Upon Our Altars

We welcome a new child into our homes and we are filled with joy, optimism, love and hope. We imagine the world we want for our new child. In our heart of hearts, we have an image of who that child will be when he grows up. A scholar. A mensch. A good match for a good wife.

Do we ever pause to ask ourselves honestly, what do we want for our children? Do we ask ourselves, as they grow and develop, as they mature, will we want what is true to them, or will we want only what is true to us?

We envision our children being like us, only better.

But what if our children do not meet that “standard”? What if our children disappoint us? What if, rather than being a source of pride, our children become a source of shame?

What then?

In Shemot (12:26-27), we read that, And it shall come to pass, when your children shall say to you, What do you mean by this service? That you shall say, It is the sacrifice of the Lord’s Passover, Who passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when He struck the Egyptians and saved our houses. And the people bowed their heads and worshipped.

It is an interesting passage. Rashi comments that the people “bowed their heads” in gratitude for the news of their redemption and for the promise that they would have children. And yet when this very same passage appears in our Haggadah we know it to identify the “wicked son”.

Why would the Children of Israel bow their heads in gratitude if the children they were to have would rebel; if their very future would be built on a foundation of uncertainty?

The Satmar Rebbe suggested that while it is true that sometimes a child is born with a nature that tends towards evil, it is important for a parent to  accept this and still try to educate and guide this child.

His wise teaching makes clear that when it comes to raising a child to adulthood, perhaps the greatest quality that a parent can have is acceptance.

Would that such acceptance be more apparent in our homes and yeshivot today!

Listen to the rasha son, “What is this service to you?” He seems to be asking the question from outside. We have been taught to picture this rasha as refusing to acknowledge the service he questions has been ordained by God and that he is not asking in order to learn but in order to annoy.

Isn’t that how those on the outside behave? To irk? To annoy?

Better to push them further away, no?

Perhaps. But perhaps too, we push away too quickly. The Satmar Rebbe noted that while a father must educate and guide a son who leans toward evil, that is not the case when one is confronted with a truly wicked person, one who hides his wickedness behind a veil of piety. Such people are truly dangerous. So it was that while Jews were told that there would be those among their children who asked disturbing and difficult questions, they were grateful for the warning.

In the same way, the Brisker Rav taught that before Rivkah knew that she was going to give birth to twins, she feared the turmoil in her belly was caused by a single child who would be “running back and forth between the beis midrash and the house of idolatry. So it was she cried out, “If so, why am I thus”? But once she learned she would have two different sons with different personalities, she was calmed.  Why? Why was she not tormented that one of her sons would be wicked? Because, the Brisker Rav went on, one can try to help a wicked child whose intentions are clear. One rooted in the beis midrash at the same time he is rooted in the house of evil is much more difficult to reach.

Different sons. Different parenting. Each to receive the guidance he required.

In our verse, we learn that “…the people bowed their heads and prostrated themselves.” They did this knowing that one in four of their children would be reashaim! That they would be cynical, and rebellious; that they would be OTD.

They did not hide their faces in shame. They did not turn away in scorn. They bowed their heads in gratitude!

Could we expect the same from parents and educators today?

I hear and read of children, bright children, sensitive children, pushed on and on to succeed in ever more stressful situations only to have the Rosh Yeshiva throw them out if they do not meet or exceed expectaions!

It is as if we have settled on a community model of automatons, in which each young person moves forward in perfect lock-step fashion, dressing the same, studying the same, davening the same…Could any of us think of a more disturbing image? And yet, in willful ignorance of what we learn from this passage in Shemot, that is what we seem to be creating in our response to rebellious young people.

The Satmar Rebbe makes clear that it is inevitable that there will be young people who question, who challenge, who rebel; young people who don’t easily fit in to the community they find themselves in. Whether by choice or inclination, they simply cannot or will not walk the walk or talk the talk that has been imposed upon them.

Why not?

Because they are different. They did not choose to be different. They simply are. And, as a result, they cannot help but think and feel that this avodah is “for you”. What should the response be? According to the Rebbe, the response is simple. Accept. Accept this individual. Accept this decree and, in doing so, go on to do everything possible to educate and guide. But do so with respect for the difference. Do not force the child to change. Do not cast him out.

My God, if you had a child whose digestive tract could not tolerate lactose, would you starve him because he could not have dairy?  Of course not. You would find another, equally successful way to nurture and feed him.

The Rebbe suggests nothing less for the spiritual well-being of the rebellious one! He is not able to tolerate eight hours of education a day. Okay, accept that and then do whatever you can to ensure that he gets a derech that will allow him to “digest”.

That is what the Children of Israel are bowing their heads about. They were grateful for the revelation that they would not have to torture the boy for four years, trying to force a “square peg into a round hole” while they refuse to accept the simple truth that he is not a metzuyan. He is, instead, a wonderful gift from God who simply does not conform. Why torture him? Why make him feel that he has no one to talk to (except, God forbid, the truly evil ones lurking, waiting?) Why cast him out?

It is not easy to have a child say, “What is this avodah to you?” But recall the way the Torah phrases it. “and it shall be when your children say to you…” Yes, the Torah is referring to the rasha but it is also emphasizing that he is still saying to you. Those who have raised truly troubled children can attest, it is not always easy to hear what they say but is is important that they are talking to you. As long as that is happening, there is a chance to turn hard and challenging into good and rewarding.

Our OTD crisis is fueled by parents and educators who respond with anger and hard-heartedness to the challenging and rebellious child, not by the rasha himself. The response to the rasha must be to love and reassure him. He must know that he can speak with you no matter what it is that he says. Turning your back on such a child closes off any chance of return, of growth, and of redemption.

Our forefathers bowed their heads in gratitude when informed that “this one” is a rasha. A gift from God! Two gifts – the child and the foreknowledge that he is a rasha. There would be no need to play games. To use the dietary analogy again, I would scour the earth to find a diet that my child could tolerate, that would allow my child to develop and grow strong, that would allow him to grow in stature.

How much more should I seek a “diet” that would allow his soul to find comfort and expression? How much more should I seek a “diet” that would allow him to wrestle with the rebelliousness in his heart and still find a loving and caring home in the Jewish community?

How much more ?

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran is an educator, lecturer and author. He has devoted many years in the rabbinate, Jewish education, and as vice president of marketing and communications at OU Kosher. He resides in New York, while enjoying his long stays in Jerusalem. His highly acclaimed "Something Old, Something New - Pearls from the Torah" has been published by KTAV, July 2018.
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