Tuesday, September 14, 2004

The Face of My Father

Recently, my family and I were privileged to be at the Shabbos table of Rabbi B. and his family. Actually, we spent a couple days with them as part of our vacation. Rabbi B. is a chinuch[fn1] professional and an extraordinary father, and spending any time with him always gives me something to think about.
[fn1:] "chinuch" roughly, and incorrectly translates as "education." The problem is that chinuch is a much more global sort of education, concerned less with the academic material covered than with inculcating an attitude towards both learning and the world. But "education" will have to suffice.
Rabbi B. has five children. Over the course of the weekend, the third child, the daughter I'll call Sarah, was being a little difficult, a little disrespectful. She would respond reluctantly if at all to reasonable requests, she would pretend not to hear her parents when they spoke to her, or would be very precisely literal in her responses to requests or instructions.

This wasn't a major rebellion, and she's a really good and sweet kid usually. But she was. . . expressing her independence in maybe not the most constructive way. Which, just so you know something about Rabbi B., is almost verbatim how he described it to me when we spoke about it later.

A few times over the weekend, I would see a variation on the following exchange:

Rabbi B: Sarale (affectionate diminutive term), go help your mother set the table.
Sarah: [pretends not to hear because she is too engrossed in her napkin folding, but is too young to pull it off]
Rabbi B: Sarale. Go help your mother.
Sarah: [still pretending, but also trying to hold back laughter at this trick she thinks she's pulling]
Rabbi B: Sarah. Your mother asked you to help her set the table, and I've asked you to do it.
Sarah: [starts to flounce away from the area, but not in the direction of helping her mother]
Rabbi B: [serious, but not angry] Sarah. Look at me.
Sarah: [stops what she's doing and looks at Rabbi B.]
Rabbi B: Go help your mother set the table.

And off Sarah would go to help her mother or otherwise comply as if she had not been resisting all along. Once during the weekend he said, "look at my face," instead of "look at me," but otherwise whenever it happened it was almost the same.

I didn't get it. What was it about "look at my face" that could cause such a shift in Sarah? It happened maybe five times over three days, and already by the second time I was trying to look at Rabbi B's face to see what he was communicating, which was not such a simple endeavor.

The "look at my face" line made me think of a part of the Passover story, the part that happens before the movie that everyone's seen. Before all the Jews were in Egypt, there was one Jew in Egypt. Yoseph Ha-Tzaddik (Joseph The Righteous One). Briefly, Joseph is sold into slavery, is taken down to Egypt and pretty quickly becomes the number-one guy to Potiphar, the king’s chief executioner. Joseph gets put in charge of Potiphar's entire household; the only thing off limits is Mrs. Potiphar.

So, of course, who gets the hots for Joseph? Mrs. Potiphar. Mrs. Potiphar starts trying to seduce Joseph at every turn.

I'm given to understand that a lot of this is covered in the "Technicolor Dreamcoat" show. It's preamble, and if you know the basics we can move along.

There is a teaching that Joseph was about to succumb to the advances of the mistress of the house. That after however long of being seduced and refusing, even Joseph, whose spiritual stature we can't even begin to understand, had been worn down. There's a midrash (exegetical writing) that relates that when Joseph "came into the house" on the day related in the Torah, his intent, although not entirely conscious, was to finally give in to Mrs. Potiphar's advances.

Imagine the scene. He's alone, in the house of his master. He's miles from home, better looking than everyone, a prince in his homeland, made a slave in a foreign land. The lady of the house is grabbing him, begging him to be with her. He's got a lot of reasons pressing on him to do this one act. There's a part of him that knows it's wrong, but it's a part that's getting harder and harder to listen to.

