Many good people are shocked by what we’re seeing around us. Perhaps even more shocking than the atrocities committed by Hamas, (which after all reflect their stated mission) is the level of moral confusion apparent in our youth and those old enough to know better in the western world. How can it be that our children, neighbors, and colleagues can’t differentiate between good and evil or the commitment to life versus the glorification of death? Days after the Japanese attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in 1941, a Gallup poll reported that 97% of Americans approved of Congress declaring war on Japan. Days after Hamas’s massacre of over 1,000 Israeli (and American) civilians and their capture of hundreds more, a Harvard Caps-Harris poll reported that 51% of 18-24 year olds felt that Hamas’s attack was justified by Palestinian grievances. Why were the youth of the 1940s insensible to Japanese grievances? Why were the American newspapers of World War II not filled with photos of bombed German cities while newspapers today profile Palestinian pictures every day? As a society, over the last few generations we have failed to teach our children moral clarity and the world is paying the price.
In this week’s Torah portion studied by Jews worldwide, Parshas Vayeira, (Genesis 18:1-22:24), we read of Avraham’s (Abraham's) ultimate challenge, Akeidas Yitzchak, the binding of Isaac. For decades Avraham had been teaching the pagan world of a loving God. He lived in a society where human sacrifices were par for the course, yet he devoted his life to presenting a radically different form of spiritual observance, “to keep the way of Hashem (God), to do what is just and right” (18:19). After one-hundred years, Avraham was granted his son Yitzchak (Isaac) who Hashem promised would be his spiritual heir, and thirty-seven years later he was faced with a command that threatened to undo everything he stood for. The same Avraham who preached against human sacrifice was asked to sacrifice his son, the very son who was his promised future. The God of loving kindness was requesting an act of extreme heartlessness. It seems as if in one moment, Avraham’s world turned upside-down. If anyone in history would be justified in feeling moral confusion, it surely would be Avraham. Yet Avraham didn’t hesitate. He rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and set out on his mission.
It was only after the angel called out from heaven, “Do not raise your hand against the boy or do anything to him”, that Jewish tradition tells us Avraham asked Hashem to explain the seeming contradictions of this command, which Hashem proceeded to do. Avraham’s sense of morality didn’t stem from his personal sensitivities or social norms. Avraham’s morality had a single source, the will of God. Whatever Hashem commanded of him, by definition was the right and moral course of action, whether or not he comprehended it. Jewish tradition tells us poignantly that after it was all over, Avraham asked Hashem, “I held myself back from questioning you despite the apparent contradictions in your statements. In that merit, when my children sin and suffer, please remember this binding of Isaac and forgive them fully.” And sure enough, every Rosh Hashana, on the Day of Judgment, when our fate trembles, we blow the shofar of the ram’s horn to remember this moment in time. A time when our forefather set aside all personal considerations for the sake of fulfilling Hashem’s decree without question or complaint. We remember a time when a man stood with complete moral clarity despite the potential for a misty fog of confusion.
For many generations, since the time of Avraham, parents understood that their role was to teach their children moral clarity. They expected obedience from their children regardless of their child’s perspective or opinion. Whether or not little Jane felt grateful for Granny’s gift of new socks, she was expected to respond gratefully. Whether or not the parent was correct, Johnny was expected to obey. In recent years however there has been a massive effort to give children moral equivalence with their parents and teachers.
Sixty years ago, when a teacher would call a parent to complain about a child’s behavior, the child was offered moral clarity. The teacher was right even when he wasn’t. Today when a child misbehaves in school, moral confusion prevails. Often the child’s perspective trumps the teacher’s. While it is true that a teacher can make mistakes, and that children can have valid challenges that make it difficult to behave properly, we neglect to begin all conversations with firm moral clarity and only afterwards look for the extenuating circumstances or other perspectives. A child must first be taught the moral absolutes, “We never speak disrespectfully to a parent or teacher”, before we start introducing the shades of gray into any specific situation.
I want to clarify that I think it important that we validate our children’s perspectives and feelings, but the problem is that we too often rush to do that first. We neglect the first step which is to lay the groundwork of the parent and teacher as the child’s moral authority before we move to validate or justify the child’s experience and perspective.
If we want to raise children who have moral clarity and can call out evil when they see it, we have to parent them with moral clarity. The baseline of any interaction with a parent and child has to be that the parent is the moral authority in the relationship. Once that is established, then it can be appropriate to explore the mitigating circumstances or fuzzy areas. If we neglect to teach our children black and white rules in favor of perpetual shades of gray, we will raise children who can’t differentiate between good and evil. It is true that much in life is nuanced and there is another side to each story, but that understanding must build upon a foundation of clarity. Nuance can’t replace clarity.
Would you like your children to listen to you without threats, shouts, or bribes? Watch my video Parenting So Your Children Will Listen for a new perspective on the parent-child relationship and practical how-tos.