The Challenges and Joys of Parenting
Parshat Toledot is the epitome of the challenges, struggles, ambivalences, and joys of parenting. Isaac as the Jewish “everyman” and Rebekah as the courteous, decisive CEO are caught up in forces beyond their control. The rhythm of the parashah is all about blessings and curses, and the relationship between parents and their children. From the opening verses of sibling rivalry in the womb, through the narrative of Isaac’s adult life, to the closing pathos of Esau’s pain of rejection and Jacob’s favored status, we sense a paradigmatic outline of the daily trials and tribulations of every parent. Parenthood involves balancing love with direction and sensitivity to children’s individual differences and needs with the desire to perpetuate the values and traditions handed down from past generations.
Isaac adds little that is new to the evolving religious tradition begun by his father Abraham and later embellished by Jacob. As Rabbi Morris Adler, z”l, wrote: He preserved a tradition; he held on to it; he received it and he was loyal to it. In a world of constant change, in a world where new fashions are sought and new habits constantly arise, in a world that never stops for a moment in its fluctuations.he kept the chain that was handed to him, and the tradition did not break with him.”
Isaac’s life is punctuated with highs and lows. He is blessed with the land and with God’s promise that “I will be with you and bless you; I will give all these lands to you and to your offspring, fulfilling the oath that I swore to your father Abraham. I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven, and give your descendants all these lands, so that the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your offspring.”(Genesis 26:3–4). Yet, despite the blessings, Isaac has his share of tsuris, protecting his wife Rebekah from possible seduction and kidnapping, and fighting over wells, water, and wealth. His life is undistinguished, passive, and average. He loves both his sons, but he struggles with what he knows are his responsibilities to hand down the tradition to the progenitor of choice, not necessarily the one entitled to the blessing. He struggles with what he feels in his heart and what he knows he must do.
Rebekah is in much the same position. She is a loving mother and one of the most developed characters in the Bible. But she, too, is torn between what she knows is right, and what she feels she must do. She manipulates her son Jacob and her husband for what she believes to be a greater good, a higher purpose, even though it takes a devastating toll on her first born son Esau, creating years of family hatred and enmity.
And is not all this at the heat of what parents today face with their children? How do we, as parents, judge what is in our children’s best interest or in our own? On what sacrificial altars do we place our children because we believe we know what’s best? How do we not do for one what we do for the others, even if each has separate and distinct needs and proclivities? Must they all go to the same school, even if it might not be the right placement for one? Must they all go to college, even if some would be happier and more fulfilled as mechanics, craftsman, or plumbers? How do we negotiate with our partner or spouse our differing views of our children and the directions we give them? How do we know what is right, given the incredible changes and pressures buffeting us at every turn?
This is why our Tanakh is such a living and accessible model for Jews today. It mirrors our struggles for meaning and direction, our grappling with uncertainty, and the desire to give our children every blessing under heaven. It tells us that life, real life, is full of highs and lows, good and bad decisions, challenge and despair – but it is a life worth living. Perhaps many of us feel that we are Issacs and Rebekahs, making our way through the tough choices of parenting, tenaciously receiving and bequeathing our religious traditions and values, while struggling with them in day–to–day life. That’s not a bad place to be.
I’ve always felt that one Jewish response to this unending parental self–flagellation and soul searching is to be found in the Friday night ritual blessings of our children. As our children grew, and even now as adults, this magical moment of laying hands on our children’s heads, one at a time, to invoke God’s presence and love in their lives has been for me and my wife, the holiest of parental moments. For in that sublime few seconds of getting our kids to stand still, we seek the power and blessing of divine providence to course through our bodies, through our arms and hands into the heads of our children. We recognize our human frailty as parents and enlist God’s help to make the right decisions for our children and ourselves. May you enjoy this magic moment of God’s protection and love as you bless your children and grandchildren each Erev Shabbat.
Rabbi Steven Brown
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.