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Father's Day Wisdom from the Bible's Dead Beat Dads

Father’s Day is not only a great time to celebrate fatherhood and the actual fathers in our lives, but a good opportunity to think about what being a father really means and how to get better at it. 

The Bible provides many examples of how to be a dad, and while many of them are examples of lousy fatherhood, they are valuable nonetheless. Who knows, perhaps it’s better that way.

After all, if Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were all lousy fathers, why should any father be perfect? But in the spirit of the ancient rabbis, who teach us that the acts of our ancestors are a signal to us, the following stories can help all fathers (and mothers) parent better.

Before getting to the specifics, I want to be clear that I write with great love of these characters. Like all genuine love, my affection for these ancient dads allows me to see the bad along with the good and even pushes me to see what can be learned from the former as much as the latter -- that alone is an important thing to consider when thinking about the fathers in our lives. 

So with that in mind, I offer three fathering lessons from the biblical fathers.

Abraham, who was ready to slaughter his son Isaac for God, does not jump out as an all-star dad. And when we recall that his dalliance with filicide followed the willing abandonment of his elder son, Ishmael, he really looks like the kind of parent about whom one would call Protective Services. So what’s the lesson? Don’t let the faith you follow blind you to the needs of the children you are raising.

Most religious parents, including myself, want their kids to embrace faith as they do. But when that desire blinds us to the needs or integrity of our individual children, something is off. Yes, there are ways to explain away or contextualize Abraham’s behavior toward his sons, but that is not the point. The point is to tread cautiously when it comes to imposing our spiritual paths on our children.

Isaac, was literally blind to who his children were. And how often does that happen to us? How often do we see our kids as who we need them to be instead of who they really are. How often do we value our kids because of what they do for us instead of how they become who they most need to be? One need go no further than any junior athletic league to get the painful answer to that question.

If Abraham surrendered too much to God, then Isaac surrendered too much to himself. And while that might have been a healthy corrective for him, given how he was raised, it didn’t create the best experience for his sons and their subsequent relationship. So if we want kids who love both themselves and their siblings, we need to love them for who they are, not how for much they fulfill our own needs.

And speaking of relations between siblings brings father Jacob to mind. He actually raised the creation of sibling rivalry to an art form. How? By playing out issues with his wives in the lives of his sons. And in a world of increasingly blended families, that’s an increasingly complex issue.

As fathers, we need to be really careful about saddling our kids with baggage from our own intimate relationships with their moms. Whether, over the course of our lives, we have one wife or many, our kids’ lives are not the stage on which to play out the tensions which exist in our marriages. While some of that is always inevitable because we are integrated beings, we can at least learn to ask if issues with our kids are about the kids, or whatever may be going on with our partners, whether present or past.

The Bible is the “Good Book”, not because all of its stories and characters are good. In fact, as we see here, not even the so-called good characters are always good. But there are always great lessons to be learned from the Bible’s stories. 

This Father’s Day, I will be thinking about my own forefathers, how they were often lousy fathers, and what I can learn from that legacy in order to do a bit better by my own kids.

Brad Hirschfield is the author of "You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism," and is the President of Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

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Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is the author of "You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism," and president of Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.