Alexander the Great conquered the world, but he was a terrible father, his son Alexander IV was executed at a young age; Nelson Mandela started a revolution in South Africa, but had a terrible relationship with his children; Winston Churchill, a revered statesman, also had a strained relationship with some of his children, not because he didn’t love them but he simply had little time for them.
I know my grandfather loved his children very much as well, and yet, he was preoccupied with building a sustainable religious community in Brooklyn, creating schools, raising an entire congregation—sometimes his children suffered as a result. I recall my grandfather, retired, living in Israel, swaddling my infant daughter Elisheva; his wife, Faye, was not pleased and yelled at him saying, ‘you never did that to any of your own children!’ His response goes to the heart of what I am trying to say: ‘Faye, all of Crown Heights were my children!’ He was right and wrong…
This phenomenon is unfortunately not uncommon. Between placing leaving your mark on the world and going to your kids’ school play, it is evident what often takes precedence. And then, I heard a recording of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, Ztz”l, my rabbi. He was speaking at the end of his life with his wife Tova about the topic of parenting, and without any hesitation said the single most important job, and his greatest success, is having raised children about whom he can be proud! And this from the leader of the Modern Orthodox world who influenced tens of thousands and built institutions!
Rav Aharon once said: Parents must ask themselves to what extent they want to “swing for the fences.” The night before one of my children married, he raised this issue with me. I described to him how I saw other contexts where a steep price had been paid for swinging for the fences, and I said that a double is also enough.
I wondered about these issues when reading through the parsha (Behaalotecha).
We never hear about Moshe’s sons. Indeed, there is a midrash which speaks of them in quite negative terms. The most we could possibly say about them was that they were not significant enough to make it into the Torah’s narrative. Other than being born we never hear from them, and they are not ‘future successors’, nothing. I asked Chatgpt how many times the phrase ‘Moses and his sons’ appeared in Torah. The answer: 0. How many times does it say Aharon and his sons? 87!
Aharon was a father of four sons, about whom we know most intimately. Aharon raised and reared, and though two of them were struck down early in life, we nevertheless get the impression that he was constantly involved in all his sons’ lives, guiding them and preparing them for their future roles. And yet, he must have been plagued by the question of pursuing greatness or focusing more on local issues; of ‘swinging for the fences’ on the national level, being the second most important person in the nation, and having the responsibility to stand before God in the Mishkan, versus making sure to continue to raise his children, guide them, sacrifice for them, put them first.
To this question I believe the midrash addresses in the beginning of our Parsha. The Midrash notes that when the Mishkan was being inaugurated and all the princes were recorded by the Torah bringing wonderful and ornate gifts, Aharon was left out and saddened. God came to Aharon and said ‘worry not, for you will receive the job of cleaning the Menorah and lighting it’, and Aharon was relieved.
I believe Aharon was not concerned about missing out on the inauguration of the Temple; he was experiencing more existential angst concerning how much time he was giving to the Temple, versus taking care of his family. He was saddened that he could not engage in the big ceremonious activities, he was instead relegated to private and more menial tasks: cleaning the lamps, lighting and relighting, day after day. What about ‘swinging for the fences’?
God comforts Aharon explaining to him that the most important job you can have in life involves the day-to-day activities in the Temple and doing it with your children. Showing your sons how to clean the Menorah every day is a lesson they will have with them for their entire lives. They will learn that you do not believe you are so important for Israel to forget about them; you do not see yourself as so indispensable to the nation that their upbringings should suffer; rather, every day at dawn, you will engage in the service of God and then you will educate your children to pass this message to the next generation.
A double is surely enough!