February 14, 2023

Nedarim 48

Today’s daf (Nedarim 48b) tells a story of a father whose son was known to steal bundles of flax. Frustrated and disappointed, the father made a vow forbidding his son from inheriting his property. However, he was then approached by some local Rabbis who asked: ‘What if your son becomes a Torah scholar? (i.e. what if your son changes his ways after you have died?)’. The father replied and said, ‘I’ll let my son acquire my property, but only so that if his son [chooses a moral path and] becomes a Torah scholar that he will be able to receive it from him’ – meaning that he enabled his son to inherit him only for the sake of his grandchildren.
Reflecting on this incident, it is clear that, at this moment in time, the father doesn’t consider his son to be morally worthy to inherit his estate. Yet what interests me is when the father is asked to consider the possibility that his son may change, he simply doesn’t seem to be able to do so. Instead, acknowledging the possibility that his yet-to-be-born grandchildren may choose a good and moral path, he constructs a framework that enables them to inherit his estate through his son.
What we see from here is that there are situations when a parent can feel so bitterly disappointed by the negative choices of their child, where they can only relate to their child based on what they’ve done in the past, that it can blind them from the possibility of future changes in their child’s behaviour.
Clearly, this attitude is less than ideal given Judaism’s emphasis on free will and our belief that any and every person can do teshuvah and change their ways. Still, those who have unfortunately had the experience of their child choosing a life of crime has often either struggled to accept that this is who they are, or they have struggled to accept the possibility that their child may change in the future.
Yet what we do see in this story is that while the parent does not anticipate change in their child, they also don’t cut their child out of their life. Instead, they find a way to pass on their inheritance to their grandchildren which does not dilute their moral critique of their child, but which also maintains some form of bond with their child.
It is not easy when a child chooses a path that is morally repugnant to their parent, and there are parents who, in such a situation, simply choose to totally disconnect from their child. Yet while our Gemara appears to critique this father from blinding himself to the possibility that his child may change, the Gemara does seem to acknowledge that his choice to find a way to stay connected to his child, albeit for the sake of his grandchildren, was the right thing to do.
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