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Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Naso                                        June 15, 2019 - 12 Sivan, 5779

06/12/2019 03:27:34 PM


I want to share with you the words of my colleague, Rabbi Harold Berman, who gives us much food for thought about parenting and grand-parenting: The Haftorah we read this morning tells a small part of the story of Samson.  Perhaps one of the reasons the Rabbis chose this section as the Haftorah is that it’s probably the nicest part of the Samson story.  Much of the rest of Samson’s story involves a lot of messy fighting, indeed wholesale slaughter, and also involves a lot of big mistakes Samson makes along the way.

So the Rabbis gave us the first part of the Samson story, the nice part about Mommy and Daddy planning a family, but by doing so they invited us to consider the issues in a much more personal way.  We read about these parents, or about these people who are not yet parents, and we were told that an angel comes and tells them not only that they will be parents, and not only that there are things they should do, and not do before their child is born, but also that he is destined for greatness.  “He will begin to deliver the Israelites from the Philistines.”

So what do they do?  They follow the rules - and they do very little else.  They raise this kid, they don’t take him for haircuts, they keep him out of bars, I suppose, those are the rules, but they don’t do much more.  He is destined for greatness! I guess they think it will come automatically.  When he comes home one day and says, “I saw this beautiful Philistine young woman and I want to marry her.”  They make a half-hearted effort to talk him out of it, but then very quickly say, “okay, whatever you want Samson, and whatever you say”.  It doesn’t turn out too well.  In fact, it goes downhill from there.  Of course, the text says, and Mom and Pop assume, it’s all in God’s hands, but still one is not impressed by their parenting. 

The text invites us to reflect for a moment on a very interesting question.   What if we could know the future?   What if an angel suddenly appeared, as the angel in this story did with Samson’s parents, and told us what the future would hold, for ourselves, for our kids, for our people?   Would this be a good thing?  Was it a good thing for the Samson family? 

We aren’t told, beyond a certain point, how long Samson’s parents lived or what they saw.  We are told at the end of the Samson stories that he was buried in the tomb of his father, Manoah, so we assume Samson’s parents, or at least his father, predeceased him.  It doesn’t matter.  We get the impression that what they knew about their son’s destiny did not make them better parents.  If anything, receiving the prophecy seems to have made them less effective in guiding, training and instilling a measure of self-control into this physically strong but morally unimpressive young man.   They knew he would achieve some important things for his people.  Did they know that his great strength would also lead to his early self-destruction?

What would we want to know about our children, or even about ourselves, as we look to the future?  If we knew what our children were destined to accomplish, would we really know how to guide them on their way?  If we had a prophecy about one of our children, would we treat other children differently?  Would we have other children?  Might we be tempted to assume the greatness of one might diminish the potential of another?

What did they tell Samson?  Did they tell him he was going to be great?  Would that be good for a kid to hear, over and over again, “You’re going to be great?”  I have known a few kids who heard from their parents how terrific they were going to be, a little too often.  Parents telling their kids, you can be great…you can work hard and achieve whatever you want, that makes some sense to me.   Parents telling kids that greatness is assured, regardless of what they do, or don’t do, is a recipe for disaster.   We would like things to be easy for our kids, and we might even wish we could give them guarantees. The easy way is not usually the best way.  Most of us do better making no assumptions about the future.  At our best, we create our future, or, alternatively, we fail to. 

I still wonder about Samson’s parents.  They knew very little, but it seems to have been enough to throw them off the track.  Would it be better to know more?   Would we want to know, for ourselves or our kids, what obstacles, what health problems, what disappointments lay ahead?   Would we accept whatever we were told, or would we do our best to try making adjustments, to make the path smoother, the successes greater and the disappointments less painful?

In religious life there is tension between a sense that all is in God’s hands, the good and the bad, and a sense that ultimately our fate is in our own hands.  As much as I believe in God, and as much as I know that a lot of things are not in my hands to change, I can’t resist the feeling that there is much I can do, and that I should never settle for something that my personal effort might make better.  I’ve seen too many people get stuck and stop trying.  I have also seen a lot of people who refused to accept what seemed inevitable and have marveled at what they achieved from so little potential. 

I’ve been reading this Samson story over and over again for a lot of years.  Somehow I think the story might have gone better if Samson’s parents had said: “Just give us the prenatal instructions, and that will be enough.  We’ll do our best and we’ll try to teach this long-haired little man to take the strength he has and the wisdom we can give him and the moral courage we can teach him and we’ll hope to be surprised and proud of the results.”

For Samson’s parents as for everyone else, let’s not try or even want to know the future, let’s just do the best with what we have and keep hoping our effort and determination will make the future a better one.

Shabbat Shalom!

Tue, February 25 2020 30 Shevat 5780