This a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 12/3/16 –
I find myself thinking very much about children and parents this week, in part because of Gideon’s bar mitzvah, in part because Becky and I picked our son Josh up after his three months abroad, and in part because I just finished reading Bruce Springsteen’s new autobiography, very appropriately entitled – take a guess – Born to Run! The book has everything you’d expect from an autobiography of one the greatest rock stars of all time, from the purchasing of Springsteen’s first guitar, to paying his dues playing in the bars, to hitting it big and forming the E Street Band. These are all the standard tropes of rock and roll narratives, but Springsteen, as he does with his music, plays them better than just about anyone I’ve ever seen.
What surprised me about the book – what I did not expect – was how focused the 500 or so pages are on one central relationship in Bruce Springsteen’s life – his relationship with his father. Springsteen’s mother is a supportive presence in his childhood, warm and loving and in her own way proud of her son. But his father was an entirely different kind of person. Born in 1920, he served in the European theater during the Second World War. He came back to the States to his home town and went to work in the factories. He was an old school guy – a blue collar laborer, never went to college, emotionally closed and unable to express himself, a guy who hated his job but would never miss a day of work, a guy who stopped at the bar on the way home to have a few beers – every night. And would have a few more when he got home, sitting in the kitchen of the family’s small house, often in the dark, waiting for Springsteen to come home.
In a series of vignettes that take place at that kitchen table, Springsteen describes some of the clashes and conversations, many of theme heated, that he had with his father over the years. Slowly but surely the two men grew in starkly different directions, the factory worker father who valued traditional definitions of manhood and work watched his son grow long hair and spend hours in his room playing the guitar. The son who valued freedom and music and expression watched his father grow angrier and angrier, and more and more hostile and withdraw into a shell he used to keep others out his life.
At the end of this long trail of encounters between father and son there is one final, poignant scene that Springsteen brings to life in the book. The 18 year old comes home, brings his parents into that kitchen, and tells them that he is leaving school, that he will not look for a regular job, and that he is going to dedicate his life to rock and roll. To put it mildly, the conversation did not go well. Within a year Springsteen’s parents had moved to California, and Springsteen remained behind, dirt poor, all of 19 years old, playing the clubs and bars of the Jersey shore. He had no idea at the time that he was, as Jon Landau would later famously write, the future of rock and roll.
I imagine many of us have had conversations like that with our parents at one time or another. Hopefully not as hostile, not as angry and bitter, but difficult, hard, conversations where we have to tell our parents that our intention is to set out on our own path, to leave behind in one way or another the life that they’ve lived, and maybe expected us to live as well. My conversation like that with my father happened 25 years ago this month, on a cold December night in Binghamton NY, 1991. Becky and I had gone to visit my parents to spend a few days catching up. I had made a decision – a significant decision – about the direction of my life which my mom and dad did not know about, and I was determined to tell them during the time we were there. One night after dinner my dad and I went into the den, and as I sat on the couch he settled into his beloved leather chair and was about to turn on the TV. And it was at that moment – again, 25 years ago this month – that for the very first time my father found out I intended to go to rabbinical school.
Now you may remember the old joke about the first Jew elected president, and on inauguration day her mother stands proudly watching the swearing in ceremony. And one of the dignitaries leans over to the mother and says ‘you must be so proud, the first woman AND the first Jew to be president!’ And the mother leans back and says ‘her brother’s a doctor.’ Well my dad IS a doctor – and I think in the back of his mind he always wanted his oldest son to go to medical school. And I can tell you in the back of his mind he never had the idea that his oldest son might go to rabbinical school. He was more than surprised. He challenged me – ‘what about this?’, he asked. ‘How are you going to pay for it? You don’t know Hebrew!’ he pointed out to me. And he mustered every argument to convince me that maybe this was a crazy idea I had gotten into my head, and that I shouldn’t go. In the end, to his credit, he said ‘if you are sure go and give it your best shot’ – and I did.
You know the Torah also has a moment like that, a pivotal moment in the relationship between a father and a son. We read about it in this morning’s portion, one of the Bible’s best known stories, when Jacob, dressed like his brother Esau, enters his father Isaac’s room, intending to trick Isaac into bestowing upon him the first born’s blessing. I’ve always wondered what it was that was going through Jacob’s mind at that moment. He knows already that his father doesn’t like who he is, doesn’t approve of his character and his interests, because Isaac has made it clear that Esau is the favorite son. And maybe part of what Jacob was doing was simply trying to win the approval of his father. So he leaves his true identity at the door, and for a few moments, as he pretends he is Esau, he feels what it is like to be the favorite son. Maybe the blessing wasn’t Jacob’s goal after all. Maybe he just – for a little while – wanted to feel his father’s approval and love.
And maybe it would have been different if Jacob had walked into that room as himself. Would it have been more difficult? Absolutely – a much harder conversation. But at least then he would have been true to himself. And who knows, maybe Isaac would have responded to that, for the first time having a sense of who his younger son truly was. It is a two way street that moment. If the child can be honest, and true to him or herself, he’ll set out on his own path, and whether right or wrong, whether it succeeds or fails, she’ll know it is her path, her choice, and her life.
And isn’t the true trick of parenting knowing that a moment comes when we have to let go. We may not understand, we may not agree, we may not even think its right. Hopefully we’ve done our best, we’ve given them the tools they need to be the best they can be. But we have to always remember that being the best they can be doesn’t have to mean being the best we can be.
Maybe that is why Jacob leaves, right after that conversation with his father. He realizes he’ll never be able to be himself if he stays home, under his father’s roof. So he walks away, into an unknown future, I am sure entirely terrified of what lies ahead. But his head is held high, there is a purpose to his step, and he walks on a path that he knows is his own. May all our children walk on that path when their own time comes – whether they are born to run, or born to rabbi –