Around the time when smoking was officially labeled a serious health hazard, one of the first of many television commercials was produced to try and convince people to quit. It featured a father and young child outside on a beautiful spring day, with the child imitating everything the father did. The father took off his jacket, and the child took his off. The father smelled a flower, and the child did the same.
The point of the commercial was made when the father took out a cigarette. As he he turned away to light it, the child went into his father’s jacket pocket, removed a cigarette, and put it in his mouth. The message was clear. Beware of what you do as a parent, because your children are watching, and learning from everything that you do.
Every year without fail, as the weekly cycle of Shabbat Torah readings brings us to the portion of Vayeshev that we read this week, I invariably find myself unable to understand Jacob’s behavior towards his children. After all, it was his parents, Isaac and Rebecca, whose flawed parenting had made his adult life so difficult. His father had favored his twin brother Esau, and his mother had favored him. Even worse, his mother had conscripted him into her plan to procure for him her husband’s spiritual blessing, which by prevailing conventions should have gone to his first-born twin. Who if not Jacob should have understood the danger inherent in favoring one child over another? And yet Jacob is unable to transcend this learned behavior, and by favoring Joseph over his brothers, creates the scenario that ultimately brings the Israelites to Egypt, and eventual slavery.
Jacob is, to say the least, a complicated character, and it would be grossly unfair to him to imply that his less-than-wonderful parenting of his children is the sum total of who he was, and what his legacy is as a founding father of Judaism. If anything, his greatness in other contexts attests to the inordinate power of the lessons he learned as a child. That he was unable to see his favoritism of Joseph as a serious mistake would seem to indicate that he hadn’t yet, even as an adult, fully comprehended the damage done to him by his parents.
Obviously, every parent who reads the stories of Genesis, Jewish or not, has what to learn from these ancient texts. As a father of four, I was always humbled and unnerved by the ever-present realization that my children looked to my wife and me as the ultimate sources of wisdom and guidance in their world. That is an awesome responsibility, and it leaves little room for making egregious mistakes, or having serious lapses in judgment. Yes, we all “do the best we can,” that that isn’t always enough.
As I contemplate these timeless truths yet again this year, I sadly cannot help but consider the damage being done to young, impressionable Palestinian children who are being taught, virtually from birth, to hate Israel and Israelis. Yes, of course it’s true that there are Jewish children, especially in Israel, who are being taught to hate Arabs, and no doubt they, too, are being poisoned. But the culture of Israel does not support that kind of institutionalized hatred, and the organs of Israeli society, its free press and healthy if contentious democracy, in no way sanction that kind of hatred as government policy.
I can’t help but wonder how, if at all, it will be possible down the road to counter these “learned behaviors” as today’s Palestinian children grow into adulthood. They are growing up hearing that those who attack Israelis with knives and cars are to be glorified as martyrs, and that these behaviors are heroic. The prospects for any kind of reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinians (I wouldn’t ever dare to use the word “peace”) seem more remote than ever. It truly requires the extraordinary young person to separate from that learning environment in a way that might enable seeing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through a different lens. It’s not just parents who are creating this scenario, but also government leaders who preach hatred and consistently incite violence.
Chanukkah could not be coming at a better time. As the days are at their shortest and darkness is all around, both literally and figuratively, we need to be reminded that our people have always found a way to light a light when confronted by difficult circumstances like these.
To be sure, being strong and resolute in the face of physical threat is the message of the season. But I would also suggest that we be mindful of the “learned behaviors” that we might be passing on to future generations of our people. Tomorrow’s attitudes are being shaped today, in classrooms, living rooms and even casual encounters with our children in a back yard. All of us are responsible.
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.