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Parents and Children: A Biblical Legacy of Dysfunction

Parents and Children: A Biblical Legacy of Dysfunction

Parents and children. Heartwarming. Challenging. Loving. Frustrating. Relationships fraught with misunderstanding. This jumble of emotions finds roots in our Biblical past. Even this week’s Torah portion recounts the challenging encounters between Abraham, Isaac and Sarah in the (Almost) Sacrifice of Isaac, the Akeda (Genesis 22).
[Read the Torah Story (Genesis 22:1-19)]
Sarah’s Story: A Mother’s Perspective

We were lying in our tent, enjoying a moment of quiet amidst the frenetic activity of desert life. And then Abraham began stirring, and with a sudden jerk, he sat up and called out, “Hineni, Here I am.” He was talking to God. At first what I heard made little sense. Though I could only hear Abraham’s responses, I understood that God requested something involving our son Isaac. Abraham’s usually strong, even voice was filled with shock, then anger, and finally acceptance. I was intrigued, and sat silently to hear more.

I started listening more intently. For a moment I thought I heard the word “sacrifice,” but I had to be mistaken. Then again, it sounded like “spiritual journey.” As Abraham spoke again, his words came as a choking sob from deep within his throat. My body started to shake with horror. This was a nightmare! Abraham thought that the Eternal One had requested that he sacrifice our only son Isaac. I wanted to hold Abraham in my arms, to cry with him, to help him rethink what God had said, to convince him to speak to God, but his eyes were distant and I was scared.

Isaac’s Story: A Son Reflects

How can I explain to you what really happened that day on the mountain? We hiked to the peak. Dad built an altar there; as usual he would not let me help. He laid out the wood. I was exhausted from the hike up. He wrapped me up in the blanket, laid me down. I could sense that he was going through with some sacrifice but I was too tired to think. I dozed fitfully.

Once again, nothing between my Dad Abraham and me was turning out as I had hoped. I felt straitjacketed, like Dad’s inability to reach out to me was tying me up, holding me down. His silence, that interminable silence, could have sliced through my heart like a knife. I vaguely recall Dad mumbling something, “Henini – here I am” (Genesis 22:11). Maybe he was trying to reach out to me. But it was just too late. I had hoped that this trip would change things. But it was just more of the same. Dad was supposed to bring me up to introduce me to God. We were going to sacrifice a lamb together. Instead, Abraham did it alone. Instead, again my dad sacrificed me.

Maybe, my wife Rebecca later wondered, Abraham really didn’t mean to hurt me. Maybe he was just trying to do what he thought dads were supposed to do – being strong. All I remember is that it hurt so much, that I had to break it off. After that trip, Dad was lauded world-wide for his unswerving faith in God and for ending the practice of child sacrifice. Thanks to the abundant fertility of my son Jacob – his grandson – Abraham’s descendents were as numerous as the stars in the heavens and the sands on shores of the sea (Gen. 15:18). But on that day, everything changed. Abraham returned to his servants, and they departed together for Beer-sheva. I left separately. I never talked to Dad after that. I was not with him again until my half-brother Ishmael and I laid his bones to rest at his funeral.

Abraham’s Story: A Father’s Regret

I know I was wrong. I hurt him so much. I tried to explain to him that I’m sorry. I never meant to hurt him. I should have stopped to think. I should have discussed it with Sarah. But I didn’t because I was so intoxicated with doing what I thought was right.

I swear I never touched him. What was I thinking? I was so impassioned with my own self-righteousness. I really might have killed my kid I hadn’t been stopped. Still, I never touched him. Without physical harm, you would think that the emotional scars would have healed by now. But now Isaac, my son, the one I love so, my Isaac won’t talk to me. He doesn’t read my letters or answer my calls…

Misunderstandings Abound: Relationships Destroyed

Relationships between parents and children are volatile and challenging. We think we are saying or doing the right thing but often, without thinking it through ahead of time, we often make things worse.

Did God really command Abraham to sacrifice his son as a burnt offering? Read the story closely. According to an 8th century commentary on Torah, Midrash Tanhuma, it all hinges on one word – olah. In the Torah, God said to Abraham v’haaleihu sham l’olah, bring up Isaac as an olah. The Hebrew word olah, comes from the root Ayin-Lamed-Hey, meaning, “to rise up.” Must olah here mean, “sacrifice,” as in the smoke of the sacrifice rises up? Or might it be connected rather to a more familiar word aliyah, also from the Hebrew root Ayin-Lamed-Hey, meaning “spiritual uplift?” In this reading, God only said, “raise up your son with an appreciation of your devotion to Me.” Perhaps Abraham was so dazzled to be speaking to God that he became confused. What if he misunderstood God’s intended purpose?

Rashi, an eleventh century Biblical commentator, also hangs his interpretation on the same word. He explains, perhaps God was saying, “When I said to you ‘Take your son’… I did not say to you, sh’chateihu, ‘slaughter him,’ but only ha’aleihu, ‘bring him up.’ Now that you have brought him up, introduce him to Me, and then take him back down” (Rashi on Gen 22:2). Instead of wanting Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, God really only wanted him to spend some spiritual “quality time” with his son. Had Abraham only slowed down to think it through, he might have spared himself, Isaac, and Sarah a significant amount of stress and pain.

