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CAN YOU FORGIVE YOUR CHILD FOR NOT BEING PERFECT?

Friday, 28 August, 2020 - 11:44 am

In a military class, the professor asked the students, "What is the difference between an engagement and a battle?" 

No one in the group offered any answer. The professor was frustrated. “Didn’t anyone read the material in the book?” he thundered.

Finally, one guy said that he knew the answer.

"An engagement is a thing that came before marriage," he said, "while the battle is what followed it."

In this week’s Torah portion Ki Tezeh, we read of a story about a really monstrous teenager, who gives his parents such trouble, that they actually take him to the High Court not to be locked up, but to be executed by the court so that he leave this world innocent.

How are we to understand this Torah passage? Are we to believe that parents would actually take up the Torah’s advice and have their son killed if he acts like a monster in his teens!

Can you imagine a Jewish mother sending her son to the High Court to be punished: "Here, Ben, I want you should take along these cookies I baked for you. And don’t forget to wear your cardigan; it gets cold in the death chamber."

The Zohar tells this story in the weekly portion:

"G-d says to Moses," the Zohar recounts, "‘write!’ To which Moses responds: ‘Master of the universe! Leave this out. Will, there ever be a father who would do this to his son?!'"

"G-d tells Moses, ‘I understand your view, yet you should still write it and you will be rewarded. You know [much], but I know [much] more.' Moses would still not budge. He cannot accept this seemingly horrible law.

 

Only after learning that this law was attempting to convey mystical, rather than literal, truths does Moses find comfort with this mandate.

These sentiments of Moses are echoed centuries later by the Talmudic sages living in the second century CE. The harshness of the law led these sages to conclude that "there never was nor ever will be a stubborn and rebellious son," i.e. this Torah law was a matter of theory rather than practice.

Why then was it written? The sages answer, “So that we should expound the law and receive a reward." What the Talmud seems to be suggesting is that expounding this law in depth will be rewarding for parents; it would enrich parenting and educational skills. When we focus on these verses, we can deduce extensive psychological, emotional and practical guidance on the goals and method

of education, today, I wish to focus on one aspect.

 

The very law seems absurd. A death sentence for what? For eating meat and drinking wine? For stealing food? Isn’t this punishment rather excessive?  He is only a kid?  And did his offenses really merit capital punishment? 

The Mishnah and Talmud, quoted in Rashi on our portion, gives this answer:

He is not being punished for his current sins. Rather, given his outrageous current behavior, the Torah testifies that it is inevitable that he will grow up to be a robber and murderer.  So better to kill him now, before he murders other people and before he destroys his own soul. The patterns of his behavior demonstrate that he is doomed to a life of inevitable evil. Get rid of him now.

Yet this is absurd. All of Judaism is based on the fact that even a sinner can repent. Certainly, a 13-year-old boy who is at this point not killing yet, certainly he may change his ways. How can we be certain that he will become a murderer?

An axiom in Judaism is, “Nothing stands in the way of Teshuvah.” The evilest Jewish king, Menashe, was accepted as a ball-teshuva. And here we say that a 13-year-old troubled boy is destined to grow into a monster? Why?  

True, as the Talmud says, this story never happened nor will it happen. But how are we to understand the law in theory? What is a lesson the Torah is trying to impart in this law?

There is a beautiful explanation given by the Shem Mishmuel.

The Talmud says, that at any point, a wayward son whose parents forgive him is forgiven and not punished.

This is a critical lesson for our day and age in terms of how parents and educators deal with children who are difficult, challenging, and often take us through the wringer.

Every child, even the greatest menace, is inherently holy and good, Divine and sacred. For each of them carries the “genes” of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—each of them has a Jewish soul, which is eternally connected to the Divine.

To reveal that connection, a father and a mother must keep the bond with their children strong and powerful. When we sever our relationship with our children, even if we have good reason to do so, we deprive them of the ability to experience themselves as part of the golden, unbreakable chain from Abraham to this very day.

Says the Shem Mishmuel: When the son feels the love inherent in his parents’ willingness to forgive him, despite all of his misdeeds, this keeps him connected to his roots. And since his roots are so holy and so deep, there is now strong hope that he will find the ability to transform himself.

As long as the parents do not forgive their child, they also do not allow him to forgive himself and start his life anew. They ensure that he continues in his destructive path. But the moment they forgive him, the moment they can accept their child and love him despite his failures, they now allow him to discover his spiritual power, which is deeper than all of his failings, bad choices, and inner trauma.

This is the great message the Torah is teaching us. Never ever disconnect from your child, even if it is not easy. Sometimes we are compelled to break the connection, to sever the bond, to alienate him. It is simply too painful to be in a relationship.

But, the Torah is telling us, this is the primary reason he will never be able to come back. You need to learn to forgive your children, to see the infinite light hidden in them, that light you saw in the child when he emerged from your womb as innocent and as angelic as ever. Yes, there have been disappointments, perhaps betrayal, shame, and some serious misdeeds. Your child is broken. So what does he needs to find the stamina to repair himself? He needs to be able to believe in his soul, in his future, in his goodness.

How can we help him achieve that? If we can love him, if we can forgive him, if we can show him that he is not a worthless, helpless soul, bit a particle of the Divine, a ray of infinity, a fragment of the Divine.

Keeping the chain alive and intact will allow him to see himself, ultimately, in the context of a 4,000-year chain, of which he is the next rung.

A number of years ago, at one of my weekly classes I was discussing the fact that each one of us was sent to this Earth with an indispensable mission. And this mission imbues each human being with unique qualities, all the necessary faculties we need to fulfill our respective mission. Even if someone is weak or deficient in one area, even one born with a “handicap,” this same person is blessed with other strengths that compensate for and allow this individual to realize his or her calling. Some of these strengths may often be less obvious than others, and then it is our sacred responsibility to help uncover these deeper resources. Nothing is holier and more dignified than to help a person discover hidden potential, allowing him/her to actualize his unique life calling.

