There’s a story told that the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman, would read from the Torah scroll for his congregation every Shabbat. During the week of Parshat Ki Tavo, the chapter which describes the terribly dire consequences of the Jews’ misbehavior, the Rebbe was on one of his twice yearly trips abroad, and so another rabbi was left to do the reading.
The Rebbe’s 17-year-old son, the second Lubavitcher Rebbe, a sensitive soul, was so overcome by the reading that halfway through the chapter, he fainted. He just couldn’t listen to it anymore. He was so weakened, so traumatized, that weeks later, when Yom Kippur was approaching, doctors were consulted to determine whether it was safe for him to fast.
After the son came to, they asked him, “You’ve heard this chapter read so many times, and you never fainted before. What happened this time?”
The son answered, “This is the first time that I’ve heard it read by someone other than my father. When my father reads it, it sounds like blessings.”
Why don’t we faint, why aren’t we intimidated every time we hear this portion read? It’s because we hear the father — G-d —saying the words to us. When we hear the father behind the curses, they sound like blessings.
This story has relevance in human relationships. When speaking to your children, you can come across as a father, or you can come across as words, as some other role or identity. When you respond reflexively, you don’t sound like a father; you sound like an irritated adult. And when you come across as words, the child hears them as curses. But when there’s a father in those words, then even if they’re harsh, they feel like a blessing.
As a parent, we wear many hats. We can be a policeman, teacher, judge, executor, nurse and a psychologist. But only the hats should change, never the person under them. No matter the hat you’re wearing, the father behind them should always come through.
We can apply this to our own parents as well. We can salvage the relationships with our parents by finding the father behind their words or actions. Sometimes we’re too young to be able to discern the harshness of words from the fatherly essence within them. But when we mature, we can peel away the hat — which was sometimes a hard hat — to discover the blessings and reclaim these relationships. When we want to reconcile, we have to be like the Rebbe’s son and hear the father in the words.
That’s how we salvage the relationship, because when it comes down to it, to have a father is a blessing, even if he’s critical or harsh. A father is never a problem — even when he’s giving you a problem. Not to have a father, however, is completely unacceptable.
So let’s make it easier for our own children. Let’s not wait for them to figure this out on their own. Don’t give them confusing messages. Don’t wear a hat that’s so foreign, that’s such a good disguise that even your own children don’t recognize you. That is traumatizing. That is frightening.
Be thoughtful and mindful in your relationship with your children. That’s when fatherhood comes across best. If you’re mindfully paternal to your children, you will like them in addition to loving them. If you respond to your children on the spur of the moment, as a reflex, it won’t feel fatherly to them. But when your responses are premeditated, they come from the father in you, and your children will sense it intuitively.
Make sure to present your wisdom to your children in a manner that is also wise. Even the wisest statement can be wasted or even counterproductive if it’s thrown across the room or spoken to someone’s back. Wait for your child to come to you; then you know he’s focused and will listen to what you have to say.
Wisdom wants wise methods of expression too. Use a tone that is appropriate for wisdom. If you’re sharing wisdom but it sounds like you’re warning people of a nuclear fallout, the tone doesn’t match the content and the child doesn’t know what to make of it. Speak calmly and gently in words that are understandable. Use words that are already familiar to your children, so that they won’t have to learn a new vocabulary just to get what you’re trying to tell them.
The fact that you choose the words, the fact that you choose the timing, the fact that you choose the content, and the fact that you bother to deliver it, all that feels like a blessing, like a father. And then, even if you have to say things that are harsh, your child will love you, and he will repeat it to his children. And then it becomes the wisdom of the ages, repeated from generation to generation. To hear your children quote you to your grandchildren. That makes life worth living.
Learn more about the art of parenting with our Parenting for All Ages online course!