The Braided Cord
It was just after sunsset and we were the only car on the road, making our way slowly through an Oregon forest close to Crater Lake. The sky above us was pale, drained of color; the trees on either side were young and delicate. It was so lonely and silent on the road that gradually the quiet soaked into our car, and the irritable late-afternoon squabbles of Mom and Dad and two spirited daughters died away.
Suddenly we saw a sign that said "Viewing Area." We pulled over to the side of the road and got out of our car. We found a map and display area that explained that, somewhere out there, across the forest, a mountain had blown up thousands of years ago. Now there was a crater filled with impossibly blue water.
"Look, Mommy," said my older daughter, Betsy. "What's that?" She pointed to a folded piece of paper, held down by a rock, sitting on a corner of the display board. We debated half a second before picking it up and unfolding it. We found a handwritten note. "Dear Chrissy," it said. "Maybe you won't stop here. And maybe you're already home. But we just wanted to let you know that we love and miss you very much, sweetheart." The note was signed "Mom and Dad."
It was a lonely road in an empty forest, and we were eavesdroppers on a conversation we didn't understand. Who was Chrissy, and had she ever made it safely to her home? Why had her parents left these words, like a note in a bottle thrown into the ocean, hoping it would somehow find its way to the one person who would understand the message? We didn't know. All we really knew was the strength of her parents' feeling for her. And we also knew, at that moment in the Viewing Area, that we had indeed viewed something profound.
I thought of the mountain that blew up to form Crater Lake and remembered a passage in the Book of Isaiah: "For the mountains may pass away / and the hills may crumble to nothing / But my love shall never leave you, / nor my promise of faithful friendship...Karati b'shimcha...li ata: I have called you by name / You are mine. / When you pass through water, / I will be with you; / through rivers / they shall not overwhelm you. / ...For you are precious to me, / ...and I love you" (54:10; 43:1-4).
The Bible's words about the love between God and Israel consciously evoke the love between parents and children: a love profound, mysterious, exquisitely compounded of sweetness and pain. That love is our subject tonight, as the old year passes away into the dark and the new one opens its door.
Why am I talking about parents and children on Rosh Hashana? Because all of us spend the High Holy Days with our parents - one way or another. Maybe they're sitting next to us. Maybe they're far away. Maybe they're no longer living. But always at this season of the year, they're in our thoughts.
So it should be no surprise that the parent-child relationship is an important theme of this holy day. It's at the heart of the Torah portion we will read tomorrow morning: Akedat Yitzhak, the binding of Isaac, the ancient story that reminds us that we're all caught in a bind when it comes to dealing with our parents and our children.
To a young child, mommy and daddy are everything. Do you remember the feeling? James Agee brings it to life in an extraordinary passage from his novel A Death in the Family. A little boy wakes up in the middle of the night. Frightened of the dark, seeking comfort, he hears the sounds of his father and mother moving about the house. He thinks to himself:
"I hear my father; I need never fear.
I hear my mother; I shall never be lonely, or want for love.
When I am happy it is they who provide for me; when I am in
dismay, it is they who fill me with comfort.
When I am astonished or bewildered, it is they who make the
weak ground firm beneath my soul: it is in them that I put my trust.
When I am sick it is they who send for the doctor; when I am well and happy, it is in their eyes that I know best that I am loved;
and it is toward the shining of their smiles that I lift up
my heart and in their laughter that I know my best delight.
I hear my father and my mother and they are my giants, my
king and my queen, beside whom there are no others so wise or
worthy or honorable or brave or beautiful in this world.
I shall never fear; nor ever lack for lovingkindness."
Our parents are giants; as children, we hunger for their attention and approval. We want them to call us by name; we want to know that their love is vast and constant as the mountains. Our parents are giants; their footsteps reverberate; their voices echo in our ears forever.
A while back I was driving behind a car that had one of those yellow diamond-shaped signs stuck on the back window. You've seen them; they usually say something like "Child on Board" or "Ex-Husband in Trunk" (this last one comes with a plastic hand that dangles out the back). Anyway, the one I saw the other day said: "Childish Adult on Board."
Of course, to some extent, that's all of us. The child we once were is always part of us. That's why parents and children are caught in such a bind. Parents know better than anyone how to make us squirm. They remind us of a time when we felt small and incompetent, utterly dependent. They are the people who bathed us, fed us, wiped our faces and changed our diapers. They know more about us than anyone else could possibly know-and yet...they don't know us at all.
