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Parshat Vayera: How to Raise and Not Raise Children

Boy of mine
As your fortune comes to carry you down the line
And you watch as the changes unfold
And you sort among the stories you’ve been told
If some pieces of the picture are hard to find
And the answers to your questions are hard to hold
Take good care of your mother
-Jackson Browne

There are two incidents of parent-child interactions in this week’s Torah portion and both of them are disturbing. Firstly we have the Torah’s narration of Lot, Avraham’s nephew, after he moved to the vicinity of Sedom. Angels, in the guise of humans, had just left Avraham after informing him that Sara would give birth, and were now on their way to destroy Sedom and get Lot and his family out of there. 

Sedom was a pretty immoral place and was the antithesis of Avraham in its world view. They did everything in their power to avoid offering help and assistance to others. Whereas Avraham was famous for his kindness and Hachnasat Orchim – aiding strangers and travelers, Sedom, as a policy, was against any such overtures. They purposefully mistreated strangers to keep impoverished people, who might be looking to better their lives, far far away. 

Lot, being not only a relative but a disciple of Avraham, also learned about kindness to others and readily invites the men into his home. But when word gets out about this, he soon finds the house surrounded by the Sedomites who are literally banging down the door to get at the guests so that they might violate them (hence the word, Sodomy). To fend them off, Lot goes outside and pleads with them to back off. “I beg you my brothers, don’t do this evil. Look, I have two daughters who have never been intimate with a man. I will bring them out to you, and do to them as you see fit. Only to these men do nothing, because they have come under the shelter of my roof.”

Yeah, to protect the dignity and security of these complete strangers, Lot offers his own daughters to the mob to placate them. We can all agree that it’s pretty sick to pimp one’s own daughters to protect his standing in the community, which seems to be a big factor here inasmuch as he had arisen to being a judge in Sedom.

And then at the opposite end of the spectrum we have another parent-child event in the parsha. The dramatic Akeida – Binding of Isaac – where God tells Avraham to “please take your son, your only one, that you love, Isaac” and offer him up as a sacrifice. The Akeida is perhaps one of the most difficult passages to understand in all of Torah. Reams and reams of commentary have been penned to try to comprehend this request by God that is ultimately withdrawn. 

The test for Avraham is an enormous one. He had been promised that he will give rise to progeny which will dot the globe like sand on the sea and stars in the sky. But it was only through a miracle that his wife, Sara finally gave birth to Yitzchak at an advanced age of their lives. The future rested solely on Yitzchak, especially after Hagar and Ishmael were expelled from the home. And now it was all being jeopardized through a request that seemed so opposite of everything Avraham stood for and preached in his life. As noted, Avraham was known for chessed – kindness and giving to those in need. There is no greater amount of chessed and giving than a parent to a child and providing for their good and welfare. And now God was telling him to do something diametrically opposed to all of that. 

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l writes about this and he focuses on the radical departure that the Torah introduces into the parent-child relationship that the Akeida addresses versus how most historical societies viewed their children: 

The authority of the head of the family, the paterfamilias, was absolute. He had power of life and death over his wife and children. Authority invariably passed, on the death of the father, to his firstborn son. Meanwhile, as long as the father lived, children had the status of property rather than persons in their own right. This idea persisted even beyond the biblical era in the Roman law principle of patria potestas.

Fathers basically owned their children and whatever they would decide for them would be their fate. The Akeida came to dispel this notion. As Sacks goes on to explain:

What God was doing when He asked Abraham to offer up his son was not requesting a child sacrifice but something quite different. He wanted Abraham to renounce ownership of his son. He wanted to establish as a non-negotiable principle of Jewish law that children are not the property of their parents.

By commanding Avraham to even be willing to lose his son he was driving home the point that, all the Godly promises notwithstanding, you don’t own Isaac. His future, his independence, his very life is not in your hands but in God’s and eventually and ultimately in Isaac’s own hands.

Lot saw his children as chattel. They are things that belong to him and he has the power to do with them as he so wishes. And if he wishes to have them abused to further his goals, then so be it. God was telling Avraham the exact opposite notion. That Isaac doesn’t belong to you, and if I, God, call him home, then that is what must be done.  

The Akeida teaches the idea that your kids are ultimately not yours. They are not there to fulfill your unfulfilled dreams. They are not there to provide you with nachas (although that is a by-product when things go well)As a parent, it is your job to raise them with values, morals and skills to become independent men and women and contributing members of society in their own right. 

As author and columnist John Rosemond once put it, “The goal of having children is to get them out of your life as soon as possible.”  Which doesn’t mean you have zero relationship with them, God forbid, but that they should grow to earn and live their own lives.  

As much as we would like to control our children’s destiny and future, we need to let go and let them make their own way. We need to put our trust in the values we give them, their ability to make sound decisions from those values, and the knowledge that they will be able to pick up the pieces when they do not.

As I wrote last week, it was only when Avraham was willing to lose it all that he got it all. And so too with parenting. The more control you try to enforce on your children, the more likelihood that they will up and walk away from the smothering and suffocating attention being heaped upon them. But the more you cut them some slack and keep your distance after you provide them with the good and necessary tools to life, the better chance they will wish to be with you and shower you with appreciation and respect for all that you have done for them in raising them. 

There always has to be a little bit of an Akeida when raising kids. The symbolic death of ownership of children and a willingness to let them roll off that alter to make their own way in life. 

And when you’ve found another soul
Who sees into your own
Take good care of each other

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