Six Lessons from Six Years as a Rabbi and a Father | Congregation Beth Am

Six Lessons from Six Years as a Rabbi and a Father

By Rabbi Heath Watenmaker on
June 2, 2017

Parashat Naso 5777

Six years ago, on the morning of May 15, I was ordained as a rabbi. And while that was indeed a momentous occasion, which I had been dreaming of and preparing for for many years, I hadn’t anticipated just how profound a day it would be. You see, while I was on the bimah receiving my s’michah, my rabbinic ordination, my wife Amy was entering into labor. So, after the ceremony, instead of joining my classmates for our celebratory luncheon, Amy and I headed to the hospital. About twelve hours later, our son Ilan was born. And so, every year, on May 15th, I find myself reflecting on that incredible day back in 2011, which has become more about him than it is about me, but nevertheless, a nice moment to reflect on my life as a rabbi and a father, which, other than a few hours on that Sunday, have always been inseparable. In the spirit of that reflection, and in honor of my son’s sixth birthday and my six years in the rabbinate, I thought I’d share six things I’ve learned these past six years, from my experience as a father and a rabbi.

First, the importance of coffee. Regular, caffeinated coffee. Before my son was born, I recall being on a bit of a decaf-coffee kick, but those days quickly came to an end with a newborn. Over the years, I’ve learned that a cup (or three) of coffee helps to temper the effects of even the most sleepless nights. I’ve also learned the value of sitting with someone over a cup of coffee. In my rabbinate, coffee has become a medium for beginning a unique conversation: an opportunity to meet with someone face-to-face, to explore the complex and fascinating text of their story, being truly present with each other. In a world of Facebook and virtual communications, these moments to encounter someone face-to-face, to sit together and really get to know someone, are rare treasures.

Second, I have developed a deeper appreciation for the power of rituals and blessings. In our Torah portion this week, we find the words of the Priestly Blessing, with which Aaron and his sons bestow blessing on the people of Israel. That blessing is a central component of the blessing we give our children on Shabbat, and it is also the blessing that we offer throughout the lifecycle -- to our B’nai Mitzvah, our Confirmands, and to wedding couples standing beneath the chuppah. It is a powerful thing to offer such a blessing - whether it was that first Shabbat as a new parent, or as a rabbi standing with a Bar Mitzvah student - to acknowledge the holiness of that moment, to recognize all that has preceded and the inherent possibility of the path ahead. Throughout our lives, there are moments that shape who we are and how we view our world: finishing school, finding life partners, reaching milestone life moments. The power of rituals - graduation ceremonies, weddings, baby namings, and even funerals, help us consider these moments in a broader context, and to explore the ways in which they add meaning and kedushah, holiness, to our lives.

Third, I have a new appreciation for the Talmudic requirement that parents teach their children how to swim. In the Talmud, our rabbis taught that parents are obligated to enter their children into the covenant, to teach them Torah, to help them find a craft or trade, and to teach them how to swim (Talmud Kiddushin 29a). The first few obligations seem fairly straightforward, given the context in which the rabbis lived -- parents are obligated to ensure that their children are part of the Jewish community and they are responsible for their education, both religious and secular. But teaching our children how to swim - that one might seem a bit odd at first glance. On this responsibility, Wendy Mogel, a psychologist and parent educator, explains in her book The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: “Our job is to raise our children to leave us. The children’s job is to find their own path in life. If they stay carefully protected in the nest of the family, children will become weak and fearful or feel too comfortable to want to leave.”[1] My role as a parent is to give my children the tools they need to be independent, self-sufficient individuals. To give them the foundation of a good education, of clear values, and also to help them understand and learn how to do things for themselves. In the past year, Ilan has learned to swim, more recently, learned to ride a bike without training wheels, and is an emerging reader. With each of these big achievements, it has been amazing to see his own sense of pride and accomplishment, and indeed, a bit of astonishment in what he has been able to do. I know that those feelings will make a lasting impact on him, and I feel so fortunate to be able to watch him experience his world, as he discovers his new abilities.

Fourth, the virtue (and challenge) of patience. I’m still waiting for this one. But I’m learning that it’s okay to be frustrated and that we’re all works in progress. In the Jewish spiritual practice of Mussar, the virtue of patience is understood as a spectrum. As our own Mussar teacher, Greg Marcus, explains in his book The Spiritual Practice of Good Actions, if one has too little patience, it is easy to become angry or frustrated, but if one has too much patience, one can become inactive or fatalistic.[2] The key is to find our own balance of just the right amount of patience. One of God’s Thirteen Attributes listed in the Torah is that God is “slow to anger.” I have learned over these last six years that in the moments when I am paying attention to this virtue of patience, I am far less likely to become angry, but when I am less attuned to this trait - when I’m busy or tired or generally frustrated - this is a more difficult challenge. But I’m working on it.

Fifth, now, more than ever, I aspire to leave my children a world that is a better place than how I found it.  Over the years, Ilan has taught me the value of paying attention to the little details in nature, and the importance of caring for it as well. Together, we have explored the beauty of Redwood Trees and butterflies, watched caterpillars crawl and played in the snow. I hope to instill in my children the sense that each of us are powerfully connected to the world around us - in the way we treat other people, in how we clean up after ourselves and appreciate what we have. In the midrash, the rabbis warned “See to it that you do not spoil and destroy my world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it” (Midrash Kohelet Rabbah). We are deeply connected to our environment. Jewish tradition tells us that we are obligated to care for the world in which we live. The news this week has me worried that we all need to make our voices heard and work harder to make sure that we leave our children with clean air to breathe and nature’s wonders to explore. It has been heartening to see the ways in which our local and state governments, and other prominent individuals, have stepped up in thoughtful and creative ways to take care of our planet.

Finally, I also strive to remain cognisant of how blessed I am to be a father of two amazing kids and a rabbi at a wonderful congregation, of how each of these aspects of my identity adds so much to my life. I also try to share that sense of blessing with my children. In rabbinical school, one of my teachers used to always tell us “show, don’t tell” in our sermons. In my rabbinate and as a parent, I hope I’ve inspired my children to live lives of integrity and meaning, even when it’s not always the easy choice. There is a 19th century Hassidic story of the Kotzker Rebbe:

A man came to Menahem Mendel of Kotzk and asked how he could make his sons devote themselves to Torah. Menahem Mendel answered: "If you really want them to do this, then you yourself must spend time over the Torah, and they will do as your do. Otherwise they will not devote themselves to the Torah, but only tell their sons to do it. And so it will go on.”

Every Friday night, Amy and I offer our children the Priestly Blessing: May God bless you and protect you. May God’s light shine on you and be gracious to you. May God’s face smile upon you and grant you peace.” As a colleague of mine, Rabbi Cassi Kail, wrote this week:

We say these words every single week, without fail, no matter what is going on in our lives or in the greater world. Why? Because it is our sacred honor and duty to bestow blessings upon our children, and to make a better world for them. They deserve a world that honors their sacredness and their potential. They deserve a peaceful world in which they can thrive.

This week, I fear that we are not living up to our awesome responsibility. I wonder what are the "blessings" we are giving our kids today? Are we blessing them and keeping their interests in mind when pulling out from the Paris Climate agreement? Are we being gracious to them or to one another when truth and scientific data fall by the wayside because of...bravado and preconceived notions?

Tonight, as I reflect on this blessing, I recognize that we can do better. We must do better. We must teach our children the importance of taking care of our planet, and demonstrate the many ways in which the blessings they bring to our lives inspire us to be better. We must be gracious to one another and work together to bring about a more perfect world. And so may it go on.


[1] p. 72.

[2] p. 70.

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