by R. Eliyahu Safran
Children exist in an Edentime of innocence, blissfully ignorant of the hardships their parents encounter or the many sacrifices they make or to the many things – large and small – they do to show their love.
And then, in the blink of an eye, it is the steady glow of the yarzheit candle that reflects back in their eyes and the somber rhythms of Kaddish that are whispered from their lips.
And so many things left unsaid.
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, telling the parent-child relationship almost exclusively from the perspective of the parent.
When God tested Abraham, He tested him in the most profound and terrible way possible – by challenging him to sacrifice his beloved son! We read the story and we feel Abraham’s deepening dread, even as he continues to honor his great faith. When Isaac, as a father himself, seeks to reward one son with his blessing, we feel his sense of betrayal when it is stolen by his other son.
In these instances and others, we feel the father’s emotions in these great dramas but we know virtually nothing of the child’s feelings. The text is father-centric. The powerful father-son bond felt most strongly by the father. Perhaps no Biblical passage expresses this perspective of the text so clearly as when Yehudah pleads with Yosef for his brother Binyamin. None of us needs to be reminded of the context of this exchange. After losing Yosef, of course Yaakov would be devastated to not have his youngest son, the other son of his beloved Rachel, return.
But again, why does the passage focus only on Yaakov’s devastation? Yes, Binyamin is Yaakov’s son, but he is also a father in his own right. The narrative not only ignores Binyamin’s feelings but it also completely overlooks the certain emotional devastation of Binyamin’s own ten children! Why is there no concern shown lest Binyamin’s children not survive the loss of their father?
Why are these narratives so father-driven?
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. Indeed, it is said that one father can tend to the needs of ten children, but ten children cannot tend to the needs of one father. It is told that an elderly man once came to the Kotzker, pouring his heart out how impoverished he was and yet his children, for whom he sacrificed a lifetime, and who were quite well off, did not look after his needs. “How can this be?” he cried to the Rebbe.
The Rebbe responded, “Why the wonder? We see this clearly in the Torah, when Binyamin is held by Yosef, Yehuda pleads for mercy, lest the elderly father will die. Why not plead for Binyamin’s children who won’t survive their father’s loss?
“From here we see that parents are filled with much greater pain for their children’s tzaros, than vice versa.”
From this, the Kotzker Rebbe derived the truism that, “…parents have more compassion for their children than children have for their parents.”
A child will rebel against his parents, but a parent will stay true to his child – regardless of behavior, failing or circumstance. Is this not just like God, the Kotzker taught? Is this not exactly like our ultimate Father’s devotion to us? We rebel. We fall short. We fail. Our shortcomings hurt our Father deeply and cause Him suffering. But He never turns away!
The Rebbe of Ostrov understands our parent-centric worldview finding its genesis back in the Garden, when Adam, the very first person, experiences life with no parents. He never had the opportunity to experience a child-parent bond as a child, only as a parent. His experience lacked a child’s perspective of the bond and so it could not be passed along to future generations. The father-centric view is reflective of the natural order of things – human qualities and learning are passed down from parent to child.
All this is interesting, but must it preclude an examination of the feelings of the children? What about Binyamin’s children?
Perhaps we do consider them, but in their absence. We do not overtly state their feelings, but we are surely aware of the potential of them. Reading that powerful narrative, I imagine them as any children when their father goes away – saddened by his absence but unconcerned. Why should they be? They feel the certainty that, just as it has been every other time he went away, he would return.
Imagine their devastation if he had not!
I think 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 I was well into adulthood that I appreciated the fullness of what they did for me. It is not until we live enough of our own experience that we can fully reflect on all that was. The irony is that it may very well not be possible to do justice to many of life’s duties and obligations until it may be too late!
We are commanded kibud Av v’Eim. But can we truly fulfill that commandment as children or even young adults? Can we ever truly honor them until they are gone?
A grieving son recently told me, “If I only knew dad would leave me so soon, I would do anything and everything for him.”
I too understood intellectually all my parents sacrificed on behalf of their children. We were their first priority. Their financial means were limited, but not their love and devotion. For my mother, life had no clearer focus than her children. 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 possibly express his devotion.
Who felt the sacrifices they made to ensure our lives would be as prosperous and meaningful as possible? But as I grow older and more reflective, I find myself astonished at what they sacrificed – uprooted from their country Romania after the horrors of the Holocaust, transplanted to Palestine in 1946 and, after enduring those hardships, several years later moving again, this time to the United States, where they encountered a new land, a new language, a new and unsettling social setting. I cannot imagine myself passing the tests and nisyonos they endured.
Yet their focus was not on their challenges. Their focus was on their children while our focus was on ourselves.
When I think about how little we gave in return, I am shocked. We were, after all, like most children, 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….
There was always another subject to learn, another book to read, another friend to meet, another task to attend to; always time to waste. With such a busy schedule, who had time to reflect, to look back; who had time to stop and appreciate the people who showered us with such love and affection, attention and guidance?
Not until they were gone. And then… it was too late.
I had just turned twenty-nine when my mother passed away. For those final years of her life, I was in Pittsburgh, working hard 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 how much it meant to me, how much she meant to me, she was gone.
I think back now and I wonder, Could I really have been so blind?
If only I could turn back time and tell my father and mother how much they meant to me… If only I had another chance to really do right by them as I understand life today, not as I immaturely, irresponsibly understood life then.
When we’re young we think they will be here forever.
We think we’ll be here forever.
But they are not, and we are not. And too often, we are left with so many things left unsaid.