Children have been much on my mind this week, from my nieces and nephews in Rehovot shaken by the sound of fighter jets and the threat of rocket attacks, to the horrible stories and pictures of children in Gaza, to the lives of my own children and their more regular existence. In all of these cases, we think if children with a special kind of innocence. Whatever suffering they endure, they are not to blame for it, and that makes their suffering impossible for we “grownups” to explain away.

The Torah portion this week, Vayechi, is suffused with narratives of parents and children. The centerpiece of the parasha comes as a dying Jacob blesses his twelve children. Before that, Jacob promises that his grandchildren, Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Menashe, will be his adopted sons, “like Reuben and Simeon” (Gen. 48:5).

The parasha also takes up the reciprocal relationship of children and parents, as Jacob asks Joseph to swear to him that he will be buried in the grave of his ancestors (in Hebron). Jacob calls this promise a “hesed v’emet,” a “kindness and faithfulness,” or more literally “lovingkindness and truth.” The 12th century French commentator Hizkiya Hizkuni comments on this verse that “hesed v’emet” means “a fulfillment  beyond the letter of the law.” In this case, he explains, the basic requirement of a child is to bury his father. Jacob asks Joseph to beyond this and bury him in the land of his ancestors, and Joseph swears he will do so.

This all brings to the fore a third element in the parent-child relationship as it is explored in the book of Genesis, which is the relationship of these generations with the land of Israel. From the very first moment when God promises the land of Israel to Abraham in chapter 15, the covenant is defined in two dimensions: land and children. Here at the end of that story, the two themes are intertwined once more, not only in Joseph’s promise to bury Jacob in the land of Israel, but also in Jacob’s adoption of Joseph’s sons, as Ephraim and Menashe become entitled to a share of the land in place of their father.

This braiding of children and land remains a foreign thing to diaspora Jews, and it was foreign to all Jews before 1948. Nineteenth century European nationalists hurled antisemitic insults against Jews for being unlanded, for being a wandering people without a homeland. Zionism has changed all of that, and brought us back not only to the land of our national yearning, but also a rediscovered sense of the connection between children and land.

Yet there is an important lesson to remember in all of this. Jacob still refers to the land as Canaan, and the Torah will continue to do so, even after the land is clearly the designated destination of the children of Israel. Why not call it the land of Israel? Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller recently related to me a teaching of Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, the 17th-century author of the kabbalistic work Shnei Luchot HaBrit, more commonly abbreviated as the Shelah. The Shelah asks why the land is called Canaan, and, using the root of the name Canaan, answers that is the land in which we are to be always “nichnaim,” humble.

The land of Israel is not ours, as Leviticus 25:23 reminds us: “For the land is Mine.” Even when we have possession of the land, the Torah tells us, we cannot let it become an idol to us. We are tenants, who must constantly re-prove (and reprove) ourselves if we are to remain worthy. Likewise, as the story of the Binding of Isaac reminds us, our children are not ours either. We are custodians of their lives in their early years, and we love them as we love the land of Israel. But they, like the land, are ultimately their own, and must have their own identity, in relationship with, but independent of, their parents and guardians.

Shabbat shalom.

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