Roots and Wings: Instructions for Life

Rabbi Fred Davidow

The blessing of love, don't let your children leave home without it. Our children must feel this blessing so that they can go forth into the world. Our unconditional love for them envelops them with a sense of safety and care and makes them feel whole. "The paradox of being successful in our job as good parents is that the children we love so much will acquire the independence to leave us when they become adults," writes psychotherapist Naomi Rosenblatt. Of course we feel anxiety about letting them go, because once they are grown and gone, we can no longer protect them. An awareness of the separation that is to come and the anxiety it produces is poignantly expressed in a mother's reflection about bearing a child.

Our daughter, Ali, was born 13 days after that magic "due date." Her birth was induced. I had been waiting eagerly for her arrival for months. I didn't have post-partum blues, but I did have a tremendous sense of loss even as I gained this beautiful relationship with our first-born. In the first few nights after her birth, alone with her in the nursery, the depth of my feelings about her vulnerability echoed in the emptiness of my womb and from the fullness of my heart. I was surrounded by the sense that she could be taken from me now, that I could not protect her in the same way that I had during nine months of pregnancy. I realized that this precious being was a gift on loan - and was not mine at all. Is it possible that this mother willed her child to be born 13 days after the due date, because she anticipated the loss of her power to protect the child in the womb and wanted to delay the birth as long as she could? We have ambivalent feelings about letting go. On the one hand, we want to protect. On the other, we know we must prepare our children to meet the challenges of the outside world. When we teach a child how to walk, we first stand very close to her. We want to catch her when she starts to fall after a step or two. But as she grows, we move farther and farther away to give her the space to take more and more steps on her own. Perhaps the wisdom for our moving farther away does not come from our reason but from instinct. The mother bird knows to force fledglings from the nest, and when a fledgling is reluctant to fly away on its own, the mother will begin to remove with its beak the down and other soft material from the nest, thereby exposing the sharp ends of sticks that form the base and sides of the nest. The fledgling will then leave to avoid the pain of being pricked. Thus there comes a time when a human parent opens the door and urges the child to step out.

When the child steps through the door, we want her to leave with our love, but love is not enough. We must also have given the child the gift of relationship, a sense of direction and purpose, a sense of personal responsibility, and a connection to our Jewish heritage.

How does a parent give the gift of relationship to a child? The answer is spelled T-I-M-E. Time spent with the child, talking, reading a story, playing. Writing in his book The Healing Art of Storytelling, Richard Stone recalls, "Most of my life I felt that my relationship with my dad had been lacking. He was always working too hard to give me the attention I craved. After age four or five I don't remember my father ever giving me any reassurance or physical praise like putting his hand on my shoulder or giving me a loving squeeze. But it's what I wanted from him more than anything else. One Saturday afternoon I remember him sleeping on the living-room couch. I was standing there, silently, about a foot from his head, hoping he'd wake up and play with me. My mother whispered to me to come in the other room, then admonished me for bothering him. 'Can't you see how hard your dad works? He's tired. Leave him alone and go outside and play with your friends.' Unfortunately I took her words too seriously. Never again did I ask. I stored away the hurt and the loss. But these things don't go away."

Once a man, whose wife had died, told me how difficult it was for him to talk to his daughter. During his period of mourning he would have supper once a week with his adult daughter. He would try to engage her in conversation but he felt there was a strain. He would ask her a question and she would give a brief answer and then stop. Then he was forced to ask another question to keep up the talking. When his wife was living, she and the daughter had many long telephone conversations. When she called and he picked up the phone, he would ask a few questions about the grandchild and then say, "Well, here's your mother." The father and the daughter had not lost many opportunities through the years to learn how to talk to each other and with the death of the wife-mother they were almost like strangers.

I told my daughters Talya and Miriam about how sad this man felt about the deficit in his relationship with his daughter and, in contrast, how glad I felt because I had been spent much time with them talking to them, playing with them, reading stories to them. I was pleased with Talya's response, "My friends are amazed that I can tell you things."

