In his classic poem, The Rainbow, William Wordsworth coined the phrase, “The child is father of the man.” Those famous words are the subject of much discussion as they are open to a wide range of interpretations. Perhaps the most common one is that the external factors that affect our childhood will govern the way we think and act as adults. According to that reading, those words would express the notion that, “The child [what happened to us as children] is father [helps determine the thinking patterns and actions, similar to the influence of a parent] of the man [what we do in our adult life.]“
Upon reflection, I would say that the seminal event that shaped my adult life was the sudden passing of my father a’h forty-six years ago before my fourth birthday. This is not to suggest that those of us who were orphaned at a young age spend our days with morbid thoughts. Rather, the searing experience of losing a parent early on cannot help but frame life’s experiences differently that most other folks. Having walked many miles in the shoes of the heavy of heart, we often find it easier to empathize with those around us who are undergoing challenging times. And losing a loved one at such a young age very painfully teaches us to appreciate the value of time and the gift of life.
As time gradually heals all wounds, I had always hoped that the grueling day each year when my father’s yahrtzeit day is observed would continue to get easier with the passage of time, as it progressively did for most of my adult life. But over the past few years, as my wife and I have had the incredible zechus of walking our children to the chuppah and seeing our newly-born grandchildren through the plate glass windows of hospital nurseries, I am finding that these yahrtzeit days are becoming more and more gut wrenching; almost too painful to bear. For while earlier in life, I spent the day reflecting on my personal loss, now my thoughts on Rosh Chodesh Iyar are preoccupied with thinking of my father’s loss and all the things he never got to do.
The past two years, I decided to channel much of that energy into writing a column on the day of his yahrtzeit designed to provide a modicum of comfort to children who lost parents at a young age. This year, however, I will let the child in me pen a few words to parents who are divorced, separated, or experiencing significant difficulty in their marriages.
In the twenty-eight years that I’ve been dealing with children, I have seen true nobility of spirit where countless divorced fathers and mothers set aside differences and worked together to make the best of a difficult situation for the sake of their children. I’ve watched divorced parents attend the parent-teacher conferences of their children together, celebrate stress-free birthdays, bar/bas mitzvos and graduations together, even jointly walk their child to the chuppah. I have had the privilege of observing amazing parents who decided to let their kids sleep in their own beds after the divorce in order to minimize the disruption in their lives, even though it required the mother to move out each time the father had visitation. All these accommodations deliver a resounding message to their children – that they are valued and their parents always put the needs of their kids before their own.
At the same time, I have also had the misfortune to see the most shameful and horrible behavior displayed by parents seemingly oblivious to the long-term and often permanent damage they are doing to the children that Hashem has blessed them with and entrusted to their care. I have listened to horror stories of abusive parents doing unspeakable things to their children and spouses. I have watched parents use the children they once lovingly brought home from the hospital as helpless pawns in their hate-driven battles with their ex-spouse, bad-mouthing the other parent, using the children as carrier pigeons to send toxic messages to each other, and engaging in protracted litigation over every facet of their lives. I have witnessed soulless, evil fathers cruelly withholding gittin from the mothers of their children to extract money or other concessions. Each and every time I see this type of behavior, the child in me remains dumbfounded that people can knowingly make their children rootless, virtual orphans.
In fact, in many ways their kids are in far worse shape than I was. Everywhere I went as a child, people would stop me and tear up as they spoke glowingly about the very special father I had and how much they missed him. I had the unwavering love and support of my amazing mother and the wonderful man she married a few years after my father passed away. I can’t even imagine the confusion and pain experienced by children whose parents are in midst of a bitter and public divorce. It is no wonder that so many of them wash up on the shores bloodied and bruised – addicted to drugs, alcohol or worse, doing whatever they can to dull the pain of feeling worthless and wind driven.
So; a few words to parents who are struggling with your marriages: please do what you can to make it work – go to your Rav and/or for professional help as soon as possible and see if you can save your marriage. If the marriage is to be dissolved, please, please keep the children’s needs first. On behalf of all the confused and tormented kids I have met over the years – those with abusive/neglectful parents and those whose parents behaved poorly during messy divorces, I beg you from the depths of my soul to take a giant step back from the abyss if you are headed there and remove the sword of the Angel of Death from your hands. For make no mistake. If you continue down the path of discord and machlokes, you will, in all likelihood be calling me or one of my colleagues a few years down the road in the worst agony you have ever experienced – watching a gehenom unfold that you helped create.
Please listen to Little Yankie now, rather than Rabbi Yankie later on.
© 2009, Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved