Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Parshat Toldot introduces a new phase in Sefer Bereishit and in the lives of our avot and imahot. Beginning with our parsha, we are witness to episodes of intra-family tension and conflict. While there was a bit of tension between Yitzchak/Yishmael and Hagar/Sarah, those conflicts disappeared from the text with little overall impact.

Things, however, certainly go up a notch when Yaakov and Eisav are born. We are introduced to tension between the brothers from day one; disconnect between Yitzchak and Rivka regarding their sons; apparent deceit of Yitzchak by Yaakov and Rivka, and much more. Moving on to the next generation, we encounter Yaakov’s favoritism of one wife over another and one son over the others, tension between the brothers and of course the climactic sale of Yosef.

While there is a tremendous amount for us to learn from these stories, and from the example set by our great avot and imahot, the Torah does not shy away from sharing episodes of discord and conflict within the families. A number of commentators exert tremendous effort to explain or re-interpret episodes in the Torah that appear to reflect negatively on our avot and imahot; but many others scholars accept the idea that our great leaders made mistakes, perhaps even big mistakes, in their personal and family lives.

Why would the Torah share these negative episodes with us? Won’t it cause us to respect our avot and imahot less?

Rav S.R. Hirsch, in this week’s parsha (25:27), makes an astounding assertion. Commenting on the pesukim that delineate the difference in life choices made by Eisav and Yaakov respectively, he suggests that Eisav strayed from the correct path specifically because of a mistake made by Yitzchak and Rivka. He posits that Yitzchak and Rivka chose to educate Eisav and Yaakov in the same way, despite the clear difference in their temperaments. While the path they selected was appropriate for Yaakov, it was not the appropriate chinuch path for Eisav. This educational error caused Eisav to ultimately reject his parents’ teaching and way of life.

Rav Hirsch then explains why he believes the Torah shares with us the mistakes made by our avot and imahot: “Our sages never objected to draw attention to the small and great mistakes and weaknesses in the history of our great forefathers, and thereby make them just the more instructive for us.” Elsewhere, Rav Hirsch elaborates on this idea. He explains that if our forefathers were perfect individuals who never made a mistake, then we would not be able to relate to them, and truly learn from them. It is precisely because they were humans who struggled, erred and were still able to attain levels of holiness, that we can see them as role models for us and learn from them.

I believe there is another layer of meaning that we can glean from the candor with which the Torah presents the avot and imahot—particularly regarding family dynamics, tension and conflict. Perhaps the Torah wants to teach us a particularly important message for parents across the generations: We do not have to be perfect parents; It is OK to make mistakes.

Many of us spend much time considering our role as parents, and trying to find ways to improve. Many parenting books and columns, this one included, urge parents to be thoughtful about how they parent. One potential hazard of this genre of books and columns is that parents get the impression that they must be perfect; that any mistake they make in parenting could have dire consequences, and that anything their child does wrong is their fault.

Such thinking is not only incorrect, but it is unhealthy. It places too much pressure on us as parents, and creates unrealistic expectations as to who we can be or are meant to be. To quote the well-known line from Gemara Shabbat 89a, “The Torah was not given to angels” but rather to human beings. As human beings, it is natural for us to make mistakes in many areas of our lives, even in parenting.

Dr. David Winnicott was a renowned British pediatrician and psychoanalyst from the mid-1900s. One of his well-known theories is the concept of “the good enough mother.” While a full examination of this theory is beyond our discussion, one of its major conclusions is that once a child reaches a certain age in infancy, his mother doesn’t need to be perfect in taking care of the child’s emotional and physical needs. Rather, the mother needs to be “good enough.” She needs to be actively involved only a certain percentage of the time, to provide the child with a sense of support and love. In fact, Winnicott suggests that at times there is an advantage to a parent stepping back, and not responding to the child immediately, because it helps the child begin to learn coping mechanisms and how to build his own character.

While Winnicott applied his theory mostly from a developmental/cognitive perspective, I believe that the foundational idea is true in all aspects of our roles as parents. We must remember that it’s human to make mistakes—and it’s inevitable that we will not always get things right—as we see from the stories of our avot and imahot. Our goal should be to parent as thoughtfully as possible, be realistic about our capabilities and learn from any mistakes that we may make along the way.

Wishing everyone a Shabbat Shalom!

Rav Yossi Goldin is the menahel tichon at Yeshivas Pe’er HaTorah, Rebbe at Midreshet Tehilla, and Placement Advisor/Internship Coordinator for the YU/RIETS Kollel. He lives with his family in Shaalvim and can be reached at [email protected]

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