Religious Life

Parenting is a Privilige

Parenting is a Privilige
16 Adar 5778
Rabbi Alexander Davis

I was walking through the local supermarket the other day when I saw a grandfather holding hands with his five year old grandson. It was obvious that the grandpa wasn’t having an easy time of it. Every time the kid saw candy or toys, he’d start to scream. “I want this. I want that!”

I don’t know how but the grandfather kept his cool. He just kept saying softly to the child: “Abe, relax, it won’t take long.”

When the screaming didn’t stop, the grandpa continued: “Abe, there’s no reason to get angry, try to enjoy this walk and in a minute we’ll be on the way home, promise.”

When I came out of the store I saw the two of them in the parking lot, the child having a tantrum and the old man still talking softly and quietly to him. I couldn’t help myself. I walked over to him.

“Sir,” I said, “You are an amazing grandfather. The way you talk to the boy and keep your calm despite all of his screaming. Abe is lucky to have a grandpa like you.”

“Thanks,” said the old man, “but I’m Abe. This little snotty-nosed mazzik is Max’

I want to tell you a story about a grandfather, his son and his grandson. It’s a story about a boy named Micah. No, not my son, Micah, nor the prophet Micah who taught us, “to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God.” No, I want to introduce you to the Micah in the Book of Judges, the same Micah who makes a cameo appearance in a comment by Rashi in this morning’s parasha. With word plays and delightful imagination, the rabbis weave an elaborate tale about a boy far worse than a mazzik.

The story begins back in the days of Egyptian slavery when the taskmasters imposed harsh measures. The Israelites were required to make a certain number of bricks per day. Anyone who failed to fill the quota was ordered to substitute his son for bricks. That is what happened to Micah. His father was forced to use him in place of bricks to build the Egyptian city. The name, Micah, the rabbis teach, thus comes from the Hebrew word, midachmekh meaning, “crushed one.” Honestly, I’ve have thought of and fantasized over many different punishments for a misbehaving child but never using them as bricks in a building.  That gives a whole new meaning to, “you’re grounded!”

The legend continues. Upon seeing the agony of the Israelites forced to literally entomb their own offspring in mud bricks, Moshe drew the lifeless Micah out of the wall and performed a miracle. He wrote down God’s name on a piece of parchment and put the words on Micah’s body. And with that, the boy came to life. Unfortunately, as the years passed, Micah did not show himself worthy of the miracle done for him because it turns out, Micah became an idol worshipper. Not only that, he caused the Israelites to worship idols.

You’ll remember that when the Israelites left Egypt, they brought Joseph’s bones with them. Joseph was buried in the Nile. To lift the bones out of the water, Moshe wrote on a piece of wood the phrase, “alei shor, rise up ox” (ox is a symbol of Joseph). Moshe cast the wood into the Nile and the bones rose. Moshe gathered them and then left to gather the Israelites to leave Egypt. Unbeknownst to him and when no one else was looking, Micah found the piece of wood that had been cast into the Nile and took it with him out of Egypt.

Fast forward to our parasha to the scene of the Golden Calf. Moshe was up on Sinai. Aaron felt forced by the crowd to appease them. So he gathered the people’s jewelry. Rashi tells us what happened next:

וְיֵשׁ אוֹמְרִים, מִיכָה הָיָה שָׁם, שֶׁיָּצָא מִתּוֹךְ דִּמּוּסֵי בִּנְיָן שֶׁנִּתְמַעֵךְ בּוֹ בְּמִצְרַיִם, וְהָיָה בְּיָדוֹ שֵׁם וְטַס שֶׁכָּתַב בּוֹ מֹשֶׁה
”עֲלֵה שׁוֹר עֲלֵה שׁוֹר“ לְהַעֲלוֹת אֲרוֹנוֹ שֶׁל יוֹסֵף מִתּוֹךְ נִילוּס, וְהִשְׁלִיכוֹ לְתוֹךְ הַכּוּר וְיָצָא הָעֵגֶל

Micah sheyatza mitoch binyan b’mitzrayim haya sham. V’haya b’yado luchot shekatuv bo “alei shor.” V’hishlicho l’tokh hakor vayatza haegel. Micah stepped forward out of the crowd, cast into the molten metal a piece of wood with the words written “rise up ox” and out rose a golden calf. You can hear the word play between the story of Joseph’s bones and the making of the calf, the “casting” and “rising” that inspired this midrash.

In any case, it appears that Micah was the instigator behind the act of idolatry that practically severed the Israelite’s relationship with God, the act that left thousands dead and almost ended with the people abandoned in the desert. Micah, Micah, Micah! I get practice saying that at home.

Up to this point, this is all rabbis’ imaginative background to a character who appears in Sefer Shoftim, the Book of Judges. Now, put aside any questions about chronology because the tale continues in the era of judges which would make Micah very old. We pick up the story in chapter 17 just at the conclusion of the saga of Samson and Deliah. The Israelites have reached the Promised Land and have settled it. Micah was living with his mother in the northern part of the country.

One day, Micah discovered that his mother had eleven hundred pieces of silver stolen from her. Luckily, he found the silver. He returned it to his mom who said, “Actually, I was planning on making an idol.” So she took the silver to a silversmith who made a molten image. Sound familiar? I guess it confirms that old saying, “you can take an idol maker out of Egypt but you can’t take the idol maker out of the man.”

