My 5774 Rosh Hashanah sermon was delivered at the Kesher service of Columbia/Barnard Hillel. My theme was parent-child relationships as piqued by the High Holy Days. In particular, I note the jarring juxtaposition of Avinu Malkeinu (Our Father, Our King), which asks us to appeal to God's loving parental instincts, with the Akeidah (the Binding of Isaac), which illustrates the painful reality that sometimes, the parent-child relationship goes terribly wrong. In exploring the healing message of the High Holy Days as well as the limits of our ability to apologize or forgive, we may find strength in God and in ourselves to strengthen the parent-child relationships in our own lives.
Our Father Is Our Help: Letting God Into Our Parent-Child Relationships
Let me introduce you to Genya. Genya grew up in the Ukraine, and even though she knew she was Jewish, there was no way to practice Judaism under the Soviet Union. She moved to the United States as a young adult and attended her first Rosh Hashanah service. Almost nothing was familiar to Genya until the cantor sang the familiar folk tune of Avinu Malkeinu. Upon hearing those words with that melody, Genya broke down into tears as a flood of memories washed over her. She recalled childhood family gatherings, where her aunts and uncles would turn to old Aunt Esther and ask her to sing. Every time, Esther would conjure the two Hebrew songs she could still remember: Oseh Shalom and Avinu Malkeinu. Despite the Soviet Union’s brutal attempts to quash all religious expression, these tunes survived in Genya’s family. For Genya, Avinu Malkeinu was the heart and soul not only of Rosh Hashanah but of Judaism itself.
I feel something in common with Genya; for me, and maybe for some of you as well, Avinu Malkeinu symbolizes much of what Rosh Hashanah stands for. The music of Avinu Malkeinu was one of the first parts of the High Holiday service I ever learned, and to this day it remains a recognizable flag post of High Holiday services. And for some of us, hearing this music may bring up personal memories: Perhaps hearing it reminds us of family dinners at home or of seeing youth group friends at Temple. So both communally and personally, Avinu Malkeinu is an essential part of the High Holy Days.
Avinu, Malkeinu, sh’ma koleinu: Our Father, our King, hear our voice. We turn to God at the climax of our service, and we appeal to God’s parental instincts: You created us, and we’re begging for your forgiveness. We pray that God remembers the promise of Isaiah: “As a person is comforted by his mother, so will I comfort you” (Isa. 66:13). And we appeal to the Psalmist’s pledge: “As a father has compassion on his children, so shall the Eternal have compassion on those who revere him” (Ps. 103:13). The imagery of God as our parent evokes unconditional love and absolute acceptance. God will take care of us and protect us as a mother or father takes care of their dearest child.
But then, like a slap in the face, we confront Rosh Hashanah’s Torah reading, the fearsome story of the Akeidah, the Binding of Isaac. God says to Abraham, “Take your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah and offer him up there as an offering” (Gen. 22:2). And silently, deliberately, Abraham does just that. He sets off with his son, piling on top of him a bundle of wood. When they reach the Moriah’s summit, Abraham binds Isaac to those very branches that he had carried up the mountain. He raises his arm, clutching a cleaver; his eyes fixed, Abraham prepares to slaughter his son. And at the last second, reasons unexplained, an angel of God stays his hand. Isaac’s life is spared. But the sacrifice is already complete. After this dreadful day, Abraham and Isaac never speak again.
Is this some kind of liturgical joke? We open our hearts to Avinu Malkeinu, trusting in God as our parent, and then we read that a parent’s unconditional love can transform to murderous intent? What is our tradition trying to teach us? How does the juxtaposition of Avinu Malkeinu and the Akeidah add to our season of repentance?
I believe that at the heart of this question is our challenging and profound experience of the parent-child relationship. Indeed, I believe that this relationship is essential to the entire project of the High Holy Days. We ask: what does it mean to be in a parent-child relationship? And what does it mean when we let God into that relationship in our own lives?
The parent-child relationship has two basic components; the first is from the child to the parent, and the second is from the parent to the child.
From child to parent, we turn to the Fifth Commandment, “Honor your father and mother” (Ex. 20:12). And, to make sure we got the message, we also read in the Holiness Code: “Every person must revere his mother and father” (Lev. 19:3). Jewish tradition has speculated as to what qualifies as honor and reverence, but the Torah itself doesn’t specify. It seems that, ultimately, we should know honor and reverence when we see them.
