Thursday, October 25, 2012

"He was My Father"

Some time ago I went to a funeral here in Jerusalem. At the graveside, immediately after the burial, a grandson of the deceased gave a eulogy. He spoke with sincerity and feeling about his grandfather. He obviously had admired him very much. What struck me though was the theme of his remarks. Over and over, he insisted that his grandfather should have had a title, "Superman". In fact he refered to his grandfather as "superman" through the course of his eulogy. All his words focused on the super-human charateristics of his grandfather, a man he obviously had great affinity for, but, equally obvioulsy, did not know!

The Torah this weeks in the parsha of Lech lecha begins the story of Avraham, indeed our story, the story of the Jewish People. Almost from the outset the Torah wants to to disabuse us of the notion that our father, Avraham, was superman. Children, when young, idealize their parents. They see them as perfect, all smart, all knowing, all good. For many, in their youth, the image of G-d is in some way a mirror of the face of their parent. Tradition tells us that at Sinai when G-d spoke to the People of Israel, each heard G-d's voice as the voice of their own father.

Problem with the child's idealization of their parent is that it leaves little room for seeing the parent for who they really are so that we might be in relationship with them rather tham simply adore them. Until and unless we humanize our parent, and see the Clark Kent behind the Superman, we will be able to attach ourselves to their excellence but we will have no model for our own journey and struggle. We, who are flawed and know ourselves to be no supermen or women will have no model for becoming, with our mediocrity.

I have always found it compelling, if sad, that so many great great Tzadikim had children who abandoned the faith and assimilated, some even converting to Christianity. The list of great ones, men who influenced generations of Jews, who failed to inspire their own children is stagerring. The man perhaps most associated with saintliness and piety in the past century, the Chafetz Chaim, had children who rejected observance and a Torah way of life. The first Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Baal Ha'tanya, had a son who embraced Christianity.

I have heard some explain this troubling phenomena by comparing it to the old quip, "the shoemaker's children have no shoes". Inasmuch as the Tzadik is so busy caring for the needs of others he neglects to invest in the ones closest to him, his own children. I don't find that explanation satisfying. And I don't think it is true.
That would mean these great people had only themselves to blame for the failure of their children to maintain the faith.

No, I believe the reason too often the great Tzadik has not the success with his children that the simple devout Jew may have is precisely because he is a tzadik!
The chidren of someone so righteous may never get to take their parent off the pedestal. The parent, the tzadik, remains idealized by his children all his life. He is forever superman to his children. When we are young seeing our parents as superman is comforting and assuring. It makes us feel safe. When we get older, if our parents remains superman, it leaves little room for us. We feel so inadequate in comparison. We feel we have no place at the table with them in our flawedness.
Our only option becomes to leave and find a place where we can belong, compromised as we are.

As I began, and then got carried away, the Torah from the outset this week tells us that our father Avraham was not perfect. Early in the reading we are informed that Avraham, faced with a famine, went down to Egypt, rather than remain in Canaan, the land G-d told him to travel to. Moreover in Egypt Avraham asked Sarah to lie for him and to say she was his sister. He was afraid that if the Egyptians thought Sarah was his wife they would kill him to take her for themselves. The Ramban points out that Avraham committed a great sin here, in fact two sins. First he should have had enough faith in G-d not to leave Canaan, that G-d would care for him during the famine.
And second, he should not have put Sarah to the lie, a lie that brought about her near rape at the hands of the Pharaoh.

In telling us of Avraham's mistake in judgement the Torah is giving us a gift. Over and over in the readings we discover Avraham's greatness, his courage, faithfullness to G-d, and love for humanity. Avraham is a true giant of a human being. But he is no saint! no superman! We can aspire to be like him. We can learn from him. We can even learn from his mistakes, few though they be. In telling us of Avraham's sin we are given a place at his table. After all we too, while hardly approaching his stature, also know what it means to make mistakes, to sin.

The story with which I began of the grandson's eulogy at the graveside of his grandfather is a story of a grandchild, not a son or daughter. Many of us idealize our grandparents. But that is because we hardly really knew them for who they were as persons. If we ask our mother or father about the grandparent we idealize we often get a more realistic picture. The person the son and daughter knew in their parent is not a superman or woman but a person with both strengths and weaknesses like the rest of us. And that is a good thing, indeed a necessary thing. Only when we humanize our parents can we have a relationship with them, can we claim a place at their table.

I want to close with a quote from a movie of some years ago "Road to Perdition". It is the story from the 1930's of a man who is forced, because of life circumstances and the love of his son, to live in the world of gangsters and commit some violent crimes. The son, now an adult and long after his father's death, reflects, in the movie, on his father and their relationship.

"When people ask me if Michael Sullivan was a good man, or if there was just no good in him at all, I always give the same answer. I just tell them... he was my father."

The most important thing to we need to know about Avraham was that he was our father.
The most important thing we each need to know about our parents is that they are our fathers and mothers. We need to know we had parents who loved us and who lived lives full of meaning. Sometimes they did the right at other times the wrong. We don't need to make them into saints or supermen in order to claim them or to love them or to feel worthy ourselves . Indeed we need not!

Shabbat Shalom

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