Our Rebellious Teens

this a text of my Shabbat sermon from 11/1

I am often asked by people why in our tradition, when someone loses a parent, they wear the ribbon with the tear in it, signifying the loss, on the left side of their chest, over their heart.  Whereas if you lose a sibling, or a spouse, or God-forbid a child, the ribbon goes on the right side.  Same question about the kaddish period – for a parent, kaddish is recited for an 11 month period, but for other relatives only 30 days.  And the reason for this is that our parents give us one unique gift, a gift that no other person can give us – they give us the gift of life.  They bring us in to the world, they sustain and nourish us, and so mourning for a parent is different, it is a greater responsibility – we owe that person more, if you will, because of what they’ve given to us.  There is a special bond that we have with our parents – literally coming from them – that we do not have with any other person.

Of course that bond itself is at the center of a difficult dance that begins really when a child is born, and that continues throughout their lives.  What is the force of that bond between ourselves and our parents?  How strong should that bond be?  When does a child need that bond to be loosened?  When does a parent need to loosen it?  Our goal as parents is to raise independent children, who can stand on their own two feet, make their own decisions, take care of themselves and live their own lives.  However, we all know that parents and children might not necessarily agree on the exact moment when that independence comes about.  And it is commonly during the teenage years when parents and children most disagree about what independence means, and when a young person is entitled to it.

Teens have various ways of rebelling against their parents and asserting their independence.  It could be anything from style of dress, to hair cut, to hair color, to music, to late hours and curt comments and the list goes on and on.  And as so often happens when reading the Torah, I am struck with a sense of the more things change, the more they stay the same, or, as Yoggi Berra so famously said it, it is deja vu all over again.

This morning the Torah began to tell us the story of Abraham and Sarah, recording God’s initial call to Abraham and the beginning of their journey together to the Promised Land that God’s call set in motion.  The sense in the Torah and in most of the commentaries is that Abraham was uniquely suited to this mission, that from the time he was a child there were qualities and characteristics that distinguished him from others, that made him more receptive, more sensitive, to God’s call when it finally came.  The truth is we know very little about Abraham’s childhood from the Torah itself, in fact we know almost nothing.  But the midrasnhic literature comes along to paint a picture of what Abraham was like as a boy.  One of those stories over time has become so well known that many people think it is in the Torah, and that is the tale of Abraham as a boy working in his father’s idol shop.

As the story goes, one night Abraham went down into the idol shop when his father – Terach – was sleeping.  He smashed all of the idols, leaving just fragments of clay and stone on the ground.  The next morning Terach came down, accusing Abraham of destroying the idols.  “I didn’t do it,” Abraham said.  “they attacked each other!”  “That is impossible,” said his father, “they are made of stone and clay!”  “Then why do you worship them?” Abraham responded.

Now that is what I call a teenage rebellion!  Not just challenging your parent verbally, something that teens seem to take great pleasure in doing, but going after one of your parent’s core beliefs.  Abraham’s challenge to his father is not just an empty verbal sparring, words intended to annoy.  It is instead a rejection of his father’s entire life style.  It is a way of saying “what you have been and what you are is precisely what I will not be!  I will be something entirely different – you’ve worshiped idols your whole life – but I will worship the one true God.  In this way, Lech Lecha, Abraham’s going out, is a way of cutting ties, of leaving not only a place behind, but a system of values, a culture as well.  It is a way of taking the bond between father and son and breaking it.

But not so fast.  There is a prelude to that story, to that Lech Lecha, that is important to consider today, and in that prelude perhaps the parents in the room this morning – especially the parents of teens – might find some sense of comfort.  Listen to this verse, from the end of last week’s Torah portion – because it paints a very different picture of the relationship between Abraham and his father.  “Terach took his son Abraham, his grandson Lot, and his daughter in law Sarah, ויצאו אתם מאור כסדים – and they went out TOGETHER from Ur Kasdim to journey to the land of Canaan.”

We know from the text of the Bible that they didn’t get all the way to Canaan.  The text tells us that they stopped along the way, in a place called Haran, and they settled there.  We don’t know why they stopped.  Maybe Terach got too old to travel.  Maybe, as so often happens, life got in the way and the original plans were scrapped.  But the point is, Terach, Abraham’s father, was the one who initiated the journey to Canaan, to the Promised Land.  And if this is the case than Abraham’s spiritual insight, his growing belief that there was only one God, came, at least in part, from his father.  Terach had started to believe in the one God – BEFORE Abraham.  He began the journey, took Abraham along.  He didn’t make it far enough, he didn’t get all the way there, but he gave Abraham a sense of where he should go.  In this way, Abraham’s journey in this morning’s portion wasn’t a break with his father.  Instead, it was actually a continuation of what his father had already begun.  As he traveled, he took with him his father’s beliefs, his father’s values, his father’s view of the world, and those things enabled Abraham to become the first Jew.

I suspect many of us might see in that understanding a reflection of our own experience.  Mark Twain famously said in his pointed way, “when I was a boy of 14 my father was so ignorant that I could hardly stand to have him around, but when I got to be 21 I was astonished by how much he had learned in seven years!”  Perhaps when we were younger we were determined to break from our parents, to make our own lives, to strike out on our own and leave behind what we believed was old fashioned and out of date.  But as we grow older, we grow wiser as well.  We begin to understand how much of our parents we carry with us, how important their values and their view of the world actually are in our own lives.  So let us today remember that and be grateful.

But let us also remember that the same applies to our own children.  They may not seem to be absorbing the lessons we want them to learn.  But in reality they are taking meticulous notes.  What should a family be like?  How should people treat each other? Why is Judaism meaningful, and how should it be lived in the home?  These are the lessons we teach by living our own lives in the right way.  So that one day, when our children and grandchildren begin their own journeys, they will take with them those parts of us that will help them to become the people we hope they will be –

may those ideals be fulfilled – לדור ודור  -from one generation to the next –

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