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Eggshells at the Seder

There’s a well-known joke about a man who calls his son.

“Son, I’m sorry to ruin your day but your mom and I are getting divorced.”

“Divorced? You’ve been married for 45 years?! What are you talking about?”

“Well son, we just can’t stand each other anymore. I need to go. Tell you sister. Bye” And hangs up the phone.

The son calls his sister, tells her what’s going on, and they immediately hatch a plan. They call their father back. “Dad, do not do anything! We are booking flights and we’ll be over tomorrow to discuss things. In the meantime, just hang tight.”

The father hangs up the phone, turns to his wife, and says, “Honey, the kids are coming for Pesach!”

Not only did I just share with you a joke you probably already heard, but now I am going to do something even worse and analyze it.

If we had to conjecture why the children would not want to come home for Pesach, what would the reason be? Would it be because the flights are expensive? Maybe because the kids stopped keeping Pesach? Possibly. But if I had to guess the number one reason why an adult child would not want to come home for Pesach, I would assume it is because their parent or parents are critical and/or condescending.

Home is supposed to be the place where we let our hair down, where we feel at ease, where we can be ourselves. But tragically, for too many people, their home of origin is where their anxiety levels go out the roof, where they feel defensive, where they are constantly walking on eggshells.

“Why can’t you control your child?” Crunch.

“Why are you so picky with your dating?” Crunch.

“Why don’t you have a job like your younger brother?” Crunch.

And the child – the adult child who in every other interaction is treated with respect is left feeling beaten down, small, pathetic. He or she second guesses everything she says, everything she wears, everything. Crunch. Crunch. Crunch.

The topic of this week’s parsha is Tzaraas, a unique form of leprosy. Our sages teach us that Tzaraas is caused by hurting people with our mouths. Sometimes that is through gossip, lashon hara, but there is another equally harmful form of evil speech called Onaah. Onaah means hurting people with the words that we say.

Rav Yisrael Salanter suggests that the laws of Kosher, listed in last weeks Torah portion, are juxtaposed with the laws of Tza’raas, for the following reason: Most of us are careful with what we put in our mouths. You wait between milk and meat. You would not eat pork. You would certainly not eat a human being. Right? And yet we do. When we gossip about someone or when we put someone down, we are eating a person alive. We are destroying them with our mouths.

If this sounds like hyperbole, let me share with you some of the impacts of overly critical or condescending parenting: Adult children who grew up in such a home have a hard time trusting themselves, are hesitant to take on new challenges, have a hard time bouncing back from mistakes, are constantly apologizing but also constantly feeling defensive, and have an impossible time believing that people actually like them.

There’s a reason many adult children do not want to come back home for Pesach. There’s a reason that some adult children do come home but dread it.

One of the scariest ramifications of overly critical and condescending parenting is the impact this has on the child’s relationship with G-d. G-d is a pretty complicated concept. What allows us to understand the notion of a creator who cares for us is the fact that each human being has two creators that are meant to care for them. If those creators are loving and accepting, then the child has a pathway to understand that G-d is loving and accepting. If those creators are dishonest, ignore the child, or put the child down, then the child assumes that G-d is just the same.

In the Haggadah we read, “Arami oved avi,” how Lavan tried to destroy our father Yaakov. But Rav Michel Twersky interprets this to mean that Lavan tried to destroy the concept of ‘Avi, of a Father in Heaven.’ The way he did so was by making Yaakov’s life miserable. When the person we trust is not trustworthy, when the person we look to for support does not provide it, when the person we look to for a mirror to our qualities reflects only scorn, we are left not only parentless but G-dless as well.

Pesach is the holiday on which G-d conveyed to the Jewish People that even though they had almost no Mitzvos they still have value. Pesach is the holiday on which G-d conveyed to the Jewish People that even though they had stooped to the lowest of levels, even though they had gone so far astray, He still love us, no matter what. We would do well by trying to emulate G-d.

It’s not even like the criticism even helps. It is not the way to change our young children and there is almost nothing we could do to change our adult child. When was the last time our adult child said, “Oh thank you for pointing out what I know and have nightmares about every day. Because you said something or because you rolled your eyes at just the right time, I will now change my life around, thank you.”

Pesach is meant to be a family-centered holiday. Are we doing enough to ensure that our family members are comfortable in our home? Are we doing enough to ensure that they feel accepted and not pushed away? Are we giving them a model of what true love is? Do we need to guilt our children to come home, or do they know that they will receive the embrace that every human being craves as they walk through our door?

Many have the custom of eating an egg at the Seder. It is a reminder of a house – the Bais Hamikdash – that was destroyed over a lack of respect and love. Perhaps as we peel that egg, we could remind ourselves to throw away the shells and make sure that everyone feels at home.

The above was delivered as a sermon at Ner Tamid, Baltimore, for Parshat Tazria

About the Author
Yisrael Motzen, a native of Montreal, Canada, serves as rabbi of Ner Tamid Greenspring Valley Synagogue in Baltimore, MD. He is a graduate of Ner Israel Rabbinical College and holds an M.A. in Clinical Community Counseling from Johns Hopkins University.