Thursday, January 8, 2009

Parenting by Example: A Devar Torah for Vayechi

The phone rings during the dead of the night. You grab the phone half-awake, barely registering the time on the clock. 4:35 am. Who could be calling at this hour? It's the hospital. "Your father is sick. Things don't look good. You'd better come quick."
Of course. You jump out of bed and quickly pull on some clothes. You grab your car key, your cell phone and wallet and head towards the front door.
But then you wonder: should I bring something else? What else am I missing? What about your kids?

Yosef received precisely that phone call: ויאמור ליוסף הנה אביך חולה – "And he said to Yosef, behold your father is sick." (48:1) The Torah doesn't even bother telling us that Yosef travels immediately to his father. But it does tell us what – or who -- he brought with him. ויקח את שני בנוי עמו – "and he took his two sons with him. "Yosef took his children. Yosef took Menashe and Ephraim.

Why did he bring them? Rashi says that he brought them to receive a brachah. Yet, nowhere do we find Yosef asking his father to bless his sons. Rather, the initiative for the brachot comes from Ya'akov himself. "Take them to me and I will bless them."

We can find a different reason for Ya'akov to bring his sons by asking the question from the other direction: why wouldn't he bring his sons? After all, if you found out that your aging father had fallen ill and you feared that he was nearing death, would you come alone or would you bring your children? I imagine that all of us would bring our kids, especially if they were not too young – which Menashe and Ephraim were not.

Or would we? After all, hospitals are nasty places. I've heard parents tell me more than once that they didn't want to "expose" their children to the difficult sight of seeing Bubby or Saba hooked up to all those tubes. After all, is that the lasting image that we want them to have of their beloved grandparent?

Of course it's not. But hopefully, our children have many more images and memories than the final stay at the hospital. More importantly, the lasting image they must have is of their father or mother lovingly sitting at the side of the bed, jumping for every need – from an extra blanket or a sip of water, to the recitation of yet another chapter of Tehillim. They must learn from us how to be people of chesed, mitzvot and yirat shamayim. For if they don't learn it from us, where will they learn it?

Yosef brought his sons with him to see Ya'akov because Yosef made it a practice to include his children in all his positive endeavors and especially in the mitzvoth that he performed. He was about to fulfill the mitzvah of kibbud av v'em. It made perfect sense for him to bring his sons along with him. So why does the Torah tell us this seemingly unimportant fact? Both in language and in fact, Yosef's parenting practice of including his children pays great dividends. Precisely because Yosef brings Menashe and Ephraim does Ya'akov bless them; their presence that accords them the honor of being the models of Jewish blessing for all time.

When Yosef hears about Ya'akov’s illness, the Torah tells us that ויקח את שני בניו אתו - "and he took his two sons with him. "Yet, when Ya'akov learns of their presence and wishes to bless them he uses the exact same language: ויאמר קחם נא אלי ואברכם- "and he said, take them to me and I will bless them. "In using the same word – לקחת, in an unusual way, the Torah connects Yosef's "taking" with Ya'akov’s. Only because Yosef had the foresight and parental instincts to bring his sons with him on this visit do his sons merit the blessing that they receive.

As parents, we all struggle with the same issues. We push our children to grow and achieve – but we don't want to push them too much for fear of alienating them. We want them to take initiative and act on their own. So we bug them about it. Yet, all too often we forget that one of the best forms of encouragement is teaching by example. How many mothers attend a Tehillim group but don't invite their daughters along? How many meals have we cooked for a neighbor but neglected to include our children in the project? How many times have we visited a friend who was sick, but left our kids at home?

If the power of chesed can transform us, we must also use it as an educational tool to share our good work – the very best part of us – with our children. They must see the tzedakah that we give. They can participate in the chesed we perform. And just like Yosef, when we "take" our children with us and expose them to the best parts of who we are and what they can be, we give them the greatest blessing of all: inspiration by example.