The lesson I finally learned from my father

The lesson I finally learned from my father

For years, Elie Wiesel’s son rebelled against his famous father and the Jewish tradition. But, he writes, the Nobel laureate never wavered in his love.

Editor’s Note: As the first yahrtzeit of Elie Wiesel’s death draws near (Sivan 26, June 20), his only child reflects on the greatest gift his father gave him.

“Just be.”

As the cancer progressed with episodic violence, and my father came closer to his end, I would often ask what I could do for him. And, smiling, he would hold my hand and look into my eyes and say: “Just be.”

Nothing more than that. There were no more requests. No message he needed me to deliver, no instruction he needed me to absorb. Now the only thing he wanted to convey was his love for me, and his faith in the direction I would take my life. He wanted me to understand what my existence meant to him, not the concept of a son, but the actual me, the good and the bad and the imperfect and flawed, the whole package. “Just be.”

My education from my father had begun at an early age. When I was only a few years old, he followed the instructions, as best he could, of rabbinic sages who said parents must teach their children to swim. Though my father could not swim, and my mother was terrified anytime he went near a pool, he arranged for instruction for me. His educational demands had been more specific some 30 years ago, though with no less love and confidence in me. “Be a good student,” he said. “Be a good son. Be a good Jew.” 

As a young adult, I did the opposite. I raged against my school, against my parents, and against my tradition. My father was ill-equipped to explain the rules of modern adolescence, and I raged against myself. His love seemed too heavy to bear, the confidence he had in me grievously misplaced.

There is a chasidic story of the Baal Shem Tov, who was once approached by a chasid, bemoaning how far his son had strayed. The rebbe’s surprising answer: Love your son more.

My father must have heard this story because he lived it. He believed in me even when I did not believe in myself. He believed in me as I set out on a journey that would take me very far from Judaism and from him. And he believed in me even as I shouted at him that I wanted nothing to do with his religion, that I wanted to be an X factor in every equation he and my mother had used to project my life, that I would be an atheist or a Buddhist, anything but what he told me I had to be.

My father kept telling me to be a good student, a good son, a good Jew. But he said it more quietly. And he kept setting an example by studying Torah himself, by revering the name of his own parents, by defending the Jewish people and Jewish values. Perhaps he had learned more than I realized in watching the instructor teach me, when I was 2, how to swim — that the most important part of the teaching is in the letting go.

How could my father love me the way he did, when my disrespect was so severe?

His love for me was an impossible love. His belief in me was an impossible belief. But he had a way of holding impossible beliefs. And now I, too, have impossible beliefs, beliefs that do not square with rational thought. I believe he is still with me, still believing in me. In the moment when he died, he went from being somewhere to being nowhere — and then he was everywhere. It was as though I could feel the universe resonating with his love for me, saying: I am still loving you. I will always love you. I am with you in everything you do. 

Do you remember when Ben Kenobi was struck down in “Star Wars” (Episode IV) and becomes more powerful than ever? It was like that, except that I alone could feel it. I can feel him loving me even today, if I just open myself up to it.

“Just be.” 

I spoke to a friend recently who always felt while growing up that she was never good enough for her father. There was always one more trophy to win, one more Ivy League school to add to her resume. When I ask her about her relationship with him, she says she can always hear her father whispering in her ear: “not good enough.” What will she hear for the rest of her life once her father has passed? And what will that do to her?

I spend a lot of time these days thinking about how I want my children to remember me. One day my son and daughter will say Kaddish and observe Yizkor for me. Will my flaws loom larger in their memory than the things I did right? Will they remember me as having loved them like crazy, and having believed that they can do anything they set their hearts and minds to?

Yizkor is for the dead and for the living. It is a reminder of our own mortality. It is a reminder to decide who we want to be and how we want to be remembered.

Do you say everything you have to say, the way my father did, until there is nothing left? Are you squeezing every last drop of experience out of your time on this Earth? Did someone, anyone, have a better day today because of something you said or did?

If you are a parent whose children still live with you, do you come home early from work every so often to play a game with your kids?

Are you figuring out how to teach your children — and when to stop teaching them and start trusting in them, and acknowledging that this may be the greatest lesson of all?

And when they ask you what they need to do next, or what they can do for you, will every fiber in your being transmit to them: “Just be”?

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