Day Four: 20 Tammuz
A Wayward Child, an Estranged Parent
What do we do when family relationships fall apart? One of the texts we read at this season is Isaiah 1:1–27, a haftara that centers around this very theme. Isaiah refers to the children of Israel as literal children – rebellious, ungrateful, and depraved. God is depicted as a broken father to these children who refuse to listen. The divine words echo in the ears of every parent: “Hear O heavens, and give ear, O earth, for the Lord has spoken: ‘I reared children and brought them up – and they have rebelled against Me!’” (Isaiah 1:2).
God asks heaven and earth to pay attention. God speaks to nature in the hope that someone is listening. In the middle of this lengthy reading, we hear again a despairing parent who has difficulty reaching his children, who begs them to do right in the world: “‘Learn to do good…Come let us reach an understanding,’ says the Lord” (1:17–18). It is a plea to negotiate the terms of the relationship. For even when a family is in crisis, there must surely be some shared values, some shared language, with which to reach out across the abyss. As parents, we search for this language all of the time.
Isaiah presents the difficult side of parenting through the inner landscape of our Divine Parent. Children in the abstract are the things of fairytales and magical worlds, objects of cuteness and amusement, precious angels who bring us only pride and joy. But this myth of children can be a source of terrible guilt for parents when they are elbow-deep in dishwater, amidst the drudgery of laundry, and managing a temper tantrum on the side. Every once in a while, you will hear a young mother confess: “No one told me it was going to be this hard.”
Many years ago, a lovely and naive student asked me if raising children was a spiritual activity for me. “Yes,” I replied, “when they’re sleeping.” I did not mean this as a joke. Children are indeed beautiful, peaceful and angelic when they are sleeping. And when they’re awake they can be very animate and demanding. We invest our physical strength and our soul in them, and, as God shares through the voice of Isaiah, they are not always attentive or grateful. We love and care for them nonetheless, and save our reservoirs of pride and delight to get us through the more challenging moments.
Yet another haftara, the second of the season, is from Jeremiah (2:4–28), and it touches on the same painful point. In sharp language, it details the mistakes of our ancestors that pulled them away from God, creating an immense separation. But the most painful metaphor is again that of parent and child in a relationship that is filled with grief. The haftara is long and tiring; we feel weighted by its dense language and criticism. By the time we get to the end, we are not prepared for the rabbinic inclusion of a surprise verse from the next chapter of Jeremiah: “Just now you called to Me, ‘Father! You are the companion of my youth’” (Jeremiah 3:4). Instead of leaving us with a relationship gone sour, the haftara jumps elsewhere and leaves us with a glimpse of reconciliation.
There are several interpretations of this verse that offer insight about the parent-child relationship. Rashi reads it as a rhetorical lament: “If only you would call Me ‘Father.’” God pines for the intimacy of father and son, but it is elusive. It escapes even God. The first three verses of the chapter are not included in the haftara, but help explain Rashi’s reading. They speak of betrayal using yet another family metaphor, that of husband and wife. Jeremiah 3:3 reads: “And when showers were withheld and the late rains did not come, you had the brazenness of a street woman, you refused to be ashamed.” When you were desperate for rain, you were willing to do anything, even compromise your sexual integrity by breaking the sacred bond of marriage and parading in the streets like a harlot. When there is no rain, we are supposed to cry out to God. Only then do we realize our limitations and realize how much is beyond our control. Instead, we turned away.
Other commentators are more generous. They see this call as the breaking point, a way back to repentance. In the midst of alienation, there is a sudden deep need for closeness, for intimacy, that forces out the word “father.” The distance collapses in this one small word.
This is not the first time that the word “father” is used in this haftara. In 2:27, God claims that the Israelites worshiped idols using the same language of parenthood: “They said to wood, ‘You are my father,’ to stone, ‘You gave birth to me,’ while to Me they turned their backs and not their faces. But in their hour of calamity they cry, ‘Arise, save us.’” The children of Israel turned their backs from their real Creator and prayed to inanimate objects as if they were parents, even though they could give them nothing in return.
The confusion of identity, of not knowing who is one’s real father, is the underlying drive of the paternity suit. An abandoned child, longing to know the identity of his real father, thinks of every male as potentially filling that absent space.
As we read the words of Isaiah and Jeremiah, we see a picture of a family in turmoil. A father and his estranged adolescent son are arguing. The child wants more independence; he tries to break away and assert himself. The father feels scorned and used. Others have replaced him as the center of the child’s universe; friends and acquaintances all seem more important than the very parent who gave him life. In the height of accusation and dissent, there is suddenly the meek voice of need: “Father!” The father turns in surprise. Did you call me father? Suddenly the father is taken back to another time and place, to the days when his young, innocent son held his hand and walked with him in the park. He remembers that he was once the “companion of [his child’s] youth,” his son’s best friend and hero. All of this because of one word of love: father.
Only when we place ourselves squarely within the “conversation” of this verse do we feel its emotional expansiveness. “Just now you called to Me, ‘Father! You are the companion of my youth.’” We feel the vulnerability and fragility of the father who is wishing away the distance separating him from his son, and the son who sometimes needs, even in independence, especially in times of rebellion, the strong and protective embrace and praise of his father. But this is not the story of one family; it is a metaphor of a nation, as it states in Malachi 2:10, “Have we not all one Father?”
Kavana for the Day
Think of a parent, family member or close friend who is estranged from you right now, either intentionally or because you’ve lost touch. Write down what your relationship once was and what you valued about that person. Consider what factors contributed to the change your relationship has undergone. Make contact. Don’t wait. What did it feel like to rekindle that spark, even if only temporarily, with few expectations? What burdens, joys and complications are attached to that connection?