KI TISA 5774
The late first lady Bette Ford told the story of when Gerald Ford was in the White House and they were hosting a state dinner for Queen Elizabeth. The upstairs living quarters of the White House were in an uproar as everyone was getting dressed in anticipation of the arrival of the queen. Jack Ford, their son, could not find the cufflinks for his tuxedo. He was running around without his shirt or pants on when the announcement came that the queen was being ushered upstairs to be greeted in the family quarters. Out she came from the elevator and out from another door came Jack Ford in his underwear. Bette Ford, terribly embarrassed, began to apologize, when the queen cut her off and said, “Please don’t bother…I’ve got one like that too!”
I thought of this when I read a piece sent to me by my colleague, Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg, where he asks: “What do you do when your children disappoint you?” Not every family is blessed to have a child such as Nathan, our Bar Mitzvah who is such a source of nachas for us today.
Recently, Norway’s Prime Minister, Erna Salberg, revealed that Benjamin Netanyahu had spoken of his son’s relationship with a non-Jewish blond, Norwegian student named Sandra Leikanger when the 2 Prime Ministers met at the World Economic Forum in Davos a few weeks ago. The story resulted in a huge backlash in Israel’s newspapers, with condemnation coming from the leaders of Israel’s Orthodox political parties. Aryeh Deri, a leader of the Shas Party, proclaimed, “Woe is us if it’s true. I try not to raise personal criticism, but if, heaven forbid it is true, it is no longer a personal matter. It is a symbol of the Jewish people.” You would never know from his statement that Aryeh Deri had served a prison term for mishandling government funds. Did he think that that was being a “symbol of the Jewish people?”
So what should our reaction be to this news regarding the Prime Minister of Israel’s son? What should we say? I would say that we should say nothing. Because there’s nothing to say! 1st of all, we don’t know all the details…there are news reports that the story of their relationship has been blown out of proportion. 2nd, maybe this young lady intends to convert to Judaism as did her sister who now lives in Israel. 3rd—and most important—it’s none of our business! In the words of the blogger, Harry Maryles, “This is a private matter—which if true—is probably very painful for the Prime Minister despite the fact that he is not observant. Instead of criticizing Netanyahu for something that is not his fault, we ought to be having sympathy for him.”
This story begs the question that Rabbi Wohlberg asks: “What should we do when our children disappoint us?” What should we do when our children reject our values? What should we do when our children approve of things that we disapprove of? These questions are our business and these questions are being asked in more and more Jewish homes today, where we find more and more children going their own way, doing their own thing.
In the ultra-Orthodox community, there are so many who are rejecting the values and observance of their parents that there’s an acronym for them: OTD, for “off the derech, the path.” There’s a whole new genre of books being written by people who were raised in ultra-Orthodox communities and who left—like Deborah Feldman’s popular book, Unorthodox, about the Satmar Chassidim in Brooklyn. I don’t have to tell you that this is not just an Orthodox problem. The Pew Survey clearly showed that this is a much larger problem in Conservative and Reform homes as their children drift from their parents’ Jewish roots.
So what are we to do when our children drift from our values? Maybe we should learn a lesson from Bezalel and his family. Our Torah portion today continues a description of the building of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, and its ritual items. Everything was to be made under the guidance of Bezalel (Ex. 31:2-5)—who today’s Torah reading describes as being “filled with Gd’s spirit” and blessed with, “wisdom insight and knowledge, and with every craft.” When the Torah introduces him it does so in an unusual way. It mentions not only his name and his father’s, but his grandfather’s as well: Betzalel ben uri ben chur, “Bezalel the son of Uri, the son of Chur.” The Midrash (Rabba Ex. 48:3) tells us that the reason for including Bezalel’s grandfather was in tribute to him who gave his life protesting the making of the Golden Calf.
The Midrash goes on to say that Gd swore to Chur that because of his devotion, all his descendants would become prominent members of the Jewish people. This is obvious with his grandson Bezalel. But what about his son Uri? Who was he? The Torah never tells us anything about him. But Gd had promised Chur that his descendants would be great people! What about his son? As great as Chur was, the Torah doesn’t indicate that he was blessed with a great son. That’s life! Fortunately, he got his reward in having a great grandson.
You see, there are no guarantees! Sure, we’ve got to do everything possible to set an example for our kids. But ultimately what they decide to do with their lives is going to be their decision—not ours.
