Friday, March 26, 2004

The Biggest Lesson

Someone asked me just recently what is the biggest lesson I've learned in becoming a father. And something very cool happened: I had an answer, pretty much right away.

The months since Rachel was born have been heady and exhilarating and unbelievably enlightening in a thousand different ways, and usually in situations like that -- where there's so much -- it's hard to pick out the biggest or most important thing. And it should be. Having a child is an incredible paradigm shift, a sudden change in the way the entire world looks, and it's only right that it's difficult to figure out what the biggest change is.

But the thing is, most of the "paradigm shift" is a new perspective on ideas that were already in the worldview. So, for instance, one of my favorite voorts for sheva brachos[fn1] is about how love has to be something that always grows, that's always moving forward, and that should, at some level, always surprise a person. So the fact that I love Rachel so much, and that it grows every day, and that I'm sometimes even surprised by my own capacity for the emotion -- while I've got a new and truer perspective on that idea the idea itself is something that I had at least a sort of handle on before.
[fn1:] a voort, literally a word, is the term used for a short speech or discourse, usually given at a joyous occasion or meal. Which brings us to . . .
. . . the sheva brachos, literally seven blessings, referring to the seven blessings intrinsic to (one part of) a Jewish wedding ceremony, as well as to those blessings recited during the seven days of celebration immediately following the wedding, as well as to those seven days themselves, as well as to the festive meals eaten on those days. Some rudimentary information on sheva brachos is available here.
There's only one thing that's really new, though. Only one thing that I realize now I never had even the faintest inkling about, and that's the biggest lesson I've learned.

See, since Rachel's birth, I finally begin to understand what it means for Hashem to love us like a father loves his children.

We say that all the time. It's all over the liturgy and the commentaries and the philosophy. "Avinu She'bashamayim " we say, which means, "our father in heaven,"[fn2] but I realize that until Rachel came along I had no idea what I was talking about. We talk about how He loves us like a father, but I know now that I was clueless.
[fn2:] I could have put the "who art" in there, but it tastes strange on the lips. Presumably not so strange for non-Jews, but to me, anyway.
I mean, listen, I've been a son, and I know my father loves me. I really do. And I've been blessed in that I've never had to deal with a lot of the garbage that a lot of people have had to deal with, with absent fathers or abusive fathers or like that. If I can be half the father to my children that my father was to me, I'll be ahead of the game and I know that.

So if the question had come up some ten months ago, I would have told you that while I'd never actually been a father, I certainly had some idea about what it meant for a father to love his child.

And then came Rachel. And I realize now I had no idea about what it means to love a child. The sheer intensity, the ferocity of what I feel for my daughter is so intense, so consuming, that it's almost too difficult to describe. If you've had a child, you understand, and if you haven't then the words I should use you'll think are hyperbole, and anything less is simply inadequate.

I'm going to skip, for now, how becoming a father has deepened my understanding of -- and my trembling at the thought of -- the Akeidas Yitzchak, (a/k/a the Binding of Isaac), and how it's changed (or maybe not really so much) how I think of the Kohlberg stages of moral development. And I could go off on a little rant here, about how this deep and beautiful emotional reality is difficult to understand in terms of a mere biological imperative, but it's neither the strongest argument nor, in this context, the most necessary.

I want to focus on the "biggest lesson" aspect. Because if Hashem "feels" (so to speak) for me even a little of what I feel for Rachel -- and we can be assured that it's probably the other way around, that I feel for Rachel the tiniest speck of what Hashem feels for me -- then it clarifies, beautifully, much of my ongoing relationship with Hashem, in a way that I understood (maybe) intellectually before, but have touched more viscerally now.

Becoming a father has allowed me to understand what it means when it is said that Hashem is watching out for me, and only wants what's best for me, and will give me what I need, even while that might not always shtim (comport) with what I want. And I understand what it means when Hashem lets me struggle and strain for something that he could just give me so easily.

Because those are things I do with Rachel, and they're things I do with absolute and overwhelming love. And if I'm that way with her, then it makes it just so clear that He's being that way with me.

If she's playing on the bed, I'm watching her. She's not even really aware of it, but I'm watching her, and if she gets too close to the edge of the bed I'll either move her back to the middle or put her on the floor. And if she crawls towards the electrical outlet (we haven't 100% baby-proofed yet), I won't let her put her finger in there, even though it looks like a perfectly finger-sized hole. And if she's on my lap and grabs a fork, I might take that away from her, even if she complains about it. Because she thinks she wants the fork (which she does), but I know she's not coordinated enough to handle it safely yet.

And I make her take her medicine even if she doesn't like it, and I've put up gates at the top of the stairs. And a hundred other things and instances where even though it looks like I'm taking her liberty and her autonomy I'm doing it because she doesn't understand the reality of the world as well as I do, so that things like sharpness and gravity and medicine don't have enough meaning for her to do these things on her own.

And when she's on the floor, struggling to get a toy that's just out of her reach. Sure, I could get it for her, but a little frustration is good for growth. And don't forget how much I believe in her, and how much I want her to get it. And how much it means to me when she finally figures out how to reach the toy herself.

And in how much I love it when she smiles, how much her happiness is mixed in with my own, how much of my heart is hers already.

It's humbling, honestly, to think of how many times I've talked about how our relationship to Hashem is like a child's relationship to his or her father, and now to suddenly realize that while I was certainly telling the truth I was unaware of the depth of that truth.

So that's the biggest lesson in becoming a father, the one that's almost totally novel, because I could mouth the words before, but I had never tasted the reality of the thing. To understand, even a little, what it means that Hashem is our "father." That He is watching out for us, that He is protecting us and teaching us and giving us the benefit of his understanding of reality, which so far surpasses our own.

I know that He sees me the way I always hope to see my daughter: as a creature of infinite beauty, infinite accomplishment, and infinite potential. And I know that He loves me, also, the way that I will always love my daughter.

And I stand in awe.

And that's the biggest lesson.


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At Sep 7, 2004 3:21:00 PM, Jennifer said...

This is absolutely beautiful.

Yes, "humbling" is the word that comes to mind when I read this post and think of God loving me the way I love my daughter. How I could I ever doubt that?

Thank you for this!

At Sep 7, 2004 8:21:00 PM, Jenny said...



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