One young man told me recently that what formed him the most were his parents, because each spent time with him. He said he "was weaned slowly" because his mother intentionally sought and gained a teaching position at the same elementary school he attended. Knowing that she was just down the hall gave him strength, confidence and security. Though his father worked hard during the day, he knew he could depend on playing catch with his father every evening. In the family he will create with his wife he intends to emulate his parents by his willingness and desire to be present and to give of himself to his children. Whether you are mother or father, don't rely on your spouse to do all the parenting, and don't let yourself be the only one to parent.

How does a parent give a sense of direction and purpose to a child? We are always sending our children messages about how to succeed in life. One man told me that he received this kind of message hearing a conversation between his father and his mother at the dinner table. They were concerned about a lay-off at a local manufacturing plant. His mother was expressing sympathy for the laid-off fathers; how would they feed their families? His father, in a typically male fashion, offered a solution to the problem - not one that would immediately help the laid-off fathers but one that gave his son a goal in life. The father said that having a college education would keep a person from being laid off. This man grew up, went to college and to seminary and became a pastoral counselor. He said parents are always imprinting their children with messages. He called them emotional tattoos, because they were virtually indelible.

Often the lesson about how to succeed in life can come in a heavy-handed way and the result may be that a child will pursue a parent's dream but without the heart to live it out. A young woman once told me that she is one of ten children. Her father, a businessman with little formal education, wanted all of his children to go to college and get advanced degrees - to become doctors or to enter some other professional career. She went to medical school and when she graduated, she gave her father her medical school diploma. It was what he wanted from her but not what she wanted for herself. She does not intend to practice medicine. Her interests lie in the field of the arts and that's what she will pursue. Since American Jewish culture highly prizes the medical profession, it's hard to believe that someone would walk away from being a doctor. Many a Jewish mother - has pointed her son in that direction. You've heard the one about the first woman to be elected President? She was Jewish and of course she had her mother sitting on the dais when she was sworn in on Inauguration Day. The President-elect is standing opposite the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Her mother elbows the person the next to her, "See that woman with her left hand on the Bible and her right hand raised up; her brother's a doctor!"

My mother had two brothers. The older, Uncle Bernie, went to Tulane and became a dentist. The younger went to college but never graduated. Mama often told me, "Be like your uncle Bernie and make something out of yourself." What I heard correctly in this message was not to grow up and be a dentist but to go to college, get an advanced degree and enter a profession. What I had to do for myself was to discover within me the direction to take, based on my values and interests. I believe I chose well. My strong Jewish identity and my high valuation of books and reading, learning and teaching fit well with the calling of the rabbi.

We all want our children to aim high, to go as far as their capabilities will take them. You know the expression "hitch your wagon to a star." That's what we want for them. What we have to watch out for is pointing to a particular star and telling them, " That's the one to hitch up to."

How does a parent give a child of a sense of personal responsibility? We must teach our children to take responsibility for acting morally, for performing mitzvot, good deeds, for acting fairly. Here our instrument of instruction is not words, but our own actions. Our children are watching us live and what we do shouts louder than anything we can say.

The boy was 11 years old and went fishing every chance he got. On the day before the bass seasoned opened he and his father were fishing early in the evening. At first he caught sunfish and perch with worms. Then he used a lure and practiced casting. When his pole bent and doubled over, he knew something huge was on the other end. His father watched with admiration as the boy skillfully worked the fish in and finally lifted it, exhausted, from the lake. It was the largest one he had ever seen, but it was a bass. In the moonlight the boy and his father looked at the handsome fish. Then the father lit a match and looked at his watch. It was 10 p.m. - two hours before the season opened. He looked at the fish, then at the boy. "You'll have to put it back, son," he said. "Dad," cried the boy. "There will be other fish," said his father. "Not as big as this one," the boy protested. He looked around the lake. No other fishermen or boats were anywhere around in the moonlight. He looked again at his father. Even though no one had seen them, nor could anyone ever know what time he caught the fish, the boy could tell by the clarity of his father's voice that the decision was not negotiable. He slowly worked the hook out of the lip of the huge bass and lowered it into the water. The fish swished its powerful tail and disappeared. The boy suspected that he would never again see such a great fish.

