Disinheriting

Special Divine guidance oversaw the transference of Yitzchak’s blessing from Esav, Yitzchak’s intended recipient, to Yaakov. But in general our tradition warns against disinheriting children. (According to Torah law such disinheritance can be accomplished by giving large deathbed gifts.) It is improper for a sick person to give so much to charity that the children are left without a sufficient inheritance; and it is even wrong to favor a righteous child over a wicked one (Bava Batra 133b).

The Yerushalmi (Bava Batra 8:6) applies a cryptic verse from Yechezkel to someone who disinherits his children this way: “And these [who died in battle] shall not lie with the mighty… who descended to the depths with their weapons of war, their swords placed under the heads, and their iniquity shall be on their bones…” (Yechezkel 32:27).

The commentators explain that a soldier who died a natural death used to have himself buried with his sword, to demonstrate that his sword never left him and he was never defeated in war. But the prophet tells us that in fact he has nothing to be proud of; on the contrary, those killed in war, even if they were wicked, at least achieved some atonement in their horrible passing. The one who died in peace has all his iniquity on his bones.

The parallel seems to be as follows: It is natural for a parent to suffer if his children don’t act properly. He wonders what became of the immense effort he invested in his child, and is embarrassed as well that the child’s behavior reflects on him. This suffering is an atonement for the parent – his “casualty” in the struggle of child-raising.

When a parent reacts to this situation by disinheriting the wayward child, it is like a declaration that he is getting even. He is being buried with his sword under his head, showing everyone that his child’s misbehavior didn’t get the best of him.

The best thing for a parent to do in this situation is to acknowledge the sorrow he or she feels, and even to augment it by giving a suitable inheritance. (Assuming the inheritance won’t encourage self-destructive behavior.) The parent’s sorrow at having brought up a wayward child is an atonement, and can also be a key factor in leading the child back to righteousness. If on the contrary the child is disinherited, the parent has cut off the last possible bridge to his or her offspring.

It is unhealthy for the living as well as the dead if we use our departure from this world as an occasion to get even and settle petty accounts – with our own children, no less. The best policy is to set an example of equity and generosity.