By Rabbi Eliyahu Safran
A young boy runs his fingers over the leather spine of the story book he receives as a Hanukkah gift. He loves the feel of the beautiful lettering playing beneath his fingers. He is entranced by the beautiful illustrations accompanying the stories. He gives no thought to the extra hours his father worked in order to purchase such a beautiful and expensive book for him.
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.
* * *
Our Jewish narratives view 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 the first Jew, He tested him in the most profound and terrible way possible – by challenging him to sacrifice his beloved son! The story plays out in such a way that we feel Abraham’s deepening dread, even as he continues to honor his great faith. Only when God is convinced of Abraham’s enduring faith did He provide the substitute sacrifice, the ram.
Isaac, as a father himself, seeks to reward one son with his blessing, only to have it stolen by his other son.
In these instances, we know virtually nothing of the child’s perspective and emotions. We do experience the terror of the Akeda as Isaac must surely have felt it. Jacob and Esau’s feelings are wrapped up in their sibling rivalry and conflict, and then in their adult lives. We do not know them as children.
Perhaps no Biblical passage expresses the power of the father-son bond so powerfully, or makes clear the perspective of the text, as when Yehudah pleads with Yosef for his brother Binyamin. The history of this passage could not be fraught with greater emotion and significance. None of us needs to be reminded of the context. After losing Yosef, of course Yaakov would be devastated to not have his youngest return.
But again I wonder 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. Not only does the narrative ignore Binyamin’s feelings but it also completely overlooks the certain emotional devastation of Binyamin’s own ten children! Would not their grief be as compelling as Yaakov’s?
What is it about the father’s grief that drives the narrative, and which seems to drive 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. From his perspective then, the narrative “view” simply reflects human nature.
R’ Menachem Mendel of Kotzk derived from this that it is a truism that, “…parents have more compassion for their children than children have for their parents.”
Certainly our literature and experience is rife with examples of children displaying rebellion and disrespect towards their parents. In this regard, the Kotzker made the same point about our ultimate Father, God, 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 tzuros we His children must endure.
The Rebbe of Ostrov sees the roots of this perspective back to the Garden when Adam, the very first person, experiences life with no parents. He experienced only the love a parent feels for his own children, never the love that a child feels for his parents.
The perspective of the father is merely reflective of the natural order of things that human qualities and learning are passed down from parent to child.
Among the many qualities handed down are the love of parent for child and of child for parent. But, he makes clear, that of the two, the love of parent for child is always stronger.
* * *
But does all this necessarily preclude our examination of the feelings of the children? What about Binyamin’s children? Perhaps it is not so much their feelings that we do not acknowledge but their awareness of their feelings. When I imagine them, unaware of the drama being played out in Egypt, I imagine them as any children when a father goes away – saddened by his absence but certain that, just as it has been every other time he went away, he would return.
How devastated they would be 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.
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 possibly express his devotion.
As I have grown older and more reflective, I am often astonished by how much they gave and 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; they had no financial base, minimal family. Yet, their focus was not on themselves but on their children, while our focus was on ourselves.
As overwhelming as their life and sacrifice was, when I think of how much they gave to us it is the comparatively little we gave back that astonishes me. 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. 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.
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, “What was I thinking”? Was I really so blind?
In this context, 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 once back in school sits alone in the chapel, where his teacher has been buried under the altar. Turning to the pulpit and leaning forward with his head in his hands, he groans aloud, “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 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.