PARSHAT TZAV & SHABBAT HAGADOL
BETWEEN PARENTS AND CHILDREN
“Take Aaron along with his sons, and the vestments, the anointing oil, the bull of sin offering, the two rams, and the basket of unleavened bread.” (Leviticus 8:2)
Part of this week’s portion describes the formal inauguration of Aaron and his four sons into the priesthood. It is a portion focused on rituals and those who witnessed it were probably filled with awe. One can picture Aaron and his four sons, dressed in special vestments, anointed with sacred oil, proudly standing together. It was probably a beautiful moment of unity between father and sons. But was it?
Next week we will read how the two older sons of Aaron, Nadav and Abihu, died suddenly. At least one well known Midrash says that their sin was that they spoke evil about their father. They walked behind their father Aaron and their uncle Moses saying to one another, when will these two men die already so the leadership can be passed to us? They were not loyal sons but jealous of their father, ready to take over. It is one example of tension between parents and children.
This idea is expressed clearly in the special haftarah or prophetic portion read this week. On Shabbat HaGadol, the Shabbat before Passover, a passage is read from the book of Malachi. It speaks of the coming of Elijah to announce the great and wonderous day of the Lord, in other words, the coming of the Messiah. Malachi says that on that day, “He shall reconcile parents with children and children with their parents, so that, when I come, I do not strike the whole land with utter destruction” (Malachi 3:24). (The prophet uses male language, reconciling fathers with sons, but our translation makes it egalitarian.) When the Messiah arrives, there will be peace between parents and children. Until the Messiah arrives, tension is inevitable.
Why is there a natural tension between parents and children? The role of parents is to teach their children. Part of teaching is controlling them, trying to influence the choices they make. The role of children is to break away from their parents, making choices about their own lives. Nonetheless, even as they break away, they also must honor their parents. To both honor someone who may be trying to control you, while becoming your own persona and forging your own identity, leads to tension. Being both a parent and a child is difficult.
One of my favorite parts of the Haggadah, the booklet we use at the Passover Seder or meal, is the story of the four children (traditionally the four sons.) There is the wise child, the wicked child, the simple child, and the child who is too young to ask questions. I have always had a special place in my heart for the wicked, or perhaps better, the rebellious child. He or she is at the Seder, reluctantly, but he or she does not want to be there. The child asks, almost sarcastically, “What do these rituals mean to you?” By saying “to you” he or she excludes himself or herself from the ritual. The parents say harshly, had he or she been there they would not have been released from Egypt.
In truth, the Haggadah is a bit harsher. The traditional Hebrew says that the parents smack such a child in the teeth. Fortunately, most Haggadahs do not translate that part. It does not want to encourage child abuse. But there are often children at a Seder who do not want to be there, who would rather be out with their friends. I am sympathetic to that child, who wants to break away from his or her parents, but still shows up. I have met too many children who boycott their parents’ Seder altogether.
There is a natural tension between parents and children. Parents must teach their children and children must leave their parents. Parents must learn to let go and children must honor parents. Often the relationship is out of balance. That is why we read a passage on the Shabbat before Passover, wait for the Messiah. Only then will God turn the hearts of the parents towards the children and the hearts of the children towards the parents.