It’s all about the children

Rembrandt, The Sacrifice of Isaac.
Rembrandt, The Sacrifice of Isaac.

Jews are not members of a religion – we are a living, breathing, functioning extended family. Judaism is the distilled wisdom that comes from listening attentively to the voice of God that emanates from deep within our collective genetic make-up. Genes have a voice, often but not always a selfish voice. That voice, mediated through our texts, dictates the best course of action to bring the best children into this world with the best chances for survival.

Understanding that voice, laying out the various rules and regulations our genes require of us, deciding between some of the conflicting messages, translating that voice accurately into the language of people is the role of the Torah. Obeying the voice of God, as correctly articulated in our Torah and our tradition is to guarantee our long-term survival and is always in our best interest. Disobeying the Torah is to trade this life wisdom accrued over eons distributed in our genes and in our family history for some falsely perceived short-term gain, a false idol. Such is the voice of religion. We are not Jews, practicing a religion called Judaism – we are Bnei Yisrael – the most successful model family in the world.

The Torah opens by setting the scene for the first commandment: be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it (Genesis 1:28). Adam is charged with subduing the newly created and resource rich earth so that his children and his children’s children can benefit from all the gift this veritable garden of Eden provides. We are required to both produce offspring and make the world more habitable for them. We must not exploit the earth so that the benefits we extract today become unavailable or worse, toxic for our children in the future. Our Torah cautions us against the type of subduing, the type of mining, or over aggressive farming or genetic manipulations that might reap benefits for one generation while endangering the future with a second balancing command: work the earth and protect it (Genesis 2:15). Wise farming, wise science, wise industry, wise economics and politics, wise environmentalism which serves human interests, but properly conceives those human interests such that they incorporate the concerns of my children born into this same world, 3,000 years from now becomes the wisdom I can find by learning Torah. An extreme environmentalism that prioritizes animals over people is a religion that stands against the Torah. Short-term, exploitive commercialism that seeks gain in the present, unconcerned with its effects on children present and children future is a different rebellion against the measured, intelligent, dictates of the Torah. It might profit a rebel in the present but will most certainly curtail his future and the future of us all, endangering as it does the best interests of children. All values, all ambitions, all goals are measured against this one imperative: it’s all about the children.

In this week’s Parsha, the father of many nations, Avraham, becomes a real father. Not a founding father, not an ideological father, not a military hero, charismatic preacher, or adoptive father, that was all last week’s parsha. This week, Avraham, together with his one and only wife Sara, fathers Yitzhak and learns what it means to be a parent of a flesh and blood child which is different, more important and more difficult than being an ideological parent, a forefather or foremother. God chose Abraham and told him to leave his birthplace, his father’s home so that he could become a true son of God, obedient to something deeper than the regnant idolatry of Haran. Significantly, Avraham, then Avram, began that journey together with his father and extended family. They were a family that together came to the realization that Ur Kasdim was not a good place to raise children. However, only Abraham accomplished the final stage of the journey, a complete extraction from the false but pervasive idolatries, the ones that seep into the ground water and travel over the airwaves. This true of son of God, obedient and attentive to God’s voice needed to learn what it means to father a real boy.

God commands Avraham to take Yitzhak and bind him to an altar, slaughter him and offer him up as a sacrifice. Many students of religion read this test as the sine qua non of all faiths, the ability to step into the absurd, to suspend the ethical, to be a knight of faith and do what you are told no matter what the cost or logic. These students of religion never packed up a son, drove him to an army base and sent him off to battle. (In fact, Kirkegaard never married, never had children.) Being a father means you love your son so much that you are willing to sacrifice him for other sons, sons of the future, daughters of your neighbours, for mothers, for wives of Bnei Yisrael. Being a son means you were born into a world where other fathers did exactly that for you, so that you have what you have, enjoy the safety you enjoy and willingly bind yourself to that contract with your people, past and future and play your role faithfully so that your son might not have to pack his son off to battle. A good father binds his child to all sorts of things. Ties him up with duties and constraints, with education and professions, with manners and morals to play nice with other children – even as those constrain his freedom of action and sometimes cost him his life. When a good father binds a son to an intelligible altar, an altar which serves the long-term interests of Bnei Yisrael, there is nothing absurd about it. It is only false and evil idolatries that command a weak father to sacrifice his son or any son on the altar of a religion, such is the stuff of martyrs. Religions dislodge children from their families. Set them up as vaunted individuals and then take those individuals and make them servants of a church, a state, an institute, a movement. When movements or countries grow out of the best interests of mothers and fathers seeking to raise good children, they are legitimate. We may bind ourselves to altars of the military or the academy, altars of science and religion so long as they provide concrete advantages, positioning my child, equipping my child to better face tomorrow. When they don’t, it is time to cut loose. Churches and ideological families supplant real parents; they bind children to single purpose altars which provide unidimensional advantages – until they don’t – but then there is no father, to help his son down from the self-serving pyre.

