Thursday, November 24, 2011

On the Power of Parental Love

This week in our Torah reading we leave the house of Avraham and enter the house of Yitzchak. We begin the story of a new generation. It is tempting to compare the family lives of each to the other to discern both similarity and contrast. What's clear is that while both generations, that of Avraham and Sara and that of Yitzchak and Rivka are our Fathers and Mothers, and represent a continuum of values and traditions, in terms of personality and domestic lifestyle they vary widely.

One key similarity is that in both households their was a good son and a bad son.
Avraham and Sara have their Yitzchak and Yishmael. Yitzchak and Rivka have their Yaakov and Esav. In the end, each bad son was excluded from the line of tradition. Only the good son remained attached.

But here we come to an important difference. Whereas, even as we mentioned, the bad sons in each home were cast out, the stories were not the same. Esav, the son of the second generation of whom we read this week, remained a bad boy. Not only is he a villain in the story of his parents and sibling, he and his decendants represent the historical antagonists of the Jewish people. Esav, while of the same genetic makeup as Avraham and Yitzchak rejects his roots. Still more, he disdains his roots. His personal life and legacy leave no room for redemption.

With the bad boy in Avraham's household this is not the case. True Yishmael is cast out, and according to the tradition, for unacceptable behaviors. Yet in the end Yishmael does teshuva. He repents. The Torah told us last week that he participated with his younger brother Yitzchak in their father's funeral. The Sages point out that Yishmael even honored Yitzchak above himself at the rites, though he was the elder.
They explain that the "ripe old age" the Torah tells us that Avraham enjoyed was due to he peace he had knowing that his son Yishmael was back in the fold.
Proof that in the end Yishmael was a tzaddik is the fact that one great sage of the Talmud carries his name, Rabbi Yishmael, a contemporary of Rabbi Akiva. In contrast no Jew has ever been named Esav.

We might well wonder why? Why was it the case that Yishmael, though a bad boy for much of his life ultimately returns to the faith and values of his upbringing and Esav remain unrepentant ? What made teshuva possible for Yishmael and not so for Esav?

Let's begin by taking a look at the story of Yishmael, the son who did return. What made that possible?

The answer is plain and compelling. Yishmael all his life, even when he was cast out, always had the love of his father Avraham. Even in the time of his sinning, he was never rejected by his father. We see this from many sources. Let it suffice to point out two. The first, the Medrash, that explains why G-d had to tell Avraham at the time of the 'akaida', the Binding of Yitzchak, "take your son, your only son, the son you love, Yitzchak..." Rashi on that verse bring the explanation of the Sages, that when G-d told Avraham to take his son, Avraham said " I have two sons".
So G-d said to him "your only son", to which Avraham responded "each is only to his mother (Yishmael came from Hagar)". To make Himself more explicit G-d said "the one you love" to which Avraham replied "I love them both". Finally Hashem had to identify the chosen sacrifice by name "Yitzchak".

It is clear from the above Medrash that even after having to expel Yishmael from his home at the demand of Sara, Avraham considered him a son in the truest sense, and that indeed he loved him, even as he loved Yitzchak. Moreover when Avraham and Yitzchak go to the Mount Moriah for the sacrafice, the Torah tells us they were accompanied by two lads. The Sages inform us that one was Eliezer, Avraham's faithful servant. And the second, none other than Yishmael, the one time wayward son, who seemed indeed to forever have been a part of his father's life.

It is this undying love that Avraham had for Yishmael, through all of Yishmael's life, that made it possible for him to return in later years to the values and practices of his youth. When a parent continues to love his/her child, and when they show that love, even when the child strays, s/he makes possible the correction in that child's life, the correction they most hope for.

Ah but you ask, what about Esav. We know Yitzchak loved Esav, even more than he loved Yaakov. The Torah told us so in no uncertain terms and in the reading of this very week. Why didn't Yitzchak's love serve to bring about Esav's return?

I shared this question with my son Moshe, who is a very popular Rebbe in the Yeshiva in Waterbury Connecticut and author of his own beautiful
book on character issues titled "Olam Hamidos". He suggested brilliantly, that there is an important difference between Avraham's love for Yishmael and Yitzchak's love for Esav. Avraham knew who Yishmael was. Sara had told him about his sinfulness. He had no illusions. Yet he loved Yishmael anyways. That kind of parental love, where we know our children with their flaws and continue to love them, is redemptive and offers hope for change.

