What is the most difficult time in the life of a parent? What challenge causes the most angst? What do we dread?
For me, and I suspect for many of you, the hardest part of being a parent is when we need to admit to a child that we did wrong.
And I do not mean to aplogize when we said or did something harsh to our child. To say "I am sorry" is not comfortable, but it's not unduly stressful. I mean when we have done something morally wrong, when we have compromised the values we preach.
What parent has not cheated at something or other, lied in a way that was harmful, deceived to save money, or been inappropriate with words or actions. What parent has not sometime or other in their life done the clearly wrongful. And even if at the time the child may be too young to protest, we know sooner or later, they will grow up, perhaps go to therapy, one way or another come to ask us the hard questions about who we are and what we did.
This week we begin the Book of Vayikra with the parsha by the same name. In the context of the reading we are told of a special sacrifice that needs to be brought by the King if he committed an unintentional sin. The Torah begins that section with the words "Ahser nasi yecheta..." "When the King will sin.." The Sages point out the unusual term of "asher" to begin the portion rather that the more typical word "eem" meaning "if" the King will sin. They go on to say that "asher" is used to imply a double message since the word "ashrai" can also mean "fortunate". To quote the Talmud, " Fortunate is the generation whose King feels impelled to bring a sin offerring for his unintentional sin...how much more so will he feel regret over the sins he does willfully".
Indeed it is the rare ruler who expresses regret over wrongdoing. It is very hard for the one in authority to admit a mistake how much more so to publically repent over having done the morally sinful. Yet we might wonder, why is it that a generation whose ruler did the wrong and admits to it is so blessed. Would it not be preferable had the ruler not done wrong in the first place? Would it not be better to have a king who did not have a moral or spiritual lapse?
The Talmud is teaching us something most profound here.In truth a generation whose ruler sins is blessed in a way that a generation whose ruler has never failed is not.
And why? Because when one has the 'perfect' authority in his/her life one can often revel in being connected to the authority figure and never feel the need to grow or make something of themselves. How many a person will tell you how great their "yichus" is, that s/he comes from this great personage or that, and use that to claim their excellence while being totally mediocre in themselves. How many a person will go on and on talking about how wonderful their mother or father was in a way that you know their children could not talk about them. And why not? Because they had not the motivation to become. It was enough for them to be the child of greatness. They felt no need to become great in themselves.
When the leader sins, when the King has a lapse, or for that matter when the parent commits a moral blunder s/he throws the burden to excell back on the shoulders of his/her charge. We can no longer get our sense of worthiness by identification.
We need to become worthy in our own right. There is no gift greater than that, and it only comes about when the authority has failed.
They tell a story of the Kozhinitzer Magid, that a childless couple came to him asking that he intercede on their behalf so G-d may grant them a son. He heard their tearful yearning and said, "The numerical value of son in Hebrew is 52. Give me 52 kopeks and I will pray for you". The couple were astonished. They argued, "We are poor. How can we afford such a price." The Rebbe remained adamant. No matter their protests he would not budge. Finally exasparated the man got up and told his wife, "For that much money we don't need the Rebbe. We will go home and pray ourselves!." And with that they left. The Rebbe then smiled a knowing smile and said to himself "So be it."
The story is compelling. Only once the couple gave up on the authority could they come to pray in the way they needed to for the results they wanted. To the extent that they gave total reverance to the Rebbe, they could not fully reach their own potential.
Only once they detached from him would they find the excellence available within themselves.
All of us who mature come to a time when we are forced to confront our parent's limitations. When young we saw them as demi-gods. They were idealized. Some of us gave up the idealization early, other held on until reality smacked us in the face and we had no choice but to see our parent's failings. The death of a demi-god is sad. But it is not really bad. On the contrary, it is only once the idealized parent is put to bed that our true self has a chance to emerge.
It is for this reason that the rabbis of the Talmud called the generation whose King publically admitted and repented his sinfullness "fortunate". True for the leader him/herself it might be better had s/he committed no misdeed. But the people who discover that their King is liable to err are blessed. Thereby they are compelled to strive for excellence for themselves and not rely on the identification with the all perfect sovereign.
You and I as parents are pained when we have to face our delinquincies in front of our children and grandchildren. We feel we have failed them as well as ourselves.
We will make every effort to minimize or deny our wrong-doing. We fear the cost of acknowledging the truth on our relationship with them. But the reality is that only when our children and grandchildren give up the idealization of us can they move out of our shadows and fully become who they are meant to be. Our sins may shame us but they free the ones we are responsible to.
We may paraphrase the words of our Sages and say "Fortunate are the children whose parents acknowledge their sinfullness and repent".
Who knows if it is not a gift more precious that 'yichus'. Pedigree speaks to the past. Being open to admit our moral lapses makes possible the future for the one's we love.
"The Torah and the Self" is now available in book form. It make a great read and a great gift. You can order a copy at Amazon or Barnes and Noble or you can purchase the book in Jerusalem at Pomeranz Books in downtown Jerusalem. Thanks.