Mount Everest blindfolded, a three-minute mile, a Mars landing — they are all a piece of cake compared to raising emotionally healthy children.
Yet, going against conventional wisdom and everything you heard on Sesame Street, this week’s Torah portion drops the proverbial bomb about parenting: There is nothing quite like unhealthy environments to help raise healthy children.
Rashi, the pre-eminent Torah commentator, tells us that even though both Isaac and Rebecca were righteous, Isaac was nevertheless greater because Rebecca was raised in the home of evil people, while Isaac was raised by righteous people (Genesis 25:21). Rashi is not saying that because Isaac came from a better home, he was greater than Rebecca. It’s not because Isaac came from the home of Abraham that he was righteous — it was in spite of it! He was holier because he had a more difficult life as someone was raised in the home of Abraham and Sarah. In contrast, Rebecca had an easier time of it because her parents were the proverbial worst.
Let me explain with a parable: Which child is going to find it easier to be financially successful, one raised by Bill Gates or one raised in abject poverty? Intuitively, we would answer the former, but it would the wrong answer.
As evidenced in real life, the children of rich people often don’t achieve much. They have too much to lose and very little to gain. It’s hard to make it on your own and achieve your own success when you come from a legacy family. If the son of Bill Gates becomes a “Bill Gates” in his own right, not only did he achieve something remarkable but he actually achieved something greater than the Bill Gates who was never the son of a Bill Gates!
It’s true, the child of a Bill Gates will have a lot of money, but achieving real success is much more than that. How does the son of Bill Gates overcome a challenge? How does he find a challenge? How does he chart a new course, discover new paths of success? How does he find his own success? That’s really tough. Growing up in abject poverty is so much easier because the path upward is at least more obvious.
For Isaac to be righteous in his own right, not just the son of Abraham doing it by rote and following Abraham’s direction, required such strength of character that he was greater than Rebecca, who was basically raised by animals. You will be hard-pressed to find children of highly successful people who achieve success themselves. Where are the fourth-generation Shakespeares or Chopins? Mark Twain is more likely to have a descendent pumping gas than winning a Pulitzer.
It’s the cosmic paradox — you spend your whole life creating a world for your children so they don’t have the challenges you had, only to find out that it is almost impossible for them to appreciate how good they have it without those challenges.
I know a lot of parents try to shield their progeny from the evils of this world (I do it too), but they should recognize that the biggest challenge for children raised in a good environment is to meet, let alone surpass, the example of their families.
Originally from London, Rabbi Stephen Baars resides in Rockville, Maryland, and serves as executive director of Aish Seminars. He did nine years of post-graduate studies at the Aish HaTorah Rabbinical College in Jerusalem, and has been an educator and marriage counselor for the past 25 years. Learn more at www.getbliss.com and www.core9.live.