A Rabbi was once giving a lecture in which he claimed that from it’s earliest days, Judaism has always promoted the parent-child relationship. Suddenly, a heckler stood up from within the audience, and challenged his assertion.
“Isn’t it true that God’s first commandment to Abraham was to leave his father’s home?”
“It is true,” the Rabbi responded, “but he was seventy-five at the time. He was entitled.”
I have had the privilege of officiating as Rabbi at many Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations over the past decade. But there is a special joy to being here as my own child becomes Bat Mitzvah.
I also try to remind myself that being the child of a Rabbi can be tough. There is even a special nickname just for kids of clergy: PK’s – “Preacher’s Kids.”
There are the pressures of living in the fishbowl. The boundaries between private life and public life are often blurred for Rabbis’ families.
PK’s see their parents living public lives in the same community in which they themselves are raised. Parents sometimes place expectations on their PK kids to live up to a higher standard because the family is living in the public eye.
And, communities sometimes hold PK’s to higher standards, expecting them to have the same knowledge, religious commitment, or leadership qualities of their parents.
For the child of Rabbi, this pressure is nowhere more on display than at a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. We are sure aware of it as parents, as we celebrate a personal simchah within the community that we serve. Noa, I am sure that you feel it as our daughter.
Dana and I are grateful to the Sinai community for respecting boundaries and giving our children the freedom to be regular kids, almost all the time.
The truth is, these issues are not unique to PK’s. All of us struggle in one way or another with the legacies left to us by our parents. We all must find a way to differentiate ourselves, to break free, to step out of our parents’ shadows.
Some of us, as we get older, choose to emulate the qualities of the homes in which we were raised. Others go the opposite direction, rejecting the examples of those who brought us into the world and guided us in our early years.
For all of us, though, there is a tension between leaving the home of our childhood vs. bringing the home of our childhood with us.
This morning’s Torah portion, parashat Lekh L’kha sends something of a mixed message with regard to continuing our parents’ legacies. It begins:
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר ה֙’ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶךָּ:
The Lord said to Avram: Go forth from your land and your birthplace and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. (Gen. 12:1)
God could have told Abraham simply, “Pack your bags and go.” Instead, God emphasizes the departure in triplicate.
Nachmanides, the 13th century Spanish commentator, explains this threefold instruction:
It is difficult for a person to leave the land in which he, along with all of his loved ones and companions, has lived; and even more so when it is the place in which he was born; and even more so when his father’s entire household is there. Therefore, it was necessary to tell him to leave everything – out of his love for the Holy One, blessed be He.
What a tremendous request this is from God. Abraham is being asked to make a clean and total break from his past. And this is really something. Abraham will never go back. He will never see any of his family members again.
It is ironic, because one of the central components of God’s covenant with Abraham is about family. “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them… So shall your offspring be.” (Gen. 15:5) God promises the land of Israel to these yet-to-be-seen descendants of Abraham.
Towards the end of the parashah, God instructs Abraham to circumcise himself and his household, explaining that it will be a sign of the everlasting covenant between God and Abraham’s children.
In next week’s parashah, as God is deciding to consult with Abraham over the impending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, God reveals another aspect of Abraham’s legacy. “I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right…” (Gen. 18:19)
Ever since, the Jewish people have treasured the transmission of values from one generation to the next. So many aspects of Jewish law and custom emphasize this.
How do we transmit our values? Of course, we place great focus on learning – Talmud Torah – and not just for an elite class of scholars. Universal education for all – that is the Jewish way.
But we also recognize that, as a medium for transmitting values, formal education alone is insufficient. Jewish values must be lived. All of our holiday celebrations take place in the home. The most obvious of these, of course, is Passover, with its encouraging of children to engage with their elders through questions. But our other holidays also involve multiple generations celebrating together. This is how values are transmitted – not by classroom learning, but by intergenerational living within a household and amongst a community.
