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Rosh HaShanah: Parshat Vayeria-On Overprotective Parenting Sermon

Sermon by Rabbi Josh Lobel

Rosh HaShanah Morning—Thursday, September 5, 2013

As many of you can probably guess, with Elizabeth and I expecting our second child, I have parenthood on the brain right now. We are facing the upcoming few weeks with excitement, joy, and, truth be told, a bit of trepidation, as we prepare ourselves for the newest addition to our family. But we have also been focusing on preparing Ari, our firstborn, for his new role as a big brother. Because, as we see time and time again in the book of Genesis, sibling dynamics are not always easy. And in the case of Isaac and Ishmael, it tears a family apart.

After seemingly endless waiting, Sarah’s years of frustration and despair are ended, as we read, - the Eternal now remembered Sarah, and she became pregnant and bore a son, whom she named Isaac. Derived from the Hebrew word meaning laughter, Isaac’s name reflects the joy Abraham and Sarah felt at becoming parents when it no longer appeared possible.

But quickly, Sarah’s joy gave way to fear and jealousy. You see, before Sarah gave birth to Isaac, Abraham had another child by the name of Ishmael with their maidservant Hagar. Their union, originally proposed by Sarah, was meant to ensure that Abraham would not die childless, with no one to carry on his legacy. But now that Sarah had a child of her own, she wanted nothing to do with Hagar and Ishmael. She wanted them out of her life.

Immediately, Sarah confronts Abraham and commands him to expel the maidservant and her son. While Abraham is deeply distressed, he acquiesces to her demands after gaining reassurance from God that Hagar and her child would not be forgotten, and Ishmael would himself be the father of his own people.

However, things look bleak for Hagar and Ishmael, as they wander through the wilderness without food or drink. Overcome with despair, she puts her son down and begins to weep, not wanting to see her child die. Suddenly, an angel of God appears and tells Hagar not to fear, that God has heard her child’s cry and that God will take care of both of them. She then sees a well of water, gives drink to her child, and, with God’s help, Ishmael did indeed grow up to father a vast nation.

When reading this story, some of us might be troubled by Sarah’s actions towards Hagar and Ishmael. While we can all understand the impulse to do anything to ensure the welfare of one’s child, it still seems a bit petty and callous to exile these two innocents into the wilderness where they were faced certain death, all due to a potential inheritance issue. There seems to be a deeper problem here.

In a midrash, the Sages explain that the issue was not about inheritance at all, but rather, Sarah’s fear for Isaac’s very life. The Torah tells us that Sarah saw Ishmael “playing”, which, according to one interpretation, meant playing a game with Isaac. And what was the substance of this bit of youthful frivolity? According to this interpretation, Ishmael took Isaac into a field, told him to stay still, and Ishmael would then shoot arrows at him, trying to see how close he could get to him. Sarah, seeing through this ruse, immediately went to Abraham to have Ishmael and his mother sent away.

That is certainly an extreme interpretation, which no doubt attempts to justify Sarah’s harsh reaction. But what if we took the verse a different way? What if Ishmael and Isaac were playing together, and Sarah saw Ishmael, being older and stronger, picking on her son? Perhaps Ishmael was acting like a bully and made Isaac cry. For those of us who have children, how do we feel when we see something like this happening? What actions do we take, or at least, are tempted to take when our kids face bullying or misfortune? Similarly, Sarah was so upset that she had Ishmael banished. Maybe Sarah was a bit of a helicopter mom!

It is a natural impulse to protect our children, to do anything that ensures their well-being and happiness. But there are times when, as parents, we need to take a step back and let our kids fend for themselves. We need to allow them to rise over a challenge instead of picking them up and allowing them to escape it. If children are always rescued from their problems, they will not develop the skills to overcome them in the future. As difficult as it may be to watch our children struggle, it is essential for their growth as they journey on into adulthood. For once they have the ability to know how to pick themselves up after they fall, they will have the strength to reach ever new heights.

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