Friday, 2 December 2016

Parashat Toledot - The Children are Revolting

Ve’eleh toledot.
And these are the generations.
Interesting week for Cheder Shabbat.

If last week I spoke about Abraham Zaken - being old.
This week want to talk about being young.
Being a Yeled

Key moment re Isaac
dug again the wells of water, which they had dug in the days of Abraham his father; and he called their names after the names by which his father had called them.

Been filled in, and dutifully, as a good son should, redigs them.
Re-endows the wells of his father as his father’s wells.
Sounds good. This is, is it not, what children should do to honour the name and the triumphs of their parents.
I speak of this, of course, as a parent.

But something feels slightly remiss.
Remiss in Isaac - sense of own narrative disappeared.
Couple of weeks ago he was bound.
Last week, a wife was found for him.
This week redigs the wells of his father.
And he is deceived by his own sons.
Passive existence.
He’s not the hero of his own existence.
Slips betweens the cracks between Avraham Avinu - our patriarch Abraham and his son known as Yisrael - for we are all Bnei Yisrael.

Wonder if a piece of it - and you can’t tell my children I said this - is that just redigging the wells of your parents is not enough.
Recreating the actions of a previous generation, by definition, is a recipe not for bright innovation and hope, but a gentle slide into obsolescence.

I was flicking through Rabbi Jacob’s autobiography when I came across one of his fav stories, a story I last shared on this Bimah ten years ago this week, when I interviewed for the position of Rabbi here. Taken from the section of the autobiography where Rabbi Jacobs is getting ready for his first Yom Kippur at the prestigious New West End Synagogue, and just as he is preparing to go into the service sees one of the enobled members of the community, also just outside the sanctuary.

Time was pressing and I suggested that we go into the synagogue for Kol Nidre.
The Lord replied that he did not want to enter the synagogue for a while and that he would explain why after the service.
His explanation was that his grandfather, the first Lord, although a very observant Jew, did not hold with the Kol Nidre formula and used to wait patiently in the foyer until this part of the service was over.
His son, the second Lord, less observant and a little indifferent to the whole question would still wait outside because his father had done so.
The third Lord explained he personally didn’t understand what it was all about, but felt obliged to carry on the family tradition.

It’s redigging the wells, it’s humble, but it’s not vibrant. It’s not enough for a child. It shouldn’t be what we expect from our children.
Whisper it, but sometimes, in the words of Tim Minchin’s musical Mathilda, children have to be a little bit naughty.

Of course, certainly in my own house, I’m not such a fan.
Quite like kids to do precisely the things I tell them to do, and promptly, and with a smile on their faces.
And on a superficial level I really like the idea that after I’m gone they’ll do precisely the same things I did in precisely the way I did them, but ....

It’s an old problem.
This is God’s principal experience with the problem - also known as the problem of Free Will.
God puts the first human beings in the Garden and tells them they can have everything they want, apart from the opportunity to want one thing; the opportunity to understand for themselves what good and bad actually mean.
What do you expect happened?
Of course the children wanted to understand things themselves, even if it meant making their own mistakes.
Even if it meant being more than a little bit naughty.
Adam and Eve wanted to be - and indeed became - the paradigms for humanity.

The world turns.
The lives of our children will be unrecognisably transformed from the lives of our parents and they will have to be prepared for challenges so radically different from those of 40 years ago that training our children to redig our wells is simply not good advice..
Not just talking about the transformatory nature of contemporary technological innovation - it’s never been possible to step into the same river twice.
Life is always transforming and the deeper thing to wish for our children is a transformed future.

Here’s another encounter between God and children, dating to the mid Talmudic period, say around the year 300.

Talmudic tale of the oven of Achnai
The Rabbis are arguing. One rabbi starts to call on God to support his claims and God starts to intervene, causing trees to be uprooted, water to flow upstream and even the walls of the Bet Midrash to cave in, until the other rabbis banish God from the argument pointing out ‘Lo bshamayaim hi.’ That the Torah is not in heaven, but rather given to each and every generation to decide it as they - not God, our father in heaven - best see fit.

And the tale continues - nitzchuni banai­ - usually translated, my children have defeated me, ut literally - my chidren have outlasted me.
Irony is that we last longest by ceding to the generations to come, rather than imposing our own take on their futures upon them.
Scary thought - as I said, you can’t tell my children I said this.

Meaning of Yichus
Actually two things - one is the sense of pride taken in those in whose triumphs I see my own triumphs.
But also - and perhaps even more importantly, a sense of wonder as those who are coming after me supercede that which I could have imagined - nitchuni banai

I used to be a huge fan of the George Berard Shaw quote,
When I was 14 I knew my parents knew nothing, by the time I was 21 I was amazed by how much they had learnt in 7 years.
But I think, in honesty, I’m not sure even that is enough.
My hope for my children is that they outdo, out-think and transform any expectation I could have for them.
Because - on this Cheder Shabbat - it’s probably necessary that kids should be revolting

Shabbat shalom

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