One of the books that has carried many of us through the histrionics and narcissism of adolescence is Kahlil Gibran’s florid bestseller, The Prophet. The book is about a prophet who dishes out wisdom on a variety of life topics to the people of his adopted country before he leaves them to return to his home. His teaching about children is quoted quite often:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s
longing for itself.
They come through you but not from
And though they are with you yet they
belong not to you.
With all of my children in different exciting but challenging life transitions as young adults, I certainly understand what the prophet was saying. We parents learn, not always quickly enough, that almost from the moment they leave the womb, our kids are becoming their own people, shaping their own souls and charting their own destinies. As they get older, if we give them the room to do so, our children grow into the people they wish or need to become, hopefully for the better and not for the worse. Our job is to guide them in this process of self discovery, and to do so with the humble recognition that, in a very healthy sense, these children of ours are not our children.
However, that is not the entire story, as the Torah and later Jewish tradition teach us. The biblical book of Numbers tells us about God’s command to Moses to match each of the firstborn males with each of the Levites, for the purposes of redeeming the firstborn from sacred service to God, after that task was given to the Levites. We read earlier in Exodus, chapter 13 that God sanctified the firstborn males as dedicated servants of God after the slaying of the Egyptian firstborn. When the Levites replaced them for this work, the firstborn were still sacred to God, and as such needed to be redeemed from that sacred status before they could return to normal life with their families. Numbers tells us that there were 273 more firstborn males than Levites. They were redeemed by giving five shekel coins to the sanctuary coffers as a kind of redemption price in lieu of turning over their status to other Levites who awaited this conferral of status. Later in chapter 18 of Numbers, God commanded us to redeem all firstborn males in the future by giving this redemption money to a Kohen, a priest, who then absolved each firstborn from dedicated service to God. This ritual of redemption developed over many years into Pidyon Ha-Ben, redemption of the firstborn which is performed by a Kohen in behalf of a family and its firstborn son after the newborn has been alive for thirty days.
It is unfortunate that Pidyon Ha-Ben is not performed more often in non-Orthodox Jewish circles. We could certainly expand it to include firstborn daughters, specifically because of the meaningful symbolism of the liturgy that has been written for it. In America, the custom is to offer the presiding Kohen five silver dollars in memory of the five ancient shekel coins used during the time of the Torah. That money is generally not taken for personal use by the Kohen, but is given to the poor. What is so interesting is the script that the Kohen and the parents recite to each other before the Kohen recites the blessing thanking God for the mitzvah of redeeming firstborn children:
The Kohen asks the parents:
What is your preference: to give me your firstborn son, the firstborn of his mother, or to redeem him for five shekel coins as you are obligated according to the Torah?
The parents then respond:
We wish to redeem our son. We present you with cost of his redemption as required by the Torah.
This is a very strange script. Why would the Kohen give the parents a choice to redeem or not to redeem their child, while in the same breath reminding them that the Torah obligates them to redeem the child for five shekel coins? One Siddur (prayerbook) commentator suggests that the Kohen is merely reminding the parents that they might think they can get away with not paying the five shekels for their child’s redemption, but their attempts will not succeed. I suggest a different reason for this script. We parents begin an amazing and terrifying life journey with our children from the moment they are born, one in which we and they struggle simultaneously with their being – and not being – ours. Life with children is all about holding on and letting go. One of the great insights of developmental psychology is that the terrible twos and the teen years mirror one another: at those ages, our kids will do almost anything to push us away while also seeking to keep us near them, as they figure out how to be in the world. There are times when, in our deepest frustration with our kids, we even wish they would get older, leave the house and be out of our hair, so we could get back the lives we had before parenthood. Yet how many of us have felt the push back of guilt and remorse after feeling these things, which is only natural? The redemption of the firstborn and its liturgy seem to be telling us that, no matter how grown up and far away from us they get, our children never stop being our children. We are always “redeeming” them by recognizing our bonds of family responsibility and love for one another, even as are letting go of them. What is more, as much as this parent-child relationship is an obligation, the challenge for both parents and children is to reaffirm regularly that we choose this relationship, by allowing it to grow and change and deepen from birth, to adolescence, to adulthood, and perhaps even into that time when our children become parents, and the great mystery of family and parenting begins again.
So, my postscript to Kahlil Gibran’s sage insight is this: our children are not our children, yet in fact, they truly are.