In Judaism, it is customary among the many acts of social kindness to wish other parents what we call “nachas,” joy or pleasure from their children. A principal goal shared across communities of faith and caring is to see our offspring make us proud through their emulation of our ways and their own accomplishments as they grow and develop. There is a certain validation of our own being when our children embrace our cultural and religious beliefs and behaviors. And yet it is an assignment they do not sign up for.
Consider why it is that we have children. Indeed, the first Biblical commandment given by God to humankind is “to be fruitful and multiply;” to sustain the growth of society by continuing to add to its ranks. In the words from Isaiah, “I did not create it as a void but instead to have it settled.” But when looked at more closely, our acts of procreation and pursuit of progeny are more likely an effort to affirm our lives by planting well for the future. We have children for the joy they bring us; but also for the sense of continuity of kin and clan. In most households, there is a sense that what has been embraced as norms and values is worthy of replication by successive generations.
To be honest, as one of my teachers in Rabbinical School once noted, having children is the most selfish and, also in most situations, still laudable and noteworthy, act to be committed by parents. We somehow feel and believe that our life’s example is impressive enough that the world needs and deserves more of it. Towards this praiseworthy end, we do not see the need, were it in fact possible, for our children’s prior consent. We give them the gift of life and can therefore reasonably expect and anticipate that they will embrace it in kind.
But might this be a case of noble self-interest or enlightened hubris? It no doubt serves society’s needs to populate the world. But even as we advance its cause through those that we bear, we do so largely to uphold a sense of personal meaning and purpose. We want to believe that the future asks for more of the same. We seek our generativity not only through professional achievements and breakthroughs but through those whom we seed and leave behind in the wake of our earthly end.
Do not get me wrong. I am pro-family and do not/hardly see every positive reproductive outcome as a matter of “wrongful birth” and I am blessed to be both a parent and grandparent. Raising a family has been a gift and a privilege. And there is a measure of “nachas” in watching children continue our traditions. But there are also incidents in earnest whereby children see it otherwise and embrace a different set of values and practices. We can expect or desire their embrace of our lifestyle, but it is not always, if ever, ours to decide.
This is not a Jewish concern alone but a challenge faced by all communities of faith and values.
One should have an organizing element and orienting attitude. As we seek to preserve and advance those causes that animate our lives, we must do so in earnest all the while aware that it might not be a source of similar inspiration for our offspring. After all, they did not sign up for this project. We are all born against our will into a set of earthly expectations, societal structures, and familial fantasies. So we can and should plant for the future, all the while aware that the growth can take different directions.
As much as we might be convinced of the moral rectitude and untold benefits of one’s value system, it might land very differently in and on our children’s hearts and souls. This is no doubt, hard work. It involves many deep feelings of social and cultural rejection, even shame and embarrassment. We might feel markedly diminished. But we must save ourselves from seeing this as defeat. Our children deserve the dialogue and debate. We must bear in mind always that this enterprise for religious and cultural continuity is a crapshoot, albeit not without good odds. But we don’t always do it right to inspire and ensure like-minded behavior. And even when we model well for our future generations it is still open for deep review and mindful consideration. There may be one or more other paths to a life of purpose.
The story is told of a saintly rabbi, known as the Chafetz Chaim, literally “one who seeks life” (taken from the title of his principal moral tome) who when approached by a bereft parent whose son had strayed from the family’s religious ways, replied simply, “love him more.”
We like to say that there are 70 facets to the Torah/Bible, implying a fascinating interpretive unity in diversity.
But as I like to say; there is a place and time for coloring outside of the lines. We need to let our progeny find peace and purpose in the lives we have brought them into; and we should appreciate our children as we say in Hebrew, “ba’asher heim shom,” where they are and currently find themselves. Above all, when our respective ideas do not align, we should keep open minds, fairly engage and “love them more!”