When I was pregnant, many people made comments. "You'll never sleep again," or "enjoy your free time now." My husband remarked that amidst the daily comments that we received over those nine months, only once did a friend of ours say, "Yes, it is hard, but being a parent allows for incredible joy, love, and emotions that you have never felt before." Almost 20 years later, I can still remember those words because they are so true.
How do we describe the relationship between parents and children? How do we refer to the bond that exists? This week in Vayigash, our Torah text gives us language that many might find compelling. We find Joseph in Egypt; his brothers are trying to buy grain from him, but they do not know his identity. At the end of last week's portion Joseph planted a silver goblet in his brother Benjamin's bag. As the brothers departed, Joseph tells his guards to search the brothers for the missing goblet. When the goblet is found in Benjamin's bag Joseph forbids him from returning with his brothers to Cannan. One of the older brothers, Judah, begs Joseph not to take Benjamin, explaining the effect on his father:
"Now, if I come to your servant my father and the boy is not with us-since his own life is so bound up with his-when he sees that the boy is not with us, he will die, and your servants will send the white head of your servant our father down to Sheol in grief." (Genesis 44:30)
"His own life is so bound up with his." The Hebrew v'nafsho k'shurah v'nafsho uses the root Koof-Shin-Reish, the Hebrew root for connection and ties. One's soul is bound up in the other's soul. What a perfect way to describe the challenge and blessing of being a parent. Judah is trying to convey the connection between his father and the youngest son. Judah does not criticize Jacob, his own father, for favoring Benjamin. Judah does not share his own feelings of how Jacob dealt with the loss of Joseph. Judah simply describes the fact that for a parent, everything that happens to a child affects that parent. Their souls are bound together.
The Torah not only recognizes the bond between parents and children, but the book of Genesis also digs into the complexities of these relationships. Each Torah portion in the book of Genesis presents a different picture of a mother or father, a child, and how they navigate the world in correlation to one another. While there are mistakes, missteps, and stories that evoke many questions, there is no outright criticism or critique of the parents, no commandments, or warnings for future generations. The power of Genesis is how relatable these 3,000-year-old stories remain.
As I raised my children, I became fascinated with other people's desire to share advice and suggestions with me. I'm often shocked at how often strangers and acquaintances offer their thoughts on parenting. Kids should be placated when in public, so they don't cry (i.e., purchase the candy, pull out the iPhone, or give into the demands). At home, parents should be strong and train their children to deal with disappointment. Kids should be involved in after-school activities, but not activities that are too demanding so that parents can still have full control over their children's schedules. Parents should be present at their kids' after-school activities and help with homework, but they shouldn't be too involved. The advice was simplistic and often naïve. The older my kids got, the more I found that people's opinions failed to consider that my kids are people with thoughts and ideas of their own. And I found myself wondering why they needed to dole out this advice? I'm fascinated by Judah's understanding of his father, that is without judgement or criticism, rather it is clear and compassionate.
Being a parent is hard work. The job of caring for and educating a child, of nurturing and guiding them, would be hard enough without the emotional weight of others' unsolicited opinions. Being a parent suddenly opens you up to advice and judgement, but being a parent also changes your soul. It is natural, and perhaps even God-ly to be deeply connected to your child and their ability to succeed and thrive. This work alone is emotionally exhausting, and when compounded by societal or family judgements and commentary it can become too heavy for some to bear. The parents in our lives need understanding, compassion, and support, not shame or criticism.
As we reflect on the simplicity and power of Judah's statement, let's think about the parents and caregivers in our lives.
· How can you acknowledge the work and responsibility of the parents and caregivers in your life?
· Do you offer unsolicited advice or pass judgement on caregivers? Why?
· Are there individuals in your life who want to be parents that could use your compassion or support?
· If you are a parent or caregiver, how can you give yourself some compassion and self-care, recognizing how hard the job really is?
As I reflect on the beauty of Judah's message, I'd like to offer some words of gratitude to all the parents and caregivers in my life, to those that guide me on my journey, and to my nuclear family. To those reading this - may you feel support around you and gratitude within you on your own parenting journey.