This article is part of Torat Chovevei, a Community Learning Program led by Yeshivat Chovevei Torah with the support of the Covenant Foundation. The goal of the program is to connect communities to YCT through the medium of Torah learning. All topics discussed weave relevant contemporary issues together with Torah and non-Torah sources in monthly home-based learning groups (chaburot). These groups are guided by Rabbi Haggai Resnikoff, Rebbe and Director of Community Learning at YCT. For further information about Torat Chovevei, and how your community can get involved, please contact Rabbi Resnikoff at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The principle of מעשה אבות סימן לבנים most famously propounded by the Ramban has relevance to us as parents and potential parents. Rather than seeing Avraham’s travels as a supernatural oracle for his children, I see the resemblance between Avraham’s life and the history of Israel as an example of the inevitability of parental modeling. This is true both of our external behaviors and choices as well as in our internal spiritual world. Both of these things influence our children whether we like it or not. Considering this, it behooves us to be as intentional as possible in our choices whether or not we have small children both in terms of our behaviors and our relationship with God.
- How are we to understand the statement that “Whatever occurred to the fathers is a sign for the children”? Is it specific to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob or does it extend to the entire Torah? Tanach? Is it possible that it represents a truth between parents and children even today? Is it relevant to us?
- What does “a sign for the children” mean? Are children doomed to follow precisely in their parents’ footsteps? What about free will? How much of our children’s futures do we determine? In what areas? Is this a good thing?
Ramban, Bereshit, Ch. 12
|ויעבר אברם בארץ עד מקום שכם – אומר לך כלל תבין אותו בכל הפרשיות הבאות בענין אברהם יצחק ויעקב, והוא ענין גדול, הזכירוהו רבותינו בדרך קצרה, ואמרו (תנחומא ט) כל מה שאירע לאבות סימן לבנים, ולכן יאריכו הכתובים בספור המסעות וחפירת הבארות ושאר המקרים, ויחשוב החושב בהם כאלו הם דברים מיותרים אין בהם תועלת, וכולם באים ללמד על העתיד, כי כאשר יבוא המקרה לנביא משלשת האבות יתבונן ממנו הדבר הנגזר לבא לזרעו:
||And Abraham passed through the land until the place of Shechem – I will tell you a principle and you should understand it in all of the portions that are to come with regard to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And it is a big issue and our rabbis mentioned it briefly and said, “Whatever occurred to the fathers is a sign for the children.” And therefore the Torah waxes long in the stories of the journeys and the digging of wells and other incidents. And one might think that they are extraneous things and without benefit. However, all of them are coming to teach about the future. Because just as an incident comes to a prophet from the three fathers, we can see from it what is decreed to come to their seed.
Bereshit Raba, Lech Lecha, Parasha 40
|… ר’ פינחס מש’ ר’ הושעיה אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא לאבינו אברהם צא וכבש את הדרך לפני בניך, ואת מוצא כל מה שכתוב באבינו אברהם כתוב בבניו, באברהם כת’ ויהי רעב בארץ בישראל כת’ כי זה שנתים הרעב (בראשית מה ו), באברהם כת’ וירד אברם מצרימה בישראל כת’ וירדו אבותינו מצרימה (במדבר כ טו) באברהם כת’ לגור שם בישראל כת’ לגור בארץ באנו (בראשית מז ד), באברהם כת’ כי כבד הרעב בארץ בישראל כת’ והרעב כבד בארץ (שם /בראשית/ מג א … באברהם כת’ ואברהם כבד מאד במקנה בכסף ובזהב בישראל כת’ ויוציאם בכסף וזהב וגו’ (תהלים קה לז), באברהם כת’ ויצו עליו פרעה אנשים וישלחו בישראל כת’ ותחזק מצרים על העם למהר לשלחם (שמות יב לג), באברהם כת’ וילך למסעיו בישראל כת’ אלה מסעי בני ישראל וגו’ (במדבר לג א).
||…Rabbi Pinchas in the name of Rabbi Hoshaya (said), “The Blessed Holy One said to our father Abraham, ‘Go and clear the path before your children.’ And you find that everything that is written about our father Abraham is written about his children. About Abraham it is written, ‘And there was a famine in the land.’ About Israel it is written ‘The famine was two years.’ About Abraham it is written, ‘And Abraham went down to Egypt.’ About Israel it is written, ‘And our fathers went down to Egypt.’ About Abraham it is written ‘to dwell there.’ About Israel it is written ‘We have come to dwell in the land.’ About Abraham it is written, ‘For the famine was heavy in the land.’ About Israel it is written, ‘And the famine was heavy in the land.’ … About Abraham it is written, ‘And Abraham was very wealthy in livestock, in silver, and in gold.’ About Israel it is written, ‘And they sent them out with silver and gold.’ About Abraham it is written, ‘And Pharaoh commanded people to him and they sent…’ About Israel it is written, ‘And the Egyptians were vigorous with the nation to hurry to send them out.’ About Abraham it is written, ‘And he went on his journeys.’ About Israel it is written, ‘These are the journeys of the children of Israel etc.’”
