There is a blessing in my tradition that acknowledges a unique transition for parent and child. When that child comes of age – the tradition has settled on age 12 or 13 – parents recite words of praise and acknowledgment of God “who has released me from the punishment of this one.”
The belief system of most modern Jews gets in the way of understanding the meaning of that blessing. Children are not a punishment, and in our times, parenting is not over as puberty begins. Rather, a child is not considered to have moral agency until adulthood. They may understand right and wrong, but they are considered exempt from liability for their actions until they reach the age at which they can be presumed to have the judgment to be responsible for their actions.
But the moral order of the universe demands that no bad deed go unpunished. So, during those years that a parent is responsible for the moral formation of the child, Jewish tradition posits that the misdeeds of the child will be visited on the parents. When the child crosses the threshold to being a grown-up, the parent is relieved (both theologically and emotionally) and no longer held accountable for the consequences of the son’s or daughter’s behaviors.
It's not the child who is the punishment, nor the raising of the child. The parent is grateful not to be held responsible for another’s behavior. The concept is akin to putting a ship into port; the captain, relieved to no longer be responsible for the vessel and the lives on board, expresses gratitude, no matter how satisfying the voyage.
I am writing this column on July 1, 2020. In an alternate version of my life, today would have been the first day after the last day of my career as a synagogue rabbi. The agreement I had with my long-time congregation was set to expire yesterday, the end of an arrangement we entered when I was still responsible for all three of our children, who are now in their thirties. The details are unimportant except that the congregation and I wisely built in moments of reconsideration, and six years ago I exercised that option. In my opinion, I could no longer provide the care and attention my congregants deserved.
I am asked all the time if I miss it, and the answer is an unmitigated “no.” I think I did pretty well during close to thirty-five years, and I held myself to a standard of integrity I was no longer able to uphold to my satisfaction. Relieved of the expectations that come with leading a community, I have had the freedom to reconsider my own beliefs and practices. They are clarified in a way that put me at odds with some of the most important responsibilities of a community’s rabbi. I was right to retire.
I am asked rarely if it has been easy, but if I were, the answer also would be “no.” Maybe I had a romantic notion of what it would be like to be a “Jew in the pew,” but it was an unrequited romance. I did nothing to prepare my congregation to deal with a local emeritus. They did less. Without that guidance, my sense was that I was like (you should pardon the expression) the ghost of Christmas past – undeniable, but not especially welcome. My hopes of finding a place to contribute to and benefit from my community did not come to fruition; in fact, they were regularly frustrated. For a long time, I was resentful.
A different set of emotions has taken hold during these peculiar months of quarantine. Understanding that no amount of objection in my heart would change the decisions about my role that have become the default settings in the synagogue was an important first step. I could argue their wisdom or foolishness, but the debate would never be settled. No one aside from me was even interested – at this point, both understandable and practical.
But I ask myself what my life would be like during this pandemic if I had the responsibility in the last fifteen weeks of my tenure to reimagine entirely the way to care for a congregation I had pastored for more than thirty years. If my energy and integrity to lead the synagogue was insufficient in more normative times, toughing things out in quiet distress could have only undermined the necessary changes in this time of challenge. Knowing myself as I do, I would have suffered from a deep sense of inadequacy and taken on myself any decline in its vitality and ethos of community.
Never mind, by the way, that my inclination to hold myself liable for shortcomings (yet not commendable for successes) was likely a major contributor to my exhaustion before my time. The serendipity of my earlier choice has brought some clarity to at least some part of this specific day. I would have borne the responsibility and, in some measure, punished myself, as most rabbis do, for the sins of omission and commission during these weird and unfamiliar times. To exploit the metaphor of the ship, I am grateful that a new captain took over in the last port, because I am not sure I would have put into this port successfully.
So, it seems right and proper to recite the aforementioned blessing on this day. I can’t remember if I said it six years ago; if I did, it was in a very different state of mind. Today, I understand it as I believe it was intended: a recognition that, having met my obligations to others, it is now incumbent upon them to meet their obligations to themselves.
I spent 35 years in the pulpit and learned a few things about the people and the profession