Parents Lech Lecha 5777



family cover page lesson plan

A suggested lesson plan outline for incorporating these resources into a 60-minute class.

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In this unit you can find resources and texts which explore the role of the value of family in Jewish thought, and specifically the thought of Rabbi Sacks. As well as texts from the writings of Rabbi Sacks, you can also find classic Jewish sources, other contemporary Jewish voices, and some broader secular texts to enrich the way you teach this concept in your classroom.

There are many resources provided here for the teacher to choose from when building a lesson or series of lessons on this topic (there are far too many to be included in one lesson only). If you only want to dedicate one lesson to the topic, then a suggested lesson-plan for a sixty-minute lesson is provided which can be used to explore the classic Jewish texts and initial writings of Rabbi Sacks only.

Age: The resources and lesson plan can be adapted by the educator to a wide range of ages, from middle school/key stage 3 (11 years old) upwards, but this unit is most appropriate for high school ages (15-18 years old).

As David sat on the side of the road in the Dakota plains, waiting for his next ride, he wrote:

Dear Mom,

If Dad will permit it I would like to come home. I know there’s little chance he will. I’m not going to kid myself. I remember he said once, if I ever ran off, I might as well keep going.

All I can say is that I felt like leaving home was something I had to do. I wanted to find out more about life and about me, and the best way for us (life and me) to live with each other.

You won’t be able to reach me by mail, because I don’t know where I will be next. But in a few days I hope to be passing our place. If there’s any chance Dad will have me back, please ask him to tie a white cloth to the apple tree in the south pasture. I’ll be going by on the train. If there’s no cloth on the tree, I’ll just quietly and without any hard feelings toward Dad, keep going.

Love, David

The next day, as the truck that had picked David up soon after finishing his letter pulled into the small town in Iowa, David mailed the letter with a knot in his stomach.

The coming days and weeks brought new acquaintances and adventures as David hitchhiked with cars, vans, trucks, and freight trains, all the time edging closer to his home in Maryland. Finally, as he ascended the passenger train that would be the last leg of his journey homeward, the knot returned and firmly lodged itself in his core. He could hardly bring himself to imagine the apple tree in the pasture of his childhood home, for fear it would be bereft of the white cloth, even in his imagination.

As he sat down next to the window that would deliver his fate, an elderly gentleman sat in the seat beside him. As day turned to night, and once again back to day, the travel companion shared their stories. As David regaled stories of the West Coast, Canada and even Mexico, he realised that in just a short while the train tracks would take a gentle bend to the right, and there would be the farm on which he grew up, with its south facing pasture, and the old apple tree on which as a child he would climb. He couldn’t look. He was too afraid the cloth would not be there - too afraid he would find, staring back at him, just another tree, just another field, and turned quickly away.

Desperately, he nudged his travel companion beside him. “Mister, will you do me a favour? Around this bend on the right, you’ll see an apple tree. I wonder if you’ll tell me if you see a white cloth tied to one of its branches?”

“Son,” the man said in a voice slow with wonder, “I see a white cloth tied on almost every twig.”

A retelling of the story "Somebody’s Son” by Richard Pindell.
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Discussion Questions

  • Why did David leave home?
  • Why was he worried he may not be able to return home to his parents?
  • What did he learn that day on the train?
  • Does this story resonate with you?
  • What can we learn from this story about families and our family ties?
  • Are family relationships unbreakable?
  • How important are these relationships throughout a person's life? Can we survive without them?
  • How have your family relationships led to self-growth?

Read the short biblical passages and then discuss the subsequent questions...

The First Marriage:

  • Bereishit 2:18-25
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Core Questions

  1. Why is it not good for ‘man’ to be alone? (Do you think this is just men, or ‘humans’?)
  2. What can we learn from the way Adam’s mate was created?
  3. What do you think ‘one flesh’ means?

The First Command – To Be A Parent

  • Bereishit 1:26-28
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Core Questions

  1. What does the command to be ‘fertile’ mean?
  2. Why do you think this was the very first mitzvah given to humanity?
  3. Is this a mitzvah just for Jews?

Avraham was Chosen Because He Understood the Value of Family

  • Bereishit 18:17-19
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Core Questions

  1. The Hebrew uses the word כִּ֣י יְדַעְתִּ֗יו which could mean ‘because he (Avraham) knows.' What does he know?
  2. What reason does God give here for having chosen Avraham to be the forefather of God’s chosen people?
  3. What so the wider context of these verses? How are they connected to what God is telling us here?

On Family Tensions in Sefer Bereishit

Families aren’t easy places. They’re full of stress. They always were. Genesis, the opening book of the Bible, is a set of variations on the theme of family, and none runs smoothly. With Adam and Eve comes conflict. With Cain and Abel, fratricide. Abraham and Sarah disagree about Ishmael. Isaac and Rebecca face the sibling rivalry of Esau and Jacob. Jacob has to contend with the jealousy between his sons. And over them all hovers the figure of God, author of life, whom at times we can almost imagine saying: “You think you have problems with your children. What about Me?”

Yet the Hebrew Bible, and Judaism subsequently, never lost sight of the fact that the family is the DNA out of which we build a humane world. There could be no greater contrast than that between the Bible and the world of myth. The ancient epics are about gods and demi-gods whose battles shape the world. They are about cosmic forces and mythic heroes. With Genesis, for the first time in human history, we meet ordinary people living ordinary lives, trying to do their best in a difficult world. That is the great power of the book of books and why it has never lost its hold on the human imagination. It’s about us, people we can recognise and identify with. The Hebrew Bible is the ultimate democratic text, because it tells us that each of us matters. We are each the “image of God”. The real dramas are not the ones fought in court or on the battle field, by military heroes and kings. Nor are they the ones we read about in the press or see on the television news. They are the ones fought and resolved in the home, between parents and children, husbands and wives. No literature more systematically expresses the dignity of the personal, the high moral drama of everyday life.

