“Raising Jewish Children in a Challenging Environment”
(updated and revised from Chayei Sarah 5762-2001)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Chayei Sarah, opens with the death of Sarah.

Less well known is the fact that the death of Abraham is also found in this week’s parasha. Genesis 25:8, records the passing of the great patriarch Abraham, וַיִּגְוַע וַיָּמָת אַבְרָהָם בְּשֵׂיבָה טוֹבָה זָקֵן וְשָׂבֵעַ, וַיֵּאָסֶף אֶל עַמָּיו, and Abraham expired and died at a good old age. Mature and content, he was gathered to his people. Abraham’s sons, Isaac and Ishmael, bury Abraham in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Efron, where Abraham had buried Sarah.

The commentators note that once Abraham, at the age of 140, had arranged for the marriage of Isaac, we hear very little about Abraham, even though he lives to age 175. They explain that the destiny of the Jewish people had moved on to the next generation, and now the focus is on Isaac. Yet, Genesis 25, the final chapter of parashat Chayei Sarah, which feels very much like an addendum or afterthought, contains many revealing insights into the life history and successes of Abraham.

The Torah reports in Genesis 25:1, וַיֹּסֶף אַבְרָהָם, וַיִּקַּח אִשָּׁה וּשְׁמָהּ קְטוּרָה, Abraham proceeded and took a wife whose name was Keturah. According to the Midrash Tanchuma, cited by Rashi, Keturah was actually Hagar, whom Abraham took back as a wife after Sarah’s death. Genesis 25:2, records that Keturah and Abraham had six children–Zimron, Yakshon, Medon, Midian, Yishpak and Shua, and many grandchildren. The Torah (Genesis 25:5-6), also specifically states that, before he died, Abraham transferred his entire estate to Isaac. To the children of the concubines, Abraham gave gifts and sent them away from Isaac, while he was still alive, eastward to the land of the east.

What is quite startling is that, in total, Abraham had eight children–Isaac, Ishmael and his six children with Keturah. Yet, of all Abraham’s children, only Isaac and Ishmael are reported in Genesis 25:9 to have attended Abraham’s burial. Of those two, only Isaac is expected to continue the spiritual legacy of Abraham. There is no further mention anywhere in the Torah of Abraham’s six other children. The Zohar Chadash says that by calling these six children “Abraham’s children,” the Torah attests to the fact that they carried the spark of Abraham in their souls, however much it may have been hidden. And yet, Abraham sends them away while he is still alive so that they could not contest Isaac’s position as Abraham’s only true heir. Some suggest that this is a fulfillment of G-d’s previous prophecy to Abraham (Genesis 21:12), כִּי בְיִצְחָק יִקָּרֵא לְךָ זָרַע, that “only through Isaac will offspring be considered yours.”

Nevertheless, it is somewhat disconcerting to learn that the great Abraham 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. Ishmael, at least, attends Abraham’s funeral, but only Isaac successfully adopts Abraham’s lifestyle.

This, unfortunately, is not the only instance in the Torah where towering Jewish leaders are unsuccessful with their children. The children of Moses, for instance are rarely mentioned. In fact, there is a Midrashic tradition (Baba Batra 109b), that Moses’ grandson, Yonaton, eventually became a leader of an idolatrous cult. We find throughout Jewish history that many significant 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 Abraham, as well?

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

Especially because of the many enticing blandishments of America, many committed contemporary Jews are largely oblivious of the extent of the challenging environment in which we live and raise our children. I’ve often noted, that it’s hard to be a “Yeshiva Bachur” in Sodom (not to imply that America is Sodom, at least not yet!). Indeed, every parent has a sacred obligation to carefully consider the “environmental factors” when choosing where to raise children.

This matter of environment and the Jews’ interface with it, has been a long-brewing issue between the Modern Orthodox Jews and the Chasiddic/Yeshivish Orthodox communities. The Chassidic/Yeshivish Orthodox argue that given the fact that contemporary Jews live in truly hostile circumstances, committed Jews need to withdraw from much of contemporary life in order to shelter and protect themselves and their children from the damaging outside influences. Modern Orthodox Jews are also concerned about the environment, but 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 they need to strengthen themselves during this period of “moral relativity” and questionable moral standards by withdrawing, so that eventually there will be enough solidly committed Orthodox Jews to influence the world?

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

And, of course, this still leaves the ultimate question unanswered: Can one truly be a completely committed Jew living outside the land of Israel?

To be continued.

May you be blessed.