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Parenting from the Parsha- Parshat Vayechi- Loving Them Just The Way They Are

Jan 4, 2023

Parenting from the Parsha- Parshat Vayechi- Loving Them Just The Way They Are

In this week’s parsha, Yaacov famously blesses each of his children. And there is much debate and discussion amongst the commentaries regarding the exact nature of these brachot. What, the rabbis ask, was Yaacov was hoping to accomplish with these blessings? Were they references to the past, descriptions of the present, or prophecies of the future?

The simple answer is that they are a mixture of all of three. But I believe that if we look closely, the major theme that threads throughout all the brachot-what binds them all together- is their description of the present. In essence, Yaacov strives to capture with each blessing the uniqueness of each of his sons- to highlight major aspects of their personality, talents, or character. Sometimes, that uniqueness may also be manifest in the future among a son’s descendants, whereas at other times, that personality trait may have expressed itself in the past. But the goal is not specifically to look towards the future or to rehash the past. Instead, Yaacov wants each son to understand that his father sees something special in him, something unique and exceptional. He wants each child to feel seen and cherished for who he is. 

Many of us grew up with watching the well-known children’s TV show, Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, created and hosted by Fred Rogers. The show was tremendously successful. In a 1969 Senate hearing regarding the future of PBS funding that might impact his show’s viability, Rogers shared the goal of his show- namely to “give an expression of care every day to each child, to help him realize that he is unique”. Famously, Mr. Rogers would end each show by famously declaring to each child, “I love you just the way you are.”

I believe that if we had to sum up the most important role that we are meant to play as parents, it would be to ensure that children understand and feel that they are each loved “just the way they are”. We must create a home that exudes warmth, love and acceptance- no matter what. Our care for them does not depend on anything they do or don’t do, but is inherent in our relationship. We value our children, and appreciate them, for who they are- not for what they do.

This does not mean that we should not have expectations of our children, make demands on them, or even discipline them when necessary. It simply means that, at their core, our children should know that, regardless of what happens, our love for them remains. If our kids grow up with this deep sense of support and love, it will serve them well in two important ways. Firstly, as they encounter the outside world and begin to develop other relationships with people that may be less accepting and more critical of them- - friends, peers, neighbors, co-workers- they will be better equipped to withstand those challenges, knowing that they have a home base of support that they can always come back to. Secondly, as our children grow up, the inevitable areas of tension or conflict that arise between parents and children will be more easily navigated if the fundamental base of the relationship is one of complete love and acceptance.

A couple of recent examples of this idea come to mind.

In an interview on the 18forty podcast with his son Gedalia, Rabbi Menachem Penner, the Dean of RIETS, shared a foundational point regarding parenting and dealing with conflict.  He pointed out that if the first time you let your children know how much you love them is when you are trying to work through a particular area of tension or conflict, then it’s going to be particularly hard to navigate the conflict. But if the conflict arises within the context of a strong and loving relationship, then the results can be very different.

In a recent Mishpacha article (Issue 939), Rabbi Shimon Russell, a well-known authority in the Yeshiva world regarding the challenges of dealing with struggling youth, shared his own personal experience raising children who were off the derech. At a particularly painful point during the challenging journey, the following idea occurred to him, and gave him tremendous insight. He needed to relay to his daughter, “[You can only] try to defy me more than I can love you. You won’t be able to, because I love you unconditionally.’ I knew then and there,” Rabbi Russel continues, “that my daughter’s defiance would allow me to help her heal, because if I could love her more powerfully than she could defy me, then perhaps I could help her feel safe and start her journey to recovery.’”

In a similar vein, the story is told about the Baal Shem Tov that a father came to him to ask for guidance in dealing with his son who was no longer Torah observant. Distraught, the father asked the Baal Shem Tov how he should deal with his son- to which the Baal Shem Tov replied, “the best thing way for you to deal with your son is to love him even more”.

On a personal note- I have mentioned earlier that each Friday night, after giving each of my children the standard Shabbat bracha that fathers give to their children, I take a minute to share a more personal bracha with each of them. While the content of the personal bracha varies from week to week, I end every bracha with each child with the following words- “and always remember that no matter what, Abba, Eema, and Hashem love you so much”. In my mind, these words capture the message that I feel is most important for our children to internalize- that as parents, we will always love them no matter what, and that Hashem, as their Father in Heaven, will always love them as well.

In this week’s Parsha, as Yaacov’s life winds down and the Patriarchal Era comes to a close, Yaacov’s final message to his children (and to us) is an incredibly powerful and important one. Yaacov relates to each child’s unique nature- and he speaks of his appreciation for that uniqueness. Through his brachot, Yaacov makes sure that his children understand that he loves each of them “just the way they are”- a crucial parenting lesson that continues to resonate through the generations.  


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