When a loved one dies, it’s natural to blame ourselves for not having had more time with them. If only we had written more, called more, visited more. Especially in an age of unprecedented human mobility, where it’s common to settle down far from where we were raised, many of us feel deep regret after a loved one dies for not having chosen to live in closer proximity.
At the start of Parashat Lech Lecha, we learn that Abraham made just such a choice. The first verse of the Torah portion reads: “God said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.’” Like many of us, Abraham must have experienced tension between the pull of familial obligation and the push to realize his own personal identity. And indeed, we learn from the midrash that Abraham himself feared that later generations might judge him for his choice.
“If I go to Canaan, people will … say that he (Abraham) left his father during his old age,” the midrash imagines Abraham saying. The rabbis who penned this midrash were clearly sensitive to the perception that Abraham had abandoned his father, breaking one of the most fundamental commandments: honoring one’s parents. They imagine Abraham’s fear that future generations would learn from his example that it is morally acceptable to abandon one’s parents in their time of greatest need.
Yet, the Torah is also clear that Abraham had to leave his father if he was to fulfill his own destiny. The commentator Rashi explains that Abraham would never have realized his potential if he hadn’t heeded God’s command. Drawing on a different midrash, Rashi writes: “Go for your own benefit and your own good. Only there … will I make your character known throughout the world.” In contemporary terms, Rashi reveals a deep psychological insight: Sometimes, children must physically distance themselves from their parents to become who they were meant to be.
Many of us are personally familiar with this dilemma. We know the powerful pull to move away to actualize an identity separate and unique from our parents. When we make that choice, it is impossible to grasp how it might impact the potential for an enriching adult relationship with our parents and the enjoyment our children might derive from regular interactions with their grandparents. And it’s similarly impossible to grasp how we might someday feel when our parents are no longer a phone call away and the guilt that might arise at the thought of what denied them and us by choosing that path.
But leaving our parents does not mean abandoning them. We can learn from Abraham that following our own inner calling does not mean abandoning our obligation to honor our parents. Proximity to parents does not guarantee a perfect relationship any more than distance demands that we disregard them. In all kinds of ways, we can be geographically distant and emotionally close.
If we have chosen to build a life in a different city from our families (or if our parents decide to move away from us for better weather!), we may be struck with recrimination when they die. We may start down the path of if only — If only we had visited more, if only we had moved back to be closer to home. But Abraham’s example enables us to take stock of our choice more honestly. Like Abraham, we can acknowledge that we had to leave home; we had no other alternative. And we can take comfort in remembering that we will always carry our parents’ values within us regardless of our physical address.
This article initially appeared in My Jewish Learning’s Reading Torah Through Grief newsletter on Oct. 28, 2022. To sign up to receive this newsletter each week in your inbox, click here.
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