Teach your children, but do not favor them

This week’s Torah portion is Metzora, Leviticus 14:1 – 15:33.

“And He shall restore the heart of the fathers to the children and the heart of the children to their fathers” (Malachi 3:24).

This Sabbath is known as Shabbat Hagadol, the Great Sabbath. In a usual calendar year, when there are at least several days between the Sabbath and Passover, we read on Shabbat Hagadol the prophetic portion from Malachi, who speaks of the “great and awesome day” which will precede the redemption. It is actually Elijah the prophet who will herald this day, and Elijah’s major task will be “to restore the hearts of the parents to their children and the hearts of the children to their parents.”

Apparently our prophet understood that the major issue facing each of us is discord within the family, and if the period of redemption is to be one of harmony and love, such rapprochement must begin with parents and children.

However, there is one strange note within this verse: The fifth commandment ordains that children honor their parents. Yet Malachi begins his familial charge to the parents who must first turn their hearts to the children.

Of all of the challenges that adults have, none is greater than that of being a parent and grandparent. Tragically, one becomes a parent without having taken a single course and without having to prove one’s parental abilities.

The seder, which is an expression of the commandment, “And you shall tell (haggadah) to your children,” expresses the challenge of parenting at its opening. Each of the participants around the table takes karpas, which is usually translated as a green vegetable portending the spring season.

However, Rabbi Shlomo Kluger suggests in his interpretation of the Haggadah that the word karpas is derived from the striped and colored garment which father Jacob gave to his favorite son, Joseph, called in Hebrew passim.

We generally dip our vegetable in salt water; however, there is an alternative custom to dip the karpas in charoset, a mixture of nuts and wine which the Jerusalem Talmud suggests is reminiscent of blood. Remember that Joseph’s brothers dipped his karpas cloak into the blood of the slaughtered ram (Genesis: 37:31). And so, it is clear that we are opening the seder remembering the relationship between father Jacob and son Joseph.

From this perspective, the seder is instructing the parent of his major task to impart Jewish traditions to his children, but warning the parent of the challenges and even difficulties which go along with parenthood.

How can we avoid the pitfall? First, it is crucial to be loving and accepting of all of our children, even of those who may have strayed far from the path. That is why there are four children around the seder table, one of them being the wicked child. He, too, must be given a place which enables him to feel the familial embrace.

Even more noteworthy is how the Haggadah defines the wicked child: He is neither a Sabbath desecrator nor a partaker of nonkosher food, but is one who excludes himself from the community of Israel. It is critical that the Jew feels himself or herself to be a member of the entire Jewish family. And it is incumbent upon every Jewish parent to accept all the children. The wise parent will take away the sting from the words of a wicked child through familial love and warmth.

At any rate, each of us has a little bit of each of the four children within our own personality. The message of the Haggadah: Be loving and not judgmental, wise and not punitive.

Shlomo Riskin is chief rabbi of Efrat.

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