Learning to Love, in Celebrating Life, pp. 99-100
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Core Questions

  1. Why does the Book of Bereishit spend so much time telling stories about families?
  2. What lessons can we learn from them?
  3. What came from these families (clue: see the Book of Exodus)? What is the message there?

Parental Responsibility to Educate Children

  • Devarim 6:7
  • Devarim 11:19
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Core Questions

  1. What are these texts also known from and when do read them?
  2. Why do you think educating children is central to them?
  3. Why is it a parent’s responsibility to educate their children

The Mitzvah to Respect Parents

  • Shemot 20:12
  • Devarim 5:16
  • Vayikra 19:1-3
  • Talmud Bavli, Kiddushin 31a
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Core Questions

  1. Why is it important to respect parents?
  2. How can this be achieved?
  3. How do you respect your parents

Talmudic parental responsibilities

  • Talmud Bavli, Kiddushin 29a
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Core Questions

  1. What responsibilities does this text say parents have?
  2. What do these have in common?
  3. Do these still apply today? Would you add anything to the list?
  • Shemot Rabbah, 46:5
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Core Questions

  1. Why does the Midrash have to clarify this?
  2. Do you think children have the same responsibility to respect their guardians if they are not their biological parents?

On Family

The family is the crucible of much the matters in later life, the growth of sympathy and trust and sociability. It is where we acquire our identity, self-confidence, responsibility, attachment, fellow-feeling, the moral sentiment itself. It is where we learn who we are, where we came from, and where we belong. It is where we become, in Michael Sandel’s phrase, ‘situated selves’. Above all, it is the matrix of the belief that lies at the heart of hope itself, namely that love given is not given in vain, that in the sharing of vulnerabilities we discover strength.

The Politics of Hope, p. 191

What makes the traditional family remarkable, a work of high religious art, is what it brought together: sexual drive, physical desire, friendship, companionship, emotional kinship and love, the begetting of children and their protection and care, their early education and induction into an identity and a history. Seldom has any institution woven together so many different drives and desires, roles and responsibilities. It made sense of the world and gave it a human face, the face of love.

Morality, p. 74

“The bringing together of sex, reproduction, love, loyalty, compassion, nurture, education and primary socialisation in the form of marriage is perhaps the most beautiful solution to the evolutionary endeavour since man first set foot on earth. It linked men and women together in a bond of mutual responsibility and love. It joined the generations in a chain of cultural transmission. It meant that at the very heart of society there was an institution that created and sustained human dignity without reference to the state.”

The Home We Build Together, p. 211
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Core Questions

  1. Why does Rabbi Sacks think the family is important to our development as human beings?
  2. What powerful concepts and values come together to form the experience of growing up in a family?
  3. What does it mean to ‘learn who we are’ in the family and how does this happen?

The Family is Where We Learn to be Human

The family is where the world acquires a human face, where vast metaphysical themes take on the recognisable contours of people we know. I am born into a world that has already existed for billions of years. I will die knowing that it will continue without me. I exist without having willed myself into being. These facts mock our modern conceit that choice is all and that I am precisely what I will myself to be. But without some human connection to the world-that-is-not-me, I become a random accident of evolution, the latest product of the selfish gene, chemical dust on the surface of eternity.

Through my parents I have a history. Through my children I have posterity. In the family I learn the complex choreography of love – what it means to give and take and share, to grow from obedience to responsibility, to learn, challenge, rebel, make mistakes, to forgive and be forgiven, to argue and make up, to win without triumph and know when graciously to lose. It’s where we acquire emotional intelligence, that delicate negotiation between the given and the chosen, the things I will and the things resistant to my will.

G. K. Chesterton was right when he said that “the family is a good institution because it is uncongenial… Aunt Elizabeth is unreasonable, like mankind. Papa is excitable like mankind. Our youngest brother is mischievous, like mankind.” James Q. Wilson put it more eloquently. “We learn to cope with the people of this world because we learn to cope with the members of our family. Those who flee the family flee the world; bereft of the former’s affection, tutelage, and challenges, they are unprepared for the latter’s tests, judgements and demands.”

Families are not ideal worlds. They’re significant precisely because they are real worlds with people we know and trust. Working out our tensions with them, we learn how to resolve our tensions with society. They’re where we count, where we make a difference, where we first find that others are there for us and we must be there for them. And yes, they have their share of pain. It is the pain of life lived in relationship. Without it we could not learn to love.

Learning to Love, in Celebrating Life, pp. 100-101

The Hebrew Bible is above all a book about the family. It begins with one: Adam and Eve and the command to bring the next generation into being. And from then on the book of Genesis never relaxes its grip on the subject. It endlessly turns to some new variation in the relationship between husbands and wives, parents and children. Abraham and Sarah; Isaac and Rebekkah; Jacob, Rachel and Leah: these are not miracle workers or agents of salvation. The heroes and heroines of Genesis are simply people living out their lives in the presence of God and the context of their families.

This is not accidental to the thrust of the biblical narrative. Rather, it forms the foundation of the Bible’s larger moral and social themes. The family is, firstly, the matrix of individuality. It is that enclosed space in which we work out, in relation to stable sources of affection, a highly differentiated sense of who we are. It is hard to imagine a culture which didn’t possess a close family structure arriving at the breathtaking idea that the human individual is cast in the image of God.

The Persistence of Faith, p. 54
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Core Questions

  1. What does it mean to be human?
  2. How do we learn this in the family structure?
  3. Where can this be seen in the Torah?

