On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah: The Altar of Achievement - Parashat Tol'dot

This week, Rabbi Jacobs discusses Parashat Tol'dot, or "The generations." Like Rebecca and her son Jacob, Rabbi Jacobs asks: Are we as parents inclined to put unrealistic expectations on our children? How can we help them grow to be their own unique, fulfilled individuals?

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[URJ Intro] Welcome back to On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by reformjudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, teaches us a little bit about the weekly Torah portion in about 10 minutes or less. This week, Rabbi Jacobs teaches us about Parshat Tol'dot and talks about what it means to raise a child in the way that is really best for the child.

[Rabbi RIck Jacobs] This week, we focus our attention on Parshat Tol'dot from the Book of Genesis. Toldot literally means "the generations." And in the opening of the Parshat, we have the story of Isaac and Rebecca and their hope and their prayer that they would one day be parents.

I know many of us on the podcasts are parents. Many of us are the children of parents. Some of us are very involved in helping to raise nieces and nephews, were teachers. Some of us are parents by choice-- we've adopted. But I'd like to actually point out that the model that we have not only in the Parshat this week, but in much of the Genesis narratives, is basically a series of case studies in what not to do as parents. So a first rule of thumb is be careful, if you have more than one child, the favoritism. Well, in Tol'dot don't we have a case study of parents weighing in and not only having a favorite, but making it really clear. And in this Torah portion, when we talk about favoring a child, it is literally laid out right before us in the text. Because it says that Isaac favored Esau-- these were the twin boys-- because he had a taste for game, but Rebecca favored Jacob. Now, that's just one example of a parenting no-no, right? Those of us who have multiple children, they sometimes ask us, hey, who's your favorite? Do you like me more than my brother or my sister? So it also turns out these are two parents who get very involved in the life of their children and the story of the birthright and Rebecca helping Jacob to pretend he's Esau, and he get dressed in a costume.

So you have all these examples of, frankly, parenting gone awry. So I'd love to use this moment to think about parenting, to think about the way in which each of us is educated. You got to take a test to become a driver and to have a driver's license. There's no formal test you have to take to become a parent. And I just think the intensity and the purpose are absolutely key. So one of the people who, today, in modern terms, is somebody who gives us a lot of wisdom is someone named Wendy Mogel. And she has a couple of phenomenal books on parenting. One is called The Blessing of a Skinned Knee. And she uses the Jewish tradition as sources for the most positive parenting imaginable. And here is the distillation from Blessing of a Skinned Knee.

She says, "the purpose of having children, according to the Torah, is not to create opportunities for our glory or for theirs. The purpose of having children and raising them to be self-reliant, compassionate, ethical adults is to ensure that there will be people to honor God after we are gone. Child-rearing is not about making children feel good, but about making children into good people."

Sounds easier said than done. And I have to say that over the years, as a pulpit rabbi, there were many cases where I just felt that my most important role was to try and be a teacher of the Jewish tradition's wisdom. And I remember one particular moment. A call came in. It was a very well-meaning, lovely, worried mother in my congregation.

She said, "Rabbi Jacobs, can I ask you to talk to my son, Robbie? He's all upset, and I know something's bothering him. I don't know. Maybe it's the divorce, maybe it's something going on with his friends. I don't know, but you've got a good way with kids, so can I bring him in to see you?"

I said, "of course, that's why I'm here. I said, well, how about today, after school, around 3:30?"

"Oh, no," she said, "that's not going to work. He has baseball practice. And the coach, he gets so upset when the kids miss practice. You know the type, right?"

OK. So I searched my calendar. "How about tomorrow at 5:00?"

"Oh, no, no. That's not good either, Rabbi. Robbie has his math tutor."

I said, "what about Saturday around 1:00, right after Shabbat morning services?"

"Oh, no, no, no. Then he'd have to miss his cello lesson."

It turned out that this little guy was busier than me, and I thought I was pretty busy.

So I tell the mom, actually, I don't think I need to talk to Robbie. I think I can figure out what's wrong. I think I need an appointment with you. So it turns out that a lot of us, as parents-- particularly today-- get so super involved, and so ready to dive into everything, and sometimes to not make space for our kids to find their own way.

