Many people recognize that the Five Books of Moses, the Torah, contain multiple examples of behaviors we should learn and emulate. However, they fail to notice that every person mentioned in the Torah has misbehaved, and they agonize over misbehaving children. For instance:
Even the best humans misbehave
The Torah criticizes Adam and Eve, the first humans, examples of their descendants, for eating a forbidden fruit.
Nachmanides berates Abraham for lying about Sarah, his wife, saying she is his sister to save his life.
Isaac, the second of the three patriarchs, exemplars of Judaism, favored Esau when he should have liked Jacob better.
Jacob, the third and last patriarch, rounds out the list by showing that he, too, misbehaved by giving preference to Joseph. This caused family jealousy and resulted in the Israelites being enslaved in Egypt for over a century and many deaths.
Not only the three patriarchs but even their wives, the four matriarchs, misbehaved. Each acted contrary to their husband’s wishes. Abraham’s wife Sarah forced Abraham to evict his son Ishmael, whom he loved. Rebecca, Isaac’s wife, tricked her husband into blessing the son she liked rather than the son Isaac preferred. Jacob’s two wives, Rachel and Leah, conspired together to deceive Jacob and cause him to marry Leah first rather than his beloved Rachel, resulting in Jacob having to work for Rachel for seven years.
Moses, “our teacher,” blasted the Israelites just before he was to take them into Canaan. God saw that this showed Moses was no longer the man to lead the Israelites into Canaan, told him to appoint Joshua as his successor, and killed him.
Moses’ brother Aaron built a golden calf for the Israelites to worship when Moses was absent. It resulted in over a thousand people being killed.
Children of worthy parents reject the ways of their parents
Two of Aaron’s sons, who were priests, brought unauthorized fire on the altar and were killed for what they did (Leviticus 10:1).
“Our teacher” and “lawgiver” Moses’ grandson and descendants worshipped idols. This is stated in Judges 18:30, “There (in the city formerly called Laish) the Danites set up for themselves the idol, and Jonathan son of Gershom, the son of Moses, and his sons were priests for the tribe of Dan until the time of the captivity of the land.” (The Masorites placed the letter nun above the name Moses, hoping to mislead people from realizing the embarrassing phenomenon that Moses’ descendants rejected God and would read Monases rather than Moses.)
Two lessons should be learned from these two Hebrew Bible revelations
- The Torah wants us to know that all people, even the best among us, are not perfect. So, if we do wrong, we should learn from our mistakes, resolve to change, and develop habits that train us to be better. These are the steps suggested by Maimonides.
We must also be ever vigilant. There are many stories of people who behaved bravely and praiseworthily until their old age when they did wrong. An example is Moses’ sister Miriam, who saved his life shortly after his birth but eighty years later criticized him for which God struck her with leprosy.
In contrast, there are tales of wrongdoers who performed worthy acts in later life. An example is Reish Lakish (circa 200-275) who was a thief but later became one of the two most learned rabbis of his generation when he joined with his brother-in-law Rabbi Yochanan ben Nappaha (circa 180-279). Another is Rabbi Akiva (killed by the Romans in 135), an ignorant shepherd until his wife persuaded him to attend school when he was forty, ultimately becoming the teacher of millions.
- We should not despair if our children do not do what we taught them. Parents do not have total control over children and should not feel guilty. We are only expected to do all that is reasonable.