Monday, March 31, 2008

The Parent's Blessing

The Jewish Week 03/24/2006

This morning my son Dan came to breakfast with a subtle rasp in his otherwise crisp, cherubic voice. Normally that would not be a big deal, but with his bar mitzvah just weeks away, every minuscule vocal deviation becomes a major concern.

The human body virtually reinvents itself every day, replacing billions of dead cells, especially on the skin. But a voice change, like the bar mitzvah itself, is among those landmark events that register most profoundly on the parental Richter scale. These past few months, similar no-turning-back events have been occurring in my household with alarming frequency. Dan got braces a couple of months ago, I got stronger glasses and, not long after that, I gave my other son, Ethan, nearly 15, his first shave.

I’ve always believed in hands-on parenting – 13 years ago, I performed Dan’s brit – and as I navigated my Norelco tripleheader down Ethan’s chin and across his stretched neck, gingerly sidestepping the Adam’s apple and juking the jugular, I noticed some real similarities between the two cuttings. Sometimes the blade is necessary but no parent wants to apply a blade to any child, anywhere, at any time. Aside from not wanting to cause pain, I shuddered at being a participant in such a miraculous molting, peeling away at the layers of the boy only to reveal the man. The blade only tickled Ethan – I was the one feeling diced.

I shaved him knowing that the alternative would be to let him do it himself, something I had tried on my own teen face nearly a lifetime ago, leaving it looking like the West Side highway after a late winter thaw, littered with scrapes and potholes. So I sheared him, and since then have done it twice more, awed each time not only at my holding over him the power of life and death, but that with each stroke I was midwifing his rebirth into adulthood – and my own into obsolescence.

It is petrifying to be a parent, so much so, in fact, that since the Middle Ages Jewish parents of a bar mitzvah have recited the oddest of blessings. It reads: “Praised is God, who has relieved me of guilt for whatever becomes of this child.” Historians trace this Baruch Shep’tarani blessing back to the biblical story of Jacob and Esau, brothers whose post-adolescent lives took dramatically different tracks. Although Rebecca and Isaac were hardly exemplary parents, the blessing validates their unavoidable helplessness in opposing Esau’s wayward ways. In instituting this prayer, the rabbis were implying that there comes a point where parents simply have to let go.

I’m having a lot of trouble doing that.

I live with the dread every day, aware that each letting-go is a dress rehearsal for the ultimate Letting-Go. I know that when I die, my children’s first act will be to consummate that separation with the ritual cutting of clothing, every bit as painful as the brit milah and shaved chin, and every bit as necessary for further growth.

Everything happening now is leading up to our being left in the dust. First they crawl, then walk, then ride a bike, then drive a car. The speed increases with each new step, all the while nature is taking its entropic toll on the parent huffing and puffing behind, falling away like the spent first stage of a Saturn 5. With each passing milestone, my ability decreases to ensure their survival – and my own.

I remember exactly when Ethan’s math homework became too tough for me and my embarrassment at discovering that what used to be considered R-rated is now being packaged as PG. “Meet the Fockers” was an education for all of us. But still I hold on for as long as I can, for as long as they will let me.

As a rabbi who has served the same community for nearly a generation, I feel like I’ve said “Baruch Shep’tarani” hundreds of times, as week after week “my” children have paraded across the pulpit and out into the world, slipping beyond my grasp into adulthood. But there is no “Baruch Shep’tarani” for clergy, however, or for God. Only parents can love children enough to let them go.

Ethan may unwittingly have been speaking for all my other students when, at his bar mitzvah two years ago, he got up before a packed congregation and said, “I’d like to thank the rabbi ... he’s been like a father to me.” I may have shaved only him, but as the kids come and go, I feel like I’ve been shearing the entire flock. I cut – they run.

This next letting-go will be the toughest. Just after Passover, I will stand at the Torah and watch Dan ascend, my baby in his fresh-cut suit, looking and sounding like a burgeoning man, with the deepening voice, the braces and the first hint of adolescent blemish on his smooth, dimpled face, I’ll whisper a measured “Baruch Shep’tarani,” clear my throat and, in a raspy, broken undertone, let him know how proud I am.

And another layer of my adult skin will slide away. Only part of me will survive this ordeal – the part that has learned how to hug with one arm and let go with the other.

No comments: