Friday, February 09, 2007

Ain't Growin' on Trees

This weeks Table Talk is sponsored by a friend in Washington, DC. To dedicate a future Table Talk, please send an email.

A question and a story for your table.

The question:

Why don’t people grow on trees?

Before you laugh, think about it for a minute. Why do we have parents? I don’t mean biologically. What I mean is, from a Jewish perspective where everything under the sun has a purpose and a place, why would we be made with parents? Couldn’t God have created a world where we sentient beings grow on trees?

The story:

A few days ago, a young man approached me outside a local synagogue and shyly asked, in Hebrew, if I could give him a ride to a certain bus stop. Sure, I said, let’s go! Baltimore sees many Israelis who come to collect tsedakah for all kinds of causes: to support a yeshiva, to help someone with medical expenses, to feed poor families, and so on. But the collectors are almost always older. This guy looked too young. And maybe a little sad. Or was that a look of contentment?

So I asked, “What’s your name and what brings you to Baltimore?”

“My name is Yishai and I’m getting married.”

“Mazal tov! That’s wonderful. When’s the wedding?”

“Next month, in New York.”

“Hmm, so now I have two questions – if it isn’t until next month, what are you doing here now? And why are you here and not in New York?”

And so Yishai explained that his parents have disowned him and so he came to the States early to look for work in order to help pay for the wedding and to support his family afterwards.

I was flabbergasted. I’ve heard of many sorts of feuds and disputes, but I’d never heard of a case so bad that the parents wouldn’t even attend their eldest child’s wedding. Yishai told me that not only do they refuse to speak with him on the phone, they have forbidden his younger siblings from communicating with him.

And what is the great evil that soft-spoken Yishai committed to warrant being banned from his family? What was his abominable sin?

His great unforgivable offense was that he decided at age seventeen that he wanted to wear a yarmulke, keep kosher and stop working on Saturday.

Yishai is now twenty-one. He’s on his own. When I looked into his face in the frigid February air, I saw forlorn perseverance mixed with real joy.

Many people who change their level of observance from their families end up inadvertently cutting ties. The unspoken message seems to be, “I’m changing because your way is bad” when in fact the change does not need to be judgmental. It’s just a change. But even towards parents who over-react, one always has the mitzvah of “honor your father and your mother”. We always have to remember what our parents did for us, despite their human faults.

“Why don’t you write them a letter,” I suggested. “A letter is better than a phone call because it gives you the time to express yourself and them the time to hear you. But don’t talk about the pain in the letter. Talk about how much you appreciate them and all that they’ve done for you, and how happy you are to be getting married and how much you love your fiancĂ©e, maybe even enclose a photo and how much you yearn for them to be at your wedding (on such-and-such a date at such-and-such a place). Speak from your heart.”

As I spoke, I could see the tension evaporate from Yishai’s face. He began to beam and thank me for the idea. I hope I didn’t give him false hope.

+ + + +

Back to the question:

So why parents?

Maybe at your dinner table tonight you can come up with a dozen benefits of parent-based human biology as opposed to any other conceivable system.

To me, it seems as though one benefit of parents is that it gives everyone someone to look up to. Even if it doesn’t last beyond childhood, we need the experience of love and awe that parents can give us. And good parents discipline themselves to help the children relate to them with both love and awe. We – as children - need to master these feelings in order to be able to approach the Divine.

We live in a country that trumpets “very accomplished woman in tragic local story” (to borrow Jon Stewarts headline), because she’s an astronaut, and who hasn’t dreamed of being an astronaut?
Who hasn’t dreamed of being a billionaire?
Who hasn’t dreamed of being famous?

But you know, when I ask young people, Whom do you admire? I typically get two answers.

Most young people name someone wealthy or a great athlete.

But young Jewish people I ask, surprisingly, more often than not name one or both of their parents, or a parent-figure in their life.

Go figure.

Shabbat Shalom.

Yiddish of the Week.

Mishpocha – pronounced “mish-PUH-khuh”. It means family. Try getting everyone at the table to use it in a sentence.
MAmeh - Mom
TAHtee - Dad

Nu, do you remember these past weeks' words (see the archives if you need to)?

anee —
koptsen —
ballaboss —
nu —

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