After my class, a striking young man approached me. As he got closer I saw that he suffered from some motor complications. He asked to speak with me privately. After everyone left we sat down, and he began to tell me his story. His words came out slowly, due to a speech impediment, and he shared with me that he was born with a rare disease that affected his nervous system, which also impaired his mental capacity and growth. He later discovered that his parents gave him away as a newborn, after hearing that he was diagnosed with severe mental handicaps. Over the years, it turned out that the diagnosis was not completely accurate, though he still suffered from many problems. At that point, his parents were not willing or unable to handle him and they chose to have no contact with him.

His parents were very wealthy and prominent, and they provided that he be cared for in a quality institution for children with special needs. But they never came to visit him, and for all practical purposes, he was brought up as an orphan. A “privileged orphan,” he was told. All his physical needs met, except for the most important one: Unconditional love from nurturing parents.

As much as I tried, I could not completely control my feelings from pouring out for his soul. However, more powerful than all his pain was the refined light shining out of this young man. He was simply an exquisite human being. With a special charm, clearly the result of years of struggle, he had emerged with a very rare type of warmth, which basked everything around him in a soft glow.

“And tonight,” he tells me, “you said that each one of us has a unique mission despite appearances. I too, like the fellow in your story, lack certain abilities. But, unlike the wealthy man in your story, I do not know what strengths I have in return. Can you help me discover my special qualities?”…

I was taken. He wasn’t aware of his own level of refinement. This tortured man could give more love and kindness than most people I know, yet he was crying for help.

What can I say, my heart went out to him in the deepest possible way, and we began to communicate regularly. He would attend many of my classes and I would converse with him about many things, and he would always elicit in my kindness I did not know I had. From time to time, he would address his own feelings of rejection and his desire to confront his parents. He had tracked them down but was terrified of contacting them.

Mischievous thoughts began to creep into my brain about contacting them myself. But what would I say? I tried not to be judgmental; who knows what they have endured; what caused them to give up and desert their own child? But is it being judgmental to ask whether any parent has such a right – no matter what the excuse? And is it my role to be the one that confronts these parents?

After a few months of hesitation, I got the number and I finally made the call.

“Hello, good afternoon, I am a friend of your son and would like to speak to you about him.”

Deathly silence on the other end of the line. What do I say now?

“Hello, hi may we speak for a few moments?”

“What can I do for you?” was the brisk and cold response.

“I know your son. He is an extraordinary man and I thought that would make you proud.”

Click. The father hung up the phone.

What do I do now? Call back? I decided to wait. A few days later I tried again. This time his secretary did not let the call through, so I left a message saying that “this matter is very personal and can have profound long-term consequences for good or for bad.”

I tried again the next day and what do you know, he took my call. Now what? I simply said: “Please understand. I am not in the business of meddling. I am not being critical or judgmental. I simply feel from the depths of my heart that it would be life-transforming for you and your wife to meet your son.”

“We don’t want to talk about it, we don’t want to go there, we did what we felt was best for everyone.”

“I am sure you did. Still, today, now, your son has grown to be a tremendous soul. He needs to see you and you need to see him. Please consider that.”

“I’ll get back to you.”

He didn’t. But now I was on the warpath. So I called again. He did apologize for not getting back – almost making me respect his cordiality until I remembered why we were here in the first place – and said that his wife would not be able to do it. Too uncomfortable. He mumbled something about having “long ago buried this.” But I persisted.

“So then I’ll arrange for you to meet your son without your wife.”

“No, not yet.”

After a few months, he finally relented, and together with his wife, we scheduled the fateful meeting that everybody dreaded. At their insistence, which surprised me, they wanted me to be present at the meeting, I figured, to serve as a bit of a buffer.

The big day came. We met at their lavish home in the living room, tea, and biscuits on the table, all choreographed to the tee, except for the emotions that would be released.

Initially, everybody was cordial, even detached, like strangers meeting about buying a house. “What do you do?” “Where have you traveled?” “Are you a Yankee fan?” “How’s the weather?” – Do you get the idea? After sitting silent, trying to be invisible and letting things take their natural, biological course (or so I hoped), I finally piped in and said the first serious statement of the evening. “Your son told me his story. He must have a lot of anger inside of him, but he hasn’t shown it to me, or maybe not even to himself. You must have many feelings yourself. I really don’t belong here, but since I am here allow me to say that your son is one of the most beautiful people I know. I have discovered through him new horizons of human dignity and the capacity of the soul to shine in this harsh world. I think it would be truly life-changing for you to get to know each other.”

Before I stood up to leave, our hero, turned to his parents and uttered a few words that could melt any heart. With a stutter and a bit slowly – his speech was impeded, as you may recall – he began:

“Mumma, Puppa… I, I am not perfect. You, too, you also not perfect. I have forgiven you. Can you forgive me?”

We all burst into tears. I made my way out the door, leaving them alone…

“Mumma, Puppa… I, I am not perfect. You, too, you also not perfect. I have forgiven you. Can you forgive me?” Can you forgive me for not being perfect, their handicapped child asked. Can you forgive me for putting into your life a child who is less than perfect?...

Can you forgive your child for not being perfect? Can you forgive your loved one for not being perfect? Can you forgive yourself for being imperfect?

 

SHABBAT SHALOM,

 

RABBI YOSEPH GEISINSKY

Comments on: CAN YOU FORGIVE YOUR CHILD FOR NOT BEING PERFECT?
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