Sermon: Shabbat Vayeira – Sarah and Isaac, Helicopter Parenting and the Snowflake Generation

Written by Rabbi Hannah Kingston — 7 November 2017

I’m going to tell you a story. It’s one you’ve possibly heard before about a butterfly,  but allow me to refresh your memory.

Once a little boy was playing outdoors and found a fascinating caterpillar. He carefully picked it up and took it home to show his mother. He asked his mother if he could keep it, and she said he could if he would take good care of it. The little boy got a large jar from his mother and put plants to eat, and a stick to climb on, in the jar. Every day he watched the caterpillar and brought it new plants to eat.

One day the caterpillar climbed up the stick and started acting strangely. The boy worriedly called his mother who came and explained that the caterpillar was creating a cocoon. This is how that hairy caterpillar becomes a beautiful butterfly.

The little boy was so excited. He watched every day, waiting for the butterfly to emerge. One day it happened, a small hole appeared in the cocoon and the butterfly started to struggle to come out. The boy was concerned. The butterfly was struggling so hard to get out! It looked like it couldn’t break free! It looked desperate! It looked like it was making no progress!

The boy decided to help. He ran to get scissors, and snipped the cocoon to make the hole bigger and the butterfly quickly emerged with a swollen body and small, shrivelled wings. He continued to watch the butterfly waiting for its body to shrink and the wings to expand.

But neither happened! The butterfly was never able to fly…

As the boy tried to figure out what had gone wrong his mother told him that the butterfly was SUPPOSED to struggle. In fact, the butterfly’s struggle to push its way through the tiny opening of the cocoon pushes the fluid out of its body and into its wings. Without the struggle, the butterfly would never, ever fly. Nature has a funny way of training the butterfly and strengthening it, before it comes into contact with the outside world.

Psychologists have seen that the brain is almost wired up to respond to others’ suffering and that when we can alleviate that suffering, our heart rate slows and we release the hormone oxytocin, also found when we eat chocolate, which makes us feel good. But our human instinct, to minimise the struggle of others, can sometimes act as detrimental to those we love. By removing obstacles or constantly helping, we can leave people unprepared to fight their next battles, just like the butterfly.

This week in Torah, we read a story of two mothers, who are potentially very much guilty of this overbearing behaviour towards their individual child. Their story, in a way, is relatable. For who in this room hasn’t acted out of haste to help a loved one or to minimise their suffering?

Sarah appears to take the stereotype of the overprotective Jewish mother to a great extreme as we read that in a fit of rage she throws Hagar, Abraham’s maidservant, and her young son Ishmael out of her house and into the desert with no food or water, after she witnesses Ishmael playing with Isaac. This is just one of many instances of her acting hastily, overwhelmed by emotions, for we have already been told in our narrative that Sarah treated Hagar harshly. But here, where she detects a threat to her son, she appears to take her behaviour one step further, with a midrash in Genesis Rabbah commenting that she cursed Ishmael to be seized with feverish pains. The 13th century Sephardi rabbi and philosopher, Nahmanidies, comments that Sarah’s action towards Hagar and Ishmael is the ultimate reason that the Israelites become enslaved under the Egyptians.  He draws a parallel between the word used for Sarah’s treatment of Hagar and the word for oppression seen in the beginning of Exodus, which both share the same root.

In this narrative we see Sarah driven by her emotions and overprotective instinct towards her son. Just as a mother bear protects her cubs from any perceived predator, Sarah does whatever is needed to stop her son, Isaac, from suffering.  To any of us that care deeply about someone else, be it a child, or a partner, or a parent, Sarah’s actions are very relatable. Sarah is old, she knows that she is unlikely to live to see her son’s future secured. As a mother she has great anxiety about the influence of Ishmael on Isaac, and she wants to minimize the suffering of her child. She gives no thought to what this sheltering behavior will do to Isaac’s character in the long run.

What was it in Ishmael’s playfulness that caused Sarah to become a helicopter parent? The rabbis of the Talmud have long discussions that defend Sarah’s behaviour and the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael. Rabbi Akiva states that Ishmael must have been acting in an immoral fashion, seducing women, engaging in idolatrous practices and even threatening Isaac by shooting arrows in his direction. This style of playing borders on the three most serious offences in Jewish law; idolatry, sexual immorality and murder.

However it is also possible there was nothing sinister about the playful relationship between Ishmael and Isaac. As an older, possibly cooler brother, Isaac may have looked up to Ishmael and mirrored some of his actions. If Sarah perceived Ishmael as a bad role model she would have worried about the effect of the physical, familial and psychological presence of Ishmael around her son.  The sharing of a father, living quarters and possibly inheritance between the two boys also could have been the source of Sarah’s anxiety. She may have feared that today’s play would come to be tomorrows rivalry and therefore sought to end the relationship, and diminish any potential competition for her son, by sending Ishmael away.

But without healthy competition and someone who urges us to try harder and be better, we are unlikely to become the best versions of ourselves. And by being overly protected from any adversity or hardship, we are unlikely to build the resilience we need to thrive. In Sarah’s overprotective parenting of Isaac, she does not allow him to learn by making his own mistakes, and ultimately the character of Isaac suffers. He is nearly sacrificed by his own father yet remains silent and unquestioning. He is unable to move on from the death of his mother, only comforted when he finds another, equally complicated, woman to take refuge in. We know very little about Isaac as a person. He is the product of many other people’s interactions. Who he is himself, as his own entity, is truly unknown.

How do we stop those whom we love from becoming an Isaac, a silent player in their own story? A new term has been coined to describe the current generation of children growing up in our world. They are known as the ‘snowflake generation’. Snowflakes are not known for their resilient nature, but rather for the fact that they melt under the slightest amount of heat. The children of generation snowflake are also known to crack under the slightest bits of pressure, as they are used to constant affirmation by their parents. These children are brought up with a strong sense of entitlement, which makes them increasingly vulnerable to real life situations where they are not affirmed in the same way. This generation is seen as too emotional to cope with things that challenge them and not robust enough to deal with the challenges of the outside world.  Parents create snowflake children when they tiptoe around sensitive issues to avoid damaging their wellbeing, and shelter them from the harsher realities of life.

I would argue that in this narrative, Isaac too was a part of the snowflake generation. Looking at the person Isaac becomes teaches us a great lesson about how to care for our loved ones. As hard as it is to watch those we love face hardship we must remember that it is ok to struggle and to compete. It is in these elements of life that we learn the most about who we are as people. We must commit to raising our teenagers to be resilient. We must allow our partners at times to struggle and learn. And ultimately, we must not cut the cocoon but allow those around us to fly.