The Impact of Family on Jewish History and Civilisation

Almost all civilisations have developed ways of consecrating marriage and the family. What makes immigrant communities significant is the additional strain they face in adjusting to a new country and culture. Historically, the strength of Jewish families was the source of the resilience of Jewish communities that allowed them to survive the enforced exiles and expulsions, the ghettoes and pogroms, of a thousand years of European history. Family in Judaism is a supreme value. It’s how we celebrate our festivals and sabbaths. A Jewish child always has a starring role at the Seder table on Passover night, where we are inducted into our people’s history, and where our parents fulfil their first duty, namely to teach children to ask questions. Strong families create adaptive communities…

The Jews became an intensely family-oriented people, and it was this that saved us from tragedy. After the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70, Jews were scattered throughout the world, everywhere a minority, everywhere without rights, suffering some of the worst persecutions ever known by a people, and yet Jews survived because they never lost three things: their sense of family, their sense of community, and their faith.

Morality, p. 62 & p. 73
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Core Questions

  1. How has dedication to the family helped Jews throughout Jewish history?
  2. Why do you think Jews became ‘an intensely family-oriented people’?
  3. Do you think the three concepts of family, community, and faith are interconnected at all? How?

Shabbat and Festivals, and the Family

Marriage is the most personal and intimate of all forms of human association, and the deepest matrix of faith. We can face any future without fear if we know we will not face it alone. There is no redemption of solitude deeper than to share a life with someone we love and trust, who we know will never desert us, who lifts us when we fall and believes in us even when we fail.

Yet at most times and places, couples could rely on the support of a culture. In Judaism, for example, many of the most important rituals, like the Sabbath and Passover, take place primarily in the home. The prophets saw marriage as the supreme metaphor of the relationship between God and his people.

The Home We Build Together, p. 213

And these values were renewed every week on Shabbat, the day of rest when we give our marriages and families what they most need and are most starved of in the contemporary world: namely time. While making the television documentary for the BBC, referred to earlier, on the state of family life in Britain, I took the person who was then Britain’s leading expert on child care, Penelope Leach, to a Jewish primary school on a Friday morning.

There she saw the children enacting in advance what they would see that evening around the family table. There were the five-year-old mother and father blessing the five-year-old children with the five-year-old grandparents looking on. She was fascinated by this whole institution, and she asked the children what they most enjoyed about the Sabbath. One five-year-old boy turned to her and said, ‘It’s the only night of the week when Daddy doesn’t have to rush off.’ As we walked away from the school when the filming was over, she turned to me and said, ‘Chief Rabbi, that Sabbath of yours is saving their parents’ marriages.’

Morality, p. 73
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Core Questions

  1. How has dedication to the family helped Jews throughout Jewish history?
  2. What mitzvot can you think of that only take place in the home?
  3. What impact do these have on the family and on those growing up in this structure?
  4. In this story, why do you think Professor Leach says that Shabbat is saving marriages and families?


The Prophets used many metaphors for our relationship with God. They called Him 'King', 'Ruler', 'Creator', 'Master', 'Man of War', 'Shepherd of the flock', 'a Potter making man of clay'. But the image to which they constantly returned was of a parent. God is “Our Father”. Isaiah even describes God as a Mother. “Can a woman forget her baby or disown the child of her womb? Though she might forget, I will not forget you.” There is no mistaking God’s cry when His people are enslaved. It is the voice of an anguished parent. “My child, My firstborn, Israel.”

Our most profound religious knowledge comes not from science but from the experience of being a parent. As one new parent put it, “Since having a child I can relate better to God. Now I know what it feels like to create something you can’t control!” Conversely, our most intimate sense of connection with God comes from reflection on what it is to be a child. If we’re ever to find peace of mind, however long it takes we have to make our peace with our parents. And however long it takes we have to make our peace with God.

Faith is rehearsed and becomes real in the family. Without it, we wouldn’t know what its most basic concepts mean. Through love as the bond between parents and children we understand the love of God for humankind. Through the trust that grows in families, we discover what it is to have trust in God and His world.

Being a Parent, in Celebrating Life, pp. 100-101

Our relationship with God is deeply connected with our relationship with our parents, and our understanding of God is deepened if we have had the blessing of children… All of which makes the story of Abraham very hard to understand for two reasons. The first is that Abraham was the son told by God to leave his father: “Leave your land, your birthplace and your father’s house.” The second is that Abraham was the father told by God to sacrifice his son: “Then God said: Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the land of Moriah, and there sacrifice him as a burnt offering on the mountain I will show you.” How can this make sense? It is hard enough to understand God commanding these things of anyone. How much more so given that God chose Abraham specifically to become a role model of the parent-child, father-son relationship.

The Torah is teaching us something fundamental and counter-intuitive. There has to be separation before there can be connection. We have to have the space to be ourselves if we are to be good children to our parents, and we have to allow our children the space to be themselves if we are to be good parents…

First separate, then join. First individuate, then relate. That is one of the fundamentals of Jewish spirituality. We are not God. God is not us. It is the clarity of the boundaries between heaven and earth that allow us to have a healthy relationship with God… What is so striking about the heroes and heroines of the Hebrew Bible is that when they speak to God, they remain themselves. God does not overwhelm us. That is the principle the kabbalists called tzimtzum, God’s self-limitation. God makes space for us to be ourselves.

Abraham had to separate himself from his father before he, and we, could understand how much he owed his father. He had to separate from his son so that Isaac could be Isaac and not simply a clone of Abraham. Rabbi Menachem Mendel, the Rebbe of Kotzk, put this inimitably when he said, “If I am I because I am I, and you are you because you are you, then I am I and you are you. But if I am I because you are you and you are you because I am I, then I am not I and you are not you!”

