speaks of the heart as the source of the difference between errors at the beginning or end of a process. Someone standing at the center of a circle walking to the circumference who goes a bit wrong will end up at a much greater distance from the intended target than someone who made that same error only a moment before reaching the destination.

Our hearts are at the center of our circle. An error there will lead to much larger errors when we come to actualize what’s inside us.

The Heart As the Intersection Between the Physical and Metaphysical

From wondering about the fatal flaw in Canaanite women, Ran has taken us on a tour of the role of the heart in human experience. He sees it as the meeting point for our animal and angelic sides, figuring in all of our mitzvah observances, the point at which our actions and intentions can impact the next generation, and the part of ourselves we have to guard best.

For Ran, different actions impact us in different ways, some of them changing not only who we are, but who our children are. Worshipping idols deserves death, but it can be an overlay on who we “really” are. For Ran, there truly can be a good person (by which I mean, whose children will bear no genetic impact of his or her bad deeds) who happens to be an idolater.

How do we translate that into our view of the world? What wrongs do we see as necessarily essential to the person committing them, and what can be unfortunate overlays on that person’s “true” character? How will that affect our children?

About Gidon Rothstein

One comment

  1. While it’s likely the Ran, like his contemporaries was more Lamarckian. However, his statement stands either way. There is no discussion of how the Canaanite women acquired these middos. It could well be propensities inherited from their parents, consistent with their breeding. So it’s not necessarily about the mother’s ease at getting angry that creates something that could be passed on, but the temper itself could be more likely for genetic reasons, which then leads to sin. Or other middos issues: love of food, sexual appetite, etc.. all have chemical and neurological factors which in turn could have genetic causes that make them more likely. Why have kids with one more threshold to overcome?

    (However, it is probably a claim of nature rather than nurture, because otherwise using a Canaanite shifchah and having a wife raise the child would mitigate the problem.)

    I think it’s important to pin down what various rishonim meant by the metaphor of “leiv” (heart). We think of it in terms of emotions and middos; Rabbeinu Bachya’s “Chovos haLvavos” includes both character and beliefs. I never did a study of the Ran’s usage. It would be an interesting exercise.

    Last, there is an entirely different take to the closing question, prescriptive rather than descriptive. The more we resist labeling a wrong as being part of my or my child’s true character, the less it becomes reinforced by self-definition and defeatism. (“What can I do, that’s what I am?”) Sometimes it is useful to think of oneself as a unity of body and soul, a battleground between their conflicting callings. But sometimes it’s more productive to think of oneself as a soul residing in a body; identifying with my higher calling as the real me, and the more mammalian drives as “the yeitzer hara”, an outsider imposing its will.

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