How the Binding of Isaac Can Teach Us to Unbind Our Chidren
Children aren’t ours to possess or own in any way. When we know this in the depths of our soul, we tailor our raising of them to their needs, rather than molding them to fit our needs. - Shefali Tsabary
My husband attended the wedding of a Jewish client of ours, and he came home shaking his head. “You won’t believe what this rabbi said under the chuppah! “I bless you both that you never become like Abraham. Abraham had faith so blind that he was willing to sacrifice his son, Isaac, because God told him to. I bless you that you never be blindly obedient like Abraham was.”
While I thought that was an inappropriate and controversial thing to say to a couple under a chuppah, a lot of people have trouble with the story of the “Binding of Isaac.” Many people are morally confused and outraged, not just at Abraham for obeying, but also at God for commanding such a thing.
What kind of God issues that kind of order and, moreover, what kind of father would even obey? Would you kill your kids if God told you to?” (This is not to be confused, of course, with telling your kids you will kill them if they ever worry you like that again.)
And even if it was all just a test, what kind of God puts a parent through a test like that?
Either way you slice it, the story of the “Binding of Isaac” troubles a lot of people and it’s often used to justify disdain for Judaism and its “blind followers.”
For all you parents out there, one of the profound messages of this story is that we don’t own our children. And so deep down, the test was whether Abraham recognized that Isaac belonged not to him - but to God.
Let’s see how we modern parents would fare with this dilemma. To those of you who are horrified that Abraham would willingly sacrifice his beloved son because "God said so," I have a confrontational question to ask – “Why do you, in fact, sacrifice your children - when you are not told to do so by God?”
The Unconscious Parent
OK, calm down. All of us parents (including me) are guilty of this in some way or other. At some point, we all trample our children’s sensitivities, we refuse to see their individuality, and we find their process of individuation threatening.
At times, we are blind to their best qualities while we magnify what we perceive as their faults. At times, we essentially throw them under the bus so long as they further our agendas or made us look good (for their sake, of course). And if that’s not sacrificing a child, I don’t know what is.
We all have basic needs, but at certain stages of our lives, some needs are more prominent that others. We all have the need for love and connection. It’s hard-wired into us. For teens, however, it is especially important. When children do not necessarily fit the mold of their environment, however, and the message they receive is that unless they conform, they have no value, no worth and no place at the table, those children have few ways to find that sense of belonging they so desperately crave.
Some kids buckle and try to appear outwardly conforming while being internally conflicted and filled with shame stemming from their lack of authenticity and congruence. Other kids look for a peer group or community that welcomes them, that sends the message – “You’re fine as you are. After all, you are just like us.”
While parents prefer the external guise of conformity, it is the latter that is better for a child’s psyche, unless, of course the child falls in with people who are very dysfunctional and self-destructive. Feelings of rejection and unworthiness, however, unfortunately, make that a very common scenario.
When that happens, many parents disconnect from their child, creating a negative downward spiral. This could be avoided if the parents only realized that their children, with their unique souls and journeys, do not belong to them. As Shefali Tsabary, author of Conscious Parenting, explains: “When you parent, it’s crucial you realize you aren’t raising a ‘mini me,’ but a spirit throbbing with its own signature. For this reason, it’s important to separate who you are from whom each of your children is.”
Parents can also be emotionally abusive when they feel denied the vicarious satisfaction of living their dreams through their children. “You could have been a doctor!” is no joke when parents look at and treat their children as failures for not pursuing their own imaginary dreams. It goes even beyond a proprietary interest when parents can’t distinguish the children’s journeys from the paths they never took.
Other parents hypocritically expect their children to be perfect in the areas where they are deficient. When the child fails to measure up, either mirroring the parents’ faults or not providing cover for their inadequacies, the reactions can be cruel.
The Challenge Of Self-Management
On a lesser note, parents and children simply have different needs. Teenagers and young adults have an increased need for variety and autonomy whereas their parents often have an increased need for certainty and safety. Despite the challenge, parents need to handle this clash of need with great consciousness.
For example, my teenage daughter went on a 5-week program to Israel the summer of 2014. As her plane was en route, the war broke out from Gaza. I dropped her off at JFK on a Monday night and by the time I got back to Philly later that night, the news was a nightmare. As soon as she landed at Ben Gurion Airport and was about to board a bus, sirens went off and she had to run back into the airport and seek shelter. I was shaking. I was crying. My daughter, on the other hand, was perfectly fine. Perfectly calm. What to do?
I had to self-manage myself. I had to regulate my emotions. I had to practice a lot of mindfulness and deal with the catastrophic thinking in my head. The situation was awful enough with my needing to “awfulize it” any further. I wanted her safe. But she needed variety and autonomy as well as connection with this new and exciting peer group. I could have brought her home, and in so doing, I would have robbed her of a really important and meaningful experience. Had my daughter not already been there, however, I am not sure what I would have done. There are no easy answers, and thus, it is an inconvenient truth, but being a parent is not for wimps.
The Gift Of Transformation
Niels Bohr, the Nobel Prize winner in physics, said, “The opposite of a true statement is a false statement, but the opposite of a profound truth can be another profound truth.” And so it is with the Binding of Isaac. On one hand it is true that we don’t have kids to meet our needs; we have them to meet theirs. But it is also profoundly true, on the other hand, that the children that we are given are the very children through whom we can learn the deepest lessons we need for our transformation.
And so I hope that you do indeed follow in the footsteps of Abraham. And, in so doing, I ask you to ponder what could you give up and lay upon the altar, so as to transform your inner self and, in so doing, become a better and more conscious parent?