Rosh Hashanah Day 2 - 2012/5773
What We Learn From Our Relationships
The story of Abraham and Isaac as portrayed in this morning’s Torah reading is a troubling one indeed. Much has been written about this story over the centuries and I’ve certainly talked a lot about it over the years. But I read two things this summer that helped me see Abraham in a new light. Wendy Mogul (author of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee) published another book in 2010 called The Blessing of a B Minus. Even though it came out 2 years ago I read it this summer. And psychologist Madeline Levine wrote Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success and has been lecturing about aspects of her book. Before I get into what these authors have to say let me try to explain how I now understand Abraham as a parent and then apply that to married life as well.
It is plausible to see Abraham as a deeply religious man - a man who had a very deep and profound understanding of God. A man who could have the audacity to argue with God over the impending destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. A man who could develop a covenant relationship that would be passed down from generation to generation. But how good a parent was he? How was he able to transmit his passion to Isaac? The Torah doesn’t tell us about any religious lessons in Abraham and Sarah’s home. It doesn’t tell us that Abraham took Isaac with him on any of his religious missions. When God tells Abraham to look at the stars in the sky and imagine that infinite number to be his descendants, he doesn’t have Isaac next to him. When he argues with God about the possibility of there being righteous people in Sodom and Gomorrah, he doesn’t have Isaac by his side. The only thing they do together is go to Mt. Moriah where Abraham ties him up and lifts a knife over his head.
How could things have gotten to this point? Why did Abraham allow himself to raise the knife? Perhaps Abraham just expected Isaac to be on the same religious level as he. Perhaps he thought that since he had a deep religious sensibility that Isaac must have it also. Isaac was a miracle baby heralded by angels so perhaps Isaac was innately religious. But we see tragically when the event ends, and Abraham sacrifices the ram, that Abraham and Isaac leave separately. Abraham travels with his servants back to Beer Sheva leaving us wondering what happened to Isaac.
Another possibility is that Abraham just pushed Isaac too far. Isaac was the son that he waited for all his life. Maybe Abraham expected Isaac to be compliant, to do everything Abraham wanted and to be the same type of person he was. Perhaps he pushed so hard that he ended up losing him in the end.
Understanding the story this way certainly makes it hit home. We can picture instances in which we’ve pushed our children too much or expected too much. Today there is a tendency to push our children to the extreme. There are preschools that are designed to train 2 year olds for academic readiness for elementary school. Two and three year olds are being forced to sit at a desk and learn numbers and letters instead of learning how to play and how to share. There are parents who force their children to take sports, to take music lessons, to participate in all sorts of extra curricular activities. Parents focus on homework even writing the term papers for their children so that the child gets all A’s and can get into the best college.
Parents want their children to be well rounded with the best resume but at what cost? The Times of Israel web site interviewed Melinda Levine in July. The author of Parenting for Success said she was invited to give a lecture in a Jewish day school in suburban San Francisco on the topic “Your Average Child.” She said no one showed up! Why? Because no one likes to think that their child is average. We all want to think that our children are exceptional. By pushing all these activities and creating academic pressure we’re trying to make our children exceptional.
The ideal parenting methodology is quite different. The only thing the Torah says on the subject is that we are supposed to teach our children the Torah and we are supposed to tell them the story of the exodus (which is the whole point of the hagaddah). The rabbis add that we are supposed to circumcise our sons, teach our children Torah, teach them a trade and marry them off. And one rabbi adds that we should teach our children how to swim. All this means is that we are to provide the necessary skills to survive in the world. We are supposed to ensure that our children will be able to take over for us, make a decent living, and have their own family one day. This may seem as if the rabbis are setting the bar low because they don’t say teach them at Harvard, or teach them how to be financial advisors or real estate moguls. By simply telling us to teach our children a trade the rabbis are being practical and realistic. Understand your child and teach your child according to his or her skills.
But the rabbis also say to teach our children Torah which should mean not just literally a Jewish education, but also the necessary values - the moral and ethics required to be a good person - a mentsch. That should be the most important responsibility a parent has toward their child. When parents force children to play sports or to excel in school the values most likely get lost. A lesson that gets taught that way is that life is all about me and how I can succeed. Parents who do homework for their child or complain to the teacher if the teacher gives a negative comment on an assignment teach their children that they are always right and everyone else is wrong. As Wendy Mogul in her book (The Blessing of a B Minus) suggests life just doesn’t work that way. We all know that life is filled with obstacles and we don’t always have someone by our side to navigate the pitfalls. We won’t always have someone to do for us. Our children need to learn self reliance. Our children need to learn from mistakes. Our children need to learn humility and morals and ethics. That’s the kind of education we should provide.
Did Abraham succeed? When Isaac asked “I see the wood and the fire but where is the sheep for the sacrifice”, what did Abraham answer? Did he say let’s go look? Did he say I want to tell you a story? No, Abraham was silent. That silence is heartbreaking because as the reader you want to scream at Abraham. You want to yell, what do you think you’re doing to your child? How do you expect him to be the next leader of the Jewish people? What are you teaching him?
