In the August Wilson play, “Fences,” recently brought to screen with stand-out performances by Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, the male protagonist Troy torments his son Cory to the point of driving him from home at 17. We learn that Troy had been driven off by his own father at 14, and so the cycle of anger and estrangement continues for another generation.
That is one way to parent. In similar circumstances some parents react the opposite way, seeking to spare their children any of the anguish of their own youth. If the parents suffered poverty, then the children should enjoy every luxury. In this way the parent will have beat the odds, delivered the goods, and brought not only comfort to the child but pride to the parent.
It’s plain to see that neither approach is healthy, but breaking the cycle of fear and insecurity that underlies them is far from simple. Several years ago I was in Jerusalem for Parashat VaYehi, and I found a terse but thought-provoking Torah insight printed in the newspaper (I believe it was Yediot Aharonot). The point was that Jacob was the type of father who always had it rough—raised on lentils, running for his life, never able to rest. What did he aspire for his beloved Joseph, and then for Judah? Luxury taken to an absurd degree. So it was with many parents who survived the Depression in America, the Shoah in Europe, the War of Independence in Israel—the suffering of those dark experiences would be blotted out through extravagant parenting, revenge by means of luxury.
The point of departure is Jacob’s blessing of Judah, who is promised hegemony over enemies and brothers alike. Jacob envisions Judah as his royal son, holding the scepter and staff, and receiving tribute and homage. As the blessing proceeds, its images become more obscure. The final two verses read, “He tethers his ass to a vine, his ass’s foal to a choice vine; he washes his garments in wine; his robe in blood of grapes. His eyes are darker than wine; his teeth are whiter than milk.” Even back then, wine was a luxury product, and grape vines were precious, delicate plants. So a person who could tether his ass to a vine, and use wine to dye his garments was living a live of fantastic luxury—and dangerous folly. The newspaper commentary critiques Jacob for wishing on his son, “…depraved satiety. He knows that he will come to regret this, but he can’t help himself.”
In the Talmud, tractate Ketubot provides an extended commentary on these verses at 111b. This is part of a passage praising the Land of Israel that concludes the tractate. Here the focus is on the spectacular bounty of the land, where grape vines require armies of harvesters, and the riches of the inhabitants of Israel will be vast. This too is a fantasy which we understand reflects the privation of its authors. Our ancestors in the European shtetl dreamed of the “goldene medinah,” and Ethiopian Jews imagined that the Land of Israel had rocks of gold. When Rav Dimi arrived in Babylonian from Israel, his homeland nostalgia must have lit up the imaginations of the locals, making them fantasize of a land that flowed not only with milk and honey, but with luscious wine. This sounds a bit like the distorted vision of a parent who builds a fantasy world to counter the nightmare of their own childhood.
Between the extreme parenting styles of either punishing children for one’s own hardships or seeking to spare them any sense of restraint, there is a healthier middle path. This consists of seeing the child for who they are, helping them get what they really need, and giving them the sweetest gift of all—love. At the end of the same Talmud text in Ketubot, the sages play on the description of Judah’s teeth as whiter than milk. Rav Dimi explains that showing someone your teeth means smiling at them—a wide open-mouthed smile that exposes even the back teeth. The Jewish people begged God to, “wink at me with your eyes, and show me your teeth, which will be sweeter than milk.” What Israel really needs from God is not wealth, but affection.
This week I have been listening to the stories of formerly incarcerated people who are starting life over, often after decades of neglect, violence and imprisonment. Some described themselves as “systems kids,” meaning that they have been supervised by harsh strangers in foster care, juvenile delinquency programs, jails and prisons since early childhood. One after another, these remarkable people told us about a turning point when someone not only listened to them but heard them, not only greeted them, but hugged them, not only looked but smiled. The simple gift of proximity and kindness is more valuable than the greatest riches. A smile is sweeter than milk.
Each of us has the ability to find a person who has felt rejected and disrespected, and through simple kindness, to help them reclaim their dignity and rebuild their life. And Jacob lived in the land of Mitzrayim—a place of straits and suffering—even there he was able to live. With our assistance, a land of suffering and imprisonment can become a land of life and even love.
