Class 26 - PARENTING LESSONS FROM GOD - THE ULTIMATE PARENT
Mrs. Mina Glick
Our previous installment of this class explored the connection between
God's parenting of us, and our own parenting of children. Given this
model, we may look to God's approach for insight into how we might deepen
our own activities in this arena. This class will address, in more detail,
behavioral issues including, defiance, adolescent struggles and parental
judgement. Please let us know your reaction to the material, by sending an
email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
...from God we learn what the crux of parenting is all about. According to
the 18th century kabbalist, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, God created
humankind for one reason - because God wanted to give. This is the core of
parenting. If we were to examine why we want children, it stems from the
same Godly trait within us: the desire to give. A person does not feel
complete without giving, and the greater our capacity to give, the more
expansive we feel. This is a sensation of "ain sof" - of being limitless -
truly a divine quality. And so we create for the same reasons God creates,
and our children are created in our own image, both physically and
spiritually, as we are created in God's image.
And yet, from birth there is an inherent tension, because while our
children are created in our image they are also created as separate beings
with free will to grow and do as they will, and to defy us, if this is
their will. Free will - the ability to make moral choices - is what
distinguishes humankind from the rest of creation. It is a divinely given
trait, the greatest of the traits we were given. And yet, as we see from
the very first pages of Genesis, this gift is breathtakingly easy to abuse.
Adam and Eve were spectacular creations. They were endowed with the
potential to live a life of such elevated spirituality that God's presence
would be as manifest to them as nature is to us. Yet like us, they also
were created with free will to choose whatever path in life they
desired. This free will became their downfall when they defied God and ate
from the one tree in the garden forbidden to them. Instantly their
psychological makeup changed. Moments after they defied God the Torah
describes the following result: "They heard God's voice moving about the
garden with the wind of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves
from God among the trees of the garden." [Genesis, 3:8]. The original
harmony that existed between these two adults and their Creator was broken;
instead, losing their sense of themselves, they ran to hide, because they
feared God's reaction.
What did God do? Adam and Eve's moral choice to defy God changed the
course of history. For reasons too complex to enumerate here, their choice
forced humankind to go through a much harder, longer and more confusing
destiny until the goal of history is reached - the reinstatement of a
perfect harmony between God and humankind.
Most human parents faced with a correspondingly destructive act of defiance
would punish harshly and swiftly first, and only later ask questions as
they try to deal with their own anger. God's reaction, however, is a model
for our own parenting. The ultimate Parent with infinite patience, God
first "searched" for Adam and Eve, and then discreetly encouraged them to
admit their guilt. "Where are you?" God asked them. The One who sees
everything was clearly not asking them about their physical whereabouts,
but rather, was inviting them to consider their spiritual situation.
After they admitted their guilt, God gave the man and the woman different
punishments, individually tailored to correct the flaws within each one,
which initially led them to make their mistakes. Then, after pronouncing
the punishments, God personally clothed them, to alleviate their shame and
help them with the new circumstances they found themselves in. This is the
parent par excellence who, in spite of everything, takes care of his or her
children. The lessons for parenting are obvious. First, we must refrain
from confronting our children with conclusions about their guilt; instead,
we should encourage them to tell us themselves. Second, our punishments
when at all possible should not be arbitrary, but rather, designed to help
the child correct his or her behavior. Finally, we must let them know that
despite everything we are still with them.
Something as simple as sitting together over a cup of tea after we've
punished them, or reading a bedtime story with them, may be all that's
needed. Although this gesture might demand a lot of us as people, as
parents it will take us very far. We will reaffirm who we are to the
children as well as to ourselves. The message comes through: we won't
abandon them in whatever predicament they may find themselves in, even if
we're angry at them.
The Torah also offers us sharp insight into dealing with adolescents. What
is the typical quandary of adolescence? The adolescent struggles for
independence and often feels the need to defy the parents. Yet at the same
time, the child wants to be good and wants the approval of the
parents. When the child chooses to assert his or her independence in a
sore area - an area where sensitivities are already running high - tempers
on both sides often flare. Take for instance the situation of an
adolescent we will call "Joe", who slowly gets ready for school, while his
mother becomes increasingly frustrated. He's already quite late, and yet
he takes his time exploring his room for socks, singing a song, checking to
see if there's a soda in the refrigerator. Finally, Joe's mother cannot
contain herself any longer and says, "Joe, you're driving me crazy! Go to
school already!" Joe responds, "You're angry at me. You don't like me!"
This is a classic predicament. The mother's voice resonates with anger at
the child's behavior, yet the child hears a rejection of himself. The
child projects on the parent: "My mother is angry...she doesn't like
me...she thinks I'm bad." Once the child is convinced of this, it gives
him license to act accordingly. "You think I'm bad? Then I'll be
bad." He slams the refrigerator shut and storms out of the house. The
parent has become the enemy, as the child projects his internal struggles
outward. Of course, this dynamic catches both the child and the parent by
surprise. The parent has no intention of being the enemy and the child at
this stage still wants to be good.
By the time he returns from school, Joe's disagreeable behavior might
become outright obnoxious. He might ridicule his younger sister or refuse
to sit with the family for supper. Is there a way to handle this
God's reaction to Cain [Genesis 4:3-16] gives us a lead. Cain and his first
brother Abel, the first children of Adam and Eve, both brought offerings to
God; Abel from the finest of his flocks and Cain from good, but not the
choicest, produce of his fields. God refused Cain's offering and Cain
became furious and depressed. "Why are you so furious?" God asks
Cain. "Why did your face fall?" God said, remarking on Cain's dour
expression. Notice that God does not admonish Cain for his feelings; God
simply hold a mirror to Cain and asks him why he is feeling the way he is.
