Ah, parenting! The most gratifying, yet frustrating, endeavor humans ever undertake. Parenting is probably the greatest single area of advice giving, so, there is a ginormous supply of quotes on the subject. Allow me to share two. The first describes how I used to feel on the topic: Everyone should have kids. They are the greatest joy in the world. But they are also terrorists. You’ll realize this as soon as they’re born, and they start using sleep deprivation to break you (comedian Ray Romano). The second is how I’d like to think I feel about the topic today, now that my wife and I are empty nesters, and I’ve retired from teaching middle school: Encourage and support your kids because children are apt to live up to what you believe of them (Lady Bird Johnson). That last statement is critically important, because offspring and student often see themselves through our lens. I believe that our Torah reading has an amazing example of this phenomenon.
Let’s set the scene: Avraham Avinu has just been informed that he and Sarah will be parents to Yitzchak. At this juncture, God decides to inform him of a less joyous event, the destruction of S’dom and Amora. God lets us in on the decision process to share this knowledge with Avraham: Shall I conceal from Avraham what I am doing?…For I have known him because he instructs (KI Y’DA’ATIV L’MA’AN ASHER Y’TZAVEH) his children and his household after him, that they should keep the way of the Lord to perform righteousness and justice, in order (L’MA’AN) that the Lord bring upon Avraham that which He spoke concerning him (Breishit 18:17 & 19).
The critical phrase, which I’ve highlighted, can be translated numerous ways. The above version (Chabad.org) implies that God chose Avraham because he already is instructing others in righteous paths. Others (Rav Kaplan OB”M, Robert Alter, JPS) render it to mean that God is choosing Avraham so that he will, in the future, command and instruct his family and followers according to the Divine game plan.
Our crucial phrase can be informative about the past or instructive about God’s pedagogic path for Avraham and us. I like version 2. God didn’t see Avraham as a finished product, but as an unfinished vessel, ready to be molded to the mission. In this translation the statement is equally true of us, as of Avraham. We, too, are chosen, embraced, singled out for this assignment.
Did you notice that I injected a reference to a second L’MA’AN in the verse? This term means ‘for the sake of’. If the verse declares it twice, clearly, there must be two beneficiaries for whose ‘sake’ God is concerned. I think that it’s the instructors and the instructees. I believe that when I guide my offspring, I benefit too. In what way? Well, my first reaction is the ultimate verse in Nevi’im: that he may turn the heart of the parents back through the children, and the heart of the children back through their parents (Malachi 3:24). Which teaches us that parent child harmony is central to the prophecy of our Messianic dream.
Reb Yisrael Ba’al Shem Tov teaches that our verse, with two beneficiaries, refers to the secret value of commemorating Yahrzeits. That the children have a special opportunity to improve the heavenly status of parents on that auspicious occasion. Our parental connection, a spiritual umbilical cord, is never severed. Rashi hints to this idea: This teaches us that anyone who raises a ZADIK it’s as if they never die.
We instruct and guide our progeny for their benefit and development, but this effort, eventually, rebounds back to us. Of course, there are obvious benefits, as when children support and care for older parents. But we believe that this is a transcendent truth which has eternal ramifications. When we mold our children to be part of the chain of tradition extending back to the Patriarchs, our place in the continuity is also assured.
Parents must be pedagogues. But we can do so much more. We can influence our kids to perform miracles, to go beyond normal limitations. The Olympic track and field champion, Wilma Rudolph, once shared: My doctors told me I would never walk again. My mother told me I would. I believed my mother.
Our verse informs us that we must give our beloved offspring morals and principals (TZADAKA U’MISHPAT). The Ba’al Shem Tov adds that we can also bequeath them eternity. Isn’t parenting great? That is once we catch up on our sleep.