Part of a year long exploration of resilience in Jewish life.
“You’ll always be mine” has been an expression of endearment between parents and children for generations. Yet, children do not actually belong to their parents. Children quickly become adults and are empowered to seek careers, establish new homes, and plant their own roots. Such independence may also govern their spiritual journeys. Parents can suffer when their children opt for a different religious path. Parents may have to find the resilience to embrace an augmented theology, one that finds the Divine in respecting the autonomy of the children they once thought they owned.
In this week’s Torah reading there is a discussion about ownership of children, which has a theological implication. Jacob, the grandfather, advises Joseph, father to Ephraim and Manasseh, that these grandchildren are now to be considered as if they were Jacob’s own children. The young boys are silent and seemingly compliant as their father and grandfather determine their status. Ultimately, the progeny of Ephraim and Manasseh will enter the ranks of the twelve tribes as children of Jacob, which is part of the spiritual formation of the early Jewish people. Unlike biblical times, the ownership of children today is not negotiatable and membership in the tribe is not guaranteed.
I recently came upon a blog post offered by a traditional Jewish man challenged by the divergent paths of his sons as they matured. His sons were choosing a religious life different from his own traditional observance of Judaism. Their independent thought conflicts with a Judaism that requires subservience to parents and deference to tradition.
The writers’ boys are not as compliant as Ephraim and Manasseh. They have asserted their spiritual identity in ways distinct from the conviction of their father. This parent’s resilience is on display as he confronts the fact that his children are autonomous and notices his disappointment that their self-determination may actually be spiritually perilous. And the unspoken fear is that perhaps their progeny will not even be part of the tribe.
The author addresses the factors that contributed to his sons’ dissension; in particular, how the course of modern history has empowered the next generation to make their own choices. He even displays faith that God has a plan for the future of Judaism. The author professes understanding only one thing in this regard, saying: “that my children only have one father and my role is to make sure they feel and know they are loved unconditionally.”
Absent a “medieval” model of child as chattel (owned by the parent), each person now has the opportunity to choose their religious identity and those ritual practices that suit them. Parents may be called to acknowledge that those we love pursue their own spiritual paths, which may test the limits of affection. Yet, I sense Godliness is in the respectful relationship between parent and child, even as the two differ in their spiritual journeys.
The best parents can do may be to recite the blessing Jacob offers at the end of his life: “may the angel who blessed me, bless the young ones who come after.”
Rabbi Evan J. Krame