“Raising Jewish Children in a Challenging Environment”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This coming week’s parasha, parashat Chayei Sarah, begins with the death of Sarah. Less widely known is the fact that the last chapter, chapter 25, tells of the death of Avraham. (Genesis 25:8) “Va’yigva, va’ya’mat Avraham b’say’vah tovah, zah’kain v’sah’vay’ah. Vah’yay’ah’sef el ah’moh,” and Avraham expired and died at a good old age. Mature and content, he was gathered to his people. Avraham’s sons, Yitzchak and Ishmael, bury Avraham in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Efron, where Avraham had buried Sarah.

The commentators tell us that once Avraham, at the age of 140, had arranged for the marriage of Yitzchak, we hear very little about the life of Avraham, even though he lives on to the age of 175. They explain that the destiny of the Jewish people had moved on to the next generation, and now the focus was on Yitzchak. Yet the final chapter of parashat Chayei Sarah, chapter 25, which seems very much like an addendum or afterthought, reveals many telling insights into the life history and successes of Avraham.

The Torah tells us in Genesis 25:1, “Va’yosef Avraham va’yikach ee’shah ush’mah Keturah,” Avraham proceeded and took a wife whose name was Keturah. According to some of the commentators, this was actually Hagar, whom Avraham took back as a wife after Sarah’s death. In verse 2, scripture tells us that Keturah and Avraham had six children–Zimron, Yakshon, Medon, Midian, Yishpak and Shua, and many grandchildren. The Torah specifically states that Avraham gave his entire legacy to Yitzchak. To the children of the concubines, Avraham gave gifts and sent them away from Yitzchak, while he was still alive, eastward to the land of the east.

What is quite revealing here is that in total Avraham had eight children–Yitzchak, Yishmael and his six children with Keturah. Of all Avraham’s children, only Yitzchak and Yishmael are reported in Genesis 25:9 to have attended Avraham’s burial. Of those two, only Yitzchak is expected to continue the spiritual legacy of Avraham. There is no mention of the six other children. The Zohar Chadash (a Kabbalistic Midrash) says that by calling these six children “Avraham’s children,” the Torah attests to the fact that they carried the spark of Avraham in their souls, however much it may be hidden. And yet, Avraham sends them away while he is still alive so that they could not contest Yitzchak’s position as Avraham’s only true heir.

It is astounding to see that the great Avraham could not successfully educate all his children, or even most of them, to follow in his footsteps. His six children with Keturah appear to be very distant. Yishmael at least comes to his funeral, but only Yitzchak is able to successfully adopt Avraham’s lifestyle. This, unfortunately, is not the only instance in the Torah where Jewish leaders are unsuccessful with their children. The children of Moshe, for instance, are rarely mentioned. In fact, there is a Midrashic tradition that Moshe’s grandson, Yonaton became a leader of idolatry. We find throughout Jewish history that great Jewish leaders had grief from their children, perhaps because they focused so much on the needs of the community at the expense of their own families.

Is that the case here with Avraham? Avraham, it seems, fathers more children in his old age in the hope that he’ll be able to spread the “gospel” of monotheism. Avraham does not seem at all to be a negligent parent. Perhaps his lack of success is due rather to the fact that Avraham was working against great odds. Avraham attempted to raise his family in what was a bitterly hostile environment, the entire contemporary world was against him. Try as he may, Avraham ultimately sees that the children of Keturah do not measure up to his values. He gives them gifts and sends them away, so that they will not negatively influence Yitzchak and his family.

Especially because of the many blandishments of America, many of us are oblivious to the challenge of the environment in which we live and raise our children. I’ve often said that it’s hard to be a Yeshiva bachur in Sodom (not that America is Sodom, G-d forbid). Indeed, every parent has a sacred obligation to carefully consider the environmental factor when choosing where to raise children.

This issue of environment and the Jews’ interface with it is one of the raging issues of debate between the Modern Orthodox and the so called Yeshivish Orthodox. The Yeshivish Orthodox seem to argue that given the fact that we Jews live in such hostile circumstances, committed Jews need to withdraw in order to shelter and protect ourselves and our children. Modern Orthodox Jews seem to feel that the interface between modernity and Orthodoxy is vital and enriching. The question is, how much interface, and is now the right time to affirm that interface, or do we need to strengthen ourselves during this period of “moral relativity” and questionable moral standards by withdrawing, so that eventually there will be enough solid Orthodox Jews to influence the world?

The few verses surrounding Avraham’s demise are indeed revealing. They seem to affirm Avraham’s belief that Yitzchak needs to live in an environment that is free from the detrimental influences of his brothers, but is that the Torah’s ultimate conclusion for contemporary Jews as well, or merely the conclusion of what was best for Yitzchak in his environment?

And, of course, this raises the ultimate question: Can one be a complete Jew living outside the land of Israel?

To be continued.

May you be blessed.