Children of the Bible Series
Jewish Family Identity Forum
By Candace R. Kwiatek, The Dayton Jewish Observer
Open our family’s Friday evening photo album and you would see dinner at the dining room table with a tablecloth and candles. Wine and blessings. Two challot. Birkat hamazon — the blessing after meals. The whole family together.
Friday eve in our home has always been sacrosanct, filled with Shabbat rituals that continue even now, long after the children have moved out.
These rituals continue across the continent and into the new generation as well, brought to life in our children’s homes, perhaps in new formats and expressions, but there nonetheless.
Our Shabbat is just one snapshot of the power of family ties. The children of Abraham — Ishmael, Isaac, and Isaac’s wife Rebekah — offer some intriguing new scenes of family ties and the power of parenting.
The son of Hagar, the handmaid of Abraham’s barren wife Sarah, Ishmael is Abraham’s firstborn who, according to the custom in ancient times, would be expected to inherit both birthright and blessing from his father and consider Sarah as his mother.
Yet, even before he was born, Ishmael was doomed to be rejected by Sarah because of his mother Hagar’s insolence. Rejected again when he teased Sarah’s toddler son Isaac, Ishmael is banished to the wilderness with his mother.
Consumed with her barrenness and then with celebrating and protecting her natural-born son, Sarah has neither physical nor emotional ties to Ishmael.
Abraham, his attention focused solely on his livestock, on relationships with neighboring tribes, and most obsessively on God, has little interest in the affairs of his household or in his firstborn son, allowing Sarah to make all the decisions.
Even when God commands circumcision for all the men of the tribe, Abraham’s concern for Ishmael is more about his son’s relationship with God rather than with him.
Look at the progression of Ishmael’s photos in the family album: the bewildered toddler grabbing for Sarah’s skirts, the worshipful son staring wistfully up at his father whose attention is elsewhere, the sullen teen with a pack on his back marching determinedly away from the camera lens.
Rejected by his obsessed clan-parents, Ishmael both physically and emotionally leaves the tribe, becomes a hunter, and marries an Egyptian.
When do parental obsessions cross over into rejection of their children, and what are the consequences?
The unexpected son of Sarah and Abraham’s older years, Isaac is identified by God even before his birth as the inheritor of the Covenant and then later demanded by God as a sacrifice.
He is the pampered son, likely regaled with tales of his miraculous birth, protected from his overbearing brother. Isaac is the little prince who will inherit the Covenant.
His brit is on the commanded eighth day, his weaning is celebrated in style, and he is the only one of Abraham’s sons in the Torah narrative to have a conversation with him — and it is only a single one.
Open the family album and you’ll see pages of one Isaac portrait after another.
Instead of becoming a spoiled brat however, Isaac tries to forge a connection with his distant father by copying his every behavior, doing exactly what he wants without question.
His first word in the text (Gen. 22) is “Father,” and then he essentially asks, “How do I do exactly what you do — the same ritual as always,” saying nothing more as he accedes to being sacrificed.
He marries the woman selected for him at his father’s request and is comforted in his mother Sarah’s tent, following exactly in his dad’s footsteps.
Yet, he appears to lose his own identity by blindly acceding to his father’s every expectation, a blindness that continues to his deathbed.
When do parental obsessions cross over into idol worship of children, and what are the consequences?
The granddaughter of Abraham’s brother, Rebekah is discovered at a well by Abraham’s manservant Eliezer in his search for the perfect wife for Isaac. She is the image of the self-confident, independent child who has strong ties to her family.
Responsible for caring for the flocks, Rebekah expresses her family’s values by welcoming the stranger to the well, offering water to his animals and encouraging him to visit with her clan.
Yet, during the marriage arrangements, it is clear that neither tribal customs nor parental obsessions dictate the outcome. Rebekah is given the opportunity to participate in the discussions and determine her own destiny, an independence that is echoed throughout her life. Hers is the picture of a healthy household.
When parents avoid obsessions that overtly or indirectly control their children, what are the consequences?
The photo album of Abraham’s children gives us a clear picture of the power of parenting and family ties.
Parental obsessions with work or play, personal problems, family relationships, or even with God have consequences.
They can enslave children to an unhealthy desire to please or imitate their parents or, at the opposite extreme, to a complete rejection of their parents and any related values.
These responses become obsessions in their own right that have lifelong consequences.
On the other hand, healthy parenting — a balance of attention, parental expectations, and independence — has consequences, too.
It encourages youngsters to engage in the task of creating themselves as distinct and unique human beings while maintaining strong family ties. It’s the first step to creating good families, the first commandment of Genesis and the foundation of society.
Family Discussion: What would a snapshot of your family look like? Would it record a healthy family foundation or perhaps an unhealthy obsession or two?
Literature to share
The Rooster Prince of Breslov by Ann Redisch Stampler: This delightfully illustrated version of a favorite Yiddish folk tale pits the wits of the rabbi against an over-indulged prince. An added bonus is the author’s note at the end that highlights the many values embedded in this tale.
Mom Still Likes You Best: The Unfinished Business Between Siblings by Jane Isay: A serious book about sibling relationships that reads like a novel, Isay’s book is both informative and reassuring. Filled with vignettes based on interviews with dozens of siblings, Unfinished Business results in some surprising conclusions about the enduring connections between even the most distant brothers and sisters.