Parenthood is ultimately about becoming redundant in your child’s life. It’s difficult to comprehend as you hold your newborn baby in your arms, but if you do your job as a parent correctly, your services will ultimately no longer be necessary.
The art and the joy of parenthood is how to raise a self-reliant child who grows to become a self-reliant adult. How do we pass on to our children the knowledge, skills, values and beliefs they will need so that the teaching will remain with them when we are no longer ever-present?
Toward this end, Jewish fathers have particular obligations. The Talmud instructs that a father is obligated to provide his son (child) with Torah, a trade and, some say, to teach him how to swim (Kiddushin 29:A). This formula is interesting, because when the Talmud makes a list, it is meant to be all-inclusive; if something else was needed, it would have been on the list. Thus, our tradition instructs that a father has three sacred obligations in raising a child.
Torah is perhaps the easiest to explain, even if it may seem the most remote to many a Jewish dad. The mindset of the rabbis of the Talmud was focused on Jewish education and the importance of Torah within that framework. Torah, in their view, was not merely knowledge and education, and it was much more than holidays, rituals and stories. Torah serves as the cornerstone of Jewish life — it is morals, ethics and values. Its focus is how to be a good person and, particularly, how to be a responsible Jew. This responsibility is not taken lightly at all; if a Jewish father could not teach his son, it was his responsibility to find his son a teacher to perform the task. What Torah will you teach your child, and how will you teach it?
Teach your child a trade? This may seem far more applicable to our lives today. The ability to support oneself, make a living, plan for the future and support your community has often been stressed in Jewish fathering. But this commandment is about more than finding a good job — it is about legacy and tradition, about knowing the value of things earned and their value in years to come. To teach a child a trade in our modern 24/7, 60-hour workweek world is to teach your child not only to work, but how to work. It is to model the importance of the work/life/family balance. The question then is not what will they do when they grow up, but rather how will they do it? What can you teach from your lifetime of working so they remember that we work in order to live, not live in order to work?
And last is swimming. This concept is perhaps the most important of all, because at its core swimming is about survival. One learns how to swim so he or she will not drown; how fitting that the rabbis entrust this small and somewhat minor task to the Jewish father. To swim, or survive, so to speak, means to have courage and perseverance to navigate the rough waters that lie ahead in life. To swim is to let go of the side of the pool and wade purposefully into the unknown and come out safely on the other side. How will you teach your child courage and perseverance?
In all the roles a Jewish father plays, there is an essential element that is constant: time. How can a father properly introduce his child to Torah, a trade, teach courage and perseverance if he is not around? All of the above seems daunting in the abstract, but when your life is the lesson, the teaching happens for good or for ill whether you are present or not. So the most important task commanded to a Jewish father is: Be present!
Even the simplest task, when done with child in tow, can reap invaluable experience. Leading by example, being a trainer for life, is not easily done in a world of busy schedules, but it can be done. The interaction between father and child during those times provides a lesson in living. It is during these moments when Torah can be passed along. It is also during these moments when a child can learn what it means to be a father and provider, who his/her father is and what priorities have been set in life. It is in all of these moments, as your child watches you live Torah and ply your trade, that they learn from your courage and perseverance, especially in the face of adversity.
If you can do these things, there will come a moment when your child will turn to you and say, “I got it, Dad,” and you will know that he/she truly does. At that time, maybe say the “Shehecheyanu,” the blessing for having survived and been given strength to bear witness to a joyous occasion — in this context being told you’re not needed truly is a time for blessing. Oh, and one more thing, you might cry (yes, men do cry). But know this: Those tears will be bittersweet, the day you become redundant.
Dan Moskovitz is a rabbi at Temple Judea (templejudea.com), a Reform congregation in Tarzana. Visit his blog at jewishjournal.com/iRabbi.