(This article was written for and published in the High Holy Day edition of the 'Sinai Chronicle', quarterly magazine of Sinai Synagogue, Leeds).
Parents and Children
At currently 36 weeks pregnant, parenting is ‘on the brain’. A kind member of Sinai Synagogue gave this inexperienced, first-time mother-to-be a wonderful book called ‘Raising Boys’ by Steve Biddulph. My husband Dave and I both very much enjoyed reading it as we anticipate the birth of our son in August, God willing. These are certainly interesting and wonderful times for our budding family.
I was honoured to celebrate my Ordination in early July and Dave and I are preparing to move to Leeds as I will take up my post as Assistant Rabbi in late Autumn or early Winter. It’s a period of profound personal transition. But the transition isn’t only personal – it also matches the Jewish calendar.
Today (at the time of writing) was Tisha b’Av, the 9th of the month of Av, in which we commemorate the many tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people on account of sinat chinam, baseless hatred. As the day draws to a close, we start to spiritually prepare for doing teshuvah as we march towards the High Holy Days. Out of the darkness of this day of mourning comes our quest for personal redemption that culminates in Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur. But a lot of work remains to be done.
The High Holy Day liturgy often seems to focus on our relationship with God. One of the ways this finds expression is in the reading of the Akeidah – the binding of Isaac in Genesis chapter 22. Theologically, I’d like to think that Abraham failed the test by obeying God’s erratic and draconian decree. But what if we look at the story from the other side: that of Isaac? Maybe the Biblical story gives us far greater insight in parent-child relationships. The fact of the matter is that Abraham and Isaac never speak once they get off the mountain and that Sarah dies shortly afterwards. There is, of course, a lot of ancient Midrash on this paradigmatic story. But we can interpret this scenario in contemporary ways as well and see how it can speak to our modern sensibilities and relationships. Steve Biddulph, the family therapist who wrote ‘Raising Boys’ (and the parallel book, ‘Raising Girls’) argues in favour of strong, loving and involved fathers (and mothers). Was Abraham such a father? Perhaps not. And perhaps this was his greatest failing – a failing that would plague his family for generations to come.
The family dynamics of the patriarchs and matriarchs are hardly worthy of emulation. Perhaps Abraham’s greatest sin was not only foolishly obeying an immoral decree and checking his conscience at the door but also to sacrifice his child on the altar of his own ego. Perhaps he projected too much of his own hopes and expectations on his sons – Isaac and Ishmael both. So maybe this year we can focus on our family relation-ships in preparation of the High Holy Days. I know I have a lot to learn in either direction: as a daughter and as a mother-to-be. What would we do and should we do if we were in Abraham’s position? And how can we model and enact healthier relationships? As my husband and I stand on the brink of parenthood ourselves, these are all daunting as well as exciting questions. Reading parenting books won’t help us find the answers but may prompt us to think deeply about these issues.
One of the most heart-wrenching themes in ‘Eichah’, the Book of Lamentations read during Tisha b’Av, is the notion of parents so plagued by starvation and despair that they end up hurting their own children (I will spare you the gruesome quotes although you can read Lamentations for yourself, of course). And one of the most grating themes in the ‘Akeidah’ is the notion of a loving father who willingly offers his son to his own delusions.
Bookended by these two toxic and dangerous models of parenthood lie the hopes of the Prophets. Part of the Messianic vision and the quality of mercy and redemption in our own lives is when the prophet Malachi predicts the coming of Elijah in Messianic times, who will turn ‘the hearts of the parents to their children and the heart of the children to their parents’ – ‘v’heshiv lev avot al banim v’lev banim al avotam’. (Malachi 3:24). I am sure Steve Biddulph would agree.
So how can we become both better children and more compassionate parents? What are the ways in which we can improve family relationships in our lives? What grudges and false expectations can we let go? How can we turn a sacrifice to ego into an offering of love? Maybe it’s time to pick up the phone, write that letter or initiate that conversation. None of us can guarantee success. But as long as the gates of repentance are open, we can always try.
If we can model the loving graciousness of ‘Avinu shebeShamayim’, our ‘Father (or Mother) in Heaven’, then truly we can traverse the distance from darkness to light. As for myself, I hope to start this parenting journey with equal measures of awe and love. I am sure I will make many mistakes along the way. Thank God I am part of a religious tradition that offers me the instruments to self-reflect and repair and improve those relationships. Shanah tovah!
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz