Every decent Jewish joke book most likely devotes multiple pages to the important topic of picking fun at Jewish parents’ high expectations for their children’s achievements. For some odd reason, usually the Jewish mothers are the brunt of the joke: Mrs. Cohen is on line at the grocery store with her two sons. She sees Mrs. Goldberg on line behind her and exclaims: “Mrs. Goldberg, so nice to see you. Have you met my two sons? Joey, the lawyer, is just turning four and this is his older brother Herb, the doctor, who’s six!” In a serious vein, the idea of having high expectations for one’s children goes back to Biblical times. One place it is mentioned is in the description of Pinchas’ reward.
In reward for his praiseworthy zealotry, Pinchas is granted two covenants; the second has to do with the priesthood: “And it shall be for him and his offspring after him a covenant of eternal priesthood (Bamidbar, 25:13).” According to the Sefardic Classical Biblical Commentator R. Avraham Ibn Ezra (1089 — 1164), this covenant is a promise that the High Priests would always come from the line of Pinchas. To have one’s descendants serve in perhaps the most difficult and venerable role in the Jewish people is certainly a great honor. R. Avigodor Miller (1908 – 2001), author of numerous English-language Torah works and popular rabbinic speaker and educator, extracts a more universal and fundamental aspect of this reward. He writes in his book Journey Into Greatness (New York, 1997) that essentially, Pinchas, when he was guaranteed centuries of survival of his offspring in the service of the Almighty, would be rewarded by having the merit of having his offspring live up to and carry out his own vision. R. Miller elaborates: “From this we can learn how great is the merit of a progenitor of a family that serves Hashem for many generations. If Hashem Himself declared, in explanation of a Covenant of Reward, that [covenant] implies the merit of generations of righteous persons that serve Hashem, then it becomes clear to us that this is a great privilege for the progenitor.” According to this view, the fact that his descendants would be the High Priests is merely a particular detail of his reward that in fact teaches a greater and more general lesson.
Parents often have high hopes for their children to develop and achieve in a particular way as they grow up and become adults. Some parents want them to follow in their own footsteps and make the same type of choices they made; others want their children to specifically not follow in their own footsteps and not repeat the same mistakes. It is also common for parents to hope that their kids will eventually accomplish things that they themselves never had the opportunity or ability to do. We all know, however, that although many children grow up and live up to their parents’ expectations, dreams and hopes, just as many do not. For many religious parents, expectations that can run particularly emotionally deep are those regarding what type of religious life their children will live. These type of expectations are no exception, and frequently children unfortunately choose not to follow their parents religious ways as they become adults. In some situations, the parents may have been able to do more. Sending a child to a Jewish school or camp, for example, is known to increase the likelihood that a child will grow up to live a Jewish life. There are other times when a parent did everything they could to try to pass their values and vision onto their offspring, but the child nevertheless ultimately chose his or her own path. There are many great Jewish leaders, from far back in our history up until contemporary times, that unfortunately experienced this reality first hand. Avraham had Yishmael, Yitzchak had Esav; Avraham himself didn’t follow the path of his father Terach, albeit in the opposite direction! R. Yisroel Salanter (1810 – 1883), the founder of the Mussar Movement, R. Noson Tzvi Finkel (1849 – 1927), the great “Alter of Slabodka,” and more recently, R. Yosef Eliyahu Henkin (1881 – 1973) and R. Moshe Feinstein (1895 –1986), among others, all had children or grandchildren that rejected Jewish observance. One lesson of the reward of Pinchas is that a parent should realize that having a child follow the path that the parent hoped for is not at all a given but rather a special privilege. If a person for some reason does not merit this privilege, it should not be a source of feelings of guilt. Ultimately all children become independent adults – as we hope they will – and will make their own choices; our job is to do the best we can to guide them on the path that we believe is right and good for them and then leave the rest to themselves and the Almighty.