November 1, 1996 Torah Thoughts

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By Rabbi Stephen Pearce

Vayera

Genesis 18:1-22:24

II Kings 4:1-37

The fatal flight of 7-year-old Jessica Dubroff, the spunky little girl who was planning to be the youngest cross-country pilot ever, captured the attention of the entire country. The plane crashed, killing Jessica, her father and her flight instructor. Jessica's mother insisted that the flight was simply the result of an irrepressible child's desire, one that no reasonable parent could deny:

"I beg people to let their children fly if they want to fly…Clearly, I would want all my children to die in a state of joy. I mean, what more could I ask for? I would prefer it was not at age 7 but, God, she went with her joy and her passion, and her life was in her hands."

In a country that petitions for seatbelts in grocery shopping carts and the removal of potentially dangerous monkey bars from playgrounds, it is ironic that a 7-year-old was permitted to pilot a plane because her parents hoped for 15 minutes of media glory worthy of the "Guinness Book of Records."

Several years ago, that book's publisher deliberately stopped keeping records of the youngest pilots in order to forestall just the kind of tragedy that claimed three lives last April.

Children need freedom, but they also need protection and limitations. No child, no matter how precious, comes up with the idea of a record-breaking, cross-country flight without significant adult input. It is unreasonable to expect children to make such choices because with their limited emotional, physical and personal development and their limited perspective, they cannot understand the ramifications of their decisions.

Allowing children to make adult decisions or pushing children into adult performances resonates deeply inside many of us, because it has the very real potential to evoke a lifetime of unhappiness, or even death.

Vayera, this week's Torah portion, can provide guidelines for child-parent relationships. For example, when Abraham was ordered to sacrifice Isaac on Mount Moriah, the Hebrew text reads: "v'ha-ah-lay hu shom — and offer him up there." While we may hold Abraham's obedience and willingness to sacrifice Isaac in great esteem, nevertheless, when we read what the commentators wrote in questioning this biblical account, we find that the Hebrew can also be interpreted to mean "and raise him up there."

Could it be that Abraham, like other parents in every generation, did not understand what he was supposed to do? Perhaps, when given the opportunity to elevate his son, to raise him high with praise and love to a preeminent place of purpose and goodness, Abraham stumbled, misunderstood the holy words and instead tried to sacrifice his precious son. Is that what happened to Jessica Dubroff as well?

Instead of willingly or unwittingly placing their children on the altar of notoriety in the hope of one brief moment of media glory, parents should raise their children high, elevate them with praise and love to a place of preeminence within the family orbit, out of a sense of kavod ha-ben — "honor for the child." Parents must not sacrifice children to the gods of fame and fortune, letting them soar off into the skies of parental edification.

Our tradition offers an aphorism in which parents are urged to provide their children with wings and roots — roots to be firmly planted on the ground, and wings so that their minds may soar wherever they choose to go.

This metaphor does not suggest, for even one moment, that we should glue our children to one spot and never let them move. Rather the proverbial author's words suggest the importance of parental guidance: "Train a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it" (Proverbs 22:6).

Parents should show their children the way to make sound decisions and must not allow them to make adult decisions before they are able to do so. In that way, they avoid sacrificing their children and instead raise them high because they are created "b'tzelem Elohim — in God's image."