And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. (Matthew 19:29)

The test between a good father and a weak father is never long in coming. There is always a second call from God, the one that says: I appreciate your willingness to sacrifice, that is the stuff of good fathers. But I don’t need or want the actual sacrifice of your future, that was never my intent. Take your son back now, you have earned him. Human nature is such that that second call is harder to obey than the first. We have a blood lust in us, a desire to die for a cause, to demonstrate our sincerity in some glorious act of false heroism. We thrill to the call of battle, to raise banners and march in some self-righteous campaign that vindicates our truth by dying for something or killing others that stand in our way. It is so much easier to die in some glorious flash of testosterone in the present than carefully, purposefully, legally dosing that energy over a lifetime of good parenting. The midrash, always astute and awake to the dark places of the human soul, imagines Avraham arguing with God. I am all ready, says Avraham, to do something glorious, something dramatic, to be a hero. Can’t I just draw a little blood, make a mark, to show I really mean it. No, says God. Not a hair on his head shall you harm. Martyrdom is not the stuff of good parenting. Circumcision will be your chance to draw blood in service of the future not in opposition to it. Bnei Yisrael are no less committed, no less devout, but serve life with all their heart, with all the soul and with all their resources, not death.

Religion and secular society are both flights from responsibility. Religion escapes into another world, a perfect world, an ideal world, a dead world. Secular society escapes into defined single purpose missions, into something so much more important than boring parenting, like being an astronaut or a tik tok influencer. Or alternatively, modernity offers the freedom to escape the law and do whatever feels right to you. Judaism is the dogged pursuit by good parents utilizing every altar possible, science, business, statehood, mastering all the tools of this complicated, unfair world in order to create real, sustainable health, wealth and security for my flesh and blood children. Judaism has a wise set of laws that help us rank order and integrate all the competing demands on a good and determined parent into a holistic and happy home. One of the biggest challenges to the dedicated parent is to know when enough is enough, when to stop working and start enjoying. In answer to which, we have Shabbat. A parent that sacrifices everything for their children is not setting the right example. Good Jewish parents don’t sacrifice themselves or their children. They celebrate a life of joy when possible and bind together for the purpose of making it possible when it isn’t.

This system infuses a Jewish home with enough Godliness, holiness and adventure, with a sense of mission and integrity that connects past, present and future, such that those hard-won advantages pass with my children into the far Jewish future. The Jewish people attest to One Good God who explained how all this works at the outset. A God that set us on our feet at the beginning, parented the nascent nation, guided us but never promised it would be easy. He then pointed us toward a perfected future where Bnei Yisrael will celebrate its success in a great family reunion.

When Jews write liturgy, they begin to sound like a religion. Prayers are often romantic sentiments, meant to inspire, to imagine the extremes in an effort to motivate. Such that our penitentiary prayers sometimes imagine Avraham completing the sacrifice with the ashes of a burnt Yitzhak piled on the altar. We point to those ashes as evidence of what Jewish parents have sacrificed, what lengths Jewish souls are willing to go to remain obedient to God and His law. Nonetheless, there are clear and critical differences between this imagined sacrifice of Yitzhak and the celebrated sacrifices of Religion. Jews remain rooted in reality, in a careful reading of a text that understands how to separate the plain meaning from homilies. We understand the essential nuance, the life preserving subtlety in a sentence which says: Avraham didn’t sacrifice his son but would have if he needed to. We are a legal culture that knows how to distinguish between an a priori desire to sacrifice and a de facto willingness to do so. That legal training means we can educate our children about the rare necessity of dying to sanctify God’s name with a carefully calibrated stoic regard for life. There are times one is obligated to die rather than transgress the Torah, there are times one is permitted to die but not obligated and there are times when a heroic decision to die rather than transgress a commandment was wrong and such a person is guilty of the murder of his own life. But the most important distinction of all – martyrdom always comes because we have done something wrong. Following the Torah faithfully brings blessing, brings security, brings children and wealth and peace. Heroics and with it, martyrdom means we have failed in some deep sense. The bigger the failure, the bigger the heroics required. Before we recite the terrible tragic example of the Ten Martyrs on Yom Kippur and again on Tisha b’Av, we recall the great pile of shoes with which the Roman ruler taunted us. Who will atone for this sin, he accuses, the sale of a brother by brothers in exchange for some footwear. It all comes back to a family not behaving like a family.

