Several years ago, a couple contacted me about their son who was becoming disenchanted with Torah U’Mitzvot and was gradually “shedding” observance. They described in detail how they had provided a loving and nurturing atmosphere for their children, how they tried to be good role models of love of Torah and Mitzvot, the excellent Jewish education their children received and the joy of Shabbat and Chagim in their house.
They concluded their overview with a question that resonates with me as strongly now as it did back then – “Rabbi, where did we go wrong?”
When trying to give them an answer, I reflected on Sefer Bereshit, in which the Torah discusses the most fundamental relationships of our lives: relationships between spouses, relationships between siblings and relationships between parents and children.
It’s interesting to note that all of the great figures in Sefer Bereshit seem to have a child who “strayed from their path.” This was true for אדם, whose son, קין committed murder and נח, whose son חם committed incest. Similarly, we find that אברהם had ישמעאל and יצחק had עשיו, both of whom led lives of violence and immorality, far away from the ideals of faith and morality which were at the center of their father’s lives and education.
When it comes to sibling rivalries, the Torah is quite explicit with its reasons for it – jealousy and competitiveness. The same is true for spousal dispute, where the culprit was mistrust and deception.
When it comes to parents and children, though, we don’t find the Torah giving an explanation as to “what went wrong.” I shared with the distressed parents this peculiarity and the message I think it includes: The Torah doesn’t give a reason for the sons turning their backs on their parents’ ways because there isn’t always a reason. It is possible to be an אברהם, the greatest Jewish educator of all times, and still have a ישמעאל. Not because אברהם necessarily did something wrong, rather because it wasn’t all up to אברהם!
Does this mean there is nothing one can do but pray? Not at all. We need to do whatever we think are the “right things” but with the awareness of preparing them for that moment, or moments, when they will decide for themselves. They need to be accustomed, especially in their teen years, to making everyday religious (and otherwise) choices, not through coercion and deprivation of choice, rather the opposite, by allowing them the space and acceptance to make their own choices. That, coupled with the positive atmosphere, influences and learning will, with G-d’s help, result in the right choices they will make themselves.