On the other hand, God does not pander to Cain's mood by justifying the
decision to refuse his offering. God simply sets out a prescription for
the future: "If you improve, don't you know that you will be able to stand
upright again (with dignity)? And if you don't improve, sin is crouching
at the door. It lusts after you, but you can dominate it." In effect, God
is saying to Cain, "At this point the matter is in your hands. If you stop
this behavior now and choose to do good, your future is unlimited. If you
choose the path of sin, evil will be more than happy to entice you in its
ways, but know that right now you have the power of choice."
This is perfect parenting. Stay cool; don't get insulted; don't take the
child's behavior personally and don't fall into the trap of arguing on the
child's terms. Instead, articulate the choices for the future. Let the
child know that he is responsible for his choice and that you think he is
good and can continue to be good. And explain clearly that there are
natural consequences to his choices.
SHOW DISCIPLINE AND NOT RIGIDITY
Exercising his free will to his detriment, Cain refused God's request for
him to be good, and instead killed his brother Abel in his rage. As a
punishment, god decreed that until his death Cain must live with the
consequences of his anti-social behavior by being an outcast from society,
forced to wander restless and isolated in the world.
When Cain protested that the punishment could make him vulnerable to
attacks by others, God understood his anxieties and made an adjustment in
the punishment to help Cain. God placed a special mark on Cain that would
be a warning to others not to harm him. In amending the punishment, God
was sending a message to Cain that, although Cain had proved himself unfit
for human company, he would never be alone because God would always be with
him. As we said before, this loyalty is perhaps the most indispensable
quality in good parenting.
EXPRESSING OUR ALLEGIANCE
In our lives, how can we express this total allegiance to our
children? Perhaps the best way is by immersing ourselves in the details of
their lives. Recently, someone told me about a very successful elementary
school teacher in one of the worst areas of the inner city. What was the
secret of her success? She used to come to school with brushes, bows and
barrettes, and before she taught each day she would fashion her students'
hair. This involvement on a personal level helped her forge relationships
in a way few teachers were able to match.
The Book of Job - one of the most fascinating of the 24 books that comprise
Judaism's sacred literature - offers an additional insight into this theme
of parents' unconditional commitment to be involved in their children's
lives. The theme of the book is unexplained suffering. Job, a righteous
man, suffered tremendous misfortunes and challenged God to tell him the
reasons why he was made to suffer so.
God offered him an answer and Job was comforted. And yet, most people find
God's answer puzzling, because it does not mention Job at all, but rather,
depicts God's personal involvement with His creatures. God asks Job, "Do
you know the time when the mountain goats give birth? Did you count the
months as they came to term, to know the moment of their birth?" [Job 39:1,2].
Job is comforted by this because it show a world with not only a Creator,
but a Governor, a God who is constantly involved with every aspect of the
Creation. Job still has no explanation for his suffering, but he gains one
certainty: God is not remote and he - Job - and his pain, is not
forgotten. God does not overlook him. Everything was and is part of a
divine plan, a plan which, whether we understand it or not, is beneficial
to us individually as well as to humankind in general.
When my children say to me, "It's not fair," this is precisely what I tell
them. "From your perspective you're right, it doesn't seem fair. But
everybody has different needs, and it is my role as a parent to consider
the whole picture. I'm not forgetting you - you're constantly in my mind
and heart, but in the larger picture, your sister needs more attention
now." By accepting this answer, the child expresses a deep trust in
us. In a similar vein, when we accept God's answer to Job, we express a
deep trust in God.
JUDGING WITHOUT PRE-JUDGING
Another critical factor in effective parenting is the ability to judge a
child where she is, free of our expectations of her, and free of our
disappointments stemming from her past failures. A striking example of
this can be found in Genesis in God's response to Ishmael as he lay near
death in the desert. Ishmael, the wayward son of Abraham, was the
archetype of a problem child. A born rebel, he was difficult as a child
and would become criminal as an adult, which God well knew. And yet, when
the boy's life was in danger and he wept in pain, the verse says: "God
heard the boy's voice, there where he was" [21:17]. When Ishmael's
situation was viewed in isolation, he deserved to be saved.
We must judge our children and our children's friends as they are, in each
given situation. Reacting to a situation with cumulative judgement, or
with presentiments about the future, sends a message to any child, and even
more so to a difficult child, that she can't win.
WHEN NOTHING ELSE WORKS
Like a child in adolescence, the Jewish nation went through a very rough
period of rebellion and resistance to the authority of God for 1000 years,
ending at approximately 300 BCE. Prophets were sent to the people and
nothing helped. The nation seemed bent on self- destruction.
When the prophet Ezekiel asked what good it was to send him to warn the
Jewish people, when both he and God knew they wouldn't listen, God answered
him that even if they won't listen, they will still know that a prophet has
been in their midst. The message for us as parents is clear. Even if
children cannot respond in a positive way at the moment, it doesn't mean
guidance should not be given. It is our job to offer them direction, just
as God continually sent prophets to the people.
Parenting is not an easy task. It's an art form. One lesson the Torah
teaches us is that our role must be as varied and diverse as God's
multifaceted relationship with humankind. It demands personal development,
more so than any job on earth.
I've often wondered why it is that on Yom Kippur the person leading
services, who petitions God on behalf of the congregation, must have
children. Perhaps the answer is precisely our topic here. With our
children, our ability to seek truth, to gain humility and to change enters
a new dimension.
Women in Judaism, Copyright (c) 2000 by Mrs. Leah Kohn and ProjectGenesis, Inc.