Come this September, my wife Robin and I will be celebrating our fortieth wedding anniversary, a relatively rare event in this era of late marriage and frequent divorce. That span of time has afforded us the precious opportunity to bring four beautiful children into this world and raise them, each different from the other, each progressing slowly but steadily from cradle to independence. It has been an unending source of stimulation, laughter, and tears. That doesn’t stop no matter how old they get.
Like all parents, I have more than enough stories, many funny, others less so, that could chronicle the experiences of our most intense parenting years, but I’ll spare you all. What I will share, however, is what to me is the most significant lesson that I learned along the way: each and every child is unique. Whether you have two children or four or five, they are all different from each other, each will require different parenting, and each will provide different frustrations and rewards. We parents tend to lump children together into categories, but that does them a terrible injustice.
That probably sounds like the most banal statement I could possibly make, to say that every child is different, but I assure you it’s the most profound. A Mishnah in Tractate Sanhedrin teaches us that every human being is created from the stamp of primordial Adam, yet no two people are the same. That is, from a spiritual perspective, the true miracle of creation. Each and every person is entitled to say “Bishvili nivrah ha’olam;” The world was created for my sake.
Like military families, where children rarely have a chance to establish roots in any one location because their parents are constantly being reassigned to different postings, it is common– actually, it’s more than common– for children of rabbinic families to encounter the same challenges, with predictable results.
Yet as I prepare to begin my thirty-sixth year in the pulpit of the Forest Hills Jewish Center, I gratefully take stock of my blessings. They are many and rich, but one of which I am constantly aware is that my four children, who were born into this community, have spent their entire childhoods here. One of them once informed me that if I were ever to leave, they could deal with that, but they were staying in Forest Hills. Not too many rabbis are lucky enough to have their children be able to say the same thing. I know that there have been some days and times that were more difficult than others, but that is true in virtually all childhoods. Their years in Forest Hills have been good for them.
But my children staying in Forest Hills is not an issue any more, because as of this coming week, the last of them, my son Matan who just graduated from the University of Michigan, is flying the coop. He is leaving for a twenty-seven month stint in the Peace Corps, where he will be teaching English in a secondary school in Guinea, far from the comforts of home.
Robin and I are, understandably, more than a little sad at the prospect of having Matan so far away for so long. Though he is, in all the important ways, a mature adult, every parent will know that your youngest child is your youngest child no matter how old he or she might be, and Matan will always have a special place in our hearts. But side by side with the wistfulness of the moment is an enormous pride in the choice that he has made. It proclaims, in a voice loud and clear, that his path will indeed be unique– different from those of his siblings, not to mention his parents. Though he may not know where it will take him, he clearly is saying “bishvili nivrah ha’olam.” As I’ve said to those people who asked me how we’re feeling as Matan prepares to depart, I am proud that he is engaging in Tikkun Olam with his whole being, as opposed to merely talking about it, or taking out his checkbook. I am much more proud than sad. But yes, I’m sad, too.
The title of this piece, “Who Knows Where the Time Goes,” is after a haunting song that Judy Collins recorded (among others, including Richie Havens and Nina Simone) in the late 60’s, and made the lead song on her album of the same name. Through the years, it has remained one of my favorites, giving a richer meaning to what a truth I have increasingly intuited as I age. As Gretchen Rubin famously said, the days are long but the years are short…
That’s exactly what it feels like to me.
Some of those days were very long indeed, and not all were wonderful. Some were painful, and all were challenging. Four children in the house made an awful lot of noise, but it was a joyful noise—the noise of a vibrant family living a full and rewarding life. But the years were short indeed, and I’ll miss them terribly. Who knows where the time goes?
Sah L’Shalom, Matan. Go in peace and come back to us in peace. We’re all proud of you.
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.