The Exodus:5 Project
Every first-born in the land of Egypt shall die, from the first-born of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the first-born of the slave girl who is behind the millstones; and all the first-born of the cattle. Exodus 11:5
I have had some pretty remarkable teachers in my life and, as the Hebrew saying goes, from each of my teachers have I gained insight. More often than not, what distinguished a great teacher from a good teacher (in my experience) was if I learned something more than information. The personal presence of the teacher contained as much value for me as the expertise – in fact, sometimes more.
Prof. J. Allen Hynek taught astronomy at Northwestern University when I was an undergrad. If you know his name, it may be because he became a reluctant expert in UFOs in the 1960s and 1970s, even having a cameo in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” But I took his course to fulfill a science requirement, and in the process I learned about awe. Quite close to retirement when I took the class he taught dozens of times, Dr. Hynek nonetheless exuded an innocent excitement about the cosmos. On the first day of the course, he illustrated his place in the universe by pacing off the relative size of the building blocks of the physical world, from galaxies to quarks. (Spoiler alert: we are about in the middle.) He then enthused about the privilege of being located at a spot on the continuum that enabled him to appreciate matter of exponential difference in size. And he continued to teach us for the next twelve weeks from the spot on the continuum he had imagined in that lecture hall.
Sylvia Boorstein is one of the most popular teachers of mindfulness in the English-speaking world. She has opened Buddhist practice to novices and deepened it for experienced practitioners for more than thirty years. I encountered her for the first time at an annual retreat I used to attend where she accomplished a remarkable feat: she kept a dozen rabbis quiet for two and a half hours a night, four nights in a row. Her self-effacing and enjoyable way of explaining mindfulness and introducing meditative practices showed me the road less traveled in my spiritual life. Seeing how mindfulness enhanced her ability to appreciate the people around her – including initial skeptics like me – showed me the road I needed to travel in my interpersonal life.
I have others I could name – public school teachers, political mentors, friends who opened their hearts to me and, of course, many of the remarkable rabbis I was privileged to learn from in seminary and in my continuing studies. I would add my family to that list as well.
But I have one teacher who never applied for the job, yet has held it for her entire life. That would be my first-born. Each of the three kids has enriched my life beyond measure, and my favorite among them is whomever I am thinking about at the moment. But every aspect of my parenthood gets test-driven on her first. And, thank God, she has been generous with her feedback.
I will not continue with specifics that descend into sappiness or self-disclosure. I will just say this: navigating fatherhood for the first time is much easier with a child who will present the necessary challenges with love, respect and independence. Our other two kids would certainly have been equal to the task, but they are, by happenstance, not the first-born.
I have attempted to comfort too many people who are bereft of their first-born. There is a quality of grief that, I think, cannot be imagined by those of us blessed not to experience it. Even those people who are estranged from or are in conflict with or, God help them, dislike their first-born have a visceral understanding that their place on the continuum of relationships and their mindfulness of others is shaped by the lessons learned from that unique relationship.
The death, God forbid, of any child is an unfathomable tragedy, no matter the cause, the age or the circumstance. It is not the way of the world we desire that parents bury their children. The death of a first-born inherently carries a second blow. Perhaps ironically, it is less because of who the child is and more because of what the child represents to everyone from Pharaoh upon his throne to the servant behind her millstone. It is a horrible price to pay for freedom. For anything.
I imagine the worst sound to emit from any human community was the cry that went up from every household in Egypt on the fateful night of liberation. In that midnight moment, past, present and future were erased. The continuum had dissolved. You cannot be mindful when you have lost your mind. Egypt became a land without the kind of learning necessary for renewing the generations.
Every child becomes his or her own person without losing the mirrored corner of their personality that reflects back the nurture of others. The wise parent will learn early to pay attention to that reflection and honor the lessons it shows.