My colleague, Rabbi Jack Riemer, once pointed out some classic examples of children departing from their father’s ways:
- Leon Trotsky, that vicious anti-Semite and anti-Zionist now has a great-grandson who lives in a settlement on the West Bank of Israel and named his children after Meier Kahane.
- Menachem Begin—the right wing Prime Minister has a grandson who wrote a book that begins with the words: “Judaism is violence, Zionism is violence…and they are roadblocks to peace.”
- Theodore Herzl and Teddy Kollek and Moshe Arens and Yosef Burg and so many others…their children went off the derech, and there is not much they could do about it.
- The founder of the Chabbad way of life, the Baal Hatanya, had a young son named Moshe. Do you know what happened to little Mosheleh? He converted to Christianity!
- How about the original Moshe! In last week’s parsha we see how Aaron and his children were inaugurated into the priesthood. Aaron then was assured that his children would continue his work after him. But when Moses was about to die, the Midrash claims Moses asked Gd to appoint one of his sons to replace him, then Gd had to tell him that they weren’t worthy. We call Moses, Moshe Rabbeynu, which means, “Moses our teacher.” Moses was the supreme teacher of the Jewish people, but he seems to have had a problem when it came to teaching his own children. But who doesn’t?
So what can we do? We can either handle our wayward children the way Leah Vincent’s parents did, or the way Ehud Olmert did. Leah Vincent’s book, Cut Me Loose, was recently reviewed in the Wall Street Journal. Leah, now 31, is the 5th of 11 children born to an Orthodox rabbi in Pittsburgh. In the words of the book reviewer, “At age 15 Leah Vincent was preparing for marriage. At 16 she wrote forbidden letters to a male friend questioning her ultra-Orthodox Jewish faith. At 17 she was banished by her parents and left to fend for herself in New York City. By 19, Ms. Vincent had overdosed, swallowing half a bottle of aspirin after mutilating herself with a rusty razor.” Leah describes how her parents told her other siblings that she just wanted attention and they should ignore her. When she returned home for a holiday family dinner after years of sporadic contact, her parents made her eat off paper plates—not to meet any Kashrut requirements, but to prevent her from “contaminating” the family!
Then there’s the approach of Ehud Olmert, the former Prime Minister of Israel. Olmert has one daughter who is a leftist and another who is an outspoken lesbian who stands near checkpoints to interfere with the work of Israeli soldiers. He has a son who is a deserter from the Israel Defense Forces and another who never served and who lives in Paris. And his wife is a member of Women in Black—a group that habitually sides with Arabs against Jews. Little wonder that it is well known that the Olmert family table is filled with arguments. And yet, the family remains unified. Asked to explain how, Olmert replied, “What’s the big deal? They’re entitled to have their own opinions. I never questioned their right to be wrong.”
I’m not saying that this approach is correct either. Not everything our children do is acceptable. But our children are our children and we must do everything possible to keep it that way! Whether you are a socialist, Zionist, Reform, Hareidi or whatever…there’s no question that when your children or grandchildren go a different way than you want them to, it hurts…it hurts more than you can say. But I don’t think Moses gave up on his children and neither did Chur, who ended up getting a marvelous grandson Bezalel—a true gift to the Jewish people.
When it comes to children, based on my own experience, my philosophy in life has been that their goal in life is to try to torture us, maybe even kill us…but if we don’t let them pull that off and if we live long enough, we usually get to see some nachas.
There was a really touching story in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago about a 91-year-old man named Irving Effron who can barely remember his children’s names—suffering as he does from dementia. He has a grandson, Micah, with whom he has an incredibly close bond. Micah recently turned 30, and his girlfriend wanted to put together a video of the members of the family wishing him a happy birthday. She attempted to video some words from the grandfather, who is basically “out of it” and incoherent. But from out of nowhere these words came out: Happy, happy, happy life…you’ve given a lot of nachas to your family and me and grandma, and this is more than anything else in the world. I want you to know that this nachas is every day with us; it stays with us; it can’t go away. And if you have the nachas in your heart…you have a heart…then you know that life is worth living.
Let me end with a prayer for all out children and grandchildren—yours and mine: May they grow to be a source of pride and nachas to their family, friends and the Jewish people. If not, what should we do? The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chassidut, was once asked by a despairing father, “What shall I do with my son who is so wicked!” The Baal Shem Tov wisely counseled, “Love him all the more!” Love him all the more so that the door of return is always open. So what should we do if our kids disappoint us? The Baal Shem Tov was right: Love them all the more. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis