In honor of Father’s day, I want to share with you a midrash (Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 31b) about the children’s duty to their parents.
When Rabbi Tarfon was just a little boy. I guess he was just Tarfon, then. Or maybe they called him little Tarfy. No matter. When Tarfon was a boy, his mom went out for a Shabbat walk in the park. She tripped on something and her shoe split in half. Being the Sabbath, little Tarfon could not fix her shoe. Being a dutiful son, he could not allow his dear mother to be stranded either. So he crouched down and held his hands under her feet and she walked on his hands until she arrived at their house.
Many years later, Rabbi Tarfon fell ill. His fellow sages of the community came to visit, and his mother implored them, “Pray for my son Tarfon, for he treats me with so much honor.”
“How so?” asked the sages.
So she told them about the broken shoe and walking on Tarfon’s hands.
To this, they replied, “Even if he did this 1000 times over, he would not even be halfway to fulfilling what the Torah says a child owes to a parent.”
This tells us, what a child owes to a parent is immeasurable. They must keep giving and giving never reaching the halfway point of what they truly owe. But this Sunday, I’ll settle for a coffee mug and a t-shirt. Why? Because that’s parenting. We don’t do it for glory or stuff. We do it for the joy which comes from raising children.
You know that joy that comes when children say you’re the meanest person that ever lived? You know that joy that comes from cleaning crayon drawings off your walls. You know the joy that comes from dislodging an entire roll of toilet paper from your plumbing. You know the joy that comes from catching every contagious disease that comes home from pre-school. I could go on….
I joke about it, but parenting is joy. There are the fun moments when they get their first hole-in-one at miniature golf. When they learn to ride a bike. When they finally understand the point of a knock knock joke is to have a punch line. When you are watching a movie at night, and the only place either of you wants to be is cuddled up under a blanket.
I’ll take those moments. I’ll take them in exchange for my work because they are as precious as they are few, and they are finite. I do not expect my kids to go so far as to let me walk on their hands…. even though they owe it to me.
The Torah is not entirely explicit about how to parent. It does however offer some guidelines. We find an outline in this week’s Torah portion, parashat Naso. The outline for parenting is the Priestly Benediction with which Aaron and his sons are to bless the entire nation.
The first line says, “Yivarechecha Adonai Veyishmerecha. May God bless you and keep you.”
This is the beginning of how we view God’s duties toward us. But with God as the parent of parents, we can cast ourselves in a similar role toward our children. The medieval commentator Gersonides takes the meaning of blessing beyond material needs. He says blessing is to perfect as far as is possible, one’s intellectual soul.
Tradition teaches that God perfects our intellectual soul with Torah, the study of which is a lifelong endeavor. As parents, we have the task of sharpening our children’s minds with a different type of Torah. We make sure they go to school, but the task does not end at the curbside. We must sharpen their minds at all times, helping with homework, stimulating their minds by reading to them, asking important questions, helping them define opinions, and to think critically. We can slip in education anywhere at any time. And according to the research on parenting, those most important lessons occur when we are not even trying.
Role modeling. That is the key to moral development and teaching our children empathy. A parent who curses at a driver who cuts them off should not be surprised when their child repeats the same words at the go-cart track. Or a parent who resolves conflicts with yelling or idle threats, like “I’ll give away all your toys,” should not be surprised when the child responds in kind. This is where the best role modeling can occur. Mitchie Kenney, a school psychologist in Texas, says it is important to admit openly when the parent has used a bad coping skill. We acknowledge it to the child, even apologize, thereby teaching proper responses along with the act of apology. Even in these difficult moments, we can always be blessing our children as we keep sharpening their minds.
The second line of the Priestly Benediction says, “Ya-eir Adonai panav eilecha vichuneka.” May God’s face shine down on you and be gracious to you.” Rashi tells us, that God’s face shining down means it is a divine smile. And since the verse concludes with “be gracious,” we are told to do it with grace, which means even when we are angry. God does this for us. And we do this for our kids. Think of young children walking in parking lots, or crossing streets, or visiting a crowded stadium for the first time. These are all unfamiliar and intimidating places. They may not want to listen, or even understand why they have to. They may even frustrate us. But especially in these moments they need our grace. They are only beginning to learn the rules of public safety. With them, and for our older children as they wade into unfamiliar and intimidating waters, like entering High School, or starting a job, we who have experience reach down to them, no matter what, take them by the hand, either literally or figuratively, and we reassure them with a confident smile, “You can do this.”
The last line of the Priestly Benediction is the most important. “Yisa Adonai Panav eilecha. Veyasem lecha shalom.” May God’s face be lifted to you and bring you peace. The commentator Ibn Ezra says this means we will overcome “fears of violence and starvation and of wild beasts so that we may not be harmed.” As such our job as parents is to raise our children up to lives of peace and stability. We must work to instill in them self-esteem and belief they can overcome challenges. We hope they may never come to violence, starvation, or wild beasts, but, even without those things, the road of life is filled with bumps. All of them can set a child back and cause them lose faith in themselves. Therefore, we raise them up, but psychologist, Dr. Wendy Mogel, suggests we raise them up in hands-off way. Rather than protect them, we teach our children how to cope with disappointments. In the book The Blessing of a B Minus, Dr. Mogel warns that against overprotecting children makes them like fragile “teacups,” cracking under the slightest pressure. “If we want to raise young adults who know how to solve problems,” Mogel writes, “we must let them have problems to solve when they are still young.” Whatsmore, we may have to let them fail. If they forget to study for the Algebra test, then they live with the consequence. She calls this “good suffering,” which will help them develop good judgment later. It is not easy for parents to do this. We want to swoop in and drill them on the quadratic formula. But according to Dr. Mogel, it is better to be like God leading the Israelites in the wilderness from a distance, as a pillar of fire by night and a cloud by day. We stand back, offering shade and light when needed. Thus we let our children learn and develop self confidence, a feeling which can bring them the greatest gifts of all, stability and peace.
On this father’s day weekend, as it is every day, my wish for we parents and for all our children is this: what our ancestors said long before us.
May God bless us and keep us.
May God’s face smile on us and be gracious unto us.
And May God’s face rise up to us and give us Shalom.
Amen. Shabbat Shalom.