Now that I have raised two sons to adulthood and continue practicing my fatherhood skills with two preadolescent sons, I want to express my thanks for the pain and suffering you have allowed me all these years. What kind of back-handed compliment is this, you ask? Let me explain.
As I think back to my childhood, I can’t recall a single specific occasion on which you said to me “I told you so.” That doesn’t mean you never spoke those words to me or to my sisters; it simply means that you never said it to me in a way that impacted my self esteem. What I do recall very clearly is that you always encouraged me to make informed decisions, and then to deal with the consequences of my choices, as right or wrong as you may have considered them to be. “It’s not about making the right decision,” you would say. “It’s about making the decision right.” As I restate those words today, I can feel the teenager in me rolling his eyes. As a father, however, I can empathize with the pain–perhaps even the sadness–that you must have felt in speaking those words. What a struggle it must have been to allow me those wrong decisions, when I thought I knew everything there was to know. What conflict you must have felt when you could have screamed “Stop!” before I made that wrong turn that resulted in another fender bender on my road to adulthood. What anxiety you must have stomached in guessing when the accident ahead was minor enough to be instructive without being life-threatening to me or to anyone else. And what sadness you must have felt as you saw my pain, wondering whether you should have (if you even could have) done something to prevent it.
As a father, I feel more comfortable granting my sons their mistakes, I believe, in large part because you gave me permission to make my own mistakes, while expecting me to own the consequences of those mistakes. If I have given them the ability and the resources to make informed decisions, and if I have worked as hard as possible to create ethical young men, then I must trust them at a certain point (and that point certainly depends on the magnitude of the decision relative to their stage in life) to decide what is best for them. As you were for me, I am there in the aftermath of their misguided decisions, not to say “I told you so,” but to help them reflect on where they might have gone wrong, and how they might allow their inner GPS to recalculate the path toward their destination.
This Shabbat in synagogues around the world we read the story of the 12 scouts from Sh’lach l’kha (Numbers 13:1-15:41). As the reading opens, God, the supreme Parent, says to Moses “Send for yourself men, that they may scout the land of Canaan that I am giving the children of Israel.” The fact that the Torah adds the word l’kha (“for yourself”) to the command Sh’lach (“send”) leads commentators to speculate that Moses, not God, initiated this ill-fated plan. If this is so, then we as readers—as parents and children—need to determine for ourselves the tone of God’s words. God has already said that this land has been designated for the Israelites! So as God utters the command Sh’lakh l’kha, is God angry at the apparent lack of faith and trust that Moses displays? Is God feeling conflicted, and perhaps even pain, as God allows Moses to initiate this plan that will result in a massive rebellion prompted by the faint-hearted scouts’ majority report? Or does God speak in the tone of the loving Parent, a parent who knows that making the mistakes on our own and owning their consequences is ultimately what will get us through the personal wildernesses of our lives and closer to our promised lands. That is the way that you, Dad, have taught me to read this narrative. In my reading, God our Parent is supporting us, reflecting with us, and showing faith in our ability to get there.
So thanks for the pain you allowed me, and for carrying your pain so dutifully. And thanks for giving me the space to make my own decisions and chart my own course. And thanks for the strength you instilled in me to pick up after myself, even when it would have been easier to blame someone else for the mess. And thanks for watching, encouraging, expecting, demanding, imposing boundaries and consequences, cheering, and loving me.
Just don’t ask me what my free-throw shooting percentage was in last night’s basketball game. That always drives me crazy. But that’s a discussion for another week.
Through Jewish Eyes welcomes guest author and rabbi, Craig Scheff. We look forward to reading more from him on this site in the future. For more information on Rabbi Scheff, see his author profile on this site’s home page.