We’re going to do a little thought experiment today. For those of you who are blessed with children, whether they are young, teenagers, or adult children, – What is the worst thing your child ever did? Everyone else, what is the worst thing you ever did as a child?

Don’t answer that out loud.

Now what I want you to think about next is, how did you, or how did you parent respond? I want you imagine the words used, the tone, the volume. Got it?

On the count of three, you’re all going to blurt exactly what was said, at the same volume and with the same tone. One, two,

Just kidding. You definitely should not be saying that out loud. We’re in a shul, after all.

By the look on your faces, I think the experiment was successful. It brought about what we all know to be true –  Parenting is difficult. Very difficult. The Talmud describes parenting as tza’ar gidul bonim, the pain of raising children. It hurts. Children push every button we have, and more importantly, they teach us about countless buttons we didn’t even know we have.

But if you think you have it bad, I want to reacquaint you to a certain someone who had it worse. His children were exceptionally difficult.

By way of introduction, there are three cardinal sins in Judaism; murder, adultery, and idolatry. With that in mind, let’s review this week’s parsha. Yaakov’s sons, Shimon and Levi, are appalled by a crime committed against their sister, Dina. How do they respond? By murdering the entire population of the city of Shechem. A few passages later, Yaakov, the successor of Avraham and Yitzchak, the great teachers of monotheism, turns to his family and says, “Guys, it’s time to get rid of all the idols that you’ve been carrying around with you.” And then – “Reuven lies with Yaakov’s wife, Bilhah.” Many do not read that verse literally, but it doesn’t sound good at all. 3 for 3. Murder, idolatry, and adultery.

It kind of pales in comparison to too much screen time, doesn’t it?

How would we respond? How would we react to our children coming home one day covered in blood? How would we lecture our children if they were storing a cross in their bedroom? How would we respond if a child of ours were to commit some form of adultery?    

Again, don’t answer that question out loud.

But let’s see how Yaakov responds. And I’d like to point out a general theory I have with the narratives of our forefathers. They do not start out as Tzadikim, as purely righteous. Their lives follow a trajectory of growth. For example, the first few episodes in Yaakov’s life are filled with deception and lies, but as time goes on, he becomes more and more straightforward and honest, eve when it hurts. Similarly, as we read how Yaakov responds to his children, as we witness the parenting skills of our forefather, there seems to be a trajectory of growth and change.

Story #1 – Shimon and Levi return home after murdering the entire male population of the city of Shechem. Yaakov is understandably incredulous; he loses his mind. “Are you guys crazy?! Do you not realize what you’ve done?! Do you not realize that even if your act was justified, the danger you’ve placed us all in with your impetuous actions?!”

Shimon and Levi respond. They defend themselves. “We had to defend our sisters honor!”

And then Yaakov does something remarkable. Although he disagrees, although he thinks what they did was a travesty and a total lack of judgment. But in the heat of the moment, with his children arguing back that they were right, and he was wrong, Yaakov bites his tongue. The Biblical narrative concludes with Shimon and Levi getting the final word.

Would you be able to do that? Would you be able to hold yourself back from belaboring the point that these kids of yours are criminals, that they are rash, that they are going to grow up to be terrible people. But Yaakov says nothing at all and gives them the final word.

And we’re not even done yet. Next up, idolatry. Yaakov is told by G-d that his family is harboring idols. Let’s remind ourselves who Yaakov is. In modern terms, he is the chief rabbi of the world and his son has a nativity scene set up in his bedroom, his wife is holding on to a little statue of Mary, and his other son wears a necklace with a big fat cross on it. If this would happen to me… How does Yaakov respond?

With zero emotion. “Remove the idols from your midst.” No rebuke, no labels; this is what needs to be done. Is that how we speak? “You need to do your homework.” “You need to wake up.” “You need to speak with a different tone.” Without nagging? Without emotion? Without characterizing them for their failures?

Then we have the grand finale. Yaakov’s eldest Reuven, according to the simple read of the Torah sleeps with his stepmother. Our Sages make a compelling case to demonstrate that this is not to be taken literally. But be that as it may, Reuven committed a crime that was tantamount to adultery and incest. How does Yaakov respond?


He does not.

וַיֵּ֣לֶךְ רְאוּבֵ֗֔ן וַיִּשְׁכַּ֕ב֙ אֶת־בִּלְהָ֖ה֙ פִּילֶ֣גֶשׁ אָבִ֑֔יו וַיִּשְׁמַ֖ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֑͏ֽל {פ}
וַיִּֽהְי֥וּ בְנֵֽי־יַעֲקֹ֖ב שְׁנֵ֥ים עָשָֽׂר  

“And Reuven went and lay with Bihah. Yaakov heard. And the sons of Yaakov were twelve.”

He didn’t throw him out of the house. He didn’t yell and scream. He heard. He knew. And he chose to say nothing at all.

Dr. Laura Markham, author of the best-selling book, Peaceful Parents, Happy Kids writes as follows: “Most parents think that if only my child would behave, I would be able to maintain my composure as a parent.” How often do we say that? If only my children would act normally, I’d be such a calm and nice person. “But it’s actually the other way around.” A parent’s ability to demonstrate what is known as emotional regulation, the ability to control emotions in difficult situations, is far more important than anything we say or do as parents. The most impactful thing we could to our children is do nothing at all. To produce children who are respectful and responsible, we need to stay calm.

In the 14th century, a French Torah scholar and philosopher by the name of Rabbi Levi Ben Gershon, otherwise known as the Ralbag, drew the same lesson from the life of Yaakov. Yaakov, he writes, did not downplay the terrible sins of his sons. He held on to them until the day he died. But his lack of emotional reaction, his ability to maintain his composure in the face of boiling rage, of justified righteous indignity, and the fear, the fear that every parent knows so well, what in the world is going to be with this child if this is the way he or she acts right now?! – the fact that Yaakov was able to hold on to all those emotions, that is the greatness of our forefather, and that’s why the Torah records these sordid tales. Yaakov developed with time the ability to regulate his emotions, to maintain equilibrium in the face of whatever cards his children dealt him.

It took some time for his children to integrate these lessons, they would not become angels overnight – there’s a few more bumps along the way. But ultimately, Yaakov’s modeling paid off. His son Yosef demonstrated heroic self-control in the face of extreme temptation. His son Yehuda demonstrated the highest form of responsibility, shaming himself to take ownership over his misdeeds. And the final scene of this book of Bereishis, we find Yaakov with a mitah sheleima, surrounded by children who are all righteous in their own right.

I remember one of the children of Rabbi Herman Neuberger telling us how he took his father’s brand-new car for a spin and crashed. He was totally fine. The car, not so much. His father did not say a word. That, this man told us, was the greatest parenting lesson he ever learned in his life. We cannot control our children, but we can control how we react to them.

There’s a story told of Rabbi Boruch Ber Lebowitz, one of the leading scholars of the 20th century. Apparently, he also struggled with regulating his emotions. And so, he came up with a plan. He would only allow himself to vent his anger at his children if he was wearing his special “anger hat.” That’s right, he designated a special hat in his closet that he would wear before getting angry at his family. And you could imagine what happened. By the time he got to the closet and put on the hat, the anger was gone.

We don’t know what tools or tricks Yaakov used to control his emotions. But what we do know is that he leaves us a legacy, a way of life towards which to aspire. Regulating our emotions is the greatest gift we can give our children. May G-d give us the emotional strength to perpetuate this legacy and may we blessed with healthy, respectful and responsible children.