A young woman I know was an excellent student in high school. She now attends an excellent university. Yet her parents harangued her -- complete with screaming and invectives -- because she was not accepted to the university they wanted her to attend. Alas, such parents are not rare.
Parshat Re’eh is packed with warnings to the Israelites to scrupulously avoid the idols and idolatrous practices of the people living in the land of Canaan. Moses tells the people:
You must destroy all the sites at which the nations you are to dispossess worshiped their gods, whether on lofty mountains and on hills or under any luxuriant tree. Tear down their altars, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images of their gods, obliterating their name from that site. (Deuteronomy 12:3)
And then we come to this shocking verse about child sacrifice practiced by the people then living in the land of Canaan:
You shall not act thus toward the Lord your God, for they perform for their gods every abhorrent act that the Lord detests; they even offer up their sons and daughters in fire to their gods. (Deuteronomy 12:31)
This has me pondering the connection between idolatry and child sacrifice. The Tana”kh records three cases of child sacrifice: Abraham offers up Isaac at God’s command (Genesis 22); King Mesha of Moab sacrifices his firstborn son to assure military victory (II Kings 3:4-40); and Jephthah makes a rash vow to offer the first thing coming out of his house if he returns home in victory; his daughter is the first to emerge from the house to greet him.
It’s easy enough to say that child sacrifice was the premier reprehensible idolatrous practice of ancient peoples. But it’s not clear to me that it ended long ago. I see vestiges of it -- if not downright instances -- today. I began this drash with one of those instances. It often looks like this: Parents whose lives revolve around their children don’t just advantage their children. They enroll them into afterschool classes that occupy their every waking hour. They talk about their children’s grades and awards at every opportunity. They groom them to attend particular universities and push them to become involved in activities that will look good on their college applications. Once in college, these parents require their children to major in only a select number of academic disciplines that they believe will insure prestige and financial success. Their children’s passions are not taken seriously.
“Tiger Moms” on steroids come from every ethnic and religious group. There are, of course, gradations of the Tiger Mom syndrome: parents who are excessively involved in their children’s life decisions, but not to the degree the diehards are. Often these are helicopter and lawnmower parents.
In a drash on Genesis 22 about Abraham and Isaac entitled “The Unbinding of Abraham,” psychotherapist Esther Ticktin writes:
Abraham became idolatrously attached to the inner re-presentation of this child and heir of his. He had had a long time to build up this inner image of what this son was going to be like, and since this son took so long in coming, Abraham had no chance to check his fantasy image with the real person who was his son. And, knowing what we now know about internal fantasy relationships, we may assume that he experienced his son as an extension or a replica of himself, and that fantasy became the center of his life. But, as usually happens, life does not follow the fantasy script, and Abraham’s son turned out to be very unlike his father. Where Abraham was bold, courageous, self-assertive, Isaac was a shy, timid, and passive child. Ishmael would taunt him and Isaac would not defend himself. Chances are that Abraham, for whom nothing had been too difficult up to now, became involved in a single-minded struggle to remake his son in the image of his fantasy -- as have countless other fathers and mothers before and after him. Isaac thus became an obsession with his father. The son who was to have been the symbol of God’s promise to Abraham became, instead, the focal point of all of Abraham’s thoughts, feelings, and energies. He became, in fact, a substitute for God in his life.”
I have come to a slightly different understanding of the phenomenon Ticktin describes so well. Over the years, I’ve seen many of these parents. They appear to worship their kids, but in reality, they view their children as a reflection of them. It’s themselves that these parents worship. They sacrifice their children’s individuality, sensibilities, passions, and independence on the altar of their egos, all the while maintaining they “want the best” for their children. Child sacrifice and idolatry are sadly alive and well.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman