Monday, November 7, 2011

Advice from the Avraham Stories on Parenting

We have just read Parshat Lech Lecha and now are in the week of Parshat VaYera. During these Parshiot, we see Avraham making difficult decisions, taking important initiatives in interacting with others and determining that he wanted a completely different life for himself, his household and his children. He wants to set a new tone for living and does so intentionally and carefully, with the guidance and under the instruction of G-d. His household has to know about these things – his faith in G-d, his taking of initiatives, his gracious hospitality, his desire to fight the causes of those who cannot fight their own in the case of Sodom and Gemorah and so much else. According to more than a few of our classical commentaries it is this very taking of initiative that sets Avram (later to be called Avraham) apart from the generations that preceded him. While Noach, whom we are told is a righteous person in his generation, is told by G-d that all people will be destroyed due to their corrupt nature and that he should go build an ark and save himself, his family, and specified animals, he does exactly what he is told – no less but no more either. Avram, on the other hand, challenges and bargains with G-d for the possible souls of Sodom and Gemarah that are not tainted, and begins the well known passage of “Will you save 50 souls? 45 souls? 40 souls? 30 souls? And so on until it is clear that there are not even 10 worthy souls to save in these misguided communities.

The very wording of “Lech Lecha,” meaning “go for your own sake, for your own benefit” is telling (and this same formation will be used this coming week in the narrative of the Akeida). G-d WANTS Avraham, it might seem, to take this initiative and try to build a better world as a result of his novel attempts to change and see things differently. To be sure, this must have had a most profound effect on his household – on his children and the future generations that would come from him. After all, we still use these stories to teach many important lessons about how we should live.

Additionally, we have to acknowledge that even Rashi reluctantly relents that Yishmael is ultimately blessed in his life and with an inheritance due to the fact that he lived in Avraham’s household and must have learned something from the positive behaviors and values that identified this family. Rashi acknowledges the value of this parenting, even within his clear dislike for Yishmael.

One of my favorite books is “The Sibling Society” by Robert Bly, who speaks about the trend in American culture and society to abdicate responsible parenting by not working to set examples nor acting in a way that will set a constructive tone for how our children will act in the future. Bly suggests that we all relate to each other as “siblings” and not as “parents who teach by example and children who learn by watching and engaging.” Our children often agree that this is the case, indicating that “respect and awe” for parents, teachers, and authority are no longer really treasured or practiced values in our lives today, in too many cases. How are our future generations supposed to learn how to be responsible and take appropriate initiatives if they are not part of households in which this is intentionally and specifically modeled and taught?

This, I think, is a most important lesson of Avraham Aveinu, translated as Abraham our Father. Abraham takes these chances in his life to do better and to want better – for himself, his household and his children. We should use the lessons of Avraham’s life lived, our Father, to rethink how we take initiatives to parent and prepare our children for the life they will live. We should remember this as a most important aspect of our Jewish teachings and heritage and consider the ramifications for ourselves and the children we are in the process of teaching and educating.