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!
As these parents were already after the fact, I felt it was an important they not beat themselves up over it and realize it could have nothing to do with them and how they raised their son.
I do believe there is another message there which may help us before that point of choice comes and that is the realization that we can only take our children so far in their relationship with G-d and Torah (or in life in general for that matter). At some point they have to make their own choices. We can’t choose for them and we can’t force them to choose. We can’t assume that as long as we do all the “right things” (or whatever we imagine them to be) – they will just continue living a life consistent with how we raised them.
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.
(What I learned at Harvard part 1)
Lesson 2 – The National; How Close and How Far We Drift
As I was rushing to beet the 6pm parking “price hike”, I walked by a small farmers market that was set up in Charles Square. I decided to stop for a short minute or two to enjoy the site of the various stands, merchants and shoppers. Before I had a chance to approach, though, I was surprised by someone running directly at me from 10 feet away. In order to understand the scene and the story it is necessary to have a visual picture of her. She had a young and pretty face, was wearing blue jean pants, a red tank-top, had a long (very) blond ponytail and a string of beads around her head, “hippy style”. As I began moving out of the way she gave a final leap ending up no more than 3 feet in front of me, she looked right at me and said “I saw you were Orthodox so I need to ask you – ‘do you think the way I’m dressed is a Chilul Hashem‘”?
I was in complete shock. She might have been one of the last people in that square I would guess was Jewish, let alone use the phrase ‘Chilul Hashem’ (desecration of God’s name)!
As I was trying to figure out what was going on and what to say, she said “I’m Jewish too. Do you think the way I’m dressed is a Chilul Hashem?”
I responded: “It is not for me to judge and decide. That is between you and Hashem” to which she responded “that’s a great answer. Thank you”.
She carried on to share the following information:
Her name was Yael; she was 16 and grew up in a Modern Orthodox family. She attended a Modern Orthodox day school but has been in the public school system since 8th grade “because we couldn’t afford it; the school was very nice and tried to help but it didn’t work out”. Upon her parents divorce and her father’s remarriage she drifted away from an observant lifestyle. Her step mother “forces me to eat McDonald’s” and “I go to Shul on Shabbat sometimes, but usually I’m too lazy”.
The entire scene felt surreal; here I was, in a farmers market in Cambridge listening to a 16 year old Jewish teen I had just met share with me her life story and religious crisis.
I inquired about any support systems she could lean on – friends from her old school, a community rabbi, or other family. She wasn’t responsive to my questions and carried on with more, similar, details.
I tried to get her full name (so I could follow up through the community or the Jewish schools in her area, where I had solid contacts) but all she gave me was her middle name – Chana.
It was clear that this was my only chance with her. What was I supposed to say? what could I say? what did she need me to say?
I pointed out that, as evident by the conversation we were having, she cared deeply about being Jewish and religious. I encouraged her about those things that she did observe saying that they were invaluable and stood independent from all the things she was not observing. I told her to focus on those things and see the rest as goals to work towards when she felt she could. I encouraged her to hang out with her old friends from day school. I said a few other things as well.
She thanked me again, turned around and walked away.
Did I say the right things? Will they help her in any way? Could I have steered her better towards help? Could I have said more? Will she find her way back to herself and to Judaism? I don’t know and doubt I ever will. It continues to nag at me several weeks later and I think it will continue to nag at me for many years to come.
Lesson 3 – The Personal; Me and My Chicken Soup (Coming Soon)
“And you shall tell your son… in this merit Hashem did for me when I exited Egypt”. The Passover Hagadah uses this verse in a confrontational way to rattle the “wicked” son. Why does it use the same verse for the son “who doesn’t know how to ask”?
At the burning bush Moses says to himself: “”Let me turn and see… why does the bush not burn?”. Why are Moshe’s thoughts important? The response – “Hashem saw that he had turned to see, and God called to him from within the bush, and said, Moses, Moses” – suggests that if Moses hadn’t inquired he wouldn’t become the great liberator. The revelation emanates from the source of questioning itself.
This is because the ability to question ones reality in comparison to the world is the ability to become free; to challenge the binds that confine/enslave our bodies, personalities and minds.
Abraham, Moses, King Solomon and Job are among the many in Tanach who questioned and challenged. We also find it at the foundation of our oral tradition: “what is the reason?”, “where is this from?”, etc…
It isn’t just intellectual curiosity. It goes to the character of a person – and a nation – one who accepts reality and is therefore confined by it vs. one who challenges his internal and external reality, thus developing, growing, becoming increasingly freer.
He who “doesn’t know how to ask” is the lowest on the totem pole of freedom in the Hagadah. And in life. (250)