I Didn’t Know My Father Had Died, But I Knew I Loved Him
By Rabbi Levi Avtzon
Overview: This article looks at the connection between parent and child and how it transitions from physical to spiritual.

It’s a lovely Wednesday (January 9, 2019) summer afternoon in South Africa. I’m sitting at my desk thinking about what to write for my upcoming column on Chabad.org. The Parshah of Yitro is so rich—the 10 Commandments, the Giving of the Torah, the covenant at Sinai . . . what is resonating with me?

As I sit with a blank Word document open before me, I am drawn to a tradition regarding Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement, who revolutionized the Jewish world with his message of unconditional love, inspiration and acceptance.

While still a young man, Rabbi Israel was an assistant teacher who lovingly brought the children to school and helped with the lessons. “When I was a young assistant teacher,” he would later recall, “I worked so hard to teach the young children to respect and love their parents. I always tried to point out and emphasize their good qualities to the children.”1

I am not sure why, but this notion of loving one’s parent is resonating with me strongly, tugging at me, begging to be unpacked and explored.

Before I continue with my own journey, let us explore the history and context of this statement.

The Baal Shem Tov’s revolution came at a most pivotal time in Jewish history, when the social fabric of Jewish life was fraying at the edges and the bonds of tradition were threatening to snap.

In the years 1648–1649, murderous bands led by Bogdan Chmielnicki had swept through the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe, leaving death and destruction in their wake.

Then, just a decade later, the Jews were spiritually crushed by the false hopes and disappointments that followed the scandal of Shabtai Tzvi, who initially claimed to be the Moshiach but ultimately converted to Islam.

Displaced, dejected, depressed