Teaching teshuvah

reprinted from the PJ Library newsletter, September 2008
davidThis past month, my daughter Ella received a copy of The Hardest Word from the PJ Library. In this story, a giant mythical bird called the Ziz accidentally destroys a vegetable garden belonging to a group of children. Unable to fix his mistake, the Ziz flies to Mt. Sinai to ask God what he should do. God sends the Ziz on a mission, to search the world for the hardest word to say. That word turns out to be “sorry.”
When I read the story to Ella, she was puzzled. “‘Sorry’ isn’t hard to say,” she explained. “See, I just said it!” (Five year olds have a tendency to be rather literal.) The word “sorry” does get bandied about by my daughters with some frequency. Sometimes it’s volunteered, and these are the moments that make my heart ache with tenderness for my sweet little girls. But more often, it follows the command “Tell your sister you’re sorry” or “If you don’t say you’re sorry…(insert one of a myriad of consequences here.)  In these cases, I hear one of several lesser versions of sorry, and these are the moments that make my head ache.
There’s the “sorry” growled between clenched teeth. Or, the more elaborate but equally remorseless, “Sorry, but I didn’t do anything and anyway she started it.”  Or, the painfully honest “I SAID ‘Sorry’. Now can I watch a show?” In other words, Ella is right. Sorry isn’t hard to say. Sorry is hard to mean.
With the High Holidays approaching, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to introduce the concept of teshuvah, or repentance, to my children in a meaningful and developmentally appropriate way.  According to tradition (or at least’s explanation of tradition), the Medieval scholar Maimonides outlined four steps to doing teshuvah.
Step 1. Stop the offending action.
Step 2. Feel regret for what you’ve done.
Step 3. Verbalize your regret to the appropriate party.
Step 4. Come up with a plan for not repeating the mistake.
I think what was confusing about “The Hardest Word”, at least for my children, was that the Ziz felt sorry from the moment he accidentally destroyed the garden. This story was focused on step 3, articulating your regret, and frankly, we’re just not there yet. We’re still working on Step 2, feeling regret, because as every parent knows, without regret, an apology rings hollow, at best.
I’m not sure it’s possible to teach regret. I’m not even sure at what age children are capable of this kind of self-reflection. But I do think we can teach children to own up to their actions, a necessary precursor to actual regret. And if, like me, you’re looking for a book that does a brilliant job of teaching this aspect of Teshuvah, check out David Gets in Trouble, by David Shannon. No, it’s not a Jewish book, but what Jewish child wouldn’t identify with the impish star of No, David as he denies his way through page after page of mischief? “No, it’s not my fault!” he shouts, followed by “It was an accident!” and “But she likes it!” After exhausting his excuses, David wakes up in the middle of the night, awash with guilt. And prompted by no one – not Mom, not Dad, not God – he announces aloud “Yes! It was me! I’m sorry. I love you, Mom.”
I’m sure David Shannon never intended his book to be a lesson on teshuvah, but don’t you think Maimonides would approve?

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posted September 15, 2009 at 1:32 pm

We received “The Hardest Word” last month and it is my 5 year old son’s favorite PJ Library book. He doesn’t focus so much on the actual moral of the story though – he thinks its hilariously absurd that the bird can just poke his head into Heaven like that. We love the illustrations and the old storybook looking synagogue.
On an unrelated note – Sukkot is coming up and for various reasons, we’re unable to purchase a sukkah kit OR attend our synagogue’s Sukkot services. Do you have any suggestions for a homemade (extremely inexpensive) sukkah? We found a popsicle stick sukkah project, and thought we might try a gingerbread one… but it’s just not the same thing as Sukkot outside.

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posted September 15, 2009 at 4:21 pm

I do think that children, even young ones, experience something like regret, albeit a more (explicitly) narcissistic version of it. It’s not just the obvious consequences that we see, but that quivering-lip perception of our “rejection” that really gets to them.
Of course, IANAP (I am not a psychologist).

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posted September 15, 2009 at 10:39 pm

I’d never thought of the David book as a story about teshuvah, but it does work well!

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posted September 16, 2009 at 12:16 am

I chose The Ziz to read to my PreK/K religious school class, and they said that same thing your daughter said — “Sorry” isn’t a hard word. When I read the book, it naturally appealed to me because as an adult, sorry is difficult to say because we have to acknowledge our shortcomings and feel empathy for the person we’ve hurt. There’s no third party to demand an apology or a “get out of jail free” card as soon as we do. Therefore a young child really doesn’t “feel” sorry the way adults do, as you showed in several types of childrens’ apologies. Now, thinking about the story, it would have been more effective as a children’s story if the author showed the children sad and disappointed about their garden while The Ziz tried to gloss over the damage, similar to “David Gets In Trouble.”

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Frume Sarah

posted October 7, 2009 at 2:20 am

We love the Ziz, but the moral is lost on the little ones.
LOVE the idea of using “David” for a lesson on teshuvah. Might have to work it in next year.
As an aside, I had one of our awesome teachers make a Ziz puppet for me last year. It is AMAZING and made the story come alive 😉

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