The parent-to-child obligations are unspoken in the Torah, hiding beneath the surface. The Rabbis assumed that parents have a basic responsibility to care for their children, and parents fulfill their fundamental obligations by helping their children learn how to function in society.
So at heart, the parent-child relationship is built around two fundamental obligations: Children, honor your parents. And parents, teach your children. When you put it like that, it sounds so simple! The ideal parents and children treat each other with perfect love and respect, building families with Brady Bunch-like closeness.
But of course, even the Brady Bunch wasn’t perfect, and neither are most of our families. Although the parent-child relationship is fundamental in our lives, sometimes, that relationship breaks down. We need look no further than the story of the Akeidah to be reminded that parents sometimes sacrifice their children on their own altars, intentionally or unintentionally, leaving scars that last a lifetime.
M. C. Kerr of Rocky Ford, Colorado shares a witness of a complicated and difficult parent-child relationship and an attempt to share parental love.
I was originally hired to tutor students who were too ill to attend school. Then the zero-tolerance policy was enacted, and students who broke certain rules were expelled for one year. Immediately my caseload changed: I began to teach teens who were not sick but had been expelled.
Greg, my new seventh-grade student, had been described to me as “a time bomb,” “dangerous,” and “a fighter.” “He doesn’t care about anything,” one colleague said.
I found Greg’s address, a 1920s bungalow in a high-crime neighborhood with rusted cars in yards and rotting couches on front porches. I knocked, and the door creaked open a crack. I couldn’t see who was there.
“Hello,” I said. “I’m Greg’s homebound teacher.” The door didn’t budge. “The school district sent me out to teach him for the rest of the year.”
The door opened a few inches more, and a blowzy woman in a thin negligee stared at me with dazed eyes.
“I tried to call before I came, but no one answered. I have Greg’s books with me.”
She opened the door all the way, and I stepped into the living room.
“If this isn’t a good time,” I said, “we could work out another day.”
Her vacant eyes didn’t move.
I saw a scrawny kid in the dining room. “Greg?” I asked him.
“I’m your homebound teacher. I have your books. Could I see you for an hour to get you started on your lessons?”
He said nothing. The woman—his mother, I assume—had disappeared into a bedroom. I tried to make small talk, but Greg’s mouth seemed sealed shut. So I opened his book to begin a lesson.
A cockroach descended the wall and crawled in my direction. I took a sheet of paper and scooted the bug off the table onto the floor while lifting my feet up onto the legs of my chair. Greg pulled himself into an even tighter position. “Don’t worry about it,” I said. “It happens sometimes.”
A loud knock came at the door. Greg’s mom, still in her negligee, opened it and said, “Darling!”
A man’s voice replied, “Here I am, sugar.”
They went into the bedroom, shut the door, and locked it.
“Do you understand fractions?” I asked Greg, ignoring the activity in the other room.
I finished the lesson and was about to gather up and leave when I heard the lock click and the bedroom door open. Greg’s mom cooed, “Oh, hon, let me get your coat.” She held it up for the man to slip into and began to brush off his collar. “Now, you take care of yourself,” she said as she followed him onto the front porch.
I brushed another cockroach away.
Greg whispered, “I hate this place.”
My heart aching for him, I told him that there isn’t a kid in the world who can help who his parents are or where he lives. I knew: I’d grown up with a hell-raising, drunken dad. But I’d made up my mind when I was little that I wasn’t going to let it destroy my life.
Our eyes met, and Greg nodded.
“I’ll see you on Wednesday,” I said.
We can’t know here the details behind the scene that M. C. Kerr witnesses, but most of us in this room will be reminded of pictures all too vivid of parents neglecting to care for their children. None of us is in the position to judge another parent, but we can still admire Kerr for trying to bring some love and stability into Greg’s life. Our tradition upholds the value of mentors, teachers, and other loved ones entering into the role of parent in a child’s life. Indeed, the Midrash concludes, “A parent is one who raises [a child], not one who gives birth.” Clearly the rabbis knew centuries ago as we know today that children can be profoundly disappointed by their parents.
Of course, it is not hard for us to imagine that parents, likewise, can be profoundly let down by their children. And I’m not only talking about the normal disappointments and frustrations. Children can deeply betray their parents’ love and trust.
