Vayyigash - Open Door Rabbi

When Our Children Become Our Teachers

Shabbat Vayigash 5776 – December 19, 2015

Much of who we become and what we hope for the future remains bound up in the lives of our children. We want to be the best possible teachers and mentors for our children, but if we are fortunate, we discover that the process often works even better when we allow our children to become our teachers. The birth and rearing of a child confer a measure of immortality upon parents. We hope that we have added to the chain of life by molding a young mind and spirit. We hope that what we have given will live forever, passed mi-dor le-dor, from generation to generation. We struggle to help form a human being we hope will be more perfect than ourselves, and who will finish the tasks we began but did not see to completion.

We read in this week’s parasha, vayiggash, of Jacob, an old broken hearted man, finding out that his beloved son, Joseph, whom he thought had died many years before, remains not only alive and well, but that he had become the vizier of all Egypt.  Now his son Joseph had sent for him. “Come on down to Egypt, Dad.  You will be better off here with me.  Things are going to get bad in Canaan.”

Jacob then follows his son; he packs up his belongings and sets out for Egypt. One would think that Jacob would feel overjoyed at this and he surely did, but he must also have felt troubled by uncertainties. On his journey, God reassured him in a night-time vision: “Fear not to go down to Egypt for there I will make you a great nation. I Myself will go down with you to Egypt and I Myself will also bring you back.”

Being a parent seems a bittersweet blessing. We want our children to achieve  success. We want them to become more than we have become, learn more than we learned and be happier than we have been. When that happens, however, it reminds us of our own shortcomings and our own mortality. We wish to sip the cup of fulfillment and be near our children, but as we watch them grow and rise in prominence we also see ourselves diminish.

The vision of a shrinking depreciated self, however, could not be farther from the wonderful truth. On Hanukka we see how a candle that kindles others or that starts a mighty blaze does not diminish in size because it has given of its flame. Parents who give rise to children that far exceed the bounds of their parent’s talents and abilities have lost nothing, but rather gained much glory.

When the young Joseph dreamed of the sun and moon and eleven stars bowing to him, his brothers hated him for that vision, but his father took note of it and he remembered it. Now Jacob follows his son, Joseph, to Egypt, where that previous vision has been realized.

I love to see my children excel beyond my abilities and accomplish goals I only dreamed of, but one thing gives me even greater pride and privilege. That occurs when my children become my teachers and I follow their precept and example, growing myself to a higher level of being. Nothing gives me more joy than following my children to a higher vision of myself.

There are many people who write about what our children teach us. One particular version I like is Joshua Baker’s, 7 Minimalist Lessons I’ve Learned from My Kids. Still, what I have learned from my kids rises to the level of the more complicated lessons of life.

When my oldest was about seven, she wrote me a letter. “Dad, you go to work and you know you cannot yell at the people in the Congregation when you get frustrated and you come home and yell at us. You think that because we love you it will be alright but it is not alright.” She and my other two children continue to teach me very profound and sometimes complicated lessons of life.

Shefali Tzabary has written an extraordinarily insightful view of how children can transform their parents in her best-selling The Conscious Parent: Transforming Ourselves, Empowering our ChildrenThis happens when parents allow their children to spark in them a deep and transformative soul searching. If parents open themselves to it, their children can become mirrors in which they begin to see themselves in new ways. This new vision is what can become transformative to the parent who remains open to it.

That kind of learning has not always been an easy path for me or for my children. I do not always lead or follow in the ways they hope. Long ago, I stopped making decisions for them. Now as adults they do not always like decisions I make for myself. Life frequently proves that they are right and I am wrong and I love that I can continue to learn from them. There are times that I feel I am at my best when I am able to change my path because of the concern and critical view of me they are able to articulate. I put my own spin on what I decide to do with myself, but they give me some of the fuel I need to jump start my inner engine of change.

There have also been times that because of their disappointment in my decisions about myself my children have distanced themselves from me and at times they criticize me relentlessly. I don’t like that at all, but in perspective I understand why they see me more harshly than I believe my shortcomings deserve. They have invested so much of their own souls in who I am and what I mean to them. We parents do the same to our children all the time. We see them with overly critical eyes because we see our own shortcomings in them and we hate when we see the parts of ourselves we loath developing shamelessly in them.

We want our children to be perfect, better than we were. Our children too want us to be perfect, the image of the perfect parent they want their father or mother to be. It hurts them when they realize that their father is anything but perfect.

Despite all the confusion behind their overly critical eyes and despite the times they distance themselves from because of the pain they feel at seeing an imperfect parent and the confusing emotions that get in the way, I still manage to see important and sometimes difficult truths about myself.

If I can rise to half the father they hope I am and half the mentsch I hope to be, I will have grown significantly. Those changes may not go as far as my children hope. Those changes may not go as far as I intended. Still, if that change takes me one step in the right direction that change becomes redemptive.  

I hope that along the way my children are blessed themselves with children who teach them half as much as they have taught me. Mi-dor le-dor, from generation to generation, the chain of imperfection becomes the chain – as much as any other – with which we pull ourselves ever higher.