Parshas Chayei Sarah
Right and Wrong
Yitzchak had just come from Be’er LaChai Roi; he was living in the south.
He went out to pray in the field toward evening . . . (Bereishis 24:62-63)
There are many ways to measure one’s success in life, but one of the most
important of all, explains the Torah, is the spiritual quality of the
generations one leaves behind. And though “generations” can even mean one’s
deeds, as we learned back at the beginning of Parashas Noach, the simplest
explanation is that it means the children to which one gives birth and raises.
In fact, Rashi mentioned on last week’s parshah that:
Anyone who raises a righteous son, it is as if he does not die. (Rashi,
One obvious reason for this is that a righteous son mourns the loss of his
parent as is fitting, saying Kaddish and performing merit worthy acts on
behalf of the deceased parent for the entire 11 months after the death. This
serves to increase the merit of the parent, something that one can usually
only do while a person is alive. Hence, because of the child, it is as if
the parent did not die.
Even after the 11 months are over, the child remembers the parent on days
that Yizkor is recited, and on the day of the yahrzeit as well, when many
often fast to the deceased parent’s merit. This goes on year-after-year,
which means that even after the parent is long gone, his or her merit can be
increased vis-a-vis the living child.
And, of course, there is no greater testimony to a parent’s spiritual
greatness than the everyday actions of a child, even, and especially, when
the child does not have his or her parent in mind. Not only God thinks this
way, but human beings do as well, often attributing a child’s good or bad
deeds back to his or her parent. “Yitzchak? He’s Avraham’s boy . . .”
The interesting thing is that, in many families, there is much diversity.
Within a single family there can be righteous children, and just the
opposite. A family can contain both white and black sheep, and it is not
always obvious to people, including the parents, which child is which.
Righteousness is a relative concept, we also learned back in Parashas Noach,
and we must take into account many elements that most humans do not factor
in when judging the spiritual greatness of another individual.
Ultimately speaking, righteousness is measured not so much by what one
produces in life, but by what one puts of himself into what one produces. As
mentioned before, in Judaism, reward is a function of effort not its result
(Pirkei Avos 5:22), because as the Talmud states, the results are always in
the hands of Heaven, except for the will we expend to achieve something
(Brochos 34b). That we control, and with that, we define ourselves as human
Some people grow up with little concern about money, and for them, giving a
thousand dollars to charity is easy. Others, on the other hand, grew up
always worrying about where there next dollar was going to come from, and
for them, giving a dollar is very difficult. Whose act of charity gets more
attention from the neighbors? Whose act of charity gets more attention from God?
What about the “A” student who continues to score high marks without having
to study, and the “B” student who struggles to maintain his scholastic level
even after spending much time and energy to learn and remember the material?
Whom does the educational system favor more? Whom does God appreciate more?
Then what does it mean to raise a righteous child? If talents, which are
usually God-given, even if human-developed, differ from person to person, as
do the circumstance into which children are born, then how much of a chance
does the average parent have at raising a righteous son or daughter? As much
as we’d like to raise “happy” children, which certainly increases our
chances of raising “happy” adults, which has to increase their chances of
becoming righteous “citizens,” there is so much is working against us that
we can’t control.
And yet, we do see, great people, such as Chizkiah HaMelech, who came from
evil parents, and evil people, such as Menashe, his son, who descended from
righteous parents. Happy people have emerged from unhappy households while
miserable people have come out of seemingly happy homes. Are these merely
exceptions to the rule, or are they the rule itself?
The story of Menashe, interestingly enough, has a happy ending. After
undoing all of the good his father had done, turning many back to idol
worship for 33 years, Menashe did teshuvah, and spent the last seven years
of his life and reign working at righting his wrongs. It may have been too
little too late, but it was certainly a lot better than nothing.
Why did he do it? How can someone become so evil, and then become so
righteous? Was it something he ate for breakfast, or something he got from
his father while growing up, something that wasn’t strong enough to stop him
from becoming evil, but strong enough to stop him from remaining evil?