That silence could also reflect our dilemma as we try to parent our children. Sometimes we just don’t know what to do. Our children confound us and we just don’t always know what’s best. That’s why we need the comfort and support of family. Our parents and grandparents can help with the perspective of time with advice for our children. We may not always want to listen to them, but they often speak with wisdom.
We also can look to our synagogue. Values education doesn’t take place in the public schools. When I have asked our teens in class discussions over the years if they’ve talked in school about current events, the economy, the election, etc. they answer that they haven’t. There is a curriculum of certain facts and numbers and science that has to be taught and there’s no time to digest what it all means or how it translates into being a good person - a contributing member of society.
That’s what the synagogue is for. Our school and all religious schools for that matter - from preschool on up - teach religious values. Sure we teach concepts that enforce their Jewish identity but we also teach what it means to be a good Jew and what it means to be a good person. We teach our children to be proud of themselves, that each and everyone is important and has unique talents that help make our community diverse and strong.
This kind of education is what is important to convey today. Perhaps Abraham didn’t know. Perhaps since God laid out the path for him and told him what to do he thought that God would do the same for Isaac. Our lesson today is that we have to take matters in our own hand. We have to prioritize what is best for our child and recognize that being a mentsch is even more important than having straight A’s. Furthermore we should be actively involved in our child’s life. Don’t drop him or her off at school and activities - take time to help your child know the reason behind the choices you are making for them. Maybe then unlike Abraham and Isaac we can go hand in hand with our children through life’s challenges - growing and learning in the process.
Because I am a parent this is the first way I interpret the Abraham-Isaac story. Levine and Mogul and their perspective hit home especially in light of this relationship. But, even though they wrote about parents and children we can apply their teachings to other relationships in our lives as well.
We learned three things: that we have to set appropriate expectations, we need to speak our mind, and we need to always strive for ethics and morality. For any relationship to work we need to apply these lessons.
When I meet with couples to plan their wedding aside from asking them how they know that their partner is “the” one, I also ask them how they get along. I want to hear how they handle issues that have arisen in their relationship. Do they fight, do they brood, do they talk things out? By asking the question I want them to start thinking about how they handle differences. They can’t assume that they will always be head over heels in love. When the nitty gritty of everyday life sets in I want to see how they transfer the love they have while they are engaged to their future married life.
I also want to know what expectations they have for their relationship. I want to know what they’re looking forward to about being married. I want to know how much they have talked about what they think will be in store for them. I want to hear about jobs or future children or things like that which show that they’ve started talking about what their future holds. Their life is now being defined by someone else in their life. They used to make decisions that affected themselves, now they need to make decisions as a couple. How do they make these choices? How do they work together and how do they compromise? The conversations at the beginning set the tone for how these conversations will progress while they are married.
And I also want to hear about the values they share. I ask them about their Jewish upbringing and what they look forward to doing together as a couple. Invariably I hear about how important family is. Sometimes I hear about shabbat dinners with parents and how they look forward to hosting shabbat or Jewish holiday get togethers. I hear about religious school and a commitment to joining a synagogue some day. It’s clear that the discussion needs to continue about the values they share as a couple and the decisions that they’ll make in the future based on those values.
Clearly in order for a marriage to blossom and thrive these conversations need to happen frequently. Couples need to make the time to reconnect and relive the idyllic days of dating and engagement by taking the time to have long conversations and taking time to be alone with one another. Sure children and work may intrude on this, but it is imperative that time is found to talk and be reminded of why you fell in love. Ensure that you talk to each other with mutual respect and love, ensure that your goals for your marriage are still aligned, and be sure that you still share the same values for each other and your family. Checking in like this keeps the lines of communication open and makes each of you realize how important your spouse is.
The family relationships - parent-child, husband-wife - are the most important relationships in our lives. In chapter 1 of Genesis humanity was created as male and female and the comment is made there in the Torah that it’s no good for a person to be alone. The first commandment is to be fruitful and multiply. The question is how we make these relationships work. As we reread the Abraham-Isaac story we recognize that it’s here to be read on Rosh Hashanah because we are supposed to spend a serious amount of time in reflecting upon the success of our relationships. We come to these services as a spouse, a child, a parent. We define ourselves in relationship to someone else as I am Lenore’s husband or Bob & Ruth Layman’s son or Elisheva, Ilan, Aliza and Eytan’s father. We are who we are based on how we developed in these relationships and what we learned.
Perhaps those relationships early in our lives were painful. Perhaps they were filled with love and support. Certainly they were formative as we became adults and formed new relationships ourselves. Our job no matter how emotionally fraught is to reflect upon our past and learn from it. What happened years ago that was good? What happened that was bad? How can I focus on the positive and transform it to my life today?
Our liturgy and Torah reading wants us to look at our past so that we can move positively forward. The rabbis understood that there is still hope for us to develop - there’s still a chance for us to change. Every year we read about the near disaster with Isaac and that should serve as wake up call to us. What path are our relationships on? Is it a good path? Have there been obstacles or do we see pitfalls in the road ahead? What are we going to do to avoid them? How are we going to ensure that proper expectations are set and met? How are we going to express our love in healthy and fulfilling ways?Perhaps Abraham failed with his son. But their relationship can help us in the year ahead. May this year be filled with love and compassion and growth. Amen.