Today the boy has become a successful architect in New York City but he takes his children fishing back the same lake in New Hampshire. He has never again caught such a magnificent fish as the one he landed that night long ago. But he does see that same fish - again and again - every time he comes up against a question of ethics. For, as his father taught him, ethics are simple matters of right and wrong. It is only the practice of ethics that is difficult. Do we do right when no one is looking? Do we refuse to take advantage of someone, because we have information he doesn't? We would, if we were taught to put the fish back when we were young. We would have learned the truth. The decision to do right lives fresh in our memory. It's a story we would proudly tell our friends, our children and our grandchildren. Not about how we had the chance to beat the system and took it, but about how we did the right thing and were forever strengthened.

A story in which ethical behavior is taught through action carries a powerful message. When we hear the moral of the story and take it seriously and it moves us to act, then we will begin to shape the kind of world God wants us to build. There has been many a time when I have been moved to perform a good deed after being inspired by a story. One of the great rewards of being a parent is to see our children act on the good values we have instilled in them.

How does a parent give a child a sense of connection to the Jewish heritage? Through experiences that create warm and positive associations with Judaism, and the more Jewish memories we have, the stronger our connection. If we were to take one string, we could snap it in two pieces easily. But if we were to take several strings and make them into a bundle, it would be harder, almost impossible, to break them So it is with Jewish life and memories. One Jewish memory is not strong enough to keep us connected to the Jewish people and Judaism. We have to be involved in many Jewish activities and make many Jewish memories. These memories bundled up will be strong enough to keep us and our children connected to Judaism. Egon Mayer, a Jewish sociologist at Brooklyn College, has written that we should impart family stories of connection to Judaism as carefully as any precious heirloom.

One very special time in the life of a child is a personal moment of achievement that is connected to a moment of being welcomed in the adult Jewish community. Becoming Bar or Bat Mitzvah is such a time. However, I never had such a moment of being called to the Torah when I was thirteen. Forty years ago in the Deep South, when and where I grew up, Reform congregations did not have Hebrew schools to prepare boys and girls for Bar and Bat Mitzvah. But I needed some rite of passage into the adult Jewish community when I was around 12 years old and as I have reflected upon my boyhood, I think I became a Jewish man at my grandparents' seder table. This scene will be familiar to many who gathered with an extended family for the seder. In my grandparents' home tables were set up that stretched from one end of the dining room and all the way through the living room, stopping short of the front door, which needed space to be opened for Elijah. At the head of the table in the dining room sat my grandfather, who led the seder. The only woman who sat at this table was my grandmother. All the rest were the older men in the family. The mothers were put at the table with the children, whom they tried to keep quiet and still. I must have been in the sixth grade when I was promoted to the head table and allowed to sit next to my father. When my grandfather called on me to read, I read like an adult. I didn't stumble

over words like El-azar ben Azaryah, Benei Berak, Tarfon, and Rabban Gamliel. I read as well as any adult male at the table, except for my father. That was, so to speak, my Bar Mitzvah ceremony. I would like to tell you how I broke my first fast when I was a boy, but you don't want to hear about cinnamon rolls right now. Nonetheless, that personal experience of achievement is also connected to a moment of being welcomed in the adult Jewish community.

I urge all of you to recall five or six memories of your childhood and youth that shaped your Jewish identity. Tell your children about these experiences, because as long as these stories remain alive in you and you pass them to your children, they will treasure them as precious spiritual heirlooms that will help to form their lives as Jews.

I was once listening to a thirteen-year-old girl give her Bat Mitzvah speech. She thanked me for having told her some wonderful stories and then she started reading a story. It was about a girl who was flying a kite. When the kite was high up in the air and could no longer be seen, the girl could still feel the tug of the kite through the string. As I interpreted this story to her and the congregation, I saw her both as the kite flying high but still connected through the string to the girl on the ground. It was remarkable to me that she was using a story to explain how she saw her life. As she would grow up and fly away from home, she would still remained connected to her family and her Jewish heritage on the ground through the string. She had both roots and wings.

Where do our children store the lessons we teach them about life? This dialogue between two hasidic rabbis tells us. One asked, "Have your teachers left any writings as a heritage?" "Yes," said the other. The first asked, "Are they printed or are they still in manuscript?" "Neither," replied the other. "They are inscribed in the hearts of their disciples." We as parents are the teachers and our children are our disciples. The lesson we teach about relationship, the lesson about direction, the lesson about personal responsibility, the lesson about connection to Judaism; our disciples, our children store these lessons about life in their hearts.