Vayera: Giving Up Our Children
Rabbi Noah Farkas
The old saying goes, “small kids – small problems, big kids-big problems.” Ten years into my journey as a parent I see that how true that is. I personally feel the pressure to make sure my oldest is not only fed and clothed, but that she gets her homework done, arrives on time for activities, and attends club meetings. I want her (and my three other children) to have the perfect childhood. I want to make sure she succeeds, but my obsession with winning at this parenting thing is driving me crazy.
I know as she grows it will only get worse. As school becomes high stakes, as clubs and other activities become more intense and the pressure to perform becomes ever greater, as she is now beginning to navigate moral choices, I feel sometimes that my anxiety is worse than hers! I can’t wait to see when she hits high school.
Luckily I’m not alone. Many of us have to navigate the shoals of our children’s development. Many of us want to always be there for them, make sure they never run aground. Some of us want to clear the path ahead, so they never suffer. It’s natural to want to protect our children. It’s driven from our own fear and anxiety, that each parent feels to nurture and protect our children from the whims of the world.
For some guidance, take a look at this weeks Torah portion, Vayera. The relationship between parent and child comes up over and over again in this weeks Torah portion. First, we find it with Sarah’s anxiety over so the social status of her step-son Ishmael. (Gen. 21:10) Later, we find it with Hagar, now an outcast from the camp, crying over the fate of Ishmael and his future shortly before the angel appears to save them. (Gen. 21:16-21) Finally, in the greatest trial of Abraham’s life, when God commands him to take Isaac to Mt. Moriah to sacrifice him on an altar. (Gen. 22)
Each of these stories tap into the deep emotional energy of being a parent. Everyone of us wishes the best for our children and do what we can to give them the life we want for them. But as the Torah so dramatically shows us, the point of parenting is not to craft the life of our children, but to find the blessings in letting them go.
It’s hard to let our children go. Whether we are a “helicopter parents” always hovering about and re-living your childhood and adolescence through their experiences, or “lawn mower parents” that mows down all the obstacles in our child’s path at some hopeful point everyone of us must acknowledge that our children are their own persons. There come a moment when the relationship changes. In our Torah, it is this moment of change where we find God and blessing.
God commands of Hagar and Abraham to face their fears in this week’s Torah portion. Each of them is asked to give up their child. Hagar thinks she is going to lose Ishmael. Abraham believes he must give his son over to God. Each is a sacrifice in its own way, but that is precisely the point. As our children grow and become whole people our relationships can be strained. Our life-rhythm and our child’s life-rhythm begin to beat differently. They develop ways of thinking that we disagree with or find strange. They see our flaws and feel shattered that we are not perfect. Our children sometimes step away from family life. The result is feeling that some part of our relationship with them dies. It’s vanished. In the space that is left open, we finally realize it is time to sacrifice that part of ourselves that parented them when they were young. At some point me must let go of our children and give them up to the world.
That’s one way seeing the near tragedies in this Torah portion. God has asked a mighty deed of Abraham and Hagar. God has pushed them to their absolute limit, the mortal moment when it seems when the entire world hangs in the balance. Hagar weeps, and in one midrash, Abraham does as well. The gates of heaven open, the covenant of life itself is called into question. We have arrived at the moment when we call the question, “what is the fate of this child?”
But as one relationship dies another begins. Every child carries within them the possibility of Divine promise. As we give them up, we find that they hoist on their shoulders the inescapable potential to be a blessing in the world. Our children will succeed and they will fail, at life. They will make good choices and bad choices. They will find their own way, despite our fears and anxiety. It is only then that our children can then come back to us – our relationship with them revived. They can return to us not only as children, but as respected friends.
This is one of the wonderful paradoxes of being a parent. By letting our children go, we can actually draw them closer.
I leave you with this thought: The rabbis say that each of the patriarchs crafted our central prayer, the Amidah. On Mt. Moriah, when the heavens opened and Isaac was bound upon the altar he saw the tears of the angels pour down like rain, mixed with the tears of his father. His eyes rested on the knife and he fainted. When God’s voice was heard saying, “Do not lay a hand on the boy” the rain dissolved the knife and revived Isaac. Abraham unbound his son, and he rose and curled up in his father’s lap. Holding each other, seeing how close they came to losing it all, Isaac uttered, Baruch ata YHYH Michaye HaMatim. “Blessed are you LORD who brings life to the dead.”
While I might not love the method which God chooses to teach this lesson, the wisdom still stands. First we must nurture our kids. Then we must let our old relationship die by sacrificing it through the process of individuation. Then they can return to us and bring life back to us once again.