Christianity, like all religions and ideologies, replace good parenting with something else. They jettison the law which obligates a person to dedicate his or her life to building a future with fleshy children and replaces it with some idealized form of spiritual parenting which doesn’t require you to get your hands dirty having sex or changing diapers. Without the law, it is all sentiment and spirit, and the perverse valorization of sacrifice follows in its wake. Virginity is preferable to motherhood, a eunuch greater than a father. Now, of course, most Christians and Muslims make fine parents. They are what remain of our allies in the decadent West that has all but given up on its children. But they are our allies in the fight for family values only because no human system can completely ignore the voice of God that emanates from deep within our genes and survive. They are our allies because, to a large extent, whether they admit it or not, they are indebted to and followers of the Torah as well.

If you look at the motley crew of strange and incompatible allies that have lined up to support Hamas, their alliance is bewildering. How in the world to explain how feminists align with the chauvinistic patriarchy of Hamas against the enlightened and progressive Israel. How indeed to explain Queer activists cheering on Hamas knowing full well they would slit their throats given the chance. Only if you understand that these are all religions and ideologies clambering for the same thing does their association make sense. These are all children, blaming their parents for the terrible world they created. These are all infantile, whiney, incomplete, resentful adults who believe that something else is to blame for their frustrations. They, like Christianity traffic in resentment. My failure is because of Jews – all those greedy companies, selfish modern leaders, manipulating media moguls, successful people everywhere. All of it is rotten to the core and needs to be brought down. Antisemitism is the great uniting force and at core it is the resentment of children wanting to blame something other than themselves. The parents of these children never bound them to any altar. Never taught them to check their resentments against a debt of gratitude to the past and a responsibility to the future. This litter from the left hates the one model family that always blames itself first whenever something goes wrong. Moderns in the Global North don’t want the responsibility of finding partners, building homes, and finding meaning and purpose in the quotidian, unromantic tasks of fixing the world by raising more and better children for tomorrow. Moderns in the Global South want to blame the Global North for their shoddy governments, and poor economies. And everyone hates Israel for proving that dedicated parents anywhere can build a better life for their children even when no one does it for them. Everyone is looking for the quick fix, the once and for all sacrifice that will take care of everything. They are not up to the daily struggles of the flesh, the continual loop of error, lesson learned, correction, pay the price and start again. The stuff of good parenting.

Since the law has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered year after year, make perfect those who approach. (Hebrews 10:1)

We have entered, in my estimation, a particularly trying period in history. Following a tremendous period of human flourishing, we have stalled. On every front, the great promises of science, of a better social structure, of less authoritarianism, of the free market have yielded remarkable success. Children are born into a world that is healthier and wealthier and more accessible than ever before and maybe because of that they are also more resentful of the real inequalities that still remain. It makes the advent of Eliyahu more urgent than ever:

Behold, I will send you Eliyahu the prophet before the great and terrible day of Hashem comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the earth with a curse. (Malakhi 3:23-24)

Shabbat Shalom

About the Author
David Debow was raised in a sweet Jewish home in suburban Toronto and has always followed a spiritual path. He studied at Yeshiva University, Yeshivat HaMivtar and five years at Yeshivat Har Etzion. He taught in Cleveland, Ohio and has spent the past decade and a half creating and directing Midreshet Emunah v'Omanut - a unique Seminary dedicated to integrating Torah and the Arts. After sending off the final cohort of EVO students at the end of 5782 David spends his time at home, playing with his children and grandchildren while trying to edit Jewish publications for Koren.
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