It is the final chapter of the Book of Genesis. Jacob, reunited with his family in Egypt, is about to die. Before he does, he gathers his children around his deathbed for his final words to them. (Gen 49:1) His intention is to use his prophetic powers to tell them their futures. According to the midrash, Jacob’s prophetic powers departed from him at that moment and instead, Jacob holds forth on their characters and special gifts. Reuven, Jacob’s first-born approaches. Jacob remembers how young he was when Reuben was born, how excited he was to be a father for the first time, the hopes and dreams he had for Reuben in his youth. “But,” continues Jacob, “You turned out to be an impetuous person, you disrespected me, you desecrated our home with your reckless and immoral behavior. (Gen 35:22) Because of how you have acted, you have forfeited your right to leadership in our family. ” With these final words from his father, Reuben is dismissed.
Next, Simeon and Levi approach their father. “Ah, “says Jacob, “two sons who are so unlike me. I am a builder, but the two of you are destroyers. Cursed be your rage, for in your anger you murdered the entire community of Shechem, when their Prince kidnapped your sister Dina.” (Gen.34:1) With that, they take leave of their father.
Clearly Jacob is using these intimate, final, moments of his life to rebuke his oldest three sons, with whom he is bitterly disappointed. He has held his tongue for a very long time, but now, on his deathbed, Jacob feels compelled to speak up. How do Reuben, Simeon and Levi feel after their father’s harsh reproach? Are they angry, ashamed, devastated? Do they apologize to their father or argue that the behavior he is criticizing was justified at the time? Do they just ignore his words? Or are they regretful and contrite on hearing them? The Torah does not say.
What does Judaism say about the obligations of a child to his or her parents? Must children give Nachas to their parents? “Nachas” which means the sense of pride and pleasure parents take in the accomplishments of their children. To what lengths does an adult child have to go to fulfill the commandment of “Honor your father and your mother?”
Rabbi Jonah Gerondi, a 13th century Spanish Sage wrote, “Now the essence of to honor your father and your mother is to give them pleasure, whether in words or in deeds. And he who pains them by his speech (or actions) bears an insupportable sin….”
Noam Zion of the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem labels this maximalist position, “The Yoke of Nachas.” because leaves no room for the child to live their own life, make their own decisions, and to suffer from their own mistakes.
We try to instill in our children values and help them develop the skills they will need to make their way in the world. Then we need to let them go out and live their own lives, and make their own choices, even those which might not be the ones we might have made ourselves or we might think best for them. . But we, as parents, need to accept their choices, especially when we don’t understand them. We need to support them where we can – and never punish them for making choices we cannot support. Above all, we must continue to love them. Of course, this is often not that simple.
My colleague Rabbi Judith Edelstein writes beautifully of the conflicting tensions within all parents when we have something we want to say to our adult children and wonder whether we should say it:
“What guidelines should we follow when we choose what to say and how to speak our “truth” to our adult children, not only at significant moments but also during everyday communications? Is honesty the best policy, or is it wiser to restrain ourselves, despite our experiences and our belief that we can offer insights and advice?
“I have been pondering this dilemma for the last few years as my children have become adults, and I struggle with my own urge to continue to teach them. Are my words for their benefit or are they really about my own need to retain control? I think about this because I am concerned about my final legacy and realize that all the conversations between now and my final words will have a cumulative impact.”
The Midrash explains why Jacob waited until he was on his deathbed to rebuke his children. “I did not rebuke you all these years,” Jacob tells his children, “So that you would not leave me and stay with my brother Esau.” Jacob knows that criticizing one’s children can drive them away and make matters far worse than they otherwise would be. The Stone Chumash comments on this. “This implies a general rule for those who wish to admonish others in a constructive way. They must weigh their words carefully, lest their sincere comments do more harm than good.”