This is a strange moment to tell a joke, and I tell this one with much trepidation and no wish to offend anyone in this congregation. It falls into a category of jokes that were going around a while back - they were called "Gentile" jokes. A young Gentile man calls up his mother, and he says, "Mom, I know you were counting on having us over for dinner tonight, and I'm sorry, but something's come up and we've had a change in plans...so we won't be there after all." And his mother says: "OK." And just to give equal time: A little boy comes home from school and he tells his mother, "Guess what! I got a part in the school play!" And she says, "So what part did you get?" And the boy answers: "I get to play the Jewish father." And she replies: "No good -- tell them you want a speaking part!"
You all know much funnier jokes than those. Their very proliferation speaks volumes about the ambivalent feelings and the difficult relationships some of us have with our parents. Sometimes the connection between us is not good, not satisfying - and it becomes a source of aching frustration. So many things can go wrong: we can't say to them what we want to say; we never feel that we're being heard. There are sensitive subjects we can't bring up; there are painful subjects they insist on bringing up. They may nag or harangue us, exhaust us with their concern, devastate us with their disapproval or, worse, perhaps, with their indifference. The passage of years or geographic distance can make us feel like strangers.
And sometimes our parents are distant from us in a different way. Once, when my daughter Rachel was about three or four, she said to me, "Someday Betsy and me will be the giants, and you and Daddy will be the tiny ones." She was right in a way she never imagined. Russell Baker describes it well in his autobiography called Growing Up.
"At the age of eighty my mother had her last bad fall, and after that her mind wandered free through time. Some days she went to weddings and funerals that had taken place half a century earlier. On others she presided over family dinners cooked on Sunday afternoons for children who were now gray with age.
...'Where's Russell?' she asked one day when I came to visit at the nursing home.
'I'm Russell,' I said.
....'Russell's only this big,' she said, holding her hand, palm down, two feet from the floor.
....The doctors diagnosed a hopeless senility," he writes. 'Not unusual,' they said. 'Hardening of the arteries' was the explanation for laymen...
...Sitting at her bedside, forever out of touch with her, I wondered about my own children, and their children, and children in general, and about the disconnections between parents and children that prevent them from knowing each other."
Spending the High Holy Days with our moms and dads, one way or another, we wonder: why does it have to be like this? Why does it have to be so hard? Why is it so complicated between parents and children? Why do the people dearest to us in the world evoke in us not just tender affection but also anguish and annoyance and pity and guilt and rage? Why do we always hurt the ones we love - always, always; and why do they have to hurt us?
Last summer I read in a Canadian newspaper that a woman was suing her obstetrician, a year after giving birth to a healthy baby, because her labor had hurt too much. "The doctor promised me childbirth without pain," she explained. Jewish tradition knows better. "In pain and travail shall you bring forth children," says the Book of Genesis. And we know that the pain doesn't stop once we're out of the delivery room, and the travail goes on as long as we live. Pain is the price we pay for loving our children, for loving our mothers and fathers. Because we love them, we worry about them incessantly. Because we love them, they can hurt us.
That's why there are no families like Ozzie and Harriet or Leave it to Beaver in the Bible. Because the Bible knows what it really is to be in a family. The Bible knows that our families are battle-grounds and testing-grounds. And that being somebody's daughter or son, somebody's mother or father, is the highest challenge we ever face. Higher than marriage - because you can never get divorced from your parent or your child. You stay in that relationship, forever challenged, forever tested, as long as you live.
What is the test we face in this mysterious parent-child bond? Jewish tradition would say that parents are tested in one way, and children in another. As parents, what is tested is our capacity for hesed, for unselfish giving. Can we set aside our own need for sleep to care for a hungry baby? Can we sacrifice money and time we once spent on ourselves to spend on our children? Can we give love even to a child who seems like a stranger in our house, who pushes us away with both hands; can we look inside the defiant teenager and see the boy or girl who once brought us such joy? Can we give up our own need to be close so that they can grow up and into independence? Can we accept - truly accept with love - a child who doesn't fulfill our dreams? Can we shep naches even from a child who's overweight or underpaid, who hasn't made a successful marriage or a successful career?