Yitzchak, on the other hand was deceived by Esav. Esav forever hid his misdeeds from his father. Yes, Yitzchak had love for Esav, great love, but it was not for the Esav as he really was. It was for an imaginary Esav. Esav always felt that if his father ever truly knew him he would reject him, so he lied and pretended. In hiding himself, Esav was precluded from ever knowing the love of his father. In the end, Yitzchak's love was a false love and was therefore renderred impotent and unable to bring about Esav's potential return.

The lessons here for us as both parents and children are oh so cogent and compelling.
First, it behooves us to realize the power of love and, in particular, parental love.
While the impact of Avraham's love for Yishmael, with his issues, did not bear fruit in the immediate, it ultimately proved critical to the redemption of Yishmael's life.
It may take time, but a parent's love, true love, matters and indeed matters absolutely.

Second, we as parents need to do all that we can to make our children feel safe and secure enough with us so that they don't have to hide and pretend. If we are intimidating or our children so fearful of our rejection that they won't let themselves be known we will never know them and hence never be able to love them for who they really are. As parents we need to help our children realize that our love for them is not tied to their behaviors but rather is absolute. We may disaprove strongly of what they do but we affirm unconditionally the goodness of who they are.

Third, as chidren we need to take risks in letting ourselves be known to our parents and trust they will find the ability to love us. The price of hiding apects of ourselves is not worth the benifits the deception my provide.
We need our parent's love. Some times and some parents are not able to give that love. Yet we need still to try them and see to what extent real love of us, love that is based on self revelation is possible. It is not all or nothing. Parents may not be able to get past their own limitations to embrace all of our truth. Yet what we make known and gets affirmed is healing. Moreover loving and being loved is a process. Both parent and child grow in a transactional relationship as each becomes more able to be loving and authentic with the other.

And finally, as Yogi Berra once said "It ain't over til its over." The love between parent and child may not ripen until both have reached siginificant levels of maturity. Our challenge as both parents and children is to be open to the gift moments when they come and to believe we are capable and worthy of love in its purest and most potent form.

Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Touchdown Dance

In American football, if a player is fortunate enough to score a touchdown for his team he will typically do a spontaneous little dance in celebration often referred to as "The Touchdown Dance". In a wonderful old movie titled "Parenthood", the late Jason Robards, playing an old parent with a wayward son, who while mature in years, continues to get himself into juvenile trouble, makes the observation that the work of parenting is never over. One never can do the 'touchdown dance', celebrating a culminating triumph.

The story of Avraham confirms Jason Robard's observation, not only about parenting, but about life in general. There is no touchdown dance.

This week we read the portion of Chayai Sarah. It begins with the death of our matriarch Sarah, telling us of Avraham's grief and then of his search for a worthy place for her burial. In tradition, its no accident that the Torah tells us of Sarah's death following the story we read last week of the 'akaida', the 'binding of Yitzchak'. Avraham has no opportunity to celebrate the gift G-d gave him of getting his son back, that is, not having to kill him as a sacrifice as he first thought, none at all. As soon as Avraham gets home rather than make a celebration on his and Yitzchak's salvation he learns of his beloved wife Sarah's death. He goes from elation to grief. And then he has to go seek help from strangers to secure a place to bury Sarah. And later still he worries that Yitzchak is getting older and remains unmarried. Avraham proceeds to send his servant a great distance, back to Avraham's birthplace, to hopefully there secure the appropriate wife for his son.

Again and again Avraham passes through crisis, times of worry, only to need G-d's help once more to negotiate the next issue. The crisis/issues never end. And with it neither does Avraham's need for G-d's deliverance. There is no final triumph, no touchdown dance.

I have always found it compelling that in Hallel, the psalms of praise we recite on holidays and days of deliverance in our liturgy, we exalt in G-d's response to our crisis. Near the Hallel's close we chant the verses "This is the day Hashem has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it." And just prior we say, "I will give thanks to Hashem because He answered me and did not let my enemies rejoice over me." These verses are typically sung in the synagogue with great enthusiasm and abundant joy.
And why not. The Hallel is recited on days memorable for their glad tidings. In joy we sing and praise G-d.

What's surprising is what follows in the Psalm. Immediately after those triumphal verses we recite in a very different and plaintive mode, "Please G-d save me".
Question is how do we go from the triumph to the desperation in such a seamless flow?
If we are so jubilant in our victory how in the next moment do we experience such a need for salvation?

