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

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