Lazer Gurkow

Alienated Parents

Do our parents have access to our lives? Do we share our secrets with them? Do they have unfettered access to our grandchildren, for example, do we let them take our children away on vacation?

Sadly, there are many people who grow up and shut their parents out. Some do it deliberately, relieved to be out from under an oppressive parent’s thumb and wanting no further contact. This is understandable: if parents abused their child, they often deserve to be cut out, but if they parented within the bounds of propriety, meant well, but miscalculated or misjudged, they deserve a reprieve.

As children we expect, nay demand, perfection from our parents; we have no tolerance for error or imperfection. But as adults we learn that the superman and superwoman of our youth, sits not on a pedestal, but on a simple stool. They are not perfect; they have failings. They are beset with the same insecurities and weaknesses as most, and we can cut them some slack. When we become parents, we realize how challenging parenting can be and how unrealistic are our children’s’ expectations.

To nurse a grudge against a well-meaning parent is unfair. Our parents spent the lion share of their lives, raising us, worrying about us, providing for us and nurturing us. They took us to kindergarten, and marched us down the aisle. They cleaned our noses and nursed our stubbed toes. They changed our diapers and soothed our wounded hearts. They gave us pocket money with a smile and arranged our birthday parties when it meant the world to us. It is true that they sometimes lost their temper and were often unyielding with their curfews and rules, but they don’t deserve to be punished.

Some people don’t deliberately cut their parents out of their lives, they do it inadvertently. They love their parents, but are living their own life now and don’t find the time to stay in touch. They don’t visit their parents or invite them. When the parents come for a visit, they don’t make them feel welcome and they take them for granted. This is even worse. These children never felt rejected by their parents, yet without realizing it, are rejecting their parents.

Their parents know nothing about their lives and are reduced to asking relatives, neighbors and friends. If the grandchildren are sick, the grandparents are the last to know. If their child is in financial crisis, the parents are the last to know. Sometimes children are ashamed of sharing a vulnerability with their parents. They think their parents would think less of them if they knew their failings. But the opposite is true. Our parents want nothing more than a chance to help. It is true that our parents can be intrusive, but rather than reject them, we can work to set proper boundaries.

Jacob and Joseph
We learn a lot about parents and estranged children from revealing comments made by Jacob upon reuniting with his son Joseph after twenty-two years of separation. His first comment was, “I can die [at] this time, now that I have seen your face.”

On the face of it, the comment is revealing enough. Being estranged from a child is more agonizing for a parent than death itself. Now, after twenty-two years of agony, Jacob said to his son, I have everything I could ever yearn for. I have you. Nothing can top this. Even death won’t mar my happiness.

But there is a much deeper message here that reveals a profound facet of the estranged parent. Our earlier rendition of Jacob’s comment read, “I can die [at] this time, now that I have seen your face.” The word at was parenthesized because it is not in the original text. Our translation followed the rendition of Rashi, the great Biblical commentator. However, others explained Jacob’s comment in the original.

I can die this time, now that I have seen your face.” Had I not seen your face, I would have died many times. Now that I have seen your face, I will only die this once. Just this time.

What was the significance of seeing Joseph’s face? The commentaries explain that Jacob was primarily concerned with Joseph’s piety. Living in a land of moral depravity could easily have influenced Joseph. When Jacob heard that Joseph was alive, he was thrilled. But when he heard he was living in Egypt, he was concerned that Joseph might have survived physically, but had lost his piety. Jacob feared that Joseph had veered from the path that he had been taught. And when children behave inappropriately, their parents suffer. The pain is so terrible that it is akin to the pain of passing on. When parents see their children misbehave multiple times, they feel as if they have died multiple times.

Said Jacob to Joseph, I expected to die many times over. Every time you would commit an immoral act, I would feel like I wanted to die. And even after my passing, every time you would commit an immoral act, I would feel as if I had died again. But now that I behold the refined piety in your face, I am relieved that you are walking in the path of the upright. When my time comes to die, I shall die only once.

Parents who abuse their children, suffer a punishing blow every time the children, in turn, abuse their children. Children who were abused in their youth, often become abusive parents in adulthood. Every time the grandparents see that, they suffer. It is a sad spectacle to behold and knowing that they are to blame is a terrible blow.

The Alienated Parent
But so long as the parents are alive, something can be done about this. Before his passing, Jacob told Joseph, “To see your face, I did not expect.” The idea that you were alive and that we could resume our relationship was so farfetched to me that I stopped believing it was even possible. According to most commentators, Jacob was saying that he had given up hope. But according to some commentators, Jacob was also berating himself for not doing anything to find Joseph. I despaired of ever seeing you and therefore did not even try to seek you out.

This is a message to parents who are alienated from their children. Whether or not our past behavior justifies this alienation, we must reach out to our children. And if our attempts are rebuffed, we must reach out again. Not only is each day of estrangement more agonizing then death, our estrangement directly threatens the wellbeing of our grandchildren. When our children do to them, what we did to our children, a little part of us will die each time it happens.

We can’t afford to nurse our wounds and suffer in silence. As parents we must reach out again and again. We cannot give in to despair, and we cannot stop believing in the possibility of reconciliation. The wellbeing of our grandchildren hangs in the balance. The happiness of our children hangs in the balance. Our own wellness and peace of mind, also hang in the balance.

About the Author
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow, a renowned lecturer, serves as Rabbi to Congregation Beth Tefilah in London Ontario. He is a member of the curriculum development team at Rohr Jewish Learning Institute and is the author of two books and nearly a thousand online essays. You can find his work at