God loves us as a parent loves a child – but a parent who truly loves their child makes space for the child to develop his or her own identity. It is the space we create for one another that allows love to be like sunlight to a flower, not like a tree to the plants that grow beneath. The role of love, human and Divine, is, in the lovely phrase of Irish poet John O’Donohue, “to bless the space between us”.

To Bless the Space Between Us - Covenant & Conversation, Vayera
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Core Questions

  1. Why do you think we often use the terminology of a parent when describing God?
  2. How can our relationship with our parents help develop our relationship with God?
  3. What can we learn about faith from the family?


What is a marriage? Words. A commitment. We pledge ourselves to someone else. It’s probably the most significant commitment any of us can make, and it depends on our moral determination to honour it. A declaration of marriage doesn’t mean, “We are man and wife so long as we find each other attractive or compatible; so long as we feel passion for one another; so long as we don’t meet someone else more attractive.” It means, “I will be with you whatever fate brings. I will stay loyal to you. When you need me, I’ll be there. When things are tough, I won’t walk away.” A marriage can begin in sexual attraction or shared interests or a sense of common destiny. But by moralising the bond it lifts it to an altogether different plane. A personal commitment is stronger than passion or emotion or attraction. It is a pledge to share a life together, come what may.

Marriage is the paradigm of faith… Emunah means that I take your hand and you mine and we walk together across the unknown country called the future. It is what I call a covenantal relationship. That is our relationship with God. It is also the relationship of marriage. For the Hebrew Bible faith is… the bond of love in the context of the radical indeterminacy of the future. Faith is what happens when God reaches out His hand to us and we respond in love and trust. It doesn’t mean – any more than does a marriage – that there will be no shocks in store, no crises, no tragedies. It does mean that we will not desert one another. We will have our domestic disagreements. But God will always be there with us. We will always be there with Him.

Faith is the ability to face the future knowing that we are loved, and being loved, find the power to love in return. Faith is a marriage; marriage is an act of faith. It is neither rational nor irrational; rather it is the redemption of loneliness so that we can face the future without fear. Not because we are optimists nor because we have blind trust but because we know that someone will be there with us, giving us support and understanding and strength. A slender consolation? Perhaps. But is there any greater? Elaine and I, looking back on those years, know that we could not have done it without one another. So it is between us and God.

Faith is a Marriage, in Celebrating Life, pp. 100-101
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Core Questions

  1. What can we learn about marriage from our relationship with God?
  2. What can we learn about our relationship with God from marriage?
  3. Why is emunah central to both?

Marriage as Equal Dignity for All: Polygamy and Monogamy in the Torah

The most obvious expression of power among alpha males, whether human or primate, is to dominate access to fertile females, and thus maximise the spread of their genes in the next generation. Hence polygamy, which exists in around 95 per cent of mammal species and 75 per cent of human cultures known to anthropology. Polygamy is a powerful expression of inequality, because it means that many males never get the chance to have a wife and child, and women get only a part share in a husband they are unlikely to have had any part in choosing for themselves. And sexual envy has been, throughout history, among animals as well as humans, a – some say even the – prime driver of violence.

That is what makes the first chapter of Genesis revolutionary in its statement that every human being, regardless of class, colour, culture or creed, is in the image and likeness of God himself. In the ancient world it was rulers, kings, emperors and pharaohs who were held to be in the image of God. What Genesis was saying is that we are all royalty. We each have equal dignity in the kingdom of faith under the sovereignty of God.

From this it follows that we each have an equal right to form a marriage and have children, which is why, regardless of how we read the story of Adam and Eve – and there are differences between Jewish and Christian readings – the norm presupposed by that story is: one woman, one man. Or as the Bible itself says: ‘That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh’ (Gen. 2:24). Monogamy did not immediately become the norm, even within the world of the Bible. But many of its most famous stories, about the tension between Sarah and Hagar, or Leah and Rachel and their children, or David and Bathsheba, or Solomon’s many wives, are all critiques that point the way to monogamy.

What makes the emergence of monogamy surprising is that normally the values of a society are those imposed on it by the ruling class. And the ruling class in a hierarchical society stands to gain from its own promiscuity and polygamy, both of which multiply the chances of their genes being handed on to the next generation. From monogamy the rich and powerful lose and the poor and powerless gain. So the establishment of monogamy goes against the normal grain of social change and was a triumph for the equal dignity of all.

Morality, pp. 71-72
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Core Questions

  1. How does polygamy attack the notion that we are all created equal and deserve to live with equal dignity?
  2. How does monogamy address this?
  3. If monogamy is a more ethical way to live, why do you think polygamy is allowed in the Torah?

Relationships within Families


One of the recurring themes of Genesis is sibling rivalry, hostility between brothers. This story is told, at ever-increasing length, four times: between Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, and Joseph and his brothers… Genesis is telling us a story of great consequence. Fraternity – one of the key words of the French revolution – is not simple or straightforward. It is often fraught with conflict and contention. Yet slowly, brothers can learn that there is another way. On this note Genesis ends. But it is not the end of the story.

The drama has a fifth act: the relationship between Moses and Aaron. Here, for the first time, there is no hint of sibling rivalry. The brothers work together from the very outset of the mission to lead the Israelites to freedom. They address the people together. They stand together when confronting Pharaoh. They perform signs and wonders together. They share leadership of the people in the wilderness together. For the first time, brothers function as a team, with different gifts, different talents, different roles, but without hostility, each complementing the other…

It was precisely the fact that Aaron did not envy his younger brother but instead rejoiced in his greatness that made him worthy to be High Priest. So it came to pass – measure for measure – that just as Aaron made space for his younger brother to lead, so the Torah makes space for Aaron to lead. That is why Aaron is the hero of Tetzaveh: for once, not overshadowed by Moses…

The story of Aaron and Moses, the fifth act in the biblical drama of brotherhood, is where, finally, fraternity reaches the heights. And that surely is the meaning of Psalm 133, with its explicit reference to Aaron and his sacred garments: “How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity! It is like precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard, running down on Aaron’s beard, down upon the collar of his robes.” It was thanks to Aaron, and the honour he showed Moses, that at last brothers learned to live together in unity.

