Richard Block
A Leading American Rabbi

The Questions I Wish I Had Asked

A man phones his mother. She answers in a very faint voice, “Hello.” He asks, “Mom, how are you?” She replies, “Very weak.” “Why are you weak?” “I haven’t eaten in 27 days.” “Why haven’t you eaten in 27 days?!” “I didn’t want my mouth to be full when you called.”

Expectations differ from parent to parent, but from the time I left home for college in 1965, a Sunday phone call home was a weekly ritual in the Block family. As a parent and grandparent myself, I now have a much deeper understanding of my parents’ need for that regular and direct communication. But at the time, making that call often felt more like a duty than a pleasure and, I am ashamed to admit, I sometimes considered it a burden. Our conversations were mainly my reports of activities at school. My parents asked and I answered, rarely the other way around, beyond, “What’s going on with you?”

Long distance calls were much more expensive in those bygone days, before the cellular phone, Skype and the Internet, especially international ones. In 1978, when Susie and I and our sons, then 5 and 2, were living in Jerusalem, weekly calls to both sets of parents were extremely brief. They were pretty much confined to “Hi, we’re fine. Having a wonderful time. The kids are doing great. How are you? We love you. Goodbye.” Whatever we could cram into the minimum three minute duration in those days. For more informative reports, we used those blue, tissue paper-thin mailers, and we periodically mailed home recorded cassette tapes recounting our activities. How I wish we could find one of those tapes now, these many years later!

My parents died 15 years ago. It’s hard to believe that much time has passed; it seems like yesterday. We miss them and think of them often, especially when we are blessed to be with one or more of our six grandchildren, the great-grandchildren for whom my parents longed, but didn’t live to meet.

My father, a distinguished CPA, was one of the finest people I’ve ever known and certainly one of the most orderly. When I was in high school, he used to glance at the piles in my room and declare, “A messy desk is evidence of a messy mind.” In later years, he maintained a black, loose leaf binder full of vital information — bank accounts, safe deposit boxes, brokerage accounts, various passwords, contact information for their attorney, and more. Every time we would visit in Seattle, Dad would show me where the binder was quasi-concealed, bring it out and insist on going through it page by page, line by line, detail by detail, “just in case.” He was good-natured to a point about the difficulty getting my complete and undivided attention during this annual exercise, but he wouldn’t let up until I fully paid heed. Then “just in case” happened and, thanks to Dad and despite myself, I knew what I needed to do.

Two of the best-known passages in the Passover Haggadah involve parents and children. One is The Four Questions, nowadays customarily posed by the youngest capable child present. Originally, however, these questions were not posed by children at the Pesach table, but by the leader of the seder to the children, in order to engage them in the ritual, stimulate their curiosity, and evoke questions of their own.

After The Four Questions comes the parable of The Four Sons, now, The Four Children. The wise child asks lots of questions, wanting to understand every nuance, and the parent responds with an elaborate, detailed exposition. The wicked child feels no personal connection to the matters at hand and receives a sharp retort intended to cut through his indifference and self-absorption. The simple child’s barely articulate question, “What’s this?” evokes an answer of corresponding simplicity, appropriate to the child’s understanding. The fourth child doesn’t know what to ask, so the parent explains patiently, without need of invitation.

Questions and answers and more questions, stories told and retold, whether invited or volunteered – these are classic Jewish paradigms of parent-child interaction. They are a means by which parents fulfill the commandment, “You shall teach them diligently unto your children” and children observe the corresponding obligation, “Honor your father and your mother.”

The Haggadah’s portrayal of the four children reminds us that not everyone has the same mindset, values, interests or comprehension. These types also epitomize aspects of personality. At one time or another, each of us has been the inquisitive child, eager to learn, the disengaged child, cranky and self-centered, the simple child, struggling to put thoughts into words, and the silent child, overwhelmed and tongue-tied.

Each Yom Kippur and on the Jewish “pilgrim festivals,” we come to the Yizkor service cognizant of losses. Among those I remember with love, gratitude, and tenderness are my parents, Bob and Marian, my grandparents, Julia and Hugo, Joe and Sarah, my brother, Steve, my wife Susie’s parents, Henri and Vic, her grandparents, and my uncle, Ken, at whose memorial service I officiated.

As I traveled home from that occasion, I experienced powerful emotions. One of them was how good it was to be together, even under those circumstances, with my two aunts, my maternal uncle, cousins and step cousins, some of whom I barely knew and others I hadn’t seen for a decade or more. One thing that makes loss bearable is knowing we are not alone in the world. The good feelings the extended family shared even in that time of loss, evoked a desire to stay in closer touch and a measure of guilt at my failure to have done so.

