What Would We Say?

As parents we may struggle with the simple truth that our children can never love and care for us as we do them. Intellectually, and even spiritually, we understand and accept this. How could they? After all, the entirety of our emotions has been handed down to us from Adam and as one created rather than born, he had no experience with that relationship. But emotionally… emotionally this truth leaves us with a deep ache, knowing that the moment our children fully understand the limit of that love is the moment they can no longer express it to us. Just as the moment we fully understood the limits of our love for our parents was when we could no longer tell them.

A child’s love and respect can only be a reflection, an approximation of what he has learned and felt from the experience of being loved and respected by his parents. A child can receive a Hanukah gift and be delighted by the gift without ever giving a thought to the sacrifice his father made to be able to give him that gift. 

And then, in the blink of an eye, rather than the joyous flickering of the Hanukah candles, it is the steady glow of the yahrzeit candle that reflects back in his eyes and the somber rhythms of kaddish that are whispered from his lips.

Oh, the ache.

Oh, so many things left unsaid.

What might he have said if only he’d known?

Our traditions speak to the parent-child relationship almost exclusively from the perspective of the parent. Throughout the Torah and our tradition, we read of the power and emotion of the father-son bond as it is felt by the father

When God tested Abraham, He tested him in the most profound way possible – by challenging him to sacrifice his beloved son! As the story plays out, we feel Abraham’s deepening dread even as he continues to honor his great faith. What we don’t feel is Isaac’s emotional state save for a suggestion when he raises the simple question about the sacrifice. 

Perhaps no Biblical passage expresses the power of the father-son as deeply – or makes clear the perspective of the text – as when Yehudah pleads with Yosef for his brother Binyamin. This passage could not be fraught with greater emotion or significance. None of us needs to be reminded of the context. After having lost the first child of his beloved Rachel, after losing Yosef, of course Yaakov would be devastated to not have his youngest son return to him safe and whole. 

But why does the passage focus only on Yaakov’s devastation? The Chiddushei HaRim points out that at the time, Binyamin had ten children. Why did Yehudah not use the argument – how can you not let Binyamin go; you will leave ten orphans; they will not be able to survive without their father? Apparently, says Chiddushei HaRim, ten children can somehow manage without a father, but a father cannot manage without one of his ten remaining sons.

It is the father’s grief that drives the narrative. It drives our own feelings as well. The Kotzker Rebbe states that it is natural that the love of a father for his son greatly exceeds the feelings of the son for his father. For him, the narrative simply reflects human nature.

R’ Menachem Mendel of Kotzk asserts that, “…parents have more compassion for their children than children have for their parents.”

In our literature, children much more often display rebellion and disrespect towards their parents than love. In this, the Kotzker suggests the narratives make a powerful point about God, our ultimate Father, and us, His children. Not only does He suffer from our own inability to show Him the love and devotion He deserves, but He also suffers from our suffering, suffering from the pains and tzaros we must endure.

But must this necessarily preclude our examination of the feelings of the children? Must we ignore Binyamin’s children? Must it be Yaakov’s feelings or the feelings of Binyamin’s children? Can’t it be both? 

The father suffers every moment his son is in Egypt. And while Binyamin’s children will certainly suffer terribly if their father does not return, they will not suffer until he fails to return. Until then, they are children, unaware of the drama being played out in Egypt. They are as any children whenever a father goes away – saddened by his absence but certain that he will return just as sure as they are that the sun will rise each day.

I find myself thinking of Binyamin’s children more and more these days as I reflect on the upcoming yahrzeits of my parents. I was not a child when they passed away, but it was not until they were gone, and I was well into adulthood that I appreciated the fullness of what they did for me.

Oh, I understood and knew intellectually all that they had sacrificed on behalf of their children. We were their first priority. Despite the limits of their financial means, their love and devotion knew no bounds. For my mother there was nothing but us. For my father, assuring that our needs were met and that we continue our long family tradition of Torah learning, scholarship and leadership was the deepest way he could express his devotion.

Indeed, as I have grown older and more reflective, I am astonished by how much they sacrificed – uprooted from their home after the horrors of the Holocaust, transplanted to Palestine in 1944 and, after having their lives so harshly displaced, moving again, this time to the United States, where they encountered a new land, a new language, a new and unsettling social setting with no financial base and only a very few family members. Yet, their focus was not on themselves or their hardships but on their children even as our focus was on ourselves. 

As I look back, it mortifies me how little we gave back.  It amazes me how like all children we were, lost in our childhood, young adolescence and young adulthood. We were focused on friends, and school, on our studies and our futures, and eventually on our own families.

Day after day, week after week, month after month…. 

For us, there was always another subject to learn, another book to read, another friend to meet, another task to attend to. There was no time to look back; no time to stop and appreciate the people who showered us with such love and affection, attention and guidance.

Until… until it was too late.

I had just turned twenty-nine when my mother passed away. For those final years of her life, I lived in Pittsburgh, working to establish my own home and family. I was only just becoming an adult capable of truly understanding all that she had done for me and before I could tell her just how much it meant to me, how much she meant to me, she was gone. 

It was too late.

I think back now, and I wonder, “What was I thinking”?  Could I really have been so blind?

I think to the hero in Tom Brown’s “School Days” who is on a fishing trip when he learns of the death of his schoolmaster. He returns immediately and finds himself alone in the chapel, where his teacher has been buried beneath the altar. Turning to the pulpit and leaning forward with his head in his hands.  He berates himself, “If he could only have seen the doctor again for five minutes; have told him all that was in his heart, what he owed, to him, how he loved and reverenced him, and would by God’s help follow his steps in life and death, he could have borne it all without a murmur. But that he should have gone away forever without knowing it all, was too much to bear.” 

When we’re young we think our parents will be here forever. 

We think we’ll be here forever.

But they won’t be, just as we will not. And too often, we are left with an ache that cannot be eased; we are left without the chance to say one more time, one last time, “I love you” and have it convey the fullness of what we feel.