Moshe proclaims to Benei Yisrael in Parashat Re’ei (14:1), “Banim atem le-Hashem Elokeikhem” – “You are children of the Lord your God.” The Gemara, in a famous passage in Masekhet Kiddushin (36a), records a debate among the Tanna’im concerning this verse. Rabbi Yehuda understood it to mean that we are considered God’s “children” only when we act as His children – in Rabbi Yehuda’s words, “When you conduct yourselves as [His] children – you are called ‘[His] children’.” When, however, we betray the Almighty and do not act as His devoted children, then we forfeit this status of distinction. Rabbi Meir disagrees, and maintains that Am Yisrael are called God’s “children” irrespective of their conduct.
In explaining Rabbi Yehuda’s view, the Beit Yisrael (one of the Rebbes of Ger) noted the Gemara’s comments in Masekhet Rosh Hashanah (25a) concerning a different verse. In Sefer Vayikra (23:2), the Torah speaks of Benei Yisrael’s obligation to determine the calendar by declaring the onset of new months based on the appearance of the new moon, and commands, “tikre’u otam mikra’ei kodesh” – that we must declare the festivals as sacred. The Gemara comments that the word “otam” implies that the court’s declaration of a new month is valid even if it turns out to be mistaken. That is to say, even if they declared the new month before the new moon was seen, their proclamation is valid and the new month begins on that day. The Gemara states that this applies even if the court intentionally proclaimed the new month on the wrong day. This inference is made from the word “otam,” which the Gemara reads as “atem” (“you”), indicating that the calendar date is determined by Benei Yisrael, through the court, under all circumstances, even if their proclamation turns out to be mistaken. In all situations – even in situations of intentional errors – the court members are the ones who declare when new months begin.
The Beit Yisrael comments that if this is the implication of the word “atem,” then it may be applied also to the verse, “Banim atem le-Hashem Elokeikhem.” Here, too, the word “atem” may be understood as establishing that Benei Yisrael retain their status even when they err, even when they act wrongly, and even when their wrongful conduct is intentional. Despite our many mistakes, we retain our special distinction as “banim,” as God’s beloved children.
The Beit Yisrael claimed that this reading in no way contradicts Rabbi Yehuda’s view, that our status as “banim” is contingent upon our conducting ourselves as God’s “children.” Parents are generally sensitive and compassionate towards their children, and love them despite their faults and wrongdoing. They understand that all children are far from perfect, and will make mistakes, act wrongly, and misbehave, but this does not diminish from their love for their children and their desire to care for them. And the same is true, the Beit Yisrael taught, of our relationship with God – even according to Rabbi Yehuda. The only condition for our status as God’s “children” according to Rabbi Yehuda is “nohagim minhag banim” – that we conduct ourselves as God’s children, meaning, that we feel connected to him, view ourselves as His children, and desire to please Him. As long as we feel this connection, then He regards us as His children despite our mistakes and misdeeds. Even if we have failed many times, and even if we remain far from where we feel we should be in our avodat Hashem, we can nevertheless be assured that “Banim atem le-Hashem Elokeikhem,” that God still loves us as His children, as long as we remain committed to Him and seek to correct our mistakes and constantly grow and improve.