Once, while discussing this idea with a close friend of mine, I was told
something that I found really fascinating. He spoke about one of his sons
who was struggling to remain religious, but with whom he tried to maintain a
close relationship, regardless. He told me how years ago he had learned to
separate who he was from who his children became, and this made it easier
for him to relate to those of his children who were clearly not walking in
his ways, and those of the Torah.
It was just one of those very rare moments in life when the two of them
happen to be sitting in the living room together, and in the mood for a
heart-to-heart discussion. And, as he probed his son’s views on life, the
answers he received, he told me, blew him away.
In short, it turned out that his son believed a lot more in Torah Judaism
than his present course in life seemed to indicate. He told his father that,
at the time, it was difficult for him to do all the mitzvos like the rest of
his family, but that he firmly believed in God, Torah values, and the
World-to-Come. He even mentioned that though Torah learning wasn’t for him,
at least at the time, that he appreciated its importance, and planned to
help support a Kollel one day if God were to make him successful in business.
“But, don’t you think that he simply told you what he knew you wanted to
hear?” I asked my friend.
He thought for a moment, and then told me, “At first I thought so as well.
However, he is someone who has no problem telling me what he really feels,
even when it goes against what I want. He has on many occasions in the past.
Furthermore, my friend continued, “He said things that he just didn’t have
to say . . . things that he could have avoided and still have impressed me .
. . things that I don’t think he would have said had he not truly believed
Then my friend told me something that made me smile, and which I took home
with me. He said, “For the first time ever, I was able to see how my son was
not as different from me as I had thought.”
The Talmud tells three stories of people who in the last minute of life
changed everything for the good. And, after each time it happened, the
Talmud concluded by saying (more or less): There are those who acquire their
world, that is, their portion in the World-to-Come, after an entire
lifetime, and those who acquire it in a single moment (Avodah Zarah 10b,
17a, 18a). A single moment!
In what merit? Why do some do teshuvah, albeit at the last moment, and some
go to the grave with an evil smile on their faces?
I know of another parent who was struggling with child of his, and who held
out little hope for his future. Eventually the child got a job, and one day
the parent happened to be talking to a fellow employee of his son, who told
him, “You must be very proud of your son!”
The parent was confused at first, and could only answer, “Which son?”
Perhaps the employee somehow happened to meet another child of his, who he
knew to be better behaved. However, he became even more confused when the
person mentioned his co-workers name, and began to tell some stories of his
child’s behavior towards other people, and his self-sacrifice for others.
“Are you sure we’re talking about the same person?” the father asked,
After a brief description of his son, he realized that not only had the
co-worker been correct about which son he was talking, but about how wrong
he had been about his son. After thanking his son’s fellow employee for the
compliment, and taking his leave, he found a quiet and private place to sit
down and consider what he had just learned.
As he sat that, looking out in the distance but not paying attention to what
he saw, he felt tears welling up in his eyes and rolling down his cheeks.
All of a sudden the child of whom he had been the least proud all of sudden
made him the most proud. As he told me the story, which had happen some time
ago, I could still see the remorse in his eyes for having misjudged his child.
At the end of the day, the best gift we can give to children is an accurate
sense of right-and-wrong. I say “give,” as opposed to “teach,” because
teaching it is only Stage One. Children can see all kinds of things growing
up at home, some good and some not so good, but if they see a family built
upon ultimate truths and committed to them, it gets under their skin. It
becomes part of their consciousness, and it will affect the way they look at
reality the rest of their lives. It will become their core, and no matter
what they do in life, eventually it will surface and make them into better
people, if they aren’t already.
How great our children become or how much success they achieve in their
lifetimes can depend upon so many factors that are beyond our control. But
their sense of right and wrong? That they get from us, from the home in
which they grow up. Rich or poor, comfortable of suffering, what children
take with them is how their parents deal with reality and the opportunities
in life. This can make a child righteous from the start, or at the very
least, give them the chance to move in that direction, the extent to which
only God can judge when determining who is truly righteous, and how much.
Rich or poor, comfortable of suffering, what children take with them is how
their parents deal with reality and the opportunities in life. This can make
a child righteous from the start, or at the very least, give them the chance
to move in that direction, the extent to which only God can judge when
determining who is truly righteous, and how much.
Text Copyright © 2012 by Rabbi Pinchas Winston and Torah.org.