Take another biblical family, that of the prophet Samuel. Tomorrow morning’s Haftarah reading relates the story of Hannah, who prays fervently for a long-awaited son. When Samuel miraculously arrives, she dedicates him to the priesthood. Samuel tries his best to make his mother proud and to pass on her good example to his own children. But when Samuel appoints his two sons to rule in his place, we read that “[Samuel’s] sons did not follow in his ways; they were bent on gain, they accepted bribes, and they subverted justice” (8:3, JPS translation). The People of Israel reject Samuel’s sons as their rulers, demanding that he select a different heir. Dejected, Samuel passes power to Saul and, later, King David. And then, things get even worse! Saul’s children betray him to David, and David’s own son rises up against him in open revolt. Our Haftarah portion itself is a model of tender love of a mother for her child, but it grows into a saga of repeated and egregious betrayal, violence, and deceit of children toward their parents.
Once again, our tradition draws our gaze inward, challenging us to look at our own lives and relationships. How often do we regret the way we’ve treated our parents, condemning them for the faults we tolerate in ourselves? How often do we fixate on their human imperfections, turning a blind eye to an endless parade of selfless acts? And how often do we unleash on our unsuspecting parents our own insecurities and fears that drive us to words of anger and even hatred? Entangled in a complicated web of love, we often hurt most those who are closest to us.
It’s clear to anyone who takes the time to look that relationships between parents and children are, in a word, fraught. We know it from our own experiences, and we know it from the wisdom of our tradition. When we step back, as days like Rosh Hashanah encourage us to do, we might ask: Why does this relationship, of all relationships, bear with it such intense emotions? Why is so much at stake between parents and children?
I believe we need look no further than our starting point, the Fifth Commandment. The Maharal, the leading rabbi of 16th century Prague, taught that the first five Commandments focus on humans’ relationship with God while the latter five focus on humans’ relationships with one another. “Honor your father and mother,” falls into the first category, making it a commandment not only about our relationship with our parents but also about our relationship with God.
Why is honoring our parents a form of honoring God? Our sages suggest that we owe our life not only to the people who raised us but also the One who created us. Thus, “When someone honors her father and mother, the Holy One says, ‘I ascribe it to them as if I have dwelled among them and they have honored Me.’” As if I had dwelled among them. Honoring parents is an invitation to the presence of God.
Why is there so much at stake in the parent-child relationship? Because that relationship is of divine origin, and God aches to remain part of it.
On these days of repentance, we seek to make room in our lives for God’s presence. As the Avinu Malkeinu echoes through our hearts, we are called to repair our damaged relationships. In particular, Rosh Hashanah gives us three tools for this work: apology, forgiveness, and faith.
Apology. “For transgressions between one human being and another, the Day of Atonement does not atone unless they have made peace with one another.” It is upon us to apologize for the things we have done wrong. It is rarely the case that any particular conflict is entirely our fault; but on the High Holy Days, we put fault aside and take responsibility. “I’m sorry,” we say, “for the way I treated you.” And we mean it.
Forgiveness can be much, much harder than apology. Forgiveness does not mean condoning; it does not mean saying that what you did to me was okay. Rather, forgiveness means releasing the past and allowing ourselves to move on. We don’t forgive only for the benefit of another; we forgive in order to lighten from our shoulders the burden of others’ mistakes. Forgiveness is a gift, and those who give it have the most to gain.
And faith—trust in the Eternal to give us strength to withstand that which we cannot understand. There are some parent-child relationships which are beyond repair, and Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur do not ask us to forgive the unforgivable or to apologize for sins which are not ours. You may think of someone alive or dead—present every day or far too rarely—whose neglect or hostility threatens to overwhelm you. You feel despair at the magnitude of your loss. It is from these depths that we can cry out to God, Avinu Malkeinu, sh’ma koleinu, My Father, My King: Hear my voice! And through signs and wonders, through the stirrings of our own heart and the healing passage of time, we may hear God’s response.
God says to us, “Can a woman forget her sucking child, forsaking compassion on the child of her womb?” (Isa. 49:15). Sadly, we know that the answer is yes. That is why God continues, “While these [human beings] may forget [one another], וְאָנֹכִי לֹא אֶשְׁכָּחֵךְ, I will not forget you” (ibid.). Avinu Malkeinu is there for us כִּי אֵין בָּנוּ מַעַשִׂים, when there isn’t anything else we can do.
When our pride and selfishness push us away from those we love, we have the power to apologize. When we have been wronged by anger and betrayal, we have the power to forgive. And when a parent or child has wounded us beyond the reach of apology or forgiveness, God has the power to heal. This healing can come in whatever form we need. If we need love, God is love. If we need wisdom, God is wisdom. If we need friendship, God is friendship. Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk taught that God is where you let God in. We invite God our Parent into our lives, drawing sustenance from the eternal wellspring of humility, of kindness, and of peace.
