Next week our daughter Shterny will wed in Jerusalem. It would have been easier, obviously, to have the wedding in the United States, but there is no substitute for a wedding amid the holiness and beauty of the great city.
It’s odd that I’m writing these lines on Tisha Be’av, the day we mourn the destruction of Jerusalem, a city that today is undergoing phenomenal rebuilding. But its most important parts are still in ruins. The Holy Temple, crowning glory of the Jewish people, capturing God’s imminence, is lost to us and can be rebuilt only in a Messianic age.
Some say we live in that age already. They look at the magnificence of Israel and they see prophecies going back thousands of years.
No doubt there is truth to this. No one can gaze upon the miracle of the Jewish state and fail to be inspired by its beauty, its youthfulness, its dynamism and its accomplishments.
When that beauty is synthesized with the marriage of a child it becomes an electrifying experience.
As a child of divorce I believe deeply in marriage. I hate being alone and, as a frequent traveler, I get homesick within two days. Marriage, the world’s most ingenious institution, provides for loving, lifelong companionship with an opposite who is your equal, as the Torah beautifully says. There simply is nothing else that can provide for a soulful relationship of intimate human depth.
Still, the experience of marrying off a child is, for a parent, a time of dislocation. A child who belonged entirely to us must now not only be shared but must and will prioritize someone else for the rest of their lives. Indeed, if the separation between parent and child does not occur at the time of marriage it can interfere with the intimate development of the new relationship.
I’m convinced this is why the Bible says so explicitly in Genesis, “Therefore shall a man leave his father and leave his mother. He shall cleave unto his wife and they shall become one flesh.” There must be a conscious act of leaving, of separation, of departure. Our children, as Khalil Gibran famously said, do not belong to us. “Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, and though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.”
Which leads to a simple question. If our children are destined to leave us, what is our principal purpose is raising them? Surely it is this: they leave us, but what we give them remains with them. Our job as parents is to have our children internalize all that we parents know to be special, from good values to a desire to maximize their potential and make their life a blessing to their spouse and others.
More than anything else, our job as parents is to have our children internalize one premise: that they are loved. That they are special.
That they go into their marriages not in order to find validation but to bestow the blessing of their love on another.
When I was a young parent I believed that I could avoid making mistakes in raising my kids. I was going to do everything right. I was going to take my hammer and chisel and sculpt perfect, beautiful children who were flawless. As time went on, however, I discovered that my imperfections were too glaring to avoid scarring my children. Perhaps the greatest irony of being a parent is that we who do the most good for our children also do the most harm. We are not perfect people, and our children are bound to notice and even mimic our imperfections. We are, after all, their foremost and most influential role models.
And it happened that when I came to this realization that I sat my children down and send to them this: “What I wanted for all of you was to raise you in the Garden of Eden, to give you a perfect childhood bereft of pain or fear. Sadly, I discovered that I could not create that perfect paradise. And even if I could, it would not be healthy of you to live there. You have to learn how to lift yourselves on your own two feet.
“When you get older you’ll no doubt think to yourself, ‘My father could have been more patient, he could have been more understanding, he could have given us more stable routines, and he could have listened better.’ It will all be true. All the complaints you’ll have about me as a father will all be accurate.
“But there is one thing that I can indeed give to you, that no one can ever take away."
The thing that mattered to me above all else in imparting to you, namely, the knowledge that you are loved. That I always prioritized you. That, however imperfect, I was there. I put in the time. If I was invited to lecture at a conference, you came with me. If for dinner we had some VIP, you were at the table. You took backseat to no one. I always made you feel like you mattered. Like you didn’t have to do some trick, get an A in class, win some medal, in order to get my attention.
“All your complaints about me will be valid save one: my father did not make me feel like I was special."
“I loved you from the moment you were born, and even as I let go in order to allow someone else to love you even more. I will always be here, in the background, Shterny, always available, your biggest fan, cheering you on in your new life."
“Because baby girl, you are the light that began to shine in my life as soon as you first opened your luminous eyes. That before you the world was dark. And when you came into the world it all began to sparkle. Your first laugh set off a thousand points of light, a chain reaction of joy that fills my heart till today."
“What you have done for me is infinitely greater than anything I could have done for you, Shterny. Because when you entered our lives, baby girl, I discovered my own capacity to love. I found out just how much life mattered to me. You taught me that there are things in existence of infinite value that capture the divine."
“I don’t need you to be a daughter first. Our relationship is not about what you give me. I love you not for anything you do but simply because you are."
“The act of letting go of a child to marry and prioritize someone else is the act of a parent celebrating the fact that their child simply is."
“And when you walk down the aisle toward Yossi, overlooking the site of the Holy Temple, you will not be walking away from me. You’ll be walking toward everything I believe in: a shared life with someone you love who will appreciate all you have to offer and bask in your light."
“Mazel tov, Shterny. Mazel Tov, baby girl. Just as your name implies you were always star quality.”The writer, whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous rabbi in America” is the author most recently of The Israel Warriors Handbook. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.