Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah – Vayeilech
My mother likes to recount the days when I would act out, and she would chase me around the house with a broom. I wasn’t a bad kid; I was just … shall we say, “Precocious?” Certainly, I strayed from the path of the “model citizen” a time or seven, but I was basically a good person who just got lost once in a while. Despite those moments, mom loved me.
If you have children, you have the greatest blessing imaginable. If you have children, you have the greatest potential heartache, as well. If we can demonstrate our love, even in the challenging moments, the odds of them loving back grow tremendously. The problem, though, is that sometimes, all the love in the world doesn’t help. How can we best respond?
This week’s Torah portion gives us a clue. According to the text, God instructs Moses to remind the folks that he will be dying and leaving – they will follow Joshua into the “Promised Land.” God tells Moses and Joshua that the people will stray and that the time ahead will be difficult (because that’s what the “children” of Israel do. During the conversation, God promises that God will always welcome the children back and that the divine love for them never dies. As the Prophet Isaiah spoke, “For the mountains may be laid low, and the hills are shaken, but my mercy/love will never diminish. (54:10)”
A parent’s love is absolute. That said, I am not sure that neither our portion nor the prophet gives us the answer. Not every child wants to return. Torah teaches us of the rebellious child, the child who acts so egregiously that the parent may want to stone him in the village square. Even while the Torah allows for the execution, the tradition of reading it makes it nigh impossible to happen.
Sometimes, our children walk away in outrageous ways. Sometimes, how they do so causes damage to others. We cannot morally seek to do them more harm, but how do we live with ourselves and with their choices? Certainly, not every child who strays acts badly. Sometimes the “new journey” is the one of blessing, leaving a dysfunctional family’s influence to chart a new course. For now, though, we wrestle with the child we appropriately love but who won’t respond with acts that demonstrate love and respect.
For the answer to the question of the rebellious child, the Rabbis go to Proverbs, “One who spares the rod hates his children. (13:24).” As with all Biblical texts, this should be read as an allegory/metaphor. The Bible is not instructing us to beat our children, despite the fact that so many read it literally. In the same sense that you cannot execute your child in the village square, beating your child is also forbidden. That does not mean that there are no ramifications for the rebellious child. It does mean, though, that the parent can, and sometimes must, stand by, at a distance, with arms stretched and open and pray that the child will return. If the child does not, it will not be because he was continually enabled in his course nor rejected by his family. He can play the mantra that he was shut out, but it cannot stick to a parent who practices what we call tough love.
We cannot control how others behave. We can, and must, control how we behave. There is never a good excuse to diminish another or to turn from loving even the most challenging people in our lives. As the text teaches, they may someday want to return; we must be “heart-in.” for their return, No one ever said that love was easy, but it is the only answer that can save our world.