Our Biblical Heritage: Volatile Parent-Child Relationships

What is it about fathers and sons, about mothers and daughters, that can be so painful, so volatile? Why is our Biblical text – the mirror to our souls – so littered with the remnants of once close relationships now destroyed?

Noah and his sons built an ark to replenish a new world cleansed of violence. Forty days later, with the world depending on their actions, Noah got drunk, enraged, cursed his sons, and brought hatred back into the world (Gen. 9:24). We seem to pass it down l’dor vador, from generation to generation. Isaac’s own son Jacob, so desperate for his father’s approval and love, and jealous of his father’s relationship with his twin brother Esau, took sibling rivalry to new heights. He stole his brother’s birthright inheritance, then fled Esau’s anger for forty years, never fully reconciling with his brother or his own guilt. Later, as a father, Jacob also played favorites by giving his beloved son Joseph that technicolored dream coat. And then young Joseph was sold off into slavery. Like his father and grandfather before him, Jacob failed to see the bitter jealousy and hatred that raged within his family.

Noted psychologists recognize that it is the nature of male familial relationships to be competitive and/or volatile. Mothers and daughters often bounce from intense closeness and heart-wrenching rejection. Of course, such tensions appear in all kinds of family relationships – among fathers and daughters, and mothers and sons too. None of us are immune.

The Or Ami Center for Jewish Parenting: Where Parents Turn for Guidance

At Congregation Or Ami, we take seriously the need to reexamine the relationships between parents and children. We understand that our children (and grandchildren) are growing up with pressures and challenges far surpassing those of our youth. The new Or Ami Center for Jewish Parenting aims to provide guidance and support for parents and grandparents as we navigate the uncharted waters of parenting.

There are few situations more uncomfortable yet central to parenting than trying to talk to and guide our children as they navigate the uncharted waters of their own sexuality. Encounters between parents and children over these issues greatly affect our children’s future self-esteem. We think we are doing or saying the right thing, but have we taken the time to (pre-)think it through? Done right, such discussions can draw us closer together. Mishandled, our relationships can begin to mirror those of Abraham, Sarah and Isaac, post-Akeda.
[Center for Jewish Parenting]

Sacred Choices: Thinking Through Teen Sexuality

In November 2007, the Or Ami Center for Jewish Parenting proudly invites Rabbi Laura Novak Winer, the Reform Movement’s leading teacher on teen sexuality, to advise us on two subjects:

Sacred Choices: Talking With Your Teens About Sex And Sexual Ethics. Monday, November 12, 7:30-9:00 pm. Adults Only. Gain insight and strategies on how to talk to your teen (or pre-teen or soon to be teen) about these important yet uncomfortable issues.

Hooking Up: Teens and Sex. Wednesday, November 14, 10:00-11:30 am. Adults Only. Beginning with a general overview of teen culture today and the challenges teens face, Rabbi Novak Winer helps us decipher and respond to the complex teen culture surrounding sexuality.

For 9th-12 Graders Only: Rabbi Laura Novak Winer will lead a special program on Sacred Choices for our older students. Wednesday, November 14, 6:30-8:00 pm. Participants must be Or Ami members, but need not be currently enrolled in Temple Teen Night. Non-TTN students must RSVP.

For 7th-8th Graders Only: Rachel Sisk, Regional Director of Informal Education and Youth, will lead a program for our younger teens on Sacred Choices. Wednesday, November 14, 6:30-8:00 pm. Participants must be Or Ami members, but need not be currently enrolled in Temple Teen Night. Non-TTN students must RSVP.

These sessions are geared to parents (and grandparents) of teenagers who are currently facing these issues, parents of pre-teens who are beginning to think about how to deal with these issues, and parents of younger children who want to lay the groundwork for future conversations, teachers, medical professionals, therapists and others who work with young people and want to better understand how Jewish values can inform their work, and anyone interested in deciphering the complex world to teen sexuality. For a taste of Rabbi Novak Winer’s teaching, listen to this recent podcast discussion with her Orthodox counterpart on teen sexuality.

Come reexamine the world of our teens and pre-teens. Gain valuable insights and go home with new strategies for how to navigate the minefield of the teenage years. Through the Or Ami Center for Jewish Parenting, we can improve upon the misunderstandings of the Biblical past as we map out new directions for our relationships with our kids.

[Listen to Rabbi Laura Novak Winer Discuss the Sacred Choices Perspective on Teen Sexuality]


As always, I invite your thoughts.

• What successes have you had discussing sexuality with your teen?
• What questions do you have regarding talking to teens about sex?
• How do you react to this interpretation of the Binding of Isaac, that Abraham misunderstood God’s intent?

One comment

  1. Marcy Cameron says:

    I’ve always tried to be open & honest with Jessa. Our beloved pediatrician says to answer questions as they come, but Jessa is a “thinker” and doesn’t ask much. She and I often watch “The Young & the Restless” together and daytime t.v. can be pretty risque! I believe my success with her was waiting until she was ready to listen…when she was 11 I tried to talk to her and she got up and walked out of the room! Last year, in 7th grade, she had to do a health report on syphillis. She really didn’t even want to know about it, but as I was helping her a discussion started. I honestly don’t know what I even said – we touched on many areas including emotional readiness and diseases and she stayed in the room and listened!
    We made jokes about her little brother and his obvious love of his “piece” and that helped to lighten the mood. I know as she grows we will face challenges, but I think this was a great start and I am very proud of both of us for trusting each other to talk about this subject.

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