Brothers: A Drama in Five Acts - Covenant & Conversation, Tetzaveh


Every Friday night we re-enact one of the most moving scenes in the book of Bereishit. Jacob, reunited with Joseph, is ill. Joseph comes to visit him, bringing with him his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. Jacob, with deep emotion, says: “‘I never even hoped to see your face,’ said Israel to Joseph. ‘But now God has even let me see your children.’” (Bereishit 48:11).

He blesses Joseph. Then he places his hands on the heads of the two boys. “He blessed them that day and said, [In time to come] Israel will use you as a blessing. They will say, ‘May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.’” (Bereishit 48:20)

So we do to this day. Why this blessing above all others? I heard a most lovely explanation, based on the Zohar, from my revered predecessor Lord Jakobovits of blessed memory. He said that though there are many instances in Torah and Tanach in which parents bless their children, this is the only example of a grandparent blessing grandchildren. Between parents and children, he said, there are often tensions. Parents worry about their children. Children sometimes rebel against their parents. The relationship is not always smooth.

Not so with grandchildren. There the relationship is one of love untroubled by tension or anxiety. When a grandparent blesses a grandchild he or she does so with a full heart. That is why this blessing by Jacob of his grandchildren became the model of blessing across the generations. Anyone who has had the privilege of having grandchildren will immediately understand the truth and depth of this explanation. Grandparents bless their grandchildren and are blessed by them.

Grandparents - Covenant & Conversation, Vayechi
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Core Questions

  1. Why are sibling relationships often fraught? What can the Torah teach us about how to navigate sibling rivalries?
  2. What can we learn from parent-child relationships to help us understand our relationship with God?
  3. How is grandparenting an ideal model for all relationships?

“In the face of a deeply individualistic culture, we offer community. Against consumerism, we talk about the things that have value but not a price. Against cynicism, we dare to admire and respect. In the face of fragmenting families, we believe in consecrating relationships. We believe in marriage as a commitment, parenthood as a responsibility, and the poetry of everyday life when it is etched, in homes and schools, with the charisma of holiness and grace.”

Opening address to Pope Benedict XVI at an Interfaith Meeting in London (2010)

“Marriage is the most personal and intimate of all forms of human association, and the deepest matrix of faith. We can face any future without fear if we know we will not face it alone. There is no redemption of solitude deeper than to share a life with someone we love and trust, who we know will never desert us, who lifts us when we fall, and believes in us even when we fail.”

The Home We Build Together, p. 213

“The family as a religious institution is what holds much of our moral world in place. It lies behind our ideas of individual dignity and freedom, or social kinship and concern, and our sense of continuity between the future and the past. Lose it and we will lose much else as well.”

The Persistence of Faith, p. 55

“Faith, family and community are... mutually linked. When one breaks down, the others are weakened. When families disintegrate, so too does the sense of neighbourhood and the continuity of our great religious traditions. When localities become anonymous, families lose the support of neighbours, and congregations are no longer centres of community. When religious belief begins to wane, the moral bonds of marriage and neighbourly duty lose their transcendental base and begin to shift and crumble in the high winds of change. That is precisely what has happened in our time and the loss, though subtle, is immense.”

Faith in the Future, p. 6

“Families are not ideal worlds. They are significant precisely because they are real worlds with people we know and trust. Working out our tensions with them, we learn how to resolve tensions with society. They are where we count, where we make a difference, where we first find that others are there for us and we must be there for them. And, yes, they have their share of pain. It is the pain of life lived in relationship. Without it, we could not learn to love.”

Celebrating Life, p. 101

“Through love as the bond between parents and children we understand the love of God for humankind. Through the trust that grows in families, we discover what it is to have trust in God and His world.”

Celebrating Life, p. 104

“If we care about the common good, the cohesion of society and the support it gives to individuals, the family must be at the very heart of our concern.”

The Home We Build Together, p. 209

“What makes the traditional family remarkable, a work of high religious art, is what it brought together: sexual drive, physical desire, friendship, companionship, emotional kinship and love, the begetting of children and their protection and care, their early education and induction into an identity and a history. Seldom has any institution woven together so many different drives and desires, roles and responsibilities. It made sense of the world and gave it a human face, the face of love.”

Morality, p. 74

“The bringing together of sex, reproduction, love, loyalty, compassion, nurture, education and primary socialisation in the form of marriage is perhaps the most beautiful solution to the evolutionary endeavour since man first set foot on earth. It linked men and women together in a bond of mutual responsibility and love. It joined the generations in a chain of cultural transmission. It meant that at the very heart of society there was an institution that created and sustained human dignity without reference to the state.”

The Home We Build Together, p. 211

The family is the crucible of much the matters in later life, the growth of sympathy and trust and sociability. It is where we acquire our identity, self-confidence, responsibility, attachment, fellow-feeling, the moral sentiment itself. It is where we learn who we are, where we came from, and where we belong. It is where we become, in Michael Sandel’s phrase, ‘situated selves’. Above all, it is the matrix of the belief that lies at the heart of hope itself, namely that love given is not given in vain, that in the sharing of vulnerabilities we discover strength.

The Politics of Hope, p. 191

Marriage is one of the most majestic achievements of civilisation, bringing together in a single institution the great biological forces, ethical imperatives, social needs and emotional investments. It takes sex, love, companionship, economic partnership, procreation, the nurturing of children and their socialisation, and out of them fashions a work of living art.

