What would it take for you to disown your child? I know that for most everyone this is a hypothetical question, but please indulge me: What dastardly behavior would your son or daughter have to stoop to in order for you to “sit shiva”? A generation or two ago, when a child married out of the faith, this was deemed reason enough to disown him or her and rend one’s garments in mourning. Today, it’s not so clear; we know that there are so many things in today’s world that are pulling our children away from Judaism and spirituality, so that even if they were to marry out of the faith we might wish to practice forbearance in the hope that one day they might return to their heritage.
But if not that, what would cross the line?
This is a very personal question and there’s no one correct answer; many factors go into deciding when to close the door on your child and when to keep it open despite his or her poor decisions. It’s especially difficult in religious homes on the Sabbath and holy days, when the “prodigal child” has no interest in rituals and disrupts the religious atmosphere of the home. But even then, many wise parents have figured out how to maintain an open door amid challenging and awkward situations.
So while I can’t answer this question for you, I can tell you that God has a policy of deciding when one of His children is no longer His child. We read a beautiful, frightening and cryptic song in parashat Ha’azinu that is subject to much interpretation. One such passage is: “How corrupted; they are not His children but rather it is their own blemish, this crooked and twisted generation!” (Deuteronomy 32:5). One commentary suggests that this verse indicates when God decides we’re no longer His children, which is when we become “crooked and twisted.” God is very tolerant and accepting, but even He has a limit. When Jews behave in a corrupt way to their fellow human beings, when they steal and cheat (“crooked”) and then rationalize and defend their behavior (“twisted”), that’s when God says, “You are not my children anymore.”
Many parents suffer in silent anguish if their child is hauled off to prison. It’s not so much the humiliation in front of friends and neighbors peeping through their curtains; what’s more painful is the thought that our children are reflections of their parents. They are supposed to mirror the manners, ethics and morals they were taught through their parents’ example. These parents feel like abysmal failures in the monumental task they were assigned as parents. I truly grieve for parents who have poured so much effort into modeling ethics and morals for their children, only to have them violently reject that virtuous path by choosing a path of corruption and crime.
To those parents: Take comfort in the fact that you’re not alone; God himself has lamented many a generation of his children who took a wrong turn despite all the tutelage, love and painstaking education poured out by His prophets and rabbis to the people. If God can turn out rotten kids, then you shouldn’t blame yourself. God’s not a failure, and neither are you.
But what the rest of us need to remember is that we’ll always be God’s children, as long as we’re still trying to be honest and ethical. Religiosity is important, no doubt. But whether you’re Shabbat observant or not, you’ll always be God’s favorite child as long as you emulate God’s example of righteous and ethical behavior — being honest in the way you do business, feeding the poor, greeting the stranger, caring for the less privileged in our communities and society.
If we wish to merit a goodly judgment from God these High Holy Days, it would be good to remember this teaching from the Torah reading of Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat immediately before Yom Kippur. May you have a g’mar hatimah tovah, a wonderfully blessed inscription in the Book of Life.