“Why do my kids ruin everything?”

Okay, I confess: I’ve emitted that exasperated cry at least once or twice. Maybe even once a week.

Like the time my two-year-old dumped all her toys in the toilet and flushed. (The neighbors were none too pleased.)

Or the time my very tech-savvy ten-year-old figured out the password to my laptop and somehow deleted my entire hard drive.

Or all the times they’ve emptied my drawers, myWhy do my kids ruin everything? refrigerator, my closets, my shelves, and created glorious messes.

Need I go on?

But in the midst of the chaos and aggravation, there is a little phrase I hold on to that helps me keep my sanity.

“Bread according to the young.”

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash, we read of Joseph generously supporting his brothers and their families during a famine, after they settled in Egypt: “And Joseph sustained his father and his brothers and his father's entire household [with] bread according to the young children.”1

Rashi interprets the words “bread according to the young” to mean that Joseph provided enough to meet the needs of every family member.2

The Midrash explains that Joseph actually provided more than their needs, because children naturally “crumble up more than they eat.”3

In other words, it’s part of the package. Children will crumble up their food. They will make messes. They will waste half of whatever you give them. They will get into your things and wreck them. That wastage has to be factored into the family budget.

Joseph provided for his siblings in such an exemplary fashion that we ask G‑d Himself to take note: “O Shepherd of Israel, hearken, He Who leads Joseph like a flock of sheep.”4 On this verse, Rashi comments, “All Israel are called by the name Joseph because he sustained and supported them in time of famine.”

The Midrash interprets the verse as a plea to G‑d, to “lead us as Joseph led his sheep”:

Joseph saved during the years of plenty for the years of hunger; so, too, save for us from this world for the world to come. Joseph provided for his brothers according to their deeds, as it says, “bread according to the young”; so, too, provide for us according to our deeds. Rabbi Menachem said in the name of Rabbi Avin: “Joseph’s brothers dealt him evil and he repaid them with good; we, too, have dealt You evil but [ask that You] repay us with good.”5

By providing for his brothers in Egypt, Joseph granted them more than their survival during the years of hunger. He bequeathed to his brothers and all their descendants the strength to show forbearance, to repay evil with good, to overlook flaws and forgive mistakes.

And just as Joseph dealt with his brothers, so do we want G‑d to deal with us.

We are G‑d’s children and He generously provides us with all our needs, material and spiritual. But we are children and we don’t appreciate half of what we are given. We squander G‑d’s gifts; we mess up. Even when we do mitzvahs, we don’t fully grasp their value. We do them when our mind is elsewhere, we do them with ulterior motives. Of the Torah that we do study, we only remember and internalize a small fraction.6 Yet G‑d graciously gives us again, and yet again, “bread according to the young.” As Joseph did for his brothers.

And from Joseph we learn how to reach out to those whose grasp of spiritual concepts is on the level of a child. We provide for them “bread according to the young”; we break down the concepts again and again, until they are mere “crumbs” of the original thought, until we’ve presented it in a format and style that they can appreciate and absorb.7

Even when we do mitzvahs, we don’t fully grasp their value

On Shabbat Parshat Vayigash, 1988, the Lubavitcher Rebbe introduced a Jewish book campaign. He encouraged parents to buy seforim (sacred books) for their children, such as a siddur, Chumash, Tehillim and Tanya. The books should be kept in the child’s bedroom, to transform it into a miniature Holy Temple. The Rebbe noted: “Surely [the parents] will explain to the children that they should not be afraid to use the seforim frequently, lest they be ruined or torn, since they promise to buy new and nicer books than these when they get worn out.”8

Although there are a great many Jewish laws regarding how to treat sacred books with respect, we still do not refrain from providing children with their own copies. In His great love for Jewish children, G‑d views their play as a sign of love and “overlooks” any inadvertent desecration of His sacred writings.9

G‑d knows that our essential desire is to be close to Him and to fulfill His will. Although in our spiritual immaturity our actions may not always reflect this inner will, we ask G‑d to “provide for us according to our deeds”—to take into account the true spiritual value of our mitzvahs, even when our thoughts and intentions are less than perfect. We ask Him to overlook our imperfections, forgive our messes, and focus on our inner worth—just as Joseph did for his brothers.

(Based on an address of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Likutei Sichot, vol. 5, pp. 239-250.)