Celebrating Life, pp. 97-98

In truth, the whole of Jewish consciousness is tied to the strength of the family. For without an ordered family we could not envisage an ordered world.

Radical Then, Radical Now, Chapter 7, p. 86 (In N. America, this book is titled "A Letter in the Scroll')

Having children is more than a gift. It’s a responsibility. For us as Jews it’s the most sacred responsibility there is. On it depends the future of the Jewish people. For four thousand years our people survived because in every generation, Jews made it their highest priority to hand their faith on to their children. They sanctified marriage. They consecrated the Jewish home. They built schools and houses of study. They saw education as the conversation between the generations: “You shall teach these things repeatedly to your children, speaking of them when you sit at home or travel on the way, when you lie down and when you rise up.”

Letters to the Next Generation: Reflections for Yom Kippur

"Families are the crucible of our humanity. They are the miniature world in which we learn how to face the wider world."

Celebrating Life, p. 95

"The family – man, woman, and child – is not one lifestyle choice among many. It is the best means we have yet discovered for nurturing future generations and enabling children to grow in a matrix of stability and love. It is where we learn the delicate choreography of relationship and how to handle the inevitable conflicts within any human group. It is where we first take the risk of giving and receiving love. It is where one generation passes on its values to the next, ensuring the continuity of civilisation. For any society, the family is the crucible of its future, and for the sake of our children’s future, we must be its defenders."

The Power of Ideas, p. 339

"When it works, the family is the matrix of our humanity. It is where we learn love and self-confidence and the basic values that will serve as our satellite navigation system through the uncharted territory of life. It is where we learn responsibility and the choreography of turn-taking and making space for others. It is where we acquire the habits of the heart that help us take responsibility and risks, knowing here is someone to life us if we fail. A childhood lived in the stable presence of two loving parents is the greatest gift anyone can have, which is why so much of Jewish ritual and celebration is centred on the home."

The Power of Ideas, p. 157

"Family life isn’t easy or straightforward. The Bible does not hide that fact from us. The stories of Genesis do not contain a single sentence saying, ‘And they all lived happily ever after.’ Families need constant work, sacrifice and mutual respect. But if you get home right, your children will have a head start in making their own fulfilling relationships, and relationships truly are what make us human."

The Power of Ideas, pp. 158-159

"A home is a haven in a heartless world. It’s where we belong and where, if we are lucky, we raise a family. Home is where we learn the poetry of everyday life, the choreography of chessed, the countless daily acts of reciprocity and kindness that constitute the language of love."

Covenant and Conversation: Exodus, pp. 260-261

"It is within the family that the three great ethical concerns arise: welfare, or the care of dependents; education, or the handing on of accumulated wisdom to the next generation; and ecology, or concern with the fate of the world after our own lifetime."

Faith in the Future, p. 29

"If all faith did was show us how to sustain a marriage and a family in love and loyalty, making space for one another, I would count it as God’s great and sufficient gift. Religion sacralises relationship, which is why those who care about relationship will seek ways of investing it with holiness."

The Great Partnership, Chapter 9, p. 158

"Faith begins in families. Hope is born in the home."

Studies in Spirituality, p. 79

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik

Marriage is, as we said, indeed a covenant; and when the prophet Hosea portrayed the eternal bond between God and Israel in glowing ecstatic words, he exclaimed that Israel is betrothed to God in faith, in justice, and for all eternity. “And I will betroth you unto Me forever; I will betroth you unto Me with righteousness and justice, and with lovingkindness and mercy. And I will betroth you unto Me with faithfulness; then you shall know the Lord” (Hosea 2:21-22). This idea of total commitment finds its expression in the halachah: any stipulation which frees the husband from a duty which the marriage act implies is invalid if it affects not property rights but the personal union (Kiddushin 19b).

Rav J. B. Soloveitchik, 2000, New York: Meotzar Horav, pp. 48-49

The two lonely individuals with their urge to love commit themselves to creativity in order to love someone who will emerge in the course of time as a new member of the small community they founded together. This someone, as yet hidden in the recesses of the anonymity of non-being, gives purpose and meaning to the community and helps father and mother to find themselves and their exact position in creation. To repeat, the need for loving finds fulfilment in the act of creation. The “I” summons the “thou” into existence (to use an existentialist term) in order to shower love and affection upon the other. Loving means ecstatic gazing at a thou who belongs to and is rooted in the I.

In this context, we may say that sexual love is the expression of the powerful will to create in order to love, to give of oneself not only to others who do exist but also to those who do not exist as yet and who will at some point in time demand the love, care and devotion of the creator. Two lonely individuals meet and vow faith in each other; they form a community. They are driven by a natural sexual instinct, implanted by the Creator, in order to fulfil an ethico-metaphysical norm of “the world will be built with hesed” (Psalms 89:3) – to create in order to bestow hesed upon one’s handiwork. In marriage they are summoned to cast their glance not only outside of themselves, namely at their respective partners, but at the other side of creation – at a child whose name is not as yet to be found in the register of creation.

Rav J. B. Soloveitchik, Meotzar Horav, 2000, New York, p. 37

With the emergence of Abraham and the founding of a new kind of community, the covenantal one, the vague role of fatherhood and the all-absorbing experience of motherhood were redeemed. New commitments were accepted; man began to live not only for himself, but for others as well. He became concerned with the destiny of others, and discovered in himself responsiveness not only to biological pressure but to the call of conscience, through which God addresses Himself to him. The fatherhood idea was redeemed, purged of its orgiastic-hedonic element, infused with life, and turned into a central reality on par with that of motherhood.