- What are we to make of the textual parallelism between Abraham’s experiences in Egypt and the Experiences of the children of Israel several generations later? Does this have to be supernatural? Could it be the natural consequence of modeling, both on the part of Abraham and on the part of the Egyptians, of how to behave in certain conditions?
- Abraham when he goes to Egypt still has no children. What message might this have for us about the choices we make either before we have children or when our children are no longer in our care?
Ramban, Bereshit, Ch. 12
|… ודע כי אברהם אבינו חטא חטא גדול בשגגה שהביא אשתו הצדקת במכשול עון מפני פחדו פן יהרגוהו, והיה לו לבטוח בשם שיציל אותו ואת אשתו ואת כל אשר לו, כי יש באלהים כח לעזור ולהציל. גם יציאתו מן הארץ, שנצטווה עליה בתחילה, מפני הרעב, עון אשר חטא, כי האלהים ברעב יפדנו ממות. ועל המעשה הזה נגזר על זרעו הגלות בארץ מצרים ביד פרעה.
||And know that Abraham our father sinned a great sin accidentally for he brought his righteous wife to a stumbling block of sin because he was afraid that they would kill him. And he should have relied on God to save him and his wife and everything he had. Because God has the power to help and to save. Also his leaving the land, that he was originally commanded to, because of the famine, was a sin that he sinned. For God in famine will redeem him from death. And for this act, it was decreed on his seed the exile in Egypt at the hand of Pharaoh.
- If the conjecture above, that the “sign for the children” is not supernatural but the natural consequence of parental modeling, how might we interpret the last line of the Ramban here, that the children of Israel were “decreed” to be exiled as a result of Abraham’s sins?
- What warning does this hold for us in terms of the effect our choices have on our children?
Midrash Tanhuma (Buber), Lech Lecha 12
|אמר ר’ יהושע דסכנין בשם ר’ לוי סימן מסר הקדוש ברוך הוא לאברהם שכל מה שאירע לו אירע לבניו, אברהם נבחר מכל בית אביו, אף ישראל נבחרו משבעים לשון, נאמר לאברהם לך לך, ונאמר לישראל ואמר אעלה אתכם וגו’ (שמות ג יז), נאמר לאברהם ואברכה מברכיך (בראשית יב ג), ואף לישראל יברכך ה’ וישמרך (במדבר ו כד), נאמר לאברהם [ואעשך לגוי גדול ואברכך] ואגדלה שמך (בראשית יב ב) ואף בישראל ומי גוי גדול וגו’ (דברים ד ח), אברהם נקרא יחיד שנאמר (כי) אחד היה אברהם (יחזקאל לג כד) ואף ישראל ומי כעמך ישראל גוי אחד בארץ (דה”א =דברי הימים א’= יז כא), מה אברהם כיון שבא לארץ היה רעב בארץ, אף ישראל כיון שישבו בארץ ישראל היה רעב, שנאמר והרעב כבד בארץ … מה אברהם יצא הקדוש ברוך הוא ונלחם לפניו והרג שונאיו, אף הקדוש ברוך הוא נלחם לישראל, לעתיד לבא הקדוש ברוך הוא יוצא ונלחם מלחמותיהם…
||Rabbi Joshua of Sichnin in the name of Rabbi Levi (said), “The Blessed Holy One gave Abraham a sign that everything that occurred to him would occur to his children. Abraham was chosen from his entire tribe. Israel also was chosen from among the seventy nations. It was said to Abraham, ‘Go you…’ and it was said to Israel, ‘And I said I will take you up etc.’ It was said to Abraham, ‘And I shall bless those who bless you,’ and it was said to Israel, ‘God shall bless you and keep you.’ It was said to Abraham, ‘[I will make of you a great nation and I will bless you] and I will make your name great.’ And also to Israel, ‘and who is a great nation etc.?’ Abraham was called singular as it says, ‘(for) Abraham was only one.’ And also Israel, ‘And who is like your people Israel, a single nation in the land?’ Just as Abraham, when he arrived in the land, there was a famine in the land, Israel also, when they settled in the land of Israel, there was a famine as it says, ‘And the famine was heavy in the land… Just as Abraham, the Blessed Holy One went out and fought before him and killed his enemies. So too the Holy Blessed One fights for Israel, in the future the Blessed Holy One will go out and fight their wars as it says…
- What does this Tanhuma add to the conversation developed above? Is the “sign for the children” about determining the children’s future behavior or is it about the continuing relationship between God, Abraham, and his offspring?