Even stronger was a deep feeling of sadness — at Ken’s death, of course – but also at the lost opportunity to ask him questions that would have let me know my father and my paternal grandparents better. How I wish I had not wasted so much time channeling the indifferent, simple, or questionless child of the Pesach parable! If only I had summoned the inquisitive child, again and again and again, before it was too late and that door closed forever. Where was the wise child when my parents and grandparents and brother and uncle were alive? Why did I let that child get away with cameos and walk-ons when he could have played a leading role in a long-running production? And when he did appear, why didn’t he pay closer attention and try harder to retain what he learned?

Wiser than I, author Judith Newman asked her mother, “What’s the one thing you would have done differently as a mom? Why did you choose to be with my father? In what ways do you think I’m like you? Which one of us kids did you like the best? Is there anything you have always wanted to tell me but never have? Is there anything you regret not having asked your parents? What is the best thing I can do for you right now? Is there anything that you wish had been different between us — or that you would still like to change? When did you realize you were no longer a child?”

Another author wished she had asked her mom. “What was your wedding day like? How did your mother prepare you for the wedding night? What were some of your mother’s positive qualities? What about negative qualities? What is your fondest memory of your mother or your grandmother? Tell me a story about your mother or grandmother that would show me what kind of person she was.”

Some years ago, a rabbinic colleague whose father was receiving palliative and hospice care, shared on Facebook that she paused in her High Holy Day preparation for a few hours to make family photo collages and set them by her dad’s bedside. She wrote that he actually transcended his pain without medication while going through the pictures and became, she recounted, “a river of stories of those times,” a very memorable occasion for which she will always be grateful.

When our kids and grandchildren were visiting one summer, I brought out a box of family memorabilia I had shipped home after my parents died, but hadn’t opened since. Together, we discovered and rediscovered a trove of photographs and keepsakes, including photos of my grandparents and great grandparents, and of my parents as toddlers, children, teenagers, newlyweds, and young parents. We found anniversary telegrams from their parents, Fathers and Mothers Day cards sent to each other in my name when I was a baby, and, most movingly of all, beautiful, passionate, elegantly hand-written letters from my father to my mother when he was serving in the Aleutian Islands in the Navy in WWII.

Sharing these precious mementos engendered questions and wonderment. Earlier generations of our family came alive in a new and vibrant manner for the three generations now here and, by providing rare, sweet moments of grace, drew us and our children and grandchildren closer to those who came before us and to each other. Mah nishtanah halailah hazeh? How was that night different? We took time to nurture and savor the ties that bind and to inform our loving relationships with greater content, context, and texture.

In “The Fathers Day I Wish For,” Linda Nielson, a teacher and psychologist wrote, “As a 55 year old daughter, what do I wish for Fathers Day? Foremost, I wish my father were still alive. I don’t have to wish we loved each other. We did. I don’t have to wish we had been proud of each other. We were. I don’t have to wish we had resolved the conflicts that plagued us during my twenties. We had…And yet I wish — I wish we had been comfortable and more open talking about the things that mattered most — the personal, significant parts of our lives like my divorce, his being a grandfather, his childhood, the deaths of his parents,…his aging, spirituality, regrets, fears, hopes and plans for the future — mine and his….And so I wish — I wish I had realized that loving my father was not the same as knowing him — and that loving him was not the same as allowing him to know me….l wish I had fully embraced my father, rather than simply loving him.”

Robert Seyffert, grandson of a well-known portraitist, Leopold Seyffert, once said, “I wish I could speak with my grandparents now. I have so much more to say to them now than in my 20’s. [But] I was in a hurry.” Isn’t that the case with us, too, so busy going about the business of our lives that we rarely stop to connect on a deeper level with those we love? Whatever the reason, as with many other aspirations, we put things off for tomorrow instead of doing them today. It is as if we think that we and the people we love will live forever, that there will always be time to get to around to doing what we’d most like to do in our heart of hearts. But life and Yizkor teach us that is not so.

Each of us carries within a unique and invaluable measure of our family history and legacy. Each of us has a story to tell, one that, if it remains untold, will disappear forever. The time to ask our parents and grandparents, our aunts and uncles, whoever may be the keepers of our family memories, if we are lucky enough still to have them, questions that will allow us not just to love them, but to know them, let them know us and, thereby, to know ourselves more deeply, is not tomorrow or the day after, or when we have the time, or when we get around to it or when we have nothing else to do. It is now. It is today. The time to encourage our children and grandchildren to ask questions and to share our family memories with them is not tomorrow or the day after, or when we have the time, or when we get around to it or when we have nothing else to do. It is now. It is today.

By the questions we ask and the questions we answer, the stories we are told and the stories we tell, we will bring the past alive, creating new memories that will last a lifetime and be shared from generation to generation. While we’re still here and there is still time. Before it’s too late. Now. Today.

About the Author
Rabbi Richard Block is Past President and Chairs the Past Presidents Council of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the rabbinic leadership organization of Reform Judaism, Senior Rabbi Emeritus of The Temple - Tifereth Israel, Cleveland, OH and Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Beth Am, Los Altos Hills, CA. Newsweek Magazine has recognized him as "one of the top 25 pulpit rabbis in America."
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