What is fatherhood in the covenantal society? It is the great educational commitment to the masorah, the tradition, the freely assumed obligation to hand down, to pass on to the child the covenant, a message, a code, a unique way of life, a tradition of mishpat u-tzedakah, of justice and charity. In the covenantal community, the father is promoted to teacher, and his role ipso facto is shifted from the periphery to the center on par with that of the mother. That is why Adam – as the representative of the natural community – was not aware of his fatherhood. Only with the emergence of the covenantal community and with the formulation of the doctrine of father-teacher was the fatherhood commitment suddenly revealed to us.

Rav J. B. Soloveitchik, Meotzar Horav, New York, 2000, p. 107

True love between a man and his wife does not stem from physical desire, but from the shared will to build a home and fulfil the mitzvot, with each one helping the other. The longer a husband and wife live together and share their experiences, the more the love between them grows.

Marital intimacy transforms the couple into one body, but their ultimate connection occurs when both body and soul are one. Marital intimacy is referred to by the Torah as “knowledge” and it is specifically this area of life that indicates the loftiness of mankind. When the physical connection between the couple takes place in sanctity, a wondrous holiness upon the couple.

Rav Adin Steinsaltz, 2020, Jerusalem: Koren Publishers, p. 179

Rav Yitzchak Blau

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

On the one hand, it is quite irresponsible to avoid domestic duties and focus solely on one’s professional or scholarly goals.  Beyond the question of responsibility, family provides a healthy perspective on the work place.  When a mechanekh starts to take his job too seriously, a walk to the park with his eight-year-old daughter serves as an important reminder that other things also matter in life.  Teachers and students need to leave the study hall, both in order to be integral parts of their families, and in order to realize that life provides other rewards beyond one’s profession (especially during rougher weeks in the beit midrash.)

Conversely, a parent dare not define their existence solely in terms of family.  A mother who says that her entire life is to be of service to her children is not doing them a favor.  It likely means that she will overly interfere in their lives and not allow them to function independently.  Since her identity is solely based on interaction with her children, she can never take a step back when necessary.  It is far healthier for her to have her own jobs, pursuits, and hobbies and also help children and grandchildren when appropriate.  This balance enables her to experience a sense of self-worth beyond her role as the family matriarch.

Torah study, personal achievement, and family life are all important and indispensable goals. In the ideal situation, these various aspirations complement one another more than they conflict.

Rabbi Y. Blau, Studying Torah and Family Responsibility

Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits

The fully personalized sexual union is the fully humanized one. It relates one at the same tome to the Creator as well as to fellow being in the wholeness of each other’s humanity. What in nature is assumed to be purely biological is integrated in its humanized form into the bio-psychic structure of man. However, since humanization implies also the acknowledgement of the divine purpose of the sexual function, the personalized and thus humanized sex act becomes a mitzvah, legalistically formulated, a divine commandment; in its existential quality, it is an ethical deed within the structure of a deocentric personal life. In fact, Talmudic texts occasionally call the sex act a devar mitzvah, a matter of mitzvah, not only in its God-relatedness, but also as what takes place on the interpersonal level between a man and a woman. Similarly, one might call any act of kindness and care for another human being a devar mitzvah. It is rather different a phrase from the four letter word which designates the sex act in its biologically impersonal and, we might now say, dehumanized form. As a devar mitzvah, the biologically impersonal is transformed into the human and personal. Jewish sexual ethics can perceive the sexual act in its most humanized and personalized transformation as an act of sanctification…

The highest form of personalization of the relationship between a man and a woman finds its expression in their complete dedication to each other. It includes unquestioning trust in each other, the full acceptance of one’s partner in his or her comprehensive humanity. A love that does not have the courage to commit itself “forever” is lacking in trust, in acceptance, in faith. Love fully personalized desires to be final, ultimate. But how can one commit oneself forever? Only by accepting the bondage of the responsibility of the commitment. In the ups and downs, the struggle of daily existence, the truth and the faith are tested, often as if by fire. The highest form of personalization of the union is the ultimate of love; but it does not come easy. It is a continuous challenge, it is a task at which man and woman have to work unremittingly. It is not simply a matter of working at sexual compatibility, but at the realization of the potential of their mutual humanity. To persevere often in difficult situations, when it might seem that one’s original hopes have faded, is the highest expression of trust in the human potential of oneself as well as one’s partner.

E. Berkovitz, 2002, “A Jewish Sexual Ethics” in Essential Essays on Judaism. Jerusalem: Shalem Press, p. 113 & p. 123
icon the core idea

Core Questions

  1. How do these contemporary Jewish thinkers approach the value of the family in Judaism?
  2. How does this compare to the approach of Rabbi Sacks?
  3. Do you think they conflict, compliment, or add to the approach of Rabbi Sacks?

Rabbi Sacks referred to these sources in some of his own books:

  • The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith (in Faith in the Future, p. 23)
  • Democracy in America, Alexis De Tocqueville (in The Persistence of Faith, p. 54 and Morality p. 65)
  • On Liberty, John Stuart Mill, (in Faith in the Future, p. 25 and The Home We Build Together, p. 209)
  • G. K. Chesterton (in Celebrating Life, p. 101)
  • Polybius (in The Home We Build Together p. 205)
  • The Marriage Problem: How Our Culture Has Weakened Families, James Q. Wilson (The Home We Build Together p. 209)
  • The Moral Sense, James Q. Wilson (in The Politics of Hope, p. 185 and Morality p. 65)

The State of Marriage in Society Today

In 1968, 56 per cent of Americans between the ages of eighteen and thirty-one were married or heads of households; by 2012, this was true of only 23 per cent.[1] An unprecedented proportion of marriages – rising at times to 50 per cent, 42 per cent in Britain in 2017[2] – terminated in divorce, and almost one in two children were born outside marriage.

