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Biblical Parenting Lessons in Honor of Father's Day

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With Father's Day right around the corner, it is appropriate to offer some spiritual reflections on the role of a father and on a Jewish approach to parenting.

Referring to God as "Father" is commonplace in the Jewish liturgy. We say often "our Father in heaven" or "our Father our King."

I like to remember that idea as the daily grind of fatherhood challenges me. One recent day (as I changed my fifth diaper of the day), I thought to myself that I must have changed more than 2,000 diapers over an eight-year period. Of course, being a father is a great privilege and an honor. It is also a task of enormous responsibility and unending energy. No one ever said that being a father was easy.

Sometimes a parent will work really hard on preparing food for his or her children. Instead of devouring the food and saying thank you, the child will just look at the food and refuse even to taste it. Trust me when I tell you that that can be very frustrating.

Moses experiences that as well. Hashem, through the vehicle of Moses, provides manna to the Israelites, and rather than saying "thank you," they complain; it is too dry, they cry out (Numbers 11:5-6).

Moses is frustrated so he cries to Hashem (11:12), "Was I the woman who was pregnant with these people?" Moses continues, "But you said that I must carry them in my bosom just like a nurse carries an infant."

Moses says: The task is too hard for me to do by myself. There were 3 million Jews with him in the desert. Can you imagine nursing 3 million people? It felt impossible to him. "I cannot do this by myself" (11:14).

So Hashem steps in and gives two answers to Moses. These two answers are the two keys to fatherhood.

The first responsibility of being a father is to teach your children to follow your path. By this I do not mean your career path or your choice of personal preferences, but the path of following a life in service to God by serving the world. This takes enormous dedication and effort.

Hashem says to Moses: You must spread your prophet abilities. Hashem tells him to take 70 elders and gather them and then Hashem takes the spirit of Moses and places it upon the elders. Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra (Numbers 11:17) explains that the process was akin to lighting many flames from a single flame. When we take the energy from a candle, we are able to light another flame without diminishing the first flame. And we keep the new flame lit until it burns strongly.

This is one of the two major goals of fatherhood: light the flame until it can stay lit on its own. The more we light the flame for the children to follow our path, the more energy we produce.

The Torah promises that even though we give, it will not detract from our own energy. Just the opposite, the more energy we give off, the more we get additional energy. We are energized by giving off energy.

This is one key to fatherhood that Hashem teaches Moses: focus on lighting the flame until the child's flame is steady and strong.

But there is a second lesson taught through Moses, and it is almost a contradictory lesson. There were two elders -- Eldad and Meidad -- who separated from the other 70 elders and did not follow Moses' direction. Moses told them to come to his tent, but instead they stayed in their own tent. Moshe told them to take from his prophecy, but instead they took from their own. The other elders prophesy only once, but according to the Talmud, they continued to prophesy.

Eldad and Meidad appeared to be rebellious. What where they prophesying about? One anonymous opinion in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 17a) is that they were saying, "Moses will die and Joshua will lead us into the land." What an enormous challenge they were presenting to Moses' leadership!

These two prophets were not following Moses' path. They were doing it on their own. Their prophecy was independent and, at first glance, rebellious. How was Moses to react to such a challenge?

The Torah says that a boy ran to tell Moses (11:27). Rashi says that this boy was Gershom, Moses' son. He was worried about the disrespect being shown to his father.

But we now learn the second key lesson for fatherhood, and this is a much more difficult lesson to live by. When our children exhibit independence it can be seen either as a threat to our parenting or as the fulfillment of our parenting. Moses realizes that if he wants to nourish all of his 3 million children then he should not view Eldad and Meidad's independence as a threat.

Independence can be frustrating. A silly example: when a 2-year-old insists on pouring milk on his own. This is frustrating as I know the milk will spill. But there are scarier examples as well. For example, when a child insists on being more or less religious than a parent. This can be very scary to a parent. As parents, our first reaction is to view independence of mind and spirit as a direct challenge to our authority, but Moses teaches that in some cases it should really be seen as a fulfillment of our parenting.

One model of parenting is to light the flame of children until it goes up on its own. A second model is to allow children to light their own independent flame. We can guide, but we must recognize their independent flame.

Moses said to Hashem (11:12-13), "Did I carry them in my womb? ... Where can I get the meat to feed them?" Moses wasn't their actual father. He was their leader, but not their father. A father never asks that question. He knows that he will get the strength. He knows that he will provide. He knows that no matter what he will find it within himself to serve his children, to do anything for them. This is the greatness of fathers everywhere. For this we must be eternally grateful, always.

Excerpted from 'Fifty-Four Pickup: Fifteen Minute Inspirational Torah Thoughts.'