He's about to give in. And the gemara[fn2] says that at that moment, at the moment of his greatest temptation, he "saw the face of his father," and this woke him up, and he ran from the room, leaving even his coat.
[fn2:] The Gemara is the written version of what's called the "oral law," called such because it was passed down orally until a couple thousand years ago when it was written down. The oral law is as authoritative to Jews as the written law (the so-called Old Testament, Prophets, and Writings). This footnote is way too short to explain it thoroughly. It's used interchangeably with the word "Talmud," although Talmud actually contains Gemara and commentary. JewFAQ has a pretty good and brief explanation, and this is what a page of Talmud looks like (it's click-able!). The specific page of Talmud in question here is Sotah 37b.
There is another source that explains that Joseph looked very much like his father Jacob, so perhaps there was a mirror in the room, or a glass window (did the Egyptians have glass windows?) in which he saw his reflection.

But even if that was the factual case, I don't think that's what's being taught here.

Let me tell a story. I'm going to ask you to bear with me as I tell this story; because what will seem obvious as the narrative progresses wasn't so much so as it happened in real time. Or maybe I just didn't want to see it. Either way.

In the office where I work, there's a large central space for office services. It's the copy room, fax room, supply room, delivery center, mail services center, etceterah. The IT guy sits in the office right next door, so it's kind of the support services hub.

The guys in that space are generally nice guys, and the office isn't stingy with supplies, so if you need a fresh pad of stickies, or some pens or a highlighter, it's not a big deal. And happily "shrinkage" in the office is almost nonexistent -- or at least within levels tolerable to management -- such that nothing (except the servers and critical tech stuff) is locked up.

Office services empties out around six or eight pm. People in my position (guess) tend to get out of the office a bit later than that. So if I need a copy, or a fax, or some pens, or some pads of paper, I can just go in and get it.

And, like I said, they're pretty relaxed here. So a few months ago, when I needed to back up some stuff on my home computer and I asked the IT guy where online I could get a good deal on Write-able CD's, he asked me how many I needed, and when I said "three," he just gave me three off one of the two stacks in office services.

You can probably see where this is going, but before I go any further, I need to say that I've given a lot of thought to and discussed with a Rabbi some of the ins and outs of using office resources for personal purposes. Essentially, it boils down to a combination of what management doesn't mind (or affirmatively approves of) and making up the difference. For instance, on the one hand, since attorneys pretty much give up their lives to work in these places, doing personal work on the computers -- which entails computer cycles (hastening service dates), internet connection, hard drive space (but not so much network space) -- is generally okay with the partners. They don't care, as long as you don't bill for the time, and I'm very careful about that. Also, for instance, I bring in a ream of paper every two or three weeks to make up for things I print out here, even though "management" wouldn't care if I did tons of personal printouts, just because it makes me feel better about it. (Most of what I print is Torah stuff, and it'd be weird for me to have Torah stuff on 'stolen' resources, even if they weren't really stolen.) I tried paying for a thing of toner once, but the accounting lady looked at me like I was from Mars and then explained how it would be ten times more work for her to accept the money than for me to just go away. So I did.

This is not, by the way, because of any deep intrinsic desire to protect the interests of my workplace. It is taught[fn3] that when brought before the "Heavenly Court," each person will be asked six questions. The first of these is "were you honest in business?" I just can't see myself having to answer, "no," just because I wanted to print out some dumb article off the internet. So it's mostly embarrassment that keeps me in line here. And the point I'm trying to make is that I do in fact spend some time feeling good about myself (read: self-righteous) and how I'm so scrupulous.
[fn3:] It's another gemara, this one in Shabbos, folio 31b (I think it's b).
The IT guy gave me three disks. And then later that week I needed a couple more, so I just took some. The next week I was burning some CD's with pictures for various family members, so I grabbed about five more off one of the stacks. The fact that there were two stacks becomes important later, so I should mention Brand X was black and gold in one pile, and Brand Y was silver and in another pile. I've been taking Brand X because they look cooler.

Later that week I grabbed some more, and then early the week after I wanted to do this project I'm not going to explain here and I needed four CD's, so I grabbed some more still.

You may be wondering what office services had to say about my habit. Well, I was -- without consciously realizing it -- waiting for their lunch break or after hours to pick up my CD's, so they didn't have much to say at all.