Marriage is often derided as a mere formality, a ‘piece of paper’, while cohabitation has come to be portrayed as an equivalent or substitute. Sadly, it is not so. In Britain, the average length of marriages that end in divorce is between eleven and twelve years,[3] and the average length of marriages as a whole is thirty years.[4] The average length of cohabitation in Britain and the United States is less than five years. The formal act of commitment that constitutes marriage makes a difference to the strength and durability of the relationship…

The collapse of marriage has created new forms of financial and moral poverty concentrated among single-parent families, and of these, the main burden is borne by women, who in 2011 headed 92 per cent of single-parent households. In Britain today more than a million children will grow up with no contact whatsoever with their fathers. A 1993 survey in Britain found that children living with cohabiting rather than married parents are twenty times more likely to become victims of child abuse.[5] It is hard to avoid the conclusion that family breakdown must be part of the explanation for the sharp increase among young people of eating disorders, drug and alcohol abuse, stress-related syndromes, depression, and actual and attempted suicides…

All groups were affected by the sexual revolution in the 1960s, but the more successful group in each comparison recovered itself quite quickly and marriage was restored as a social norm. That was not the case with the poorer group, which saw a dramatic rise in cohabitation without marriage, non-marriage, divorce, and single parenthood. There is overwhelming social scientific evidence that children benefit from being brought up in a stable marriage by two parents, that divorce is harmful to the children, and single parenthood still more so: whether measured in terms of childhood aggression, delinquency, hyperactivity, criminality, illness and injury, early mortality, sexual decision making in adolescence, school problems, dropping out, emotional health, educational achievement, career success, and the ability to make strong and lasting relationships, marriage especially.[6]

In short, Putnam (on the political Left) and Murray (on the libertarian Right) told a similar story. The top third of society – in terms of financial security and education – had dabbled with the new freedoms of the 1960s and following, but had more or less returned to the old conventions and pieties. They married, they joined religious communities, they were intensely ambitious for their children. They made a point of living in the neighbourhoods with the best schools, or they sent their children to private schools, or gave them private tuition, and paid for them to enjoy extracurricular activities.

The bottom third was less able to swim against the current. Today, these people live almost on a different planet from their erstwhile fellow townspeople. There is an enormous burden on single mothers. There is a rise in child poverty, whether measured in terms of relative or absolute family income, or access to facilities. America now has one of the highest rates of child poverty in the developed world. There are whole communities without adult role models, where there is no one to discipline the teenage children. Inevitably, without adult role models, many of them are inducted into gangs, and from there into drug culture or petty crime, and find themselves in prison, all hope for a secure future utterly lost. These communities are places of educational underachievement, high unemployment, high incarceration rates, and violence.

Morality, pp. 66-69

[1] Ben Sasse, The Vanishing American Adult, St Martin’s Press, 2017, p. 41.
[2] ‘Divorces in England and Wales: 2017’, Office for National Statistics, 26 September 2018.
[3] Ibid.
[4] ‘What is the Average Length of a Marriage in the UK?’, Raincourt, 2 October 2018.
[5] Robert Whelan, Broken Homes and Battered Children, London, Family Education Trust, 1993.
[6] Charles Murray, Coming Apart, Crown Forum, 2012, p. 158.

The role of the family in society is explored is several of the books of Rabbi Sacks. In each one, he describes the threat to the family in our society, explaining where this threat has come from historically, how it attacks the family, and what the resulting impact is on individuals in society and society as a whole. Each of these chapters is an eloquent and passionate defence of the family as a value, and a call to invest in defending the family for the good of society. Here are some examples of the writings of Rabbi Sacks on the family in the context of wider society:

The Persistence of Faith: Religion, Morality and Society in a Secular Age (1991)

  • Chapter 3: The Fragile Family

(The Persistence of Faith is based on the 1990 Reith Lectures delivered by Rabbi Sacks on BBC Radio 4. Transcripts and recordings of these lectures can be found here, including the full lecture specifically on the family.)

Faith in the Future (1995)

  • Chapter 4: The Future of the Family

The Politics of Hope (1997)

  • Chapter 16: Family Matters

Celebrating Life: Finding Happiness in Unexpected Places (2000)

  • Part V: Faith in the Family

The Home We Build Together: Recreating Society (2007)

  • Chapter 18: Mending the Broken Family

Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times (2020)

  • Chapter 4: The Fragile Family

Suggested Lesson Plan

The following lesson plan is a suggestion of how some of the resources contained in this unit could be incorporated into a 60-minute class period for a high-school age class. This will focus solely on one particular idea within the thought of Rabbi Sacks. There are many other themes found in this unit which would take more classroom time to explore with your students.

family cover page lesson plan

The Family: A laboratory for learning what it means to be human

Download our 60-minute class for high-school age classes

Bet Nidrash on the Family

Having completed your study of this topic, you may wish to embark with your students on a “Bet Nidrash” on the topic, a practical project based on what you have learned and discussed. The term “Bet Nidrash is a play on the term Bet Midrash (study hall) replacing the word for study (Midrash) with the word nidrash, which means “required” or an “imperative”. This suggests that one’s study should not be just for its own sake, but rather a means to an end, to improve oneself and the world around us. Rabbi Sacks’ philosophy and writings were always focused not on the theoretical, but on the deeply practical. He urged for the ideas he wrote about to be implemented outside of the walls of the Bet Midrash, in the real world.

Brainstorm ideas with your students, and help them to discover or even initiate projects in the wider community based on the family values and ideas they have learned in this unit. Some examples could be:

  • Volunteering for a charity in the wider community that supports children who do not have stable family structures
  • Creating a big-brother/sister programme of mentoring in your school (or in the wider community) to provide mentors and role-models for younger children
  • Setting up a parent-child or sibling learning programme (or activity) within your school. As well as the parents and older siblings teaching the younger children in their groups, encourage activities where the younger members of the group also get to a chance to lead their parents/older siblings.