Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger
Former Shaliach in Boca Raton (1999-2007)
Currently Executive Director and Community Rabbinic Scholar of Dallas Kollel
Parenting – Putting the Pieces Back Together Again
Many times in my life while my children were still at home, in moments of pain and despair, I have said to myself and to others: ‘If I had only known how difficult it would be to raise children, I wonder if I would have done it.’ There can be so much frustration, so much disappointment. How many times have I experienced such a feeling of utter failure in my efforts to nurture well-adjusted, well-functioning, happy and God-fearing children?
But I should have known better. Had I remembered the lessons of the Book of Genesis, I might not have been so despondent. I might have gained a measure of comfort. From the outset parents have failed, and still God wants us to continue on and keep trying. Even the greatest of our ancestors have made mistakes and run into impossible parenting dilemmas from which they could not elegantly extricate themselves, and yet this does not detract from their greatness. It seems to be God’s will that raising children be an open-ended challenge that defies simple solutions and rarely entails easy and clear-cut successes.
It begins at the very outset of life on earth as recorded in the Torah – the first family on earth was ripped apart by fratricide. Adam and Eve’s first-born son murdered his younger brother. Who can imagine the feuds and the acrimony that the walls of their home witnessed – both before the deed and after? Before – the hate that divided the brothers, the poisoned words they flung at each other, the anger of the parents towards their maladjusted children … and their guilt at not having raised them properly. And what about the mutual accusations that Adam and Eve must have flung at each other over their ineffective parenting? And after – living with the murderer, who was after all still their son … or was he? How did they relate to him? Did they?
Just think of the anguish of Noach who after doing so much to save his family from the flood, is betrayed by his youngest son. Sexually assaulted or at least humiliated by Ham, Noach lashes out, cursing him that he be enslaved to his brothers. And what makes it even more excruciating is the father’s knowledge that his own drunkenness was to blame.
In Parashat Lech Lecha we read Abraham’s plaintive cry to God: “If only Ishmael would live before You!” My heart goes out to our suffering patriarch who sees himself as a failed father. He waited decades for this first child to be born; a child who would follow in his footsteps and pass on the legacy of a life lived in God’s presence. But Ishmael does not choose to live his life in God’s presence. And Abraham is beside himself with disappointment.
This young man upon whom Abraham had pinned all his hopes makes his father’s life bitter indeed. Soon after the birth of his half brother Isaac, Ishmael is described as ‘mocking’ so meanly that Sarah finds it necessary to demand that her husband throw him out of the house. We can only imagine the pain he must have caused his parents. But he is nonetheless Abraham’s firstborn son, and Abraham is tormented by the finality of his wife’s demand. Prodded by God, he relents. He rises early in the morning and sends his son off into the desert wilderness, never to see him again.
Most painful of all is perhaps what follows, or, what doesn’t follow! In the wake of the akeida, the binding and near sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham, there is no contact at all between father and son. Decades go by and not one word of communication. Abraham seems not to have been present at his son’s wedding. The only time that Isaac will be able to bring himself to ever again lay eyes upon his father is when he is summoned to lay the old man’s body in its grave.
The Book of Genesis continues with its tales of tortuous family relations – Esau was a source of terrible vexation to his parents, and the animosity and bickering between Joseph and his brothers made life miserable for Jacob and his wives. While Esau married out of the faith and later threatened to kill his brother, Joseph’s siblings kidnapped him and sent him off to slavery. And we ask ourselves: Can it get any worse? Will it get any better?
But God apparently does not despair of us. The book of Genesis – whose final portion we read this Shabbat in synagogue – ends on a note of reconciliation, when Joseph and his brothers mend their ties and the family is reunited. There is hope. After failure, we can try again and do a little bit better. Rarely is all completely lost. The small successes of second and third tries make it all worthwhile. It’s not about getting it absolutely right the first time around. Parenting is about drawing strength from the knowledge that the best of us err in this most challenging of endeavors, and we can and must keep going back to pick up the broken pieces in order to fit them back together again. It is a work in progress to the very end.
May God be with us.