As a parent I am often reminded that there are always little eyes and ears watching and listening to my every move. Shiri wants to do everything we do, from my marching in place when I’m trying to get in a few extra steps for the day on my Fitbit, to eating the foods she sees us eating, to the way in which she models me on my phone. (Any object she picks up she holds to her ear and yells “Hi!”) She is a sponge looking to me for what her next move should be. As human beings we look to others as role models when we’re learning new skills. We learn how to react by watching others, and we learn the appropriate behavior for a variety of situations by imitation. This comes as a powerful mandate for the modeler.
The Torah is also filled with instances in which imitation is the mode of transmission for behavior and expectations. In last week’s parshah, Lech Lecha, Abraham leads by example when he circumcises himself as part of a covenant with God. Being a moral exemplar is a paramount role in the Torah.
This week we read parshat Vayera, in which Abraham and Sarah contemplate the son that will be born to them in their old age; Sodom and Gomorrah fall as Abraham bargains with God to save Lot’s life; and Isaac is born, causing a rift in Abraham’s house with Ishmael. Abraham moves forward in making a deal with King Avimelech, and we end with the Akeidah, the test of Abraham as God instructs him to offer up his son, Isaac.
God asks much of Abraham in order to save his family and be a loyal adherent to God’s ways. Throughout the narrative we see Abraham’s moral compass developing over time. As Abraham is called to take care of issues in Sodom and Gomorrah, he faces a moral dilemma when God’s solution is destruction. Abraham asks, “Shall not the judge of all the earth deal justly?” God has challenged Abraham, and now Abraham challenges God right back with the notion that even God is subject to the moral standards decreed for human beings. That is to say, if God is going to command moral behavior, God must exemplify that behavior.
The flawed sentiment “Do as I say, not as I do” has no place in Judaism. The idea that parents, teachers, and rabbis can expect one thing and model something else is utter nonsense. Will my daughter embrace the beauty of Shabbat as an adult simply because I told her how important it was to me? No. The perpetuation of the traditions we hold dear will rely on us showing, not merely telling.
This Shabbat, and at every opportunity, let us look to Abraham’s definition of practicing what we preach. Let us lead by example.