August 31, 2006
Alike, But Different
Parshat Ki Teitze (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19)
I am one of three totally different children, and my parents have assured me that none of us is adopted.
I find this hard to believe.
I am not sure if my siblings have thought about this, but it has certainly crossed my mind a few times. How could three such radically dissimilar children, with varying temperaments, tastes and tendencies have the same parents?
This is a question I hear from many of my friends and congregants with more than one child. Sometimes it is said with chagrin, sometimes with delight, but always with a mixture of surprise and resigned acceptance. This is just the way it is.
However, far greater than the biological mystery of unlike offspring from the same parents is the challenge of parenting these children. Many siblings have different temperaments and personalities, and they respond to the same things in widely divergent ways. A technique honed over years with one child might prove totally ineffective with another.
For instance, I have one child who is very susceptible to bribery. When he was young, I could threaten to take away dessert and often I would get the desired result. My power to deprive him allowed me some semblance of control.
But I have another child for whom deprivation means nothing. When he was young, I could take away every single video, game, toy, stuffed animal, food or anything else that gave him any pleasure, and he would shrug it off as if he were flicking schmutz off his shoulder.
Into this maelstrom of frustration comes a teaching on this week's Torah portion with a very simple yet profound observation: "You shall not plow with an ox and ass together" (Deuteronomy 22:10).
On the surface, the commandment expresses straightforward agricultural advice: do not pair animals together of unequal strength. According to professor Jeffrey H. Tigay in the "Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary" (Jewish Publication Society, 2001), if yoked together, the stronger one (the ox) might exhaust the weaker one (the ass), leading to potential harm and injury of that animal.
However, going deeper we see that this could also apply to how we parent our children. Whether they have the same birth parents or just grow up in the same home, each child is different. They have different ways about them -- different strengths, skills and interests. They have innate talents with certain tasks and natural gifts in other areas. And they have their very own shortcomings and weaknesses as well.
Each child is a unique manifestation of God, and we cannot lump them together blithely. We cannot place them under the same yoke, burden them with the same expectations, and assume we will get the same results. As with other human beings, different offspring should be considered as individuals. We need to see them for who they are and not bind them to someone else.
The Torah's insight makes parenting both more difficult and easier at the same time.
On the one hand, parenting requires that we know and are sensitive to each child as he or she presents himself or herself to us. We cannot be on automatic, assuming that what worked for one will work for all.
On the other hand, the Torah releases us from the unrealistic expectations that we place upon ourselves and our children. Understanding that our children are not alike, we can free ourselves and them from the pressures of being like their siblings -- or other children for that matter -- and get down to the business of learning and enjoying who they are.
I'm now the father of three very different children with very different temperaments, tastes and tendencies. I wonder if they sometimes think that one of them must have been adopted. It is only natural, I suppose.
But personally, I just hope and pray that every day I am up to parenting them in the way that fits each of them best.
Rabbi Jonathan Jaffe Bernhard is the incoming senior rabbi at Adat Ari El.