The concept of tzaar giddul banim, the pain and heartache that are inevitably a part of raising children, requires no elaboration. It is fair to say that one way or another, everyone pays his dues in this area. Raising a family can best be described as “the agony and the ecstasy.” There are moments in the life of all who have been given this stewardship of offspring when they feel like total failures. Then there are the “ecstasy” moments, when our hearts overflow with nachas, pride and reason to hope for the future. With the exception of our son, Rabbi Bentzion, shlita, and his family who live with us in Milwaukee, the rest of our children reside at great distances from us. Over the years I’ve consoled myself with my mother’s wisdom, that good news and nachas from afar are also something for which to be grateful. In my more lucid moments, I recognize that our role as parents is to raise our children to the best of our ability while they are in our charge, then to let go and give them wings to fly, to pray for their welfare wherever life may take them. Because we don’t get to see them on a regular basis, when our daughters and one son and daughter-in-law recently staged a surprise visit to celebrate some milestones in our lives, it was definitely an “ecstasy” moment for us. It is instructive for children to know that parents relish their children’s presence more than anything else. Even greater is the knowledge that one’s children are devoted to and supportive of each other. There is no greater nachas than “sheves achim gam yachad,”seeing one’s sons and daughters bonded and there for each other.
Clearly, an occasional splash, wonderful as it is, is significant only to the extent that it is consistent with ongoing manifestations of caring and deference. I recall a most comforting note I received from my friend Alice, a neighbor down the block, after my father’s passing. In it she said that she had learned the meaning of honoring one’s parents by what she observed in our home. She described the aromas that wafted out of our house for weeks in advance of my parents’ visit. Knowing their favorite foods, in which they rarely indulged, I made sure there would be an abundance of these delights during their brief stay. My daughter Yocheved, tichyeh, confessed that years later, in advance of our coming to her in Eretz Yisrael, she had spent much time and effort making stuffed cabbage and chopped herring, some of the culinary treats I used to prepare for my parents. To her, it seemed to be a major component of the kibbud av va’eim ritual. She told me that at some point her husband had asked her if her father actually liked chopped herring and stuffed cabbage. Taken aback, she realized that not only did he dislike these particular foods, but had suffered for years when he was subjected to their smell when I was preparing them for my own father.
Nevertheless, because of her childhood memories, their aroma would forever be associated with the mitzvah of honoring one’s parents. A fable is told about a three-generational family that resided under one roof: parents, a four-year-old son, and an elderly grandfather. As the grandfather grew more infirm with age, he began to drop things at the dinner table. Concerned that the good china was at risk, the mother purchased a wooden dish in which to serve Grandpa his meals. One day when the mother came home from work she found little Johnny making an awful racket, pounding away at a piece of wood with his tool set. Upon questioning, he informed her that he was making a wooden dish in which to feed her when she got old and her hands began to shake. In reality, children who observe kibbud av va’eim in action will ultimately be the greatest beneficiaries. The hope is that their children down the line will emulate the behaviors they model. There is no question that children learn not from being preached at, but from what they observe. An unknown author wrote a piece entitled “What I Saw When You Thought I Wasn’t Looking.” It ends with the line: “When you thought I wasn’t looking, I looked, and I too wanted to do what I saw when you thought I wasn’t looking.” For parents, the objective, difficult as it might be, is to overlook those things that might lead to criticism and instead try to “catch our children doing something right.” Because we perceive our role as almost exclusively instructive, our tendency is to focus on what needs to be fixed rather than what should be affirmed, validated and celebrated. In conclusion, let us pray that Hashem grace children with the wisdom to do justice to their parents, and parents to do justice to their children.