Unfortunately, we have all heard too many heartbreaking stories of children who have gone off the derech. These stories are heartbreaking because so many of us crave to leave a legacy of our values to our children. We identify with the many parents who are left with feelings of guilt and shame, however unwarranted, even after working so hard to do everything right. I am in the middle stage of raising my children, having one married daughter, two children in college, a daughter in high school, and a son in elementary school. I pray that my wife and I make correct decisions in doing everything in our control to ensure that we can effectively transmit our core values to them, and I pray that God will take care of whatever is not under our control to ensure that our children share these values.
I try to gain inspiration from our Patriarchs and Matriarchs, and I view Avraham as someone who was successful in transmitting his passion, commitment and faith to the next generation. In fact, during the Akedah, I wonder if part of Avraham’s test was to see if not only he, but Yitzchak as well, would faithfully follow God’s command to kill and be killed. Though Yitzchak was saved in the nick of time, it seems remarkable that he was willing to follow his father, acquiescing to God’s will without any struggle. How was Avraham able to transmit his legacy of faith to Yitzchak? It seems to me that Avraham’s life is an educational guide as to how to accomplish this incredible goal.
Avraham is someone who clarifies values, practices values and engages his entire household in the values that are so dear to him. God refers to Avraham as someone who is yetzaveh et banav v’et baito acharav v’shamru derech Hashem la’asot tzedaka vamishpat. He is someone who will instruct his children and his household after him, that they will observe God’s way in doing justice and righteousness. Sometimes we think that our children and grandchildren will learn through osmosis, through seeing our behavior. Now some might, but we need to constantly clarify our values to them because what is obvious to us is not always obvious to them. Avraham is also someone who not only runs to do kindness to the angels disguised as men who visit him, but he gets his family involved. He asks his wife to make cakes for them and he asks the lad, probably Yishmael, to prepare the meat for them. These are important steps to ensure that we can transmit our values to our children and grandchildren: clarify, practice and engage our children and grandchildren. Moreover, I believe that Avraham excelled in one additional ingredient necessary to effectively transmit values.
Vern Bengston is a professor of social work at the University of Southern California who came from a very religious family. His father was a minister of the Evangelical Covenant Church and he was a devoted Christian and shared his parents’ values. However, when he attended University of Chicago as a graduate student, he was surprised to find that so many of his peers who had grown up religious had lost their faith. He conducted a study to try to understand why some young people adopt their families’ views while others do not. He began this project in 1969 with 350 families and he interviewed them regularly until 2008. His study yielded more than 200 articles and he wrote a book about his study that was published three years ago, entitled, “Families and faith: How Religion is Passed Down Across Generations.” His conclusions were consistent with the clarify, model and engage approach that we have suggested, but he added one important criterion. He wrote that children were significantly more unlikely to share their parents’ values if they didn’t feel close to their parents, or if an emotional bond between parent and child was missing.
Avraham and Yitzchak have one recorded conversation in the entire Torah. That conversation is sandwiched between two statements of “vayelchu shneihem yachdav,” that both of them went together. They head up Mount Moriah when Yitzchak turns to Avraham and says, “Avi,” or “my father.” Yitzchak probably realizes at that moment that something is amiss, because there is no sheep to be found and no animal for the sacrifice. Avraham responds by saying “hineni bni” or “I am here, my son.” This conversation likely encapsulates Avraham’s entire relationship with Yitzchak, always being present and emotionally connected to Yitzchak no matter the circumstance.
I try to find inspiration from Avraham Avinu in how he transmitted his values to his children. Let us learn from him, and clarify, model and engage with our children and grandchildren to pass on our own values. But let us also not lose sight of the other, crucial component. Let’s put that same focus and attention in forging connections with our children and grandchildren, just as Avraham did with his son. Ultimately when God tested Avraham in the most difficult of all tests, he passed with flying colors because Yitzchak did, as well.