The author of invention

The Jewish Family Identity Forum

By Candace R. Kwiatek, The Dayton Jewish Observer

The last in a series on Children of the Bible

Candace R. Kwiatek

Cain and Abel. Isaac. Moses. The biblical children’s photo albums look much like those on our own shelves: filled with snapshots that capture only highlights and captions that offer only a few sketchy details.

Each album by itself is incomplete, but together they create a portrait of childhood from toddler to teen and beyond.

Adam and Eve discover they can make choices. The sons of Noah learn to honor parents despite their imperfections.

Abraham strikes out on his own path, different from that of his parents. Moses challenges the pressures of peers and power in his rejection of the Egyptian court. Growing. Maturing. Choosing.

There is one album left on the shelf. In it are snapshots of three biblical children who lived long after Moses, children whose stories reflect morals identical to those in the stories of their ancestors.

On the first page there is a photo of a newborn Samson with his parents. When his birth was divinely announced to his long-childless parents, Samson’s father prayed for guidance on how they were to raise this special child. Chosen by God, announced by an angel, and raised as a nazarite (an individual consecrated to God’s service), Samson served for 20 years as a judge, a military leader in early Israel.

Yet Samson was a headstrong youth, and despite his parents’ dedication to his Godly upbringing, he led a life of personal pleasure, violence, and destruction: marrying a Philistine woman in opposition to his parents, robbing and murdering innocents to pay off a debt, turning foxes into torches to destroy an enemy’s field, killing thousands of Philistines with the jawbone of an ass and, in the end, even greater numbers by pushing down their temple’s pillars.

Clearly, this was not the life Samson’s parents imagined for him. It was not how they raised him. So how did he end up with the trickster Delilah, with innocent blood on his hands, and with a shattered Philistine temple as his tomb?

He had free will, but made poor choices. He had the ability to master his emotions, but reacted out of anger instead of reason. He had physical strength, but chose not to control it. He was even blessed by the spirit of God, but rejected this gift. Not his parents, not even God had control over his life: Samson invented himself.

On the album’s second page there is a photo of Hannah with her long-awaited miracle, Samuel. In gratitude, she dedicates Samuel to the Temple, where he is raised by Eli the priest.

Eli’s sons were unworthy men — sinful and contemptuous — the text tells us. Yet Samuel, raised in the same environment, becomes a good and honorable youngster in the eyes of God and the people.

According to a tradition recorded in Josephus (Antiquities), Samuel had just reached the age of majority when he was “called by God.”

Samuel became the first of the major prophets in the Land and served as a lifetime judge throughout all of Israel as well. And yet, as honorable and blessed as he was, his sons — who also became judges — did not walk in his ways; instead, they pursued wealth and perverted justice.

His mother imagined it, Eli raised him to it, God prepared him for it: good upbringing, healthy environment, divine blessing. But Samuel was not a puppet. He could have chosen the path of Eli’s sons. He could have rejected God’s call as he entered his teens. He could have ignored the needs of his people.

Not his parents, not even God had control over his life: Samuel invented himself as did his sons after him.

Turn the page and there are two photos of David: one with a shepherd’s crook and a slingshot and another with Bathsheba. While all we know of his early years is that he was the youngest son of Jesse, we can surmise from his willingness to confront the Philistine giant Goliath that he was raised to be confident and dedicated to God.

David could have lived out his life as an honorable but unremarkable shepherd, but he made choices along his life’s path that ultimately catapulted him into the monarchy.

People don’t stop inventing themselves, however; it is a lifelong process. Successful and self-important, King David observed the lovely Bathsheba and decided to have her for himself. That she was already married was no matter; after all, he was king.

When she became pregnant, David conspired first to trick her husband Uriah and then, when that didn’t work, to have him killed on the battlefield.

In one of the most powerful tales in the Bible, the prophet Nathan uses a parable to awaken King David to the realization of his folly and to repentance. Not his parents, not even God had control over his life: David continued to invent himself throughout his life.

Snapshots of the biblical children don’t just reveal their stories and personalities. Each one represents choices: choices that respond to the question of who do I want to be?

Each one breaks the modern-day idol of victimhood: who you become is a result of social forces, genetic determinism, and childhood influences.

Opened all in a row, they teach that, while the choices at each stage differ, we continue to invent ourselves throughout our lives.

There is one more page, a blank one, in the album of the biblical children. It is for your portrait. Which portrait will you choose? What choices does it reveal?

Family Discussion: Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik writes in Halakhic Man: “The most fundamental principle of all is that man must create himself.  It is this idea that Judaism introduced into the world.” What does it mean to create yourself? How do you think this idea has impacted the world?


Literature to share

All About Hanukkah by Judyth Groner and Madeline Wikler: The story of the Festival of Lights and how it is observed today in ritual and song are addressed in this colorful book for elementary ages. Wonderful family or classroom additions are questions for each day of candle lighting, from “What qualities define a hero?” to “How do differences enrich our community?” Dreidel game rules, recipes, and songs round out this wonderful resource. There’s also an accompanying DVD of the same title by Margie Rosenthal and Ilene Safyan, with storyteller Peninnah Schram.

Last Days in Babylon: The History of a Family, the Story of a Nation by Marina Benjamin. Combining the skills of a reporter and a novelist, Benjamin has crafted a mesmerizing memoir of her family’s life against the backdrop of the nearly 3,000-year history of Jews in Iraq. Filled with modern eyewitness accounts, family memories, and touching photographs, this book will stay with you.

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