Can we respect people without losing our ability to see them as real and fallible? Can we build connections to role models without making ourselves dependent on them? Can we be cautious and careful without being suspicious and cynical?
These are tough questions that all people struggle with regardless of religion, background or community. As children and young adults, our formative years are heavily influenced by the adults that we look up to and admire in our lives. As grownups, we continue to turn to the people we trust for advice, support and inspiration. We want to believe that we can rely on others, that what we see is what we get, and that our pure and innocent belief in people’s goodness is not rooted in naivete. We don’t want to despair and to feel jaded that it is just a matter of time until we lose respect for the next person in line.
It is a fine line between admiration and adulation. Between respect and reverence. Between veneration and vulnerability. Between submission and supreme sacrifice.
Over my years in Jewish education, I have observed that sometimes the subtle (or overt) message is conveyed that our connection to God is best fostered through direct and personal connections to His teachers. That it is hard to maintain a deep and passionate attachment to the abstract Creator without a concrete relationship to someone who represents His Torah.
I am a big believer in warm, open, genuine, authentic and real relationships between teachers and students. Students often appreciate how much they can learn and gain from those role model figures in their lives.
But real people are complicated. They are human. And students need to know that too.
Real people can disappoint us, make mistakes or cross lines in ways that they shouldn’t. The desire to be there and to help, the self-confidence, the clarity and certainty with which one presents and interacts are all positive things until taken too far. The ability for a student to recognize the complexity of a personality is helpful in forming healthy relationships and in drawing appropriate boundaries.
And it is especially crucial when it comes to religious role models.
As wonderful and inspiring as religious mentors may be, as much as they may direct us and uplift us, they are not angels. Ultimately, our connection to God must be direct and cannot run through anybody else. It can certainly be enhanced and strengthened by teachers and rabbis, but it cannot depend entirely on them.
Psalm 27:10 tells us, “Though my father and mother abandon me, the Lord will gather me in.” It is inevitable that at some point or another we can feel forsaken by those who guide us. It can be that they physically died or moved on, or that they emotionally left us frustrated, hurt or in pain. It can be that they violated us in awful, dramatic ways or, alternatively, that they just showed us their weaknesses as fallible, imperfect human beings whose best is not always good enough.
God can be there for us in those tough moments when the steady ground beneath us starts to shake or the cord that held us tight begins to shred. But only if we have cultivated a connection that is strong, independent and not easily severed by the instability of human frailty.
Are we explicitly teaching and guiding our children and students how to carefully understand the differences between these kind of relationships and how to navigate these fine lines?
In this week’s parsha of Toldot, Isaac instructs Jacob not to take a Canaanite woman but rather to take a wife from the daughters of Laban, Jacob’s mother’s brother.
In the verses that follow (Genesis 28:6-9), we are told that Esau saw that Isaac had commanded Jacob in this way, and Esau perceived that the daughters of Canaan were evil in the eyes of his father. As a result, he decides to marry a daughter of Ishmael, in addition to the Canaanite wives he already had.
We would assume that Esau knew the story of his own parents’ courtship and how his grandfather Abraham had sent the servant Eliezer far away in order to find a wife for Isaac who was not a Canaanite. Was it really news for him that his parents (and grandparents for that matter) wanted something different for their children when it came to finding a spouse? Wasn’t it obvious to both Jacob and Esau long before their parents said anything directly on the matter?
Years ago, Esther Bengigi, a beloved Ayeka parenting therapist, taught me and my husband that you should never assume that children internalize anything that you have not made a point of telling them explicitly. They may have. It is indeed possible to absorb through observation and osmosis, but she was encouraging us that if there is something that is important to us, then we should not hesitate to say it, discuss it and make sure our children clearly understand our core values.
It is not an easy balance to grow from role models while also listening to your inner voice, to honor your teachers and rabbis while also remembering that they are human, to cultivate a religious personality based on inspiring human interactions and relationships while also remaining God-centric.
And yet we are painfully reminded every so often that this is one of those important conversations we must be having over and over and over again.
Praying for success as we strive to impart these nuanced messages.