When our son was born, my husband, Craig, and I were, like most first-time parents, positively besotted with him. Craig would gaze admiringly at him for long stretches. One day he commented, “He is so gorgeous! And he reminds me of someone. I just can’t place who…” After a while, the answer came to him. With pride and, simultaneously, utter embarrassment, he announced, “I just figured out whom he reminds me of: me!”
It’s no secret that parents see themselves in their children. That is part of why we love them ““ and why we can be so hard on them. Whether or not our children are biologically related to us, we delight in seeing our ancestors in them, as well as imagining our future through them. It’s part of how we bond with our kids and why we can willingly make so many sacrifices for them. The fact that Craig owned up to his feelings makes him perhaps more honest or self-aware than the average parent, but no more proud or egocentric.
Yet, the tendency to see kids as a reflection of ourselves has the potential to turn ugly. In an article entitled “Of Nachas and Narcissism,” Clara Zilberstein, the noted psychologist, warned how easy and common it is for parents to become fixated on nachas foon kinder (joy and pride in one’s children), and fail to see their children for the independent and unique human beings they are. If you want to be a good parent, you need to separate enough from those kids you are besotted with, to allow your children to separate from you.
This perspective on parenting doesn’t begin with Zilberstein. It goes all the way back to the Torah ““ including the most recent and current Torah portions.
The title of last week’s Torah portion, Sh’mini, means “eighth.” Worship in the sanctuary was set to start on the eighth day, following a week of preparations. On the inaugural day of worship, two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, took it upon themselves to prepare a sacrifice using a “strange fire,” and were then themselves immolated by God.
The episode is so difficult and mysterious that commentators don’t even agree whether the consuming fire was a celebration of the sons’ piety or a consequence for their insolence. Among the many layers of meaning, we can derive an important message about parenting.
The two agents of sacrifice who become its objects are Nadav, meaning “gift,” and Avihu, meaning, “he is my father.” Their very names communicate something about Aaron’s loss. These children were gifts from on high. Their ultimate father (referred to in Avihu’s name) is God. Aaron’s silence following their deaths ““ more difficulty and mystery! ““ may show restraint against anger or sorrow. It may also be understood as the break he needed to integrate a harsh truth: “those children were never truly and wholly mine; they always belonged to God and to themselves.”
The most common association with the number eight in Jewish life is circumcision. In the first lines of this week’s Torah portion, Tazria-Metzora, we are instructed to conduct the ritual bayom hashmini, on the eighth day of life. In Jewish numerology, the number eight represents physical manifestation following spiritual completion. After the good and glorious creation of the world, the tabernacle, or the child (number seven), we enter into the complex and fraught world of creation (number eight). On day eight, a father acknowledges the similarity and the distinction between himself and his son: “Because of this act, we will look alike and share the same covenant. With this act, I acknowledge that you belong to God, and not, ultimately, to me and your mother.”
This week’s portion also discusses mother and daughter ““ a pair, like father and son, who sometimes have difficulty separating. We are told that a mother who gives birth to a daughter remains ritually impure from the blood of childbirth for twice as long as a mother who gives birth to a son, necessitating a longer separation from the sanctuary. When one literally sees oneself in a child, more time and effort may be needed for separation ““ both from the child and from the community. Like Aaron absorbing his loss, a new mother needs silence and distance to absorb her new status as caretaker.
Like Aaron, the Talmudic figure Bruriah endured the death of two sons in one day. Suffering unspeakable loss, she comforted her husband with the image that their sons had been on loan from God ““ never truly theirs, and never, therefore, truly lost. In times of nachas, tza’ar gidul banim (normal difficulties of childrearing), or tragedy, parents do holy work when we bond and when we separate. The essence of love is found in the balance.
There is nothing more beautiful, rewarding, or mysterious, but no one ever said it was easy. Just ask your parents.