Parashat Kedoshim: Generation Sandwich

For Congregation Ner Shalom, in anticipation of Ari's Bar Mitzvah tomorrow.

I am speaking to you tonight from behind a fog of giddiness and fatigue. Excited about Ari's Bar Mitzvah tomorrow; exhausted from the run-up to it.

My husband said to me the other day, "I'll bet now you'll have a lot more empathy for the Bar Mitzvah parents you deal with." I immediately defended my ongoing and admirably high level of empathy, and re-asserted how cool and on top of things I was. Unlike others I have witnessed, whom I shall not name, I was relaxed, breezy. Big picture all the way. Keeping it simple and meaningful. Then, once I'd made my point and was convinced that my reputation was safe, I turned back to the important tasks at hand: badgering Ari to practice his Torah one more time and impatiently micromanaging other people's contributions to tomorrow's blessed event.

(Exhibit A: Modern Bar Mitzvah Boy)

Yes, I confess, I was becoming the bridezilla of Bar Mitzvah parents, or so I feared. And yes, I now have much more empathy about the emotional tenor of this rite of passage. And I don't mean Ari's rite of passage. I mean ours.

Of course I knew that Bar Mitzvah was important to parents. But mostly, I thought, as a requisite achievement for their children. And it is a tremendous achievement! It is hard work, and a great growing moment. There is thinking and interpreting and writing and showmanship involved. But what I hadn't appreciated was Bar Mitzvah's organic importance for the parents. Our young person might be stepping into the shoes of an adult, but we are becoming the parents of an adult, and, with all due respect to the 13-year-olds of our people, that is a very, very big deal.

It is a moment of reckoning where we assess how we've been doing. And it comes at a moment of great change. At this age our children are an uneven mix of the child they've been and the adult they're becoming. And the adult they're becoming is like a new and sometimes problematic house guest. Odd habits. Unexpected opinions. Refusal to leave.

Beloved strangers, our growing young people are. I explained this to my teen class recently. I said that when you're born, you obviously can't express who you are. You are helpless and wordless. And so it is your parents' job to project onto you, so that they can make good guesses at your needs. So we project our ideas and our beliefs and our fantasies. We have to. It's survival. And then, I told them, it is your job to provide the contradictory data, chipping away at our image of you bit by bit. And here I have to pause and remark on what an evolutionary stroke of luck it is that we are exposed to who our children really are so very gradually! Because if they popped out with fully formed personalities, full of opinions and criticism of our parenting, would any of us ever have fed them?

But no. Luckily they arrive just cute and then go about the business of becoming. And we, re-meeting them over and over as the constant strangers that they are, scramble to keep up, always running some number of steps behind. It often feels like a lost cause. Ari's mom, Anne, sometimes remarks that the best we can hope to do is just to see our children safely to adulthood, or at least to an age where they can be tried as adults.

But still, despite our fears of futility, we struggle to be of use; to guide, to teach. (The Hebrew word for parent and teacher, and Torah for that matter, all come from the same root.) You youngins, we try to help you develop good habits, deep compassion, impeccable manners. And true, we don't always know when to stop. We don't always know the difference between you and a developmental stage. (And, I hasten to add, neither do you.) So all we can do is give it our best shot; give you our best advice; hope we can spare you some of the mistakes we made (as if any of us ever managed to avoid our parents' mistakes, and as if somehow we actually could keep you from all harm).

So have pity on your parents, kids. Your becoming you might just be easier for you than it is for us, even if it is a blessed and holy and inevitable process for everyone. Have pity on your parents.

This is not just a plea, it's a requirement. This week's Torah portion, Kedoshim, which we'll read tomorrow, says:

איש אמו ואביו תיראו ואת שבתתי תשמרו אני יי אלהיכם

Ish imo v'aviv tira'u v'et shabtotai tishmoru ani Adonai eloheychem.

Hold your parents in awe and keep Shabbat. I am Adonai your God. 

Respect both parents and Shabbat. Both are your inheritance. Both are gifts to you. Even though it might take some perspective to appreciate that.

I have been very aware of the gift that a parent can be as this weekend has drawn near. Aware that Bar Mitzvah usually comes at a time in our lives when we, the parents, are a generation sandwiched between two other generations. When we feel astonished at our changing parenting role; when we feel relief or even surprise at our successes and frustration at our failures, we can look back over our shoulders and there is someone there to give us insight, someone into whom we can now have deeper insight as well. 

Certainly if my mother were here, I would be plying her for some idea of what it was like for her to parent teenagers, twice. I'd be asking her for some new stories I hadn't heard before and I'd be looking for the encouragement that might come from them. And of course that very impulse saddens me; my mother should by all rights have been here, she so looked forward to it, knowing, I think, what it would mean for all the generations involved. Instead, she's gone and my own generational sandwich is unexpectedly open faced.

Her absence is one of the great facts of this weekend of celebration; at the forefront of everyone's minds. I have had my moments of misery over it. In anticipation of this weekend, people have rightly used the word "bittersweet." But here's the good thing about bittersweet. It's still chocolate. Sweet, rich, packing a good buzz. Ari, our family, this community, this Bar Mitzvah and the celebration around it are all chocolate, artisan chocolate, as far as I'm concerned.

But while Kedoshim talks explicitly about honoring parents, I think turning that back around is called for. After all, as Wordsworth said, "The child is the father of the man." Our children are parents too, beautifully, brutally, bafflingly raising their future selves. And, as is suggested by the Torah portion, we should hold them in awe.

Ari has awed me through this process. He has made himself known to me in new ways. Demonstrating mastery in some areas where I expected it and some areas where I didn't. Having strong opinions about content, about interpretation. I feel a new kind of naches, a pride not just in what I always saw in him, but in what I didn't see coming at all. Ari is busy raising a great adult.

"The child is the father of the man." Some of us have parented children; some of us have taught young people or been mentors. But all of us have parented ourselves and produced remarkable and surprising children. So I'd like to ask each of you to honor the you that made you you. Feel some real gratitude to your younger self for taking care of you and getting you this far. And I want to invite you to experience some parental naches over the you that has emerged and continues to emerge. The you that is still forming, trying new things, and making you proud even when she won't take your advice.

Thank you all for joining our family for this weekend of celebration. I hold you all in awe.