When your child forges their own path

(Vidal Balielo Jr., Pexels)

A parent once came crying to the local rabbi,”We are not a religious family, we do not keep kosher or Shabbat in the home, and now my daughter has decided to eat only strictly kosher and refuses to join the family at the movies on Friday night. What happened to all your preaching about family values and following in the footsteps of your ancestors?!” The rabbi responded: “That is the way it is supposed to be. Children have their own ideas, one cannot hold onto them forever; they have to pave their own path and you cannot control their direction.” The parent left the rabbi’s office satisfied. Into the office walked another parent who said to the rabbi, “Both my father and grandfather were rabbis, and now my son is no longer frum, he refuses to wear a kippa, and is bringing non-kosher food into the house!” The rabbi responded: “What a tragedy! You must speak to him about the importance of following the values and traditions of his family!” 

Is there a right or wrong approach to critical and sensitive questions such as the one above? Consider one of the fundamental themes in the Torah portions spanning the life of Avraham and Yitzchak:

At two junctions in Avraham’s life he was prodded with the words Lech-Lecha — to go on a journey. The first instance was when God commanded Avraham to journey to the land of Israel (see Bereishit 12:1), and the second reference was when Avraham was told to take Yitzchak to the land of Moriah as a sacrifice (see Bereishit 22:2). The Rabbinic text (Midrash Bereishit Rabbah 39) notes that both instances of lech-lecha presented Avraham with trials, the latter trial of the akeida being greater than the first. Whereas the first test brought Avraham into the land, the latter episode brought him to the holy mountain in Moriah, the site that would later house the Temple in Jerusalem.

On the surface, this rabbinic comment is rooted in a textual anomaly, as the repeated phrase lech-lecha in the context of Avraham’s life promotes an obvious link between the identical phrases. Yet, one need only flip through the trials of Avraham’s life to conclude that the two lech-lecha narratives are vastly different. What links the trial of Avraham leaving his birthplace and moving to the land of Israel with the trial of Avraham being asked to slaughter his child?

A closer look at the two episodes reveals a deep truth about family ties. God first told Avraham to leave his land, birthplace, and father’s house. Not only did God command Avraham to geographically relocate, but He was pushing Avraham to sever his ties with his father. Despite the fact that Avraham’s father was an idolator, he retained his role as Avraham’s father. The father-son bond transcended ideology and religion. Thus, the first lech-lecha trial demanded a severing of family ties.

If so, the pinnacle trial of Avraham’s life which also opened with the words lech-lecha, similarly involved a severing of familial ties, in particular, the father-son relationship. In both trials, Avraham is called on to act in the same fashion! Looping back to the Midrash, which trial was greater: the trial where Avraham had to sever his relationship with his father, or the trial where Avraham had to sever his relationship with his son? The universal rule is that a parent’s love for their child is greater than the child’s love for their parents. Therefore, in the words of the Midrash, the greater trial for Avraham was the latter narrative of the Akeida (see Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer ch. 30 which states that Yitzchak actually died out of fear but was subsequently revived).

Sometimes parents are so determined to impress their value systems and way of life upon their children in the hopes that they follow after them, but instead, they end up denying their children the space and freedom to develop their own talents, perspectives, and capabilities. This tension between parents controlling their children’s development and relinquishing that control, highlights one of the great dramas of the Bereishit narratives.

Immediately following the Akeida, the text stated that Avraham returned to his attendants, Yishmael and Eliezer, and from there they traveled on. Where was Yitzchak at that moment? One commentary (Targum Yonatan) noted that Yitzchak had been taken to study in the famed Yeshiva of Shem & Ever. One could be quite sure that Yitzchak had up until that point been a devoted student of his father Avraham, a sage and scholar in his own right, but the time had come for him to move into a different house of Torah learning. What motivated the need for Yitzchak to now enroll in a different Yeshiva?

When Yitzchak studied with his father, he gained a broad knowledge of Torah: what is permitted/prohibited; what is pure/impure; these basics are called ‘God’s Torah’. The next stage of Torah study required Yitzchak to reflect on all of his learning and make it his own (see Talmud Bavli, Avodah Zara 19a). In order for Yitzchak to achieve this new stage of maturity in his character and understanding of Torah, he needed to enter a new learning environment with new teachers (see commentary of Ha’amek Davar to Bereishit 22:19).

In other words, Avraham guided Yitzchak up to a certain point in his development, but from there, Yitzchak needed a new context within which he would have the space to consider, reflect, and extract that which he had imbibed while in his father’s classroom to clarify and forge a new path for himself. This new creative paradigm could not be formulated while Yitzchak was at home, thus, he was transferred to the Yeshiva of Shem & Ever, a place where he formulated his own unique legacy. According to one tradition, Yitzchak’s son Ya’akov also studied at the Yeshiva of Shem & Ever, a junction in his life, where he was propelled out of his cocoon under the tutelage of his parents and redirected toward a new legacy.

Parents are entitled to smother their children with love, values, and a life to model themselves upon. Within a framework, there is always space for children to develop their own variety, novelty, and nuance. The first parenting models in the Torah are our guiding light and teachers in this critical area of raising the next generation. Cheer them on when they reach this stage!

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Effie Kleinberg serves as Educational Director at Forum for Jewish Leadership, an organization focused on developing the next generation of ambitious future Jewish leaders around the globe. Rabbi Kleinberg holds semicha and a doctorate from Yeshiva University and worked as an educator in North America for close to 10 years. He currently resides with his family in Ra’anana, Israel.
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