And now just remember that Isaac, who is the father in our story in Tol'dot, is the casualty of some very intense moments in his own life. You remember the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac. In a pretty radical reading of the binding of Isaac-- that moment when Abraham is commanded to take his son, the one he loves, to Mount Moriah and offer him there as a sacrifice-- well, it turns out maybe, just maybe-- take a deep breath with me-- maybe the hora of the Torah narrative is that the reason Abraham goes pretty willingly is that his son is unexceptional-- maybe even mediocre, unambitious. Abraham has all kinds of big ideas in store for his son, but this young man couldn't cut it. What if, what if, what if too many well-meaning parents are binding children on the altars of achievement, and excellence, and being the best? I just would also point out Adin Steinsaltz, one of the greatest rabbinic commentators on Talmud and Torah, he said that-- in thinking about Isaac, he said, in almost all situations, Isaac was passive. He was acted upon by others and had little or no scope or initiative. He was the casualty of this parenting moment gone awry that sometimes we call the Akedah.

I love-- Wendy Mogel has a beautiful teaching. She said, "what if we thought about parenting as the following." She said, "try to see your child as a seed that came in a packet without a label. Your job is to provide the right environment and nutrients and to pull the weeds, but you can't decide what kind of flower you get or in which season it will bloom." If that's the case, we have to embrace and love the children as they are, not the ones that we want to make up for things that we didn't do or didn't accomplish. Wendy Mogel has a few other great little things that she teaches about over-parenting. She says, "before you nag, remind, criticize, advise, chime in, preach over, explain, say to yourself, W-A-I-T. Or the acronym means, Why Am I Talking?" She says, "listen for times more than you talk." And I think I have to go back, and do some more parenting, and really put that into practice. She also is really quick to say, "don't think that tough moments are not important to the growth of our children. When your child," she says, "doesn't get invited to a friend's birthday party, or make the team, or get a big part in the school play, take a moment and be calm. Without these experiences," Wendy Mogel says, "your child will be ill-equipped for the real world." So how do we actually not just make the space, but let them fall and skin their knees, that the B minus isn't something that has to move us into a litigious mode with the teacher? Maybe it's a mode to actually learn something with our children and maybe for ourselves.

I love, in particular, a wonderful book that rabbi Paul Kipnes and his wife, Michelle, wrote a number of years ago, which I still think of as a gem, and I recommend it often to people. The title of the book is "Jewish Spiritual Parenting-- Wisdom, Activities, Rituals, and Prayers for Raising Children with Spiritual Balance." A lot of times, when we think about child-rearing, we lose the spiritual dimension. A lot of books tell us all kinds of things about potty-training and getting to sleep through the night-- by the way, all of which is really important to figure out. But there's something about Jewish spiritual parenting, that each child is created b'tzelem elohim, in the image of God. And that means they're valued not for their accomplishments, but for who they are. And how do we help them grow into that holiness of who they are? Maybe it turns out they have special needs or maybe they're LGBTQ? Who knows? Maybe they have a gift in something that no one else in the family has a gift in. But the truth is, they are creating that image of God. And how do we help them find that, and how do we embrace that, and not try to, again, force it to go in a way that is just not there for them?

So when we read Tol'dot, we read about Isaac and Rebecca and their twin boys, Jacob and Esau. Sometimes we read this narrative and we cringe. But maybe, this year, when we read it, let's think, huh, I wonder how this might have gone differently with a little bit of some of the modern wisdom insight that we can benefit from. And how do we learn from the example of our ancestors by the good things that they did, the way that they also loved and treasured their children? But maybe we can also learn to be a little bit better in how we do this work. And again, if we're thinking about our own parents and how they parented us, maybe we also can come to understand and love them even if they didn't do it just right or if some of what they modeled turned out not to be the very best that we know how to do.

So I'll just conclude that the best example, I think, is going back to the Akedah, where Abraham says, "Hineini, I'm here, God. Whatever you need me to do", he says it to God. And when his son cries out to him, he says, "Hineini B'nei. I'm here for you, my son." Well, how are we really going to best be present for our children? And one of the ways that sometimes being present is to give them their space, to take their own steps, to sometimes fall down and get up, but to know that we love them all the while, and we love who they are becoming not because they're nachas machines for us, but because they are children of God-- unique and magnificent in their individuality and in their uniqueness.

[URJ Outro] Thanks for joining us on this week's episode of On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah. Want more? You can download a new episode each Monday on Apple Podcasts, or Google Play, or Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like what you hear, write us a review or share the podcast with a friend.

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And until next week, l'hitraot.