There is little that breaks the heart of a parent more than leaving their child in the care of a stranger for the first time. Daycare drop off, new babysitter, even the first day of kindergarten–these necessary experiences all yield that same gut punch: letting go of a sweaty hand, watching your tiny child–did they ever seem so small?–walk forward into the unknown. Your stomach drops. You inhale sharply. Did I just do that? Did I just send my baby off, alone?
Maybe she’s looking back at you, eyes enormous, and crying. Arms outstretched, in that moment, she doesn’t think she’ll survive without you near, and you don’t think you will either. Or, maybe he’s bolted forward and found a friend, a toy, or a teacher he takes to quickly. Maybe it’s a matter of hours before your child has adjusted; maybe it takes your kid weeks or months. Maybe your baby doesn’t ever adjust but you keep trying, you keep dragging her to the edge of the pool and throwing her in. “Go!” you say, “Swim!”
In this week’s Torah portion Lekh L’kha, we watch as God throws Abraham into the water. “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you,” God commands. Leave your home behind. Step into the unknown. Trust me.
And with faith, Abraham does as God tells him. He packs up his family and he heads out, having no idea what he will face. Along the way, Abraham’s wife Sarah continues to struggle to conceive. Abraham fathers a child–Ishmael–with Hagar. As a sign of his commitment to God–as a covenant–Abraham circumcises himself and all the males in his household. All the while God reassures: Fear not. I will bless you. Your reward shall be very great.
There are as many interpretations of the words “Lekh” as there are bloggers in the blogosphere.
Some explain that “Lekh” means more than just “go.” Some rabbis and commentators have understood “Lekh” to mean, “go, for your own benefit.” Some recognize this as a charge toward self-actualization, that God is telling Abraham to get out of the place he’s in, and to grow–spiritually, emotionally, for his own well being. “Shake it out,” God seemed to be saying. “Reinvent.” “Conquer.”
As a parent, I understand God’s charge to Abraham as lesson of faith–in oneself. “Go forward into your 2’s class,” we tell our kids. “Go join your friends on the field!” “Get on that bus and enjoy your first summer at camp!” Apply to that competitive college, that scholarship, that job. Go travel far away and send me postcards. Go live your life.
As a parent, I also understand how painful it is to send your kid off, to witness their vulnerability and remain steadfast in the face of it. And yet I know how important it is to build up a child’s inner reserve of strength, to try and help her grow her own network of resources so that when she finds herself truly alone for the first time, she will be comforted by her intellect, her emotional resources, her ingenuity. She will be resilient. She might cry, hug her knees. But then she must get up, dust off, and march toward life.
This Shabbat, as Parashat Lekh L’kha is read in synagogue, my family and I will mark one year since the Hebrew calendar date of my father’s death. In this experience, I am not a parent but a child still, staring in the deep space and time my father left behind. I have spent a year putting one foot in front of the other as I try and cross this narrow bridge of life after. I have not felt brave. I have had very little faith in myself.
How does one do this? How do I tell my kids–go! Revel in your toddlerhood! Play! Let go of my hand. How do I do this when I understand, with every last cell, their desire to remain close, attached, connected, always?
One year ago I sat cross-legged next to my father on his bed. I remember crying, loud noisy sobs. My dad made jokes, quiet ones, his voice coming out in soft huffs. I cried harder. Eventually he stopped and turned his head to me slowly. “You know,” he said, “you are courageous.” I shook my head. No. I was not courageous. I was hysterical. Terrified. Not willing to let go.
“Courageous,” he repeated. “You are.”
I have thought about this conversation hundreds of times. I have wondered at his choice of words, the other things he said, and why he picked that moment, when I was more scared than I have ever been.
Two events have changed my understanding of the world more than any other: becoming a parent and losing a parent. I know now, in a way I couldn’t have before my girls were born, that in that moment, my father was telling me to go forward because as my parent, it was his responsibility to remind me of my strength. Lekhi lakh, he said. Go toward the unknown. There is only ever one choice, for me, for my children, for all of us, every day. We move forward, toward life, and, we hope, toward happiness.
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