I facilitated a parenting discussion this past weekend, which is one of my favorite things to do (besides hanging out with my family and - shamefully - watching Vampire Diaries after the kids have gone to bed). We talked about why our children should be helping around the house, how to ease them off of their ubiquitous tablets, the importance of "please" and "thank you," and much more - it was a great morning. But the most interesting moment was one mom's revelation that invoking Judaism has helped her establish authority with her young kids.
We adults certainly respond to the concept of outside experts - if you're committed to organic food, for example, wouldn't you prefer to purchase something that's been certified organic rather than something that some random person assures you is "probably" organic? - so why shouldn't our kids? And fortunately for us, Jewish tradition is full of laws and values, maxims and stories, that we can use to bolster our authority as parents. Clearly, the fifth commandment ("Honor your father and your mother") comes to mind - but here's an example I shared that may not be so immediately obvious.
About halfway through the parenting discussion, this question came up: How do we respond when our kids argue with us? The old days of "because I said so" and cowed acquiescence may be over - but surely the current model of letting our kids endlessly harass us because we don't want to hinder their self-expression and autonomy is not exactly ideal either. So why not look to Jewish tradition for an answer? And right there - in the first book of the Torah, in the portion from just a few weeks ago - we find it. We can teach our kids to argue like Abraham.
Remember the story of Sodom and Gemorrah? God reveals to Abraham the divine plan to destroy the sinful cities - but Abraham refuses to accept it. What if, he inquires, fifty righteous people are to be found in the cities? Wouldn't God spare the cities for their sake? Yes, God agrees, I will spare the cities for the sake of the fifty.
But Abraham isn't done. He keeps going: What about forty-five, forty, thirty, twenty righteous people? he persists. Wouldn't that be OK? God continues to acquiesce, and finally Abraham gets to ten. What if there are only ten righteous? he asks. Will God save the cities for the sake of the ten?
And once more God agrees. But check out what happens next: "The Lord had finished speaking to Abraham, and departed; but Abraham remained in his place" (Genesis 18:33).
It might seem a throwaway conclusion - but of course nothing in the Torah is throwaway. This verse is actually a great model: God has listened to Abraham's argument, God has considered it, and now God has heard enough. So God - so to speak - walks away. And what does Abraham do? He doesn't run after God demanding that God hear more, doesn't complain that God "never listens" or "doesn't understand" or "it's not fair," doesn't continue to press his case. Abraham recognizes that the discussion is over - and Abraham returns to his place, to his familiar role as an obedient and respectful servant of God.
And look at the subject of Abraham's argument. Abraham is concerned with matters of life and death, justice and righteousness, fairness and compassion. Abraham's not arguing for the sake of arguing, or taking his bad mood out on God, or lobbying for something inconsequential or inappropriate - and God recognizes that. God isn't giving in because Abraham's nagging, or because it's just so hard to say "no" - God responds to Abraham's concerns, and to the merits of what he says.
Finally, check out the way Abraham addresses God: "Here I venture to speak to my Lord," "I am but dust and ashes," "Let my Lord not be angry if I go on," "I speak but this last time." Abraham is questioning God, no doubt - but he's doing so respectfully. Even as he argues with God, he demonstrates reverence; he never loses sight of the fact that God is in charge and is worthy of the highest veneration.
So what do we make of this narrative? Is it a meditation on the line between justice and mercy? A mythical tale that explains the salty, lifeless plains along the Dead Sea? A warning that evildoing leads to destruction?
Yes - it is all of that, and more. But it is also a model. A way to teach our kids that if they need to argue with us - they should always argue like Abraham.