Repentance and parenting

Yom Kippur

Painting by Yoram Raanan (photo credit: YORAM RAANAN)
Painting by Yoram Raanan
(photo credit: YORAM RAANAN)
 As we reach the end of the Ten Days of Repentance, and the great white Day of Atonement fast draws near, each of us must ponder on which category of transgression we ought to concentrate our repentance. I believe we can take our cue from the To - rah reading on Rosh Hashana, the opening two days of the Ten Days of Repentance. Since the Jewish New Year is the anniversary of the creation of the world and the birth of humanity, we would have expected the Torah reading to have been from the beginning of the Book of Genesis: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” What could be more suitable than beginning the New Year with the beginning of the Torah? This logic notwithstanding, we are ordained instead to read of the birth of Isaac, the tension between Hagar and Sarah, the banishment of Ishmael, and the dramatic binding of Isaac; in effect, we read of the development of a family – albeit the original family of the Israelite nation. Apparently, our Sages are teaching us that God has given us a groisse velt mit kleine veltelach (a large world with small sub-worlds), and each individual family must be seen as a world unto itself.
Furthermore, according to the tradition of Beta Yisrael, Ethiopian Jewry from the tribe of Dan, Yom Kippur falls on 10 Tishrei because this is the precise date when Joseph met his father Jacob after an estrangement – or at the very least an absence – of 22 years.
Certainly both father and son harbored resentments for each other. Father Jacob couldn’t understand why Joseph, Grand Vizier of Egypt, hadn’t thought to send a message that he was alive and well to his grieving parent; Joseph couldn’t understand how such an intel - ligent patriarch could have managed the family with such ineptitude. After all, Jacob openly demonstrated so much favoritism towards the eldest son of his be - loved Rachel that he sowed the seeds of jealousy and thoughts of murder in the hearts of Joseph’s envious siblings.
Nevertheless, father and son meet together in heartfelt rapprochement, and serve as a symbol of and model for the rapprochement between our Parent-in-Heaven and His children on the Day of Atonement (at-one-ment).
What wells up from all of this is that our most import - ant, complex and potentially explosive relationship is the familial one. It is the relationship between husband and wife that provides the atmosphere in the home, that teaches our children what it means to work together and give to others. It is our parents whose initial and consistent love gives us our sense of self-worth, the confidence which comes from the belief that we are worthy of being loved, and the ability to love others. And it is the limits upon our actions set down by our parents that provide us with the discipline and self-restraint that are so necessary if we are to become responsible citizens and productive human beings.
The natural and built-in tension between parents and children – the need of children to individuate, the desire of parents to dominate – also trains us in the act of compromise between our desire for self-expression and our obligation to past and future. And of course, it is the unique support system which only a strong intergenerational relationship can provide – for both the older and younger generation – which guarantees a bulwark of security in a world that always brings change, and often brings tragedy.
Is there a pat formula for a successful family life? As a very young rabbi I thought I had all the answers, but as a much older grandfather I am left with many more questions. Nevertheless, the fact that repentance for Maimonides begins with confession of sin (his proof text is the verse “...And they shall confess the sin which they committed [Numbers 5:6-7; Maimonides, Laws of Repentance 1, 1]), tells us that especially those we love, those to whom we are closest, must hear from us that we are sorry for deeds committed or omitted, that we were wrong when we said certain words which we never should have said, which we didn’t really mean. The very opening prayer, Kol Nidre , stresses the critical importance of words in relationships.
I can still feel the pain of the father who, while sit - ting in mourning for the tragic loss of his daughter, desperately asked me, “Do you think she really knew how much I appreciated and loved her, even though I never told her so even once?” I can still hear the at- peace-ment of the spouse who had tirelessly nursed her sick and difficult husband during the pain-rid - den period before his death, when she said, “It was all worth it when two days before he died, he asked my forgiveness for specific incidents and omissions during our married life.”
True communication – even and especially within families – requires sensitivity, time and great emotion - al energy. We must reach out in love and contrition to those who are closest to us, take nothing for granted, and attempt to express our innermost feelings. And when we bless our children before the Yom Kippur fast begins, I believe it is proper for parents to ask their children for forgiveness; after all, it may be difficult to be a parent, but it is at least as difficult to be a child, at no matter what age.
■ Shabbat shalom, and may your inscription in the Book of Life be favorable.
The writer is founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone colleges and graduate programs, currently celebrating their 30th anniversary, and chief rabbi of Efrat. The fifth volume of his acclaimed Torah Lights series of parsha commen - tary was recently published by Koren Publishers.