Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 6 January 2018 / 19 Tevet 5778

Fathers and Sons

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Alex

Dear Rabbi,

Our son is past bar-mitzvah age. Unfortunately, he is not very interested in keeping mitzvot. No matter how much I try to encourage, convince, or even pressure him, he does not respond, and even gets angry to the point where the household gets full of tension, until my wife comes to his defense to calm him down. This upsets me very much since she is effectively condoning his behavior, and the other children might get the impression that it can be tolerated. One thing I can say is that the little that my son does continue to keep is mainly through his mother’s encouragement. I’m at a loss over what to do. Please give me some guidance.

Dear Alex,

I am very sorry to hear of this very trying situation, and any father in your position would naturally be distraught and torn over it. A father feels a special obligation and privilege to raise his son as a believing and observant individual. He aspires to see his son assume a place among the Jewishly committed men of the family, and of the Jewish People. And he hopes that his son will raise his own Jewish family and thereby ensure the continuity of Judaism and our unique relationship with G-d.

However, as always was, and always will be, young people will be young. Often, youth are superficial, attracted to enticements, and drawn after pleasures. This applies all the more so in our age of shallow externality and mass-marketing of technology-assisted, ready-accessible indulgence. This is as in the Talmudic adage (Berachot 32a): “It is like a man who had a son who bathed, anointed, fed and gave drink to him, hung a pocket of money on his neck, and placed him at the door of a brothel. What would the son do but sin?”

In addition to all this, modern society grants independence and adulthood to youth at a very young age. Once so entitled, and given access to “all that life has to offer”, they naturally come to demand “their rights” and fervently guard against anything that might undermine them — even parents. Is it any wonder that a father such as yourself who, despite having only your son’s best interest in mind, should encounter impatience, tension and even anger?

Nevertheless, in a conflict between being right vs. wise and being idealistic vs. realistic, rather than choosing to be correct and idealistic but to fail, we must choose to be wise, realistic and to succeed.

At this point, even more important than keeping your son interested in mitzvot is keeping him interested in being at home. The more “encouragement” (which is perceived by him to be confrontation) arouses him to anger, the less he will want to be at home and with his family. The more he’s away, the further he’ll stray. It’s that simple. Unfortunately, the more you accept this challenging reality, and avoid what you call encouraging, convincing and even pressuring him, the better he will feel about being at home and with family. So, even if he’s not proactively doing what you’d like, at least he’s staying out of trouble and away from bad influences.

Indeed, accommodating him in this way raises serious questions about the other children, but the outcome is certainly less damaging than calling attention to your son’s lack of observance in front of them. In most cases, as long as we don’t make a spectacle of it, the other children don’t notice as much as you think they do. And in any case, the anger and rebelliousness he displays in front of the other children is most certainly a bad example for them in the long-run.

Rather, once things cool down, the pressure is off him, and he feels better about just being at home and with the family, you and your wife can speak to him calmly and privately about what accommodations you’re willing to make because you love him, and what boundaries he must respect because he loves you and his siblings.

Regarding your wife’s role in all this, it seems that what you perceive to be her condoning his unacceptable behavior is actually her intuitive realization that a tougher approach will not work here. And that it’s better to be wise and keep your son than to be right and lose him. To be sure, this is one of the reasons why, according to your own admission, she continues to have an encouraging influence on his observance. In addition to this there is often a natural tension between father and son, particularly at this age, which does not exist with his mother.

In fact, the verse states (Prov. 1:8), “Hear, my son, the rebuke of your father, and don’t relinquish the Torah of your mother.” While the father rebukes against sin, the mother extols commitment to observance. And even if a son rejects the rebuke of his father, he may still maintain practice because of his mother. This is the special strength of a mother’s influence on her son, which is a result of the special relationship that exists between them.

This may hurt a father, who would naturally prefer to have a special, guiding and inspiring influence on his son. But effective parents realize they are a team in which each member contributes unique talents and strengths for the common good. And rather than subconsciously resenting your wife’s obvious beneficial influence on your son, you should encourage and harness it.

No one parent can provide everything his child needs. Consider as an analogy a grown child who needs a significant loan in order to start some constructive endeavor. Most parents don’t have the free capital to extend a loan they’d certainly make if they could. But most would do whatever they could to facilitate the loan, and feel grateful toward whomever was able to promote their child’s interest in a way the parent himself was not able to.

The same applies here. If the dynamic of this situation renders you currently unable to promote your son’s observance, but his mother is able to, you should promote and encourage it. What’s more, you should even utilize your wife’s relationship with your son and her influence on him as an inroad to repairing your own relationship with him, and as a venue of beneficial, mediated communication between the two of you.

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