About a month ago, I was at work really late. And I needed (wanted) some CD's for home, so I went into office services. Apparently, enough CD's off of each stack had been used (or lifted by me) that they combined them into one stack, with the cool looking Brand X on the bottom and the silver Brand Y on the top. Also, when they had put the plastic lid back on, a plastic ring of some sort had been left on top of the CD's (not on the spindle, but just off to the side, and a label or something like that was also on the top of the pile.

I lifted the plastic cover off, took the plastic ring and the paper off the pile, took the silver CD's off the spindle, took three Brand X CD's, put the silver (Brand Y) CD's back on the spindle, and was carefully replacing the label and plastic ring in exactly the spot where they were, so as to avoid detection, when I froze.

And I stood there for a full thirty seconds while the realization sank in. "Well, then. . . this is a rather thief-in-the-night kind of deed. I suppose that would be because, well, it's the night-time. And I guess I'm a thief." I don't know if it's to my credit that I was honestly surprised.

I mean, okay, even if I'm willing to countenance a little bit of "shrinkage" from office supplies (which I'm not, really, but even if I was). I had this realization that if I really felt entitled to what I was taking, I wouldn't be so careful to avoid detection, to replace the indicators just so.

But what stopped me in my tracks was that I had an image (of sorts) of my father. Not a visual image, but a sort of visceral understanding in my head and heart as to exactly what he would say and feel about my acting the way I was acting. I may as well not sugarcoat it -- about my stealing. Exactly the way he would look at me.

I've mentioned in another post that my father was (and is), on the whole, a pretty amazing father. What I may not have mentioned is that my father is one of the most honest people I know. Really. I mean, the man doesn't cheat on his taxes; he won't take a penny that doesn't belong to him.[fn4] And I knew, as I stood there with my hand up to my elbow in the proverbial cookie jar, that my father wouldn't be happy with my actions. Not angry; but disappointed. And that was enough to make me pause and realize what I was doing. And more importantly stop what I was doing, and even try to undo it.[fn5]
[fn4:] This goes back at least a generation as well, because my grandfather (my father's father) was also a fairly scrupulously honest man. Where the transmission chain breaks down, I'm not sure, since my uncle (my father's brother) is a felon, but don't let's look to close at this rhetorical structure I'm working on here, 'kay?

[fn5:] I don't want to have to have the necessary conversation with the IT guy or the woman who runs accounting, so now I have to go buy a bunch of Brand X CD's and replace them. Brand X CD's are about four times as expensive as the kind I finally bought for home use. Go explain that to the WHW. "Sweetie, I just spend 15 bucks on 100 of these El-Cheapo brand CD's; I'll just put them here on the shelf if you need them. Oh, and by the way, I also just spent thirty bucks on 25 of these FancyShmancy (tm) brand CD's, but I'm going to take them into work with me and just sort of sneak them back into the mailroom." Wish me luck.
Now, I don't always agree with my father on every opinion he has or even every moral decisions he makes, in fact it should be said that there are a lot of points on which we disagree vehemently, and a lot of things about which I think he's just plain wrong. But even so he is in many ways the True North of my moral compass.

Most of the time, a pretty good guide for moral introspection is to ask yourself, "If I act or refrain from acting in this particular manner in response to this particular situation, how will I see myself in a week or a month or a year?" But sometimes, when you're caught up in what you're doing, or when there's too much "taking you out of the world," so that you lose the ability to step outside yourself, that question gets lost, and isn't able to guide you. The related principle to understand that Hashem is "always watching,"[fn6] can fail in the same way.
[fn6:] It's a bit more than I want to deal with right now.
But what I think can happen, if the parenting is done right, is that there's this backup system. The last gasp of your moral conscience is when something inside gets triggered and makes you see yourself the way your father would see you. You see your father's face, and it gives you just enough of a break from whatever desire or ego is pushing you to do this wrong thing so that you can back out and do the right thing.

