When children learn the Ten Commandments, they often ask why there is no commandment for parents to honor their children. The simple answer is that it’s not necessary. A hasidic commentary explains it this way: Character traits pass by inheritance from generation to generation. Love and caring for children, which were implanted in the first human beings, passed from them to the generations that came after them. However, since Adam and Eve had no parents, their descendants could not inherit concern for parents but had to be given the commandment “Honor your father and your mother.”
That why we’re so shocked when we learn that a mother who could not find a babysitter tossed her toddler off a bridge so she could go to a party or that a father beat his baby to death because she wouldn’t stop crying. We cannot comprehend why the mother of a Palestinian suicide bomber would insist that she hopes that all her children will follow their brother into martyrdom. We see these things as not only wrong or evil (which they certainly are) but as unnatural. Parents don’t treat their children this way.
This is one message of this week’s Torah reading. While Jacob obviously had his faults as a father, he does try to protect his children.
Joseph, a slave in Egypt, is able to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams and suggest a plan for dealing with the seven years of famine that will follow the seven years of plenty, and so he is elevated to the position of viceroy, responsible for implementing his plan and overseeing the distribution of food. When his brothers come to Egypt to buy provisions, Joseph recognizes them but they don’t recognize him. He engineers a scheme to bring Benjamin to Egypt, accusing the brothers of being spies. In order to clear their names and return to buy more food, they must bring their youngest brother to Egypt, where Shimon will remain a hostage until they return.
When the brothers return home and tell their father what has happened, Jacob refuses to send Benjamin with them. He insists, I have already lost two children, Joseph and Shimon, and there is no way I will risk something happening to Benjamin. His brother is dead and he is the only one of Rachel’s children I have left.
Reuven tries to argue with his father: “Entrust him to me and I will bring him back — you can kill my two sons if I do not bring him back to you.” This argument — you can make up for the loss of your son by killing your grandsons — is so preposterous that Jacob doesn’t even respond to it. He remains firm — he will not allow Benjamin to go down to Egypt.
But finally the food the brothers brought back from Egypt runs out, and Judah approaches his father with an argument that moves him: “Send the boy in my care, and let us be on our way, that we may live and not die — you and we and our children.” Jacob has no choice. If he refuses to allow Benjamin to go, he puts his entire family in danger — all of his children and grandchildren.
A midrash puts it this way:
A story is told of two pious men who went on a sea journey to fulfill a mitzva. A huge wave threatened to sink their ship. One of them said, “This is the worst.” His friend replied, “It could still be much worse.” Said the first, “We are at the gates of death, can there be anything worse?” Said the other, “Yes, there could be — the day when your son says to you, ‘Give me a morsel of bread,’ and you haven’t got it to give him.”
Jacob is a parent, and he could not bear to see his children and grandchildren starving. Sometimes a parent must take a risk to do what is best for his family.
Children are not weapons or pawns or extensions of their parents’ egos. Children are a trust, something precious, left in our care to be protected and faithfully tended.
Parents don’t need to be commanded to love and care for their children. From the time of Adam and Eve, God, whom we call Avinu, our Father, has made this part of our very nature.