On a recent Slate podcast an audience of university students was asked to cheer if their most memorable childhood experiences involved their parents. Crickets. When asked to cheer if their most memorable experiences did not involve their parents I almost had to remove my headphones. As a father this was difficult to hear, as a former Ramah camper I knew the answer before they even asked the question.
Personal growth often happens when we are put in unfamiliar situations and forced to rely upon ourselves to work things through. In those moments we learn things about our capabilities, we make mistakes, we rise, we fall, we grow. For kids, these moments tend to happen when their parents are the furthest thing from their mind. This reality is mismatched with the fact that a parent’s mindfulness of their child is never distant and always upon the heart.
The 20th century rabbi and philosopher Joseph Soleveitchik described the connection a parent has with a child as ‘latent awareness’, an awareness that is present even when that person is engaged in other matters. He associates this concept of ‘latent awareness’ with the distinction the talmudic commentators Tosefot make between the blessing we say before we study Torah and the blessing we say before we dwell in the sukkah. We are commanded to recite a blessing each and every time we dwell in the sukkah, even if it is multiple times in the same day. In contrast, one blessing for Torah study a day is sufficient, even if we engage in multiple learnings during that day.
So what’s the difference between dwelling in a sukkah and studying Torah? Tosefot teach that the experience of dwelling in a sukkah is as temporary as the structure itself. It leaves us when we exit. Torah, however is something that is not a discrete experience to be compartmentalized from a conversation we have with a co-worker, a question we ask of the store clerk or an interaction with a family member. It is always in in the back of our minds ready to come to the for and help us be the best version of ourselves.
Rabbi Soloveitchik explains that Torah is similar to our children: Even when the mother works at a job or is distracted by some other activity, there is a natural, latent awareness of her child’s existence….when a mother leaves her child and says “I’ll be back”, she does not say this merely to encourage the child. She expresses a basic truth. A mother leaves only to return; otherwise she would never leave.
Torah and our children are ever present for us as adults and parents.
But for our children, we are more like the sukkah. We provide temporary shelter for them (depending of course on how the economy is post-college). We share precious time with them during a limited number of years knowing that if they are to grow it will not be with us but fundamentally away from us. If we are successful, they will become adults through a series of experiences of which we are not a part and to which we will not have full access.
Which is why places like Ramah are so special. If we can’t be there when they grow, at least people who represent our values can be; encouraging them, teaching them and comforting them.
Listening to those students cheer in recalling their parentless moments I thought about my own kids. It is hard to understand how something so important to me does not really belong to me. But I don’t have to understand it, I just have to accept that I do not get my children in return for the love I give them. I do not get their experiences or even full reports of them. But if I learn to love and let go, I might just earn their love in return.
I am so appreciative that they have such growth promoting experiences at camp. If only there was a way I could see pictures of them from time to time…
Rabbi Aaron Brusso