Thursday, October 31, 2013

Toldot and Helicopter Parents

The new Microsoft stores, although certainly not as crowded as their rival Apple stores, feature the emerging technology of 3D printing. Like the first PC’s of a generation ago, these devices have the potential to revolutionize our lives. Imagine that one day you will be able to make anything you need while sitting at your desk at home. Rather than running from hardware store to Home Depot and back again for the correctly sized replacement part you can sit down at your computer and printer and make it. Some might dismiss such ideas as the stuff of science fiction, but remember that it was not so long ago that many of us dismissed the notion that we would one day hold in our hands the computing power of what then occupied entire rooms at university labs.

Even more impressive is the recent development of 4D printing. Researchers at MIT are working on this technology. What is 4D printing? It is the manufacture of objects that self assemble. Not only are they three dimensional rather than flat and two dimensional, but they also assemble themselves. That is of course how living organisms work. If you recall your biology classes from ages ago that is how DNA organizes human life. Each of us began from one single cell. (I am of course aware of the steps preceding this but that would be for another post.)

I have been thinking about 4D printing. It seems the perfect image for parenting. I watch from 1000 miles away as my children learn more and more at their respective universities and there get involved in more activities and take on more responsibilities. I look on as they begin to assemble and become responsible and learned adults. There is the temptation to say at times, “You’re doing it wrong. That’s not how it is put together.” But that is not what we are supposed to say.

Too bad our matriarch Rebekah did not share this view. She is the first helicopter parent in history. Here is that story from this week’s portion.

Isaac and Rebekah have twins. Their names are Jacob and Esau. Esau is the oldest and therefore according to biblical law deserving of the first-born inheritance. The literary tension in Genesis is created because although this is the law every one of the story lines upends it. Isaac usurps Ishmael’s rights. Later Joseph bests the oldest Reuben and here Jacob steals the birthright from Esau.

Rebekah continues to hover. She hears her nearly blind husband Isaac tell Esau to go hunting and prepare a meal so that he can then bless him and offer him his rightful inheritance. Rebekah tells Jacob he should pretend to be Esau so he can get the blessing instead. She dresses him up like Esau and cooks her husband’s favorite meal. Isaac asks his usual type of question. He sees but does not really see. Earlier he asks, “Father… where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” (Genesis 22:7) Now he wonders, “Are you really my son Esau?” (Genesis 27:23) Does he always take family members at their word? Is his only response one of absolute trust? Or does he choose to believe, but in his heart secretly knows? I continue to wonder how he did not at least recognize the taste of his wife’s cooking. Nonetheless, Isaac gives Jacob the blessing.

Esau finds out. He is overwhelmed by grief. Imagine his pain. He knows that at the very least his brother conspired against him. Perhaps he understands as well that his mother helped too. He threatens to kill Jacob. Rebekah instructs her favorite son, “Your brother Esau is consoling himself by planning to kill you. Now, my son, listen to me. Flee at once to Haran, to my brother Laban. Stay with him a while, until your brother’s fury subsides.” (Genesis 27:42-44)

Rebekah moves the story. She manipulates. She believes that Jacob must get the blessing and so moves others in order to make this come true. Our hero Jacob does not figure out his own path until he is forced to run away and create his own life outside of his mother’s (over) protective care. True, without her guiding hand and overbearing presence, he first marries the wrong woman, but understand this: he only becomes Israel after wrestling with the angel, alone.

Perhaps you might say that this is too heavy handed a psychological interpretation of our patriarch and especially our matriarch. Still, I continue to believe that the art of parenting, and teaching for that matter, is to provide the skills, knowledge, and tools for self-assembly. The temptation is to follow Rebekah’s example. The pull is to put it together for our kids. We understand Rebekah. We are sympathetic to her choices because like her we too think we know best.

And so I am left to sit back and look from afar, and at times smile with pride and glee, and other times shout (to myself) in exasperation (Ari, why again are you taking Swahili?) and watch as my children begin to self assemble.

It is not until Jacob runs away from Esau and leaves his parent’s home that he begins to dream. “Jacob left Beersheva, and set out for Haran…. He had a dream…” (Genesis 28:10-11) That is the beginning of next week’s story. And now we see the beginnings of the man who will soon become Israel and the inklings of a people assembling.

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