Importance of the Parent-Child Bond

By This Week's Words
Saturday, September 27, 2008

We recently launched a column featuring excerpts of recent sermons by Washington area clergy. This week's is from Rabbi Amy R. Perlin, senior rabbi of Temple B'nai Shalom in Fairfax Station.

The parent-child relationship affects us more profoundly than any other relationship of our lives. It is the foundation of all of our relationships and the source of our earliest consciousness about love, intimacy, trust and security. It can nourish us to wholeness and self-assurance or scar us for life.

So, we, the children, stand before God, the Parent, every Rosh Hashanah. We open the Torah to Genesis 22 and are forced to relive one of the most complex and troubling accounts of the parent-child relationship. We come into our sanctuary, every Rosh Hashanah, cringing as God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son at the top of Mount Moriah.

I don't believe in a God who would ever ask us, or want us, to hurt others. I struggle with Genesis 22 all year long, as I have struggled with the issues it raises for 50 years. I would have argued with God. I would have said NO to God. My sons are the most precious people in the world to me. I guess I love them more than I love God. And I do love God.

So, when Abraham reaches for the knife, who are we in the story?

Some of us are parents. We would cut off our own hand rather than lift a finger to our children. Jewish parents do not want their sons to die. We do not raise children to become suicide bombers for God or Torah. We are expected to love our children and keep them safe and whole and alive.

Some of us are Isaac, the child, afraid and forever scarred by what our father seems willing to do. Every time we read this Torah passage, we relive old fears and pain. We are the children who, in a host of ways, have been harmed or neglected, hurt or forever damaged by adults who should have cared for and loved us unconditionally and did not. And some of us become Isaac when we marry into heartless and hurtful families.

Some of us are Isaac, the beloved child of the rest of the Torah other than this isolated story; the child of his parents' yearnings in their old age. How blessed we feel to have been able to thrive with loving parents to nurture us, even if they sometimes drove us crazy.

Some of us are the ram. We watch with interest or even horror, stuck in a thicket viewing from a distance, doing little or nothing to help, and then we act surprised when we become the next sacrifice. We stand idly by while our loved one or neighbor, co-worker or friend bleeds. We view life as reality TV for our personal entertainment, numb to the pain or danger.

We are all rams, guilty as a society for watching innocent children go to bed hungry here in America, fear for their lives in Darfur, and live as orphans in AIDS-ravaged Africa. The ram's horn calls us to wake up, for the children's sake.

And some of us are the angel sent by a ''less than omnipotent'' God to tell and teach, to protect and defend. The angel of God protects the child, spares the father, substitutes the ram and speaks the words that make our Torah different from other texts.

We Jews don't sacrifice our children. This is not the way to show love for God or faithfulness to your Creator. The angel is the voice of Torah teaching us that those who would sacrifice their children do more than sin. They destroy a piece of our collective humanity. The angel is the voice of God in all of us calling us to keep life sacred above all else, including our love for God.

Amid all the drama of this biblical narrative, there is a thread that underscores the importance of the parent-child bond for us. Abraham and Isaac walk together. . . . "And the two walked, as one."

What a blessing to have someone, especially a parent, walk with you through life's journey. And what a miracle of love when the parent who walks side by side with you was the child once tied to the altar, who has committed to be the parent they never saw or knew.

Abraham did love his son, and his God, even if we question his example.

I have come to realize over the years that our relationship with our parents impacts the relationship we will ultimately have with God. If God is the Parent with a capital "P," then we form our relationship with God through the lens of a childhood that may have had us longing to be heard, understood, worthy; independent out of necessity; or yearning to be loved unconditionally, even when we make mistakes.

Rosh Hashanah is about coming to be changed and yearning to leave with hope that we can make our daily relationships better. Life is about doing -- what is right for us, our children, our parents, our world, and even our God.

We are all Abraham. We are all Isaac. We are all ''the ram.'' We are all ''the angel.'' We are all part of God's narrative, given tasks and choices, faced with truths and trials. We are the sum total of our experiences. Ultimately, we are what we do and what we say. We are God's children. May God be good to us and protect us in the New Year.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company