בראשית פרק מט, ח-יב
(ח) יְהוּדָ֗ה אַתָּה֙ יוֹד֣וּךָ אַחֶ֔יךָ יָדְךָ֖ בְּעֹ֣רֶף אֹיְבֶ֑יךָ יִשְׁתַּחֲו֥וּ לְךָ֖ בְּנֵ֥י אָבִֽיךָ: (ט) גּ֤וּר אַרְיֵה֙ יְהוּדָ֔ה מִטֶּ֖רֶף בְּנִ֣י עָלִ֑יתָ כָּרַ֨ע רָבַ֧ץ כְּאַרְיֵ֛ה וּכְלָבִ֖יא מִ֥י יְקִימֶֽנּוּ: (י) לֹֽא־יָס֥וּר שֵׁ֙בֶט֙ מִֽיהוּדָ֔ה וּמְחֹקֵ֖ק מִבֵּ֣ין רַגְלָ֑יו עַ֚ד כִּֽי־יָבֹ֣א שילה שִׁיל֔וֹ וְל֖וֹ יִקְּהַ֥ת עַמִּֽים: (יא) אֹסְרִ֤י לַגֶּ֙פֶן֙ עירה עִיר֔וֹ וְלַשֹּׂרֵקָ֖ה בְּנִ֣י אֲתֹנ֑וֹ כִּבֵּ֤ס בַּיַּ֙יִן֙ לְבֻשׁ֔וֹ וּבְדַם־עֲנָבִ֖ים סותה סוּתֽוֹ: (יב) חַכְלִילִ֥י עֵינַ֖יִם מִיָּ֑יִן וּלְבֶן־שִׁנַּ֖יִם מֵחָלָֽב:
תלמוד בבלי מסכת כתובות דף קיא עמוד ב
ודם ענב תשתה חמר – אמרו: לא כעולם הזה העולם הבא, העולם הזה – יש בו צער לבצור ולדרוך, העולם הבא – מביא ענוה אחת בקרון או בספינה ומניחה בזוית ביתו, ומספק הימנה כפטוס גדול, ועציו מסיקין תחת התבשיל, ואין לך כל ענבה וענבה שאין בה שלשים גרבי יין, שנא’: ודם ענב תשתה חמר, אל תקרי חמר אלא חומר. כי אתא רב דימי אמר, מאי דכתיב: אוסרי לגפן עירה? אין לך כל גפן וגפן שבא”י שאין צריך עיר אחת לבצור, ולשורקה בני אתונו – אין לך כל אילן סרק שבא”י שאינו מוציא משוי שתי אתונות; ושמא תאמר, אין בו יין? ת”ל: כבס ביין לבושו; ושמא תאמר, אינו אדום? ת”ל: ודם ענב תשתה חמר; ושמא תאמר, אינו מרוה? ת”ל: סותה; ושמא תאמר, אין בו טעם? ת”ל: חכלילי עינים מיין, כל חיך שטועמו אומר לי, לי; ושמא תאמר, לנערים יפה ולזקנים אינו יפה? ת”ל: ולבן שנים מחלב, אל תיקרי לבן שינים אלא לבן שנים. פשטיה דקרא במאי כתיב? כי אתא רב דימי אמר, אמרה כנסת ישראל לפני הקדוש ברוך הוא: רבונו של עולם, רמוז בעיניך דבסים מחמרא, ואחוי לי שיניך דבסים מחלבא. מסייע ליה לר’ יוחנן, דאמר ר’ יוחנן: טוב המלבין שינים לחבירו יותר ממשקהו חלב, שנאמר: ולבן שנים מחלב, אל תקרי לבן שינים אלא לבון שינים.
And of the blood of the grape thou drankest foaming wine.47 It was inferred: The world to come is not like this world. In this world there is the trouble of harvesting and treading [of the grapes], but in the world to come a man will bring one grape48 on a wagon or a ship, put it in a corner of his house and use its contents as [if it had been] a large wine cask, while its timber49 would be used to make fires for cooking.50 There will be no grape that will not contain thirty kegs51 of wine, for it is said is Scripture, And of the blood of the grape thou drankest foaming wine,52 read not ‘foaming‘53 but homer.54
When R. Dimi came55 he made the following statement: What is the implication in the Scriptural text, Binding his foal56 unto the vine?57 There is not a vine in the Land of Israel that does not require [all the inhabitants of] one city58 to harvest it; And his ass’s colt59 into the choice60 vine,57 there is not even a wild61 tree in the Land of Israel that does not produce a load of [fruit for] two she-asses.62 In case you should imagine that it contains no wine, it was explicitly said in Scriptures, He washes his garments in wine.57 And since you might say that it is not red it was explicitly stated, And of the blood of the grape thou drankest foaming wine.63 And in case you should say that it does not cause intoxication it was stated, His vesture.64 And in case you should think that it is tasteless it was expressly stated, His eyes shall be red65 with wine,66 any palate that will taste it says, ‘To me, to me’.67 And since you might say that it is suitable for young people but unsuitable for old, it was explicitly stated And his teeth white with milk;66 read not, ‘teeth white’68 but ‘To him who is advanced in years’.69
In what [sense] is the plain meaning of the text70 to be understood?71 — When R. Dimi came72 he explained: The congregation of Israel said to the Holy One, blessed be He, ‘Lord of the Universe, wink to me with Thine eyes,73 which [to me will be] sweeter than wine, and shew74 me Thy teeth which will be sweeter than milk’.73 [This interpretation] provides support for R. Johanan who said; The man who [by smiling affectionately] shews75 his teeth to his friend is better than one who gives bins milk to drink, for it is said in Scriptures, And his teeth white with milk,70 read not ‘teeth white’ but ‘shewing the teeth’.76