It is profoundly ironic, therefore, that God asks Abraham to sever his relationship with previous generations, his father’s household, and his community.
This break is a necessary step for Abraham. His particular household and community is thoroughly immersed in idolatry and immorality. The Rabbis develop this idea in numerous Midrashim about Abraham’s youth. In the most well-known of them, Abraham’s own father, Terach, is an idol merchant.
For Abraham to fulfill his destiny, he must first break free from his father’s shadow.
Other figures in the Book of Genesis struggle with this as well. Midway through Parashat Lekh L’kha, tensions are rising between Abraham and his nephew Lot’s shepherds. The time has come for Lot to leave home, to strike out on his own. He needs to get out of Abraham’s shadow to live his own life. Unfortunately, he does not choose well, settling in Sodom, which is such a depraved society that God annihilates it in next week’s parashah.
Later, Isaac has trouble breaking free from his father, Abraham’s, strong personality. But Jacob, and in the subsequent generation, Joseph, leave their homes and families to spend significant portions of their lives on their own.
As a Diaspora people for thousands of years, we have developed the ability to bring home with us in our journeys. It is this ability which has enabled the survival of our people.
In Abraham’s day, most people were born, lived their lives, and died within the same community. Nowadays, it is common for children to move away. This raises the stakes even higher for parents to instill a deep sense of home in their children.
Maybe it is too soon for me to be thinking these thoughts. After all, Noa, you are only in seventh grade. I don’t think you are quite ready to leave home yet. Nevertheless, as you make this transition into adolescence, it has been on my mind.
As a father, I see it as my primary duty to raise children who will bring home with them wherever they go in life.
For me, this means children who are grounded, who know themselves, and who have humility about their limitations and their strengths. They feel a deep sense of peoplehood, and a mature understanding and sincere commitment to Jewish practices and beliefs. They are curious, and love to learn. They feel connected to Israel and speak Hebrew, the language of the Jewish people.
They know the stories of their own family, and their connection to previous generations gives them a sense of rootedness in a rapidly-changing world.
They are resilient, able to be flexible and respond thoughtfully to unexpected challenges. They recognize the importance of community, and they have people in their lives who care about them. They are generous, and give freely of themselves to support others in their need.
While I would like to say that our children will also live near us, I must recognize that all of Dana and my family members have flown in from out of town to celebrate Noa’s becoming Bat Mitzvah. That is the unfortunate reality of contemporary life. God’s request – for Abraham to leave his land, his birthplace, and his father’s household – which was so radical in its day, is commonplace now.
My more realistic hope is that, when my children move out, they bring their “home” with them.
Noa, you are an inspiring young woman. From a young age, you have demonstrated a level of self-awareness that has taken me until adulthood to achieve.
You spoke about your desire to develop more patience. That is certainly an admirable quality to pursue, and one that will result in greater happiness. But impatience is not all bad. A healthy dose of channeled impatience compels us to change the status quo, right wrongs, solve problems, and make discoveries. But, try to be more patient with your family.
Noa, you are a naturally curious, skeptical person. You often express your doubt regarding religion and belief. I applaud those questions, and I often share your doubts. I encourage you to be as open-minded to hearing answers as you are willing to ask questions.
Throughout your life, you have embraced Jewish practices and traditions with enthusiasm and joy. I have loved watching your challah baking, sukkah building, and Torah reading skills develop over the years. As soon as you were old enough, you chose to join me on the early walk to synagogue most Shabbat mornings. I have loved that weekly time together.
These are religious activities that connect you to your tradition and your past. They will be tangible ways for you to bring your “home” with you as you go out into the world.
Noa, may your curiosity continue to inspire you to learn Torah, asking critical questions while embracing the ancient wisdom of those who have come before us. May you continue to fulfill the mitzvot and customs of Judaism with joy and enthusiasm. May you always remain deeply rooted in community, family, and home, wherever your journey takes you. I love you.