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov noted the continuous flow of ups and downs in Avraham's life. In each case Avraham would experience the 'y'shua', the salvation of the Divine, only to need it again, almost immediately, in a pursuant crisis. He understood the dynamics by first pointing out that each 'y'shua' manifests a nearness of G-d to the person in crisis. In fact the essence of the salvation is not the relief from the threat but rather the presence of G-d in one's life as evidenced in one's relief.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Title of Your Life

Over dinner last week my seventeen year old daughter, Bess, made an interesting observation. She said, "All people have stories but only few have a story." What she meant to say is that while all of us have lives full of incidents and experiences its rare to find persons whose life tells a single tale with a common underlying theme.
Is it true? Do most people not have a single story in which the variety of the stories of their life is contained?

In the parsha this week we begin the story of Avraham. To tell it will take us through much of the next three weeks. The readings share with us many episodes in Avraham's life from the early years and unto his death. How do we experience what we are being given? Is it indeed a story, singular with many chapters or are we being given a multiplicity of vignettes about the same person but otherwise distinct and unrelated?

Even more significantly when we speak of the Jewish people and our story, is it indeed a single story, expressed through many passages? Or is it in reality not one story but many, millions of stories, belonging to the same people but otherwise independent and unrelated?

In posing the later question whose answer is clear, when we speak of Israel's journey we are speaking of the oddessy of a nation where each episode is part of a singular story now transpiring over some four thousand years, we can also answer the earlier question, about our father Avraham. Yes Avraham had many experiences. Yes, Avraham lived large and invested in life so that he had a wide varierty of encounters and challenges. But the stories are not isolated and self contained. They make up a larger whole, the story of Avraham! We who have the gift or hindsight, may see that all the stories have in common the 'testing of Avraham'. His stories contain ten trials, each meant to bring out Avraham's personal excellence as a human being and man of faith. While superficially the stories seem isolated, with perspective we can see they are all aspects of a single tale.

Ok so we know the Jewish People have a single story and so too with Avraham. But what about us? Is my daughter right? Is it so that for most of us our lives are fragmented and while we have many stories their is no singular over-arching story that binds them?

I think not. I believe that not only do our people have a single story and greats like our father Avraham, but each of us has a meta-story made up of the various chapters of our lives. If we reflect on our experience we will see that their is a unifying thread to our lives. The problem is that we tend to be so busy living in the moments of our lives that we can't get the distance to see how our life is like a musical work composed of theme and variation, always coming back to the same core elements of meaning.

When facing old age and the end of life, mental health professionals talk about the importance of doing life review. Life review is a process of looking back on the journey one has had and finding the story within the stories. Life review creates an opportunity to claim one's journey as an integrated whole, with its good and bad, ups and downs, and ultimately to bless ones own life so one can let go and die with peace. In doing life review most people are surprised at how the life they lived and thought was disjoint and disconnected actually can be spoken of and seen as a single tale.

I can tell you for my own experience of having performed hundreds of funerals and having delivered an equal number of eulogies that one can find red threads to even the most fragmented of lives. If one listens to the stories one can find the story that unites them.

Ah but you say what difference does it make whether you have a vision of your life as a single story or not? Let me tell you a beautiful story I heard of the Piezeczna Rebbe.
A man came to the Piezezcna knowing he was going to be transported to a Concentration Camp. He knew he would have little opportunity their to perform mitzvot, to learn, to do hesed. He asked the rebbe what could he do to give his life meaning in the Camps. What mitzva could he perform? The Rebbe told him, "When you are in the Camp go over to every person you can, as many as possible, and ask them to tell you their story."
The Rebbe did not tell the man to ask for their 'stories'. No stories won't do. Telling stories without an underlying them will not help . But telling the story will.Telling the key story that is manifest in the particulars of life enables us, even in the darkest of times, to feel alive.We may lose everything but in having our story we retain ourselves. If we lose our story we have lost it all. Our story is core to who we are. To lose the story is to lose our self.

We, each of us, have a story. In the end, our lives with all its complexity, is a single tale. The work for us is to come to recognize that story. We need to try and put all the particulars of our experience into a single framework so as to reveal its underlying meaning and purpose.

The question we might ask ourselves is "If our life was a book what would the title be?" Knowing that title gives direction to our lives and makes each experience,no matter how difficult, bearable, since it is not a random confrontation with adversity but part of the book of us and integral to who we are.

Shabbat Shalom