It was the “witching hour,” that period in the late afternoon-early evening, just before dinner when our children, who had been so well behaved all day (or so we would like to believe), provoked perhaps by hunger, fatigue or the absence of other distractions, turn into absolute monsters. Hearing the volume of their fracas in the next room amplifying, I stride in and, having assessed the situation, promptly guide my older son by the arm to his room for a “cooling off” period. As I close the door behind me I hear him calling after me, “You are the worst parent ever!”
Ugh! Well, nobody said parenting was a popularity contest.
On the contrary, a midrash on this week’s Torah portion (Parashah Va’era) offers a rabbinic dictum that might be summarized as “spare the rod, spoil the child”. In Shemot Rabbah, the rabbis enumerate the various Biblical figures – among them Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and King David – whom they claim over-indulged their children, resulting in these youth going astray as adults. These examples are used to justify God’s harsh treatment of the Jews, who endured twenty generations of servitude in Egypt before being liberated.
Whether or not we agree that the suffering of the ancient Israelites was deserved (not to mention that of the Egyptians, whom the rabbis claim were subjected to the plagues, because of their indifference to the Israelites’ suffering), it is clear that our tradition believes there is an appropriate place for proportional and timely corrections (known in Hebrew as tochechah) to gently guide a wayward individual back to a path of self-betterment. We are our best selves as friends, teachers, parents, or mentors when we (appropriately and lovingly) offer others the feedback they need to reflect on past actions, and we are abetted in our own path of self-improvement by being open to hearing such criticism from others.
-- Rabbi Rachel Safman
Adonai natan,v’ Adonai lakach. Yehi shem Adonai m’vorakh.
(“God has given, and God has taken away. Blessed be the hallowed name of Adonai.”)
These words, traditionally recited during the kriyah (ribbon-tearing) ceremony that immediately precedes a Jewish funeral, are used to frame the ceremony through which we begin to make meaning of a life. They also provide a pithy summary of this week’s Torah portion (Parashat Vayera).
Parashat Vayera, which tracks the life of Abraham and his family from the announcement of Isaac’s proximate birth to the young man’s near execution on the slopes of Mount Moriah, contains a set of narratives so consequential that they were selected for inclusion in our New Year’s (Rosh Hashanah) rites.
It is as if our Sages, too, were imparting to us the message – the warning – that life is short, capable of being captured and, perhaps, curtailed within a mere column or two of text. But there message does not end there. For as the events of Abraham’s life, as captured in the Biblical text, continue to be remembered and their lessons to resonate through the generations, so we are given the opportunity to use the space of our lives as a canvas – of whatever dimensions – on which to sketch out the story, the lessons of our own existence.
It has been lamented – perhaps by a Christian thinker, since Jewish headstones typically record only the date of an individual’s passing – that our whole life’s accomplishments come to be reduced to a mere “dash” on our grave-marker, the small line separating the date of our birth from the date of our death.
If this is so, then the Jewish gloss on this comment is that parameters of this “dash” are in our hands, in our hands and in the hands of those who will remember us. With every day of life with which we are blessed, with every relationship we build, with every person that we touch – whether directly or indirectly – we are given the opportunity to amplify that “dash”, extending it, embellishing upon it, adding footnotes which may only be completed many decades, even generations hence.
We bless God not only when a life is given, but also when it is taken from us because in regarding its finitude we gain some inkling of the inestimable value of this gift that our Creator has bestowed on us.