“A Revolutionary Definition of Parenthood”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Toledot, opens with a genealogy of the family of Isaac and his wife Rebecca, and the birth of their twin sons, Esau and Jacob.

In Genesis 25:19, the Torah states, “V’ay’leh toledot Yitzchak ben Avraham, Avraham ho’leed eht Yitzchak,” and these are the offspring of Isaac, son of Abraham, Abraham begot Isaac.

Rashi notes that it was not at all a coincidence that Isaac was born immediately after the Holy One, blessed be He, changed Abram’s name to “Abraham.” By adding the letter “Hey” to his previous name, says Rashi, the Al-mighty indicated that Abraham would now be the father of many great nations, rather than the father of a single nation.

The name change, however, was not simply a semantic change of a single letter, but rather a truly ontological change. So important is this “little” change that the Talmud, in Brachot 13a, commenting on the Biblical verse (Genesis 17:5), “You shall no longer be named Abram,” states that anyone who henceforth refers to Abraham as “Abram,” will have violated a positive commandment.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, expounding on these verses, introduces a bold and extraordinarily novel concept regarding parenthood. Rabbi Soloveitchik argues that prior to the changing of Abraham’s name, it was assumed that parenthood (fatherhood as well as motherhood) was a condition derived entirely from nature. A seed is planted, a woman becomes pregnant, a child is born, and man and woman automatically assume the role of “parents.” While the biological facts cannot be denied, this definition of parenthood has little or no spiritual or emotional implication. On the contrary, it underscores the commonality that humans have with animals, who also have a biological relationship with their offspring.

Rabbi Soloveitchik argues that now, with the introduction of the new name “Abraham,” the concept of parenthood is entirely transformed. For the first time there is not only a biological link, but a new understanding of parenthood, one which acknowledges a spiritual connection between parents and children. In addition to their previously understood role as biological parents, fathers and mothers are now ascribed the role of “teacher,” whose responsibility it is to expose their offspring to vital moral and educational messages.

Declares Rabbi Soloveitchik, “When a child is born into a family, the child does not yet belong entirely to the family. Parents must ‘reacquire’ the child.” This, argues Rabbi Soloveitchik, was the reason for the Akeidah (the binding of Isaac). By offering his child as a sacrifice to G-d, Abraham demonstrated that the gift of a child was something he had earned, and had not merely been given. So, too, must all parents make evident that they are worthy of the gift of their offspring. Parents may never assume that they are entitled to children, nor may they issue a demand for them. To the contrary, a child is always a gift from the Al-mighty Himself.

While it is true that G-d does not demand of parents today to subject their children to an Akeidah, parents are still expected to make “sacrifices” of their time and wherewithal. They are, declares Rabbi Soloveitchik, required to “educate the infant, to fashion the child, and to pass on the message of the Mesorah (Jewish tradition).” The true measure of a parent is revealed by how they shape and guide the child.

Rabbi Soloveitchik astutely notes the similarity between a parent’s role in the development of a child, and G-d’s role in fashioning the universe. When the Torah states, in Genesis 2:4, “These are the generations of the heaven and earth, when they were created,” it uses an unusual construct of the Hebrew word for creating, “b’hee’bah’r’ahm. Therefore, the rabbis (Bereshith Rabba 12:10) conclude that G-d created the heavens and the earth with the letter “Hey.” The sages explain that the letter, “Hey,” was chosen as a metaphor for the world–-in that three sides of the letter are closed and the fourth is open. One may, if they choose, wander and stray by “descending” to the depths as if through the opening on the bottom of the “Hey.” However, for those seeking repentance, re-entry is possible through the small window represented by the opening that is on the side of the letter.

Similarly, the letter “Hey” was added to Abraham’s name. Before this, teaching was not specifically seen as part of the role of parenting. In addition to his future as the father of many nations, Abraham became the first to assume the role of teacher to his biological children.

We find a similar message in Genesis 14:14, where scripture states that, “Vah’yah’rek eht chah’nee’chav,” when preparing to do battle against the four great kings, Abraham mobilized those whom he had “educated.” Rabbi Manny Forman indicated that Abraham was not called “Ivree,” the Jew, when he recognized G-d or performed religious acts, but only when he went forth and reached out to others, mobilizing them and educating them. His soldiers are therefore called “chah’nee’chav”–those whom he educated.

A similar message is communicated by the fact that, surprisingly, there is no mitzvah in the Torah mandating personal Torah study. Sefer Ha’Chinuch indicates that the proof-text for studying Torah is found in the verse of the Shemah prayer (Deuteronomy 6:7) “V’shee’nahn’tam l’vah’neh’chah,” and you shall teach your children. A Jew does not have a personal obligation to study Torah. An individual’s obligation to study Torah is only in order to have sufficient knowledge to teach one’s children.

The revolutionary concept of the “teaching parent” that is introduced in parashat Toledot is an invaluable lesson for all of humankind.

May you be blessed.