Polonius vs. Nachmanides
As my 14-year old son goes out for the first time to the broader world for the summer without parental supervision, I sought some worthwhile advice to impart to him.
One tidbit comes from Rabbi Ovadia Sforno.
In the rebellion of Korach, Datan and Aviram (Number Chapter 16), Moses warns the bystanders to stand aside and move away from the rebels. Sforno explains that even though the bystanders were innocent of any rebellion, this innocence would not protect them if they remained in close proximity to evildoing.
There are two more famous words of fatherly advice that literature has produced. One is the parting words of Shakespeare’s Polonius to his son Laertes in Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 3:
“The wind sits in the shoulder of your sail,
And you are stay’d for. There- my blessing with thee!
And these few precepts in thy memory
Look thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Nor any unproportion’d thought his act.
Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar:
Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel;
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatch’d, unfledg’d comrade. Beware
Of entrance to a quarrel; but being in,
Bear’t that th’ opposed may beware of thee.
Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice;
Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment.
Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy;
For the apparel oft proclaims the man,
And they in France of the best rank and station
Are most select and generous, chief in that.
Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
This above all- to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell. My blessing season this in thee!”
The second stream of advice that I think is more comprehensive and interesting to compare is that of the non-fictional Ramban (Nachmanides) to his son Nachman. It is believed that the letter was written in Israel around 1267 in Acre (Akko), Israel and sent to Nachman in Catalina, Spain. The full letter is found in the back of many older siddurim. There are a number of books that give a more detailed analysis of this treasure that generations of Jewish father’s have passed on to their children. In contrast, Judaism has issues with some of Polonius’ philosophy, most notably on lending to the needy.
For those with limited patience for the Ramban’s medium-length but beautiful letter, I’ve summarized it below:
Listen my son, to the discipline of your father, and do not forsake the guidance of your mother:
– Speak gently
– Don’t get angry
– Be humble
– Fear God
– Contemplate the above
– Be in Awe of God
– Guard against sin
– Be happy with your lot
– Let God’s spirit rest on you
– Don’t be prideful
– Remember, all are equal before God
– Imagine you are always standing in front of God
– Speak with reverence
– Act with restraint
– Respond gently to all
– Study Torah diligently
– Put learning into practice
– Review your actions morning and evening
– Purify your thoughts before prayer
– Think before you speak
If you do so, heaven will answer your heart’s desires.
May our children be familiar with good advice, if not listen to it (and be able to tell the difference), and may we follow it ourselves for their sake, if not our own.
To our son Eitan. A young man going to explore the world. God is with us. We just need to remember to be with Him.
For the full version of the Ramban’s letter, click here.