And what's critically important -- and I think this might have gotten underplayed when I told the story of Rabbi B -- is that your father's face isn't looking at you with anger. And disappointment isn't even really the word. And the easy but insufficient answer is that your father's face looks on you with love. The fact is, what Rabbi B was showing Sarah, what Joseph saw in Jacob, and what I saw when I was standing with my hand on the pile of CD's was a sort of trust. "I know," it seems to say, "that you can successfully navigate out of this dilemma." Because the secret is that Jacob wasn't really in the room with Joseph, any more than my father was with me. So the correct moral choice was something that was actually successfully made alone. The moral compass was working fine, but for a brief instant we couldn't find North.

Rachel's getting big enough now that she understands, at least at a rudimentary level, that there are certain things she's not allowed to do or touch or throw. And she's also getting to the point where she's got enough of her own personality that sometimes she wants to (and will) do or touch or throw despite her knowledge, despite the verbal admonitions. And this is all perfectly fine and normal and quite honestly wonderful, in its way. She's growing into her own person, and here are the first branches of the tree that will bear those flowers and those fruits.

And I'm not really worried at this point about her "moral compass," or anything so grand. I mean I'm worried about it in that I think about it sometimes, but she's still, y'know, a toddler. She's working on round-peg-round-hole; I don't think she's really facing a lot of morally complicated questions at this point.

But what I want to take away from Rabbi B and Yoseph HaTzaddik and my brief foray into petit larceny is something I can start working on even now, even before Rachel's fully equipped to understand it. The idea of looking her with an absolute trust, of seeing in my very sweet and wonderful young daughter the sparks of a woman who will be wise and loving and kind, to recognize that while she's not dealing with the big moral questions now, she will be soon enough.

For her to deal with those questions she has to believe that she can deal with those questions. She has to know that she's got it inside of her to "get it right," or at least give it an honest try, and the only way she'll know that is if I'm there to tell her, one way or the other.

I recognize that I can't follow her around her whole life (though sometimes I think it'd be okay to try), so I have to plant that trust inside of her now so she can carry it with her, so she can trust herself.

And maybe someday, when she's in a tight spot, she'll also remember the face of her father, and it'll help her out.


[Administrative Notes:]

1: Chasiva veChasima Tova! On this Rosh HaShanna, may you be written and sealed in the Book of Life and Good.

2: I couldn't work in a reference to the Dark Tower books, but I think the "face of your father" business in those is actually related to this idea in a way. Also, let this count as a plug for those books. Even if you think you know Stephen King and you think you don't like his writing, the Dark Tower series (and related books) are amazing.

3: I realize these posts are getting longer and longer. I'll work on making the next one more wieldy.

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At Sep 15, 2004 7:50:00 AM, Dianne said...

Beautiful... I'll take a long post from you any day when it's this good :-)

On my way to work this morning, I heard the song "Collide" sung by Howie Day which has the following line in it: "I've found I'm scared to know I'm always on your mind." I imagined being on God's mind all the time - and the fact that I know He's with and watching me all the time. Then I considered how I wish knowing that God is always watching would affect my actions more often. Your post is spot-on - or, rather, my hearing the song on the way to work this morning was spot-on given what I was about to read in your blog :-)

P.S. Does it bother you that I type the name "God" on your blog?

At Sep 21, 2004 8:29:00 PM, driches said...

Awesome post.

At Sep 22, 2004 2:20:00 AM, Rachel Ann said...

Great post! I think what underscores the desire to do good and not bad is not just the face of the parent expressing loving disappointment, but the contrast to the normal expression of the face, showing pride and love.

At Sep 23, 2004 10:16:00 PM, Elisson said...

Lovely and thoughtful post.

Gemar chatima tovah, bruthuh. Have an easy fast.

At Mar 6, 2005 12:44:00 PM, parcequilfaut said...

And he likes the Dark Tower. Could Frum D impress me any more?

At Aug 1, 2005 8:20:00 PM, SF said...

Nice post. Brings to mind discussions regarding the habit some have of "sampling" fruit from grocery store produce sections . . .

At Oct 31, 2005 2:37:00 AM, Anonymous said...

nice blog enjoyed it :)

Keep up the excellent work! and i bookmarked u!

so cant wait for ur next post! :)



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