There is a beautiful midrash from the middle ages which reimagines the Binding of Isaac. It gives voice to the transcendent pain felt by both parents and children when their relationship is rent, and it gives us new hope in restoring even the most damaged relationships.
“And he placed him on the altar” (Gen. 22:9). Abraham’s eyes [were looking] into Isaac’s eyes, and Isaac’s eyes [were looking] into the heaven of heavens. And tears were flowing and falling from Abraham's eyes, until his whole height was awash in tears... At that moment [Abraham’s] mouth gaped open in a cry and he bellowed a great moan. And his eyes were rolled back and gazing up at the [divine presence]. And he lifted up his voice and said, “I lift [up my] eyes to the mountains; whence will my help come? ...” (Ps. 121:1). [Isaac lifted up his eyes and beheld the Chambers of the Chariot; he trembled and was shaken.] At that moment, “Behold, the mighty ones shall cry outside; ambassadors of peace shall weep bitterly” (Isa. 33:7). The ministering angels stood row upon row in the firmament, saying to one another: Look! One who is unique is slaughtering; and one who is unique is being slaughtered... Immediately [the Angel said to Abraham]: “Do not send forth your hand against the boy” (Gen. 22:12).
Abraham is not a monster; he grieves for the pain he causes his son. And Isaac, a victim of terrible sacrifice, lives on through the faith he shares with his father. Their love is strained, but this midrash shows us that even through the pain, there is hope for reconciliation.
We, too, face our own complicated relationships. Tremors of anxiety shake us from our better judgment; fear shrinks us away from our responsibilities. And through the pain of disappointment in others and in ourselves, the message of Rosh Hashanah offers our lives both understanding and acceptance. At this time of teshuvah, we have a tremendous opportunity: to try to repair what can be repaired, to try to forgive what can be forgiven, and to try to open our lives to faith.
Avinu Malkeinu, our loving parent, bring blessing into our lives, treat us generously and with kindness, and be our help.
[Cantor sings Avinu Malkeinu]
 Adapted from “Avinu Malkeinu—A Tenacious Link” in Dov Peretz Elkins’ Yom Kippur Readings, p. 107-108.
 See, for example, Kiddushin 31a, Sanhedrin 81a, Bava Metzia 33a, Yevamot 6a, PT Peah 1:1, Tanna d’Bei Eliyahu (ed. Friedmann) p. 134 [as found in The Book of Legends p. 638)
 One who does not care for one’s children is seen as violating natural law; cf. Ketubot 49b. NB While halakhic understandings of these requirements still fall primarily on fathers, the Middle Ages and especially the modern period saw more considerations by rabbis of mothers’ responsibilities when they become divorced or when their husband dies. As Shlomo Nahmias (“The Law and the Relationship Between Parents and Children” in The Jewish Law Annual, Vol. X) observes, Jewish law progressed toward greater equality between fathers and mothers until Israeli law today treats them as equal vis-à-vis their children. Yehiel Kaplan (“The Changing Profile of the Parent-Child Relationship in Jewish Law,” The Jewish Law Annual, Vol. XVIII) also observes gradual equality developing between a father and mother, stemming largely from the growing focus on the wellbeing of the child as opposed to the authority of the father.
 The obligations listed in Kiddushin 29a can all be seen as ways that a father helps his son prepare for adult life.
 Printed in The Sun, Nov. 2010, Issue 419, p. 37.
 Cf. Yevamot 62a-62b, Sanhedrin 19b, and Sanhedrin 99b.
 Numbers Rabbah 46:5.
 Cf. Maharal’s commentary on Pirkei Avot on Chapter 2, Mishnah 8.
 Cf. Jeremiah 31:19: “Is [not] Ephraim dear to me, a child who is dandled? … Therefore, my core aches for him, and I will certainly deal compassionately with him.”
 Mishnah Yoma 8:9.
 Cf. Martin Buber’s The Way of Man, 2012 (available in e-reader format only), last page.
 Yalkut Shimoni 1, Section 101. Translation in Marc Bregman’s “Aqedah: Midrash as Visualization” in The Journal of Textual Reasoning, Vol. 2, No. 1, June 2003. Available: http://jtr.lib.virginia.edu/volume2/bregman.html.
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