Micah was up to his old tricks. So now his house had an idol but it didn’t have a priest to help with the idol worship. Wouldn’t you know it, just then, a passer-by stopped at his house. Micah invited the boy inside, gave him some food and said he’d pay him a handsome sum if he agreed to serve as priest over his house. The boy agreed and over time, he became like a son to Micah. Until one day, a group of men from the tribe of Dan were passing through the area. Micah invited them in to spend the night. While lodging there, they met the priest, saw the idols and basically offered him a better gig. “Wouldn’t you prefer to serve the entire tribe of Dan rather than just this one house?” they asked. It was an offer the boy couldn’t resist. The story in the Book of Judges ends by revealing the name of this young man. It was Yonatan ben Gershom ben Menashe. Sounds unremarkable, right? Yonatan ben Gershom ben Menashe. But here is the thing: When Menashe is written in a scroll of the Book of Judges, the nun is written as a superscript leaving just the letters, mem-shin-hey which spells, Moshe. And we know that Moshe’s son is named… Gershom. So Yonatan ben Gershom ben Moshe is no less than Moshe’s grandson. The name Moshe is written like Menashe to save Moshe embarrassment because look what happened to his grandson.

To recap: Micah, the very person Moshe had saved from the bricks of Egypt made the Golden Calf and later hired Moshe’s grandson to serve idols to the greatest bidder.

Wow! What are we to make of this twisted tale? First of all, had we known this midrash 13 years ago, we might not have named our son Micah.

This embellished story of Micah is found in the Talmud in Masaket Sanhedrin 103b in a section listing those worthy of entering heaven and those barred from heaven. Now, given what I’ve told you, you might assume that Micah would be out, way out, that the rabbis would be justified in condemning his action. Surprisingly though, they come to his defense. We are told that the angels sought to punish Micah for his idolatry by removing him from this world. But God prevented them from doing so. Why? Because Micah opened his home and shared his bread with strangers.

.בקשו מלאכי השרת לדוחפו. אמר להן הקב”ה: הניחו לו שפתו מצויה לעוברי דרכים

I love that. God was willing to be dishonored for the sake of honoring guests. This is one of those wonderful examples in Judaism where how a person behaves matters more than to whom they pray, where we see chesed trump emunah, where kindness take precedence over faith. For this act of hakhnasat orchim, hospitality, the gates of heaven were opened for Micah. That alone is a powerful message this morning. But I’d like to go one step further.

This passage in the Talmud follows the story of Micah with additional examples of people allowed into heaven who we might assume would be denied access.  One additional character is worth sharing. Amon was a wicked king. Certainly, if anyone, he would be denied entry into heaven. But no, the rabbis rule.

.מפני מה לא מנו את אמון? מפני כבודו של יאשיהו

Amon was permitted to enter olam haba because of the merit of his child. Amon’s son, Yoshiyahu, was a tzadik. He conferred such merit upon his father that Amon was considered worthy of entering heaven. Now we might understand this to suggest that perhaps Amon wasn’t so bad after all. He must have done something right to have raised Yoshiyah to be a tzadik.

But the rabbis use his story to teach a general principle: bra m’zakeh l’av, a son can confer merit upon his father. A child can make her parent worthy of a place in heaven. How so? Some rabbis connect this teaching to kaddish saying that by reciting kaddish, a child can avert a negative decree of their deceased parent and thus grant them a place in olam haba. But I’d argue that even in life, children can confer merit upon their parents. Here is what I mean.

Understand that zechut is different than nachas. Nachas means we take pride and joy in the accomplishments of our children. We delight in seeing them succeed, in seeing the people they become. Zechut is different. It means merit or privilege. And indeed, it is a privilege to parent. Yes, it is exhausting, exasperating, and expensive. It is exhilarating and exiting. But it also a privilege that earns us merit.

How so? Our children challenge us to grow as people. They compel us to learn, to broaden our horizons, to deepen our understanding, and most significantly, they expand our hearts to grow in love in ways we didn’t even know was possible. In the words of Naomi Levy, “Parenthood inspires you to become more patient, more tolerant, more humble, more loving, more accepting, more honest, more responsible, more generous, and more selfless than you ever imagined” (Talking to God, p. 92).

Yes, there are times, many, when we have to talk our way through a store to handle our kid’s outburst saying, “it’s ok Abe, not much longer.” There are times when we look at the Micah’s in our lives and say, “for this I toiled?” I’d like to think that it is davka in those moments that we as parents earn our place in olam haba. And in the everyday moments of life when we see our children “do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God,” it makes it all worthwhile.

I’d like to believe that in every Micah there is a mitzvah or an act of chesed waiting to be realized and through whose merit they will gain access to olam haba. And when we glimpse those moments, like I do today, we experience a bit of olam haba in olam hazeh, a bit of heaven right here.

In that vein, permit me as a father and a rabbi to conclude with a brakha. The blessing comes from the Reform movment’s siddur, Mishkan Tefilah:

Baruah ata adonai, shenatan li et hazechut vet hakvod l’tet lekha Torah. Blessed is Adonai our God, who gives me the honor and privilege of entrusting you with Torah.

Shabbat Shalom