I’m the father of four wonderful (if not pugnacious) children. Our house is messy and loud — I’m pretty sure it’s a little bit sticky too. The truth is, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I wasn’t always happy with being trampled on or zoning out while everyone around me is screaming. Back in my early twenties, I couldn’t even dream of having kids. My life back then was spent living in Manhattan and going to concerts and museums. Sometimes I’d wait in line for hours for the best curry dish at a hot Indian place or shopping on the Lower East Side. I was having too much fun in my newly-found adulthood to even think about children of my own. I was just beginning to experiment with my own individuality. Walking the streets of New York City, I was my own man – doing what I want, eating what I want, listening to my music on my iPod (it was a while ago). I was myself — for myself and by myself.
As I grew and found my partner in life, things changed. I became embedded in a relationship and my sense of self grew to encompass the love of my life. I was not just for myself or by myself, but I was for “us.” As a couple, we never knew when we were “ready” to have children, but after a few years of marriage we decided to try, and that’s when things began to change again, and not just for us physically, but spiritually too. My sense of self was nudging towards expansion.
For those who want to have children, offspring start out as a dream. We imagine what it will be like having a child to hold and care for. We imagine milestones like walking and talking and riding bikes. We dream of birthday parties and graduations. We dream of holding hands and dancing under a setting sun. While some of us dream but never get there (and for that I am sorry), and others find ourselves thrown into a life never imagined (thanks for stepping up), the very idea of children begins in the mind with a phantasm of the future.
There is inception in conception.
Yet, one of the greatest enigmas in life is that we think we own our dreams. As we dream of our children before we know them, we risk thinking that their lives are ours. As much as we wanted to have a child, they are not characters in our story, rather we become characters in theirs. As our sense of self expands, when it meets the face of our child — the very thing we have prayed for — our self begins to retract. As parents we no longer fully sovereign. We live through them and for them. We wait for them to smile, to toddle and to achieve. It is not only of our doing they live and thrive, it on their own accord. Children are not extensions of our own sense of self, but living, breathing soul-filled individuals in their own right. To grow as an adult actually means to shrink.
To get what we wanted as parents, we have to give our children up.
There is no Torah portion that dramatizes this enigma more than in this week’s reading, Vayera. In the ancient world, the basic spiritual unit was not the self, but the family. In the ancient understanding, the father owned everything. He had the authority over the lives of his wife and family, the establishment of religion, and of the homestead. Sovereignty of the family was a full extension of the sovereignty of the father.
Against this backdrop the Torah brings to focus two parallel stories about parents and children. First, we find Hagar, the Egyptian concubine who is cast out of the camp with her son Ishmael. She wanders the desert with her boy only to run out of water and food. She places him under some bushes and turns away, not wanting to know his fate. (Gen. 21:15-16) Second we find Abraham, tested by God when God commands him to take Isaac to Mt. Moriah to sacrifice him on an altar. (Gen. 22:2)
The Torah relates how both Hagar and Abraham to face the enigma of parenthood. Whether it’s the weeping mother or stoic father, these biblical archetypes express the emotional drama what it means to give up a child. Hagar thinks she is going to lose Ishmael. Abraham believes he must give his son up to God. The story freezes on these moments to call our attention to the most important part of being a parent — we have to, at some point, give our children up. In these dramatic stories is a life lesson that is radical. Unlike other ancient cultures where the father rules heaven and earth, the Torah teaches that we rule over nothing. Deeper still, to be a matriarch or patriarch, is not a matter of self-sovereignty, but of divine withdrawal. To gain the title of parent, we have to give up control over our children’s destiny.
This is the logic of sacrifice. To create the space to realize that our children must become their own people and our relationship with them changes forever. As our kids grow, they become what they were to begin with — their own people with desires and regrets, with wishes and dreams. Children have a way of developing ways of thinking that we disagree with or find strange. They see our flaws and feel shattered that we are not perfect. As their selfhood grows, there is a part of our relationship with them that dies. It vanishes. It is sacrificed.
God has asked a mighty deed of Hagar and Abraham by pushing them to the mortal moment when it seems their entire lives hang 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. (Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer 31:9-10)
But as one relationship dies another begins. As Hager and Abraham gave them up, the angel was there to bless them. (Gen 21:17-20; Gen. 22:11) At the very moment of sacrifice, we also find a moment of blessing. Ishmael and Isaac begin their own relationship with God and start on their own path forward through life. As we give our children up to the world, we let their own relationship with God flourish. We affirm that they too have their dreams. As we give them up, we sacrifice the past, we sacrifice our sovereignty so that they might thrive. That is when the new covenant with them emerges, not as caretakers or as protectors, but as guides, as matriarchs and patriarchs. By giving them up, we get so much more in turn.