- What message does this have about the importance of our own spiritual lives; our relationship with God for our children? Is this the same thing as asking what the importance of our religious observance is for our children?
One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Márquez, 1967
|(p. 16) José Arcadio, the older of the children, was fourteen. He had a square head, thick hair, and his father’s character. Although he had the same impulse for growth and physical strength, it was early evident that he lacked imagination. He had been conceived and born during the difficult crossing of the mountains, before the founding of Macondo, and his parents gave thanks to heaven when they saw he had no animal features. Aureliano, the first human being to be born in Macondo, would be six years old in March. He was silent and withdrawn. He had wept in his mother’s womb and had been born with his eyes open. As they were cutting the umbilical cord, he moved his head from side to side, taking in the things in the room and examining the faces of the people with a fearless curiosity. Then, indifferent to those who came close to look at him, he kept his attention concentrated on the palm roof, which looked as if it were about to collapse under the tremendous pressure of the rain. Úrsula did not remember the intensity of that look again until one day when little Aureliano, at the age of three, went into the kitchen at the moment she was taking a pot of boiling soup from the stove and putting it on the table. The child, Perplexed, said from the doorway, “It’s going to spill.” The pot was firmly placed in the center of the table, but just as soon as the child made his announcement, it began an unmistakable movement toward the edge, as if impelled by some inner dynamism, and it fell and broke on the floor…
(p. 145) …an exuberant woman perfumed with jasmine appeared at the house with a boy of five. She stated that he was the son of Colonel Aureliano Buendía and that she had brought him to Úrsula to be baptized. No one doubted the origins of that nameless child: he looked exactly like the colonel at the time he was taken to see ice for the first time. The woman said that he had been born with his eyes open, looking at people with the judgment of an adult, and that she was frightened by his way of staring at things without blinking. “He’s identical,” Úrsula said. “The only thing missing is for him to make chairs rock by simply looking at them.” They christened him Aureliano and with his mother’s last name, since the law did not permit a person to bear his father’s name until he had recognized him…nine more sons of Colonel Aureliano Buendía were brought to the house to be baptized. The oldest, a strange dark boy with green eyes, who was not at all like his father’s family, was over ten years old. They brought children of all ages, all colors, but all males and all with a look of solitude that left no doubt as to the relationship…
- Márquez puts a lot of stock here on the physical resemblance between fathers and sons. This is very different from the material above which emphasizes the choices and the relationships of the fathers as a sign for the children. Does the consideration of genetic resemblance add anything to our discussion of how parents influence children?
One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Márquez, 1967
|(p. 176) YEARS LATER on his deathbed Aureliano Segundo would remember the rainy afternoon in June when he went into the bedroom to meet his first son. Even though the child was languid and weepy, with no mark of a Buendía, he did not have to think twice about naming him. “We’ll call him José Arcadio,” he said. Fernanda del Carpio, the beautiful woman he had married the year before, agreed. Úrsula, on the other hand, could not conceal a vague feeling of doubt. Throughout the long history of the family the insistent repetition of names had made her draw some conclusions that seemed to be certain. While the Aurelianos were withdrawn, but with lucid minds, the José Arcadios were impulsive and enterprising, but they were marked with a tragic sign…
(p. 178-179) One hot noontime, while he was poring over the, manuscripts, he sensed that he was not alone in the room. Against the light from the window, sitting with his hands on his knees, was Melquíades. He was under forty years of age. He was wearing the same old- fashioned vest and the hat that looked like a raven’s wings, and across his pale temples there flowed the grease from his hair that had been melted by the heat, just as Aureliano and José Arcadio had seen him when they were children. Aureliano Segundo recognized him at once, because that hereditary memory had been transmitted from generation to generation and had come to him through the memory of his grandfather.
- What is Márequez getting at in his discussion of the deterministic qualities of names? Don’t we hope for some of this determinism when we name children after loved ones? Can the choice to name have negative impact as well?
- Is there any truth to Márquez’s claim that there is a “hereditary memory” that can be “transmitted from generation to generation?” Is that what we’re trying to build when we emphasize study of Torah and Jewish history? Family history? How intentional is it possible to be when constructing this “hereditary history?” How important is it to be intentional in this?