Parenthood is a testing ground; hesed - unselfish giving - is the test. The test of being a son or daughter is different. It's not hesed we're asked to give to our parents; that infinite stretching of our heart we give only to our children. That's what sociologists mean when they tell us that Judaism is a culture in which giving flows downward, from parent to child. A Hasidic teaching puts it this way: "All parents give to their children beyond their strength. Yet every child feels that the parents have not even fulfilled their basic duty. When will there be peace between them? When the child grows up and has children, and gives to those children beyond his or her strength...Then the grown-up child will understand how much his parents gave to him, and will ask forgiveness of them. That is the meaning of the verse in Psalm 128 (vs.6): 'You shall see your children's children, and peace upon Israel.' When your child has children, he will understand all that you did for him, and he will make peace with you" (David Blumenthal, Facing the Abusing God).
What then is the test of Jewish sons and daughters, we who are urged especially at this season to strive for connection with our parents? The test is kibud av va'em: honoring our father and mother. And the meaning of kibud, honor, is found in the Torah portion we read on Rosh Hashana, where we glimpse the relationship between Abraham and Isaac - a relationship as complicated, as fraught with ambivalence, as any we have with our own parents.
It's the story of a very old man and his son - a father and a son who are a hundred years apart in age. What child and parent have not felt this kind of distance from each other at some time - a metaphorical distance of a hundred years?
One striking feature of the story is easy to overlook. In the midst of this dark and frightening tale of primitive violence, a certain peaceful phrase appears three times: "Vayelchu sh'neyhem yachdav - the two of them walked together." Twice it is used to describe the quiet, trusting companionship between Abraham and Isaac as they walked together up the mountain. We imagine them "walking together" up Mt. Moriah despite fear, despite anger, despite confusion. And then the phrase is used a third time - and here it refers not to Isaac and Abraham but to Abraham and his servants walking away from Mt. Moriah, home to Beersheva. Isaac is not mentioned; he has apparently gone his separate way.
What is kibud av va-em? What does it mean to honor our parents? More than anything else, it means walking together with them as the years go by - letting them know us and be part of our lives. And it means walking with them as they walk the road to old age, through widowhood and the loss of their work and the loss of their friends. It means walking with them wherever they have to go: through fear and illness and the nursing home to the very end.
Kibud av va-em means something else, as well. It means separating from our parents as Isaac separated when it was time to go his own way. Maybe our parents are not going to change. But we can change. Like Isaac, we can separate when we have to - recognize when it's their problem, not ours, recognize that being a good son or daughter doesn't mean pleasing our parents - just accepting them.
Separating also means realizing that we don't own our parents, that they are human beings with a history and a life apart from their role as Mom and Dad. To honor them is to recognize that they have not come into the world merely to fulfill our needs and our endless expectations. It means, most of all, forgiving our parents for not being giants. They are imperfect; they can't be all that we want them to be or give us all that we want to be given. They are mortal. They get sick; they become helpless; they die. They have always been there - like the mountains - until the day when they're not.
We are who we are. They are who they are. There are some things we cannot do for them, some things they cannot do for us. But in spite of it all, we love them.
This is the season of yizkor, and a time when Jews everywhere visit kever avot, the graves of their parents, to remember and reflect. Why do our rabbis urge us to begin the new year by remembering our parents? Maybe to teach that a love as vast and permanent as the mountains never dies - no matter how much pain is mixed with the love. "For my love shall never leave you, nor my promise of faithful friendship. I have called you by name....you are mine. "
"Life is a braided cord of humanity," writes Russell Baker, "...stretching from diaper to shroud." That is the real bind we're caught in: a bond that makes us human, that makes us fall in love with our babies, and yell and scream at our parents, and sit by their bedside, at the end, holding their hands when there is nothing left to say.
A man once told a colleague of mine that his father has been dead for many years and he keeps having the same recurring dream. His father comes to visit him and says: "I forgot to tell you, son - I love you very much." Some of us are still waiting to hear those words, even long after our parents are gone.
We can wait forever to hear them say, "I love you. I'm proud of you." Or we can stop waiting and meet the challenge of Rosh Hashana: to reconnect with our parents as they are; to cherish and honor as much as we're able; to accept and forgive as much as we have to.
Some of us began this holy day season by visiting kever avot, the grave of our parents. That is one way of connecting. But for those of us whose parents are still alive - let's not wait for kever avot. Let's not wait until we stand over their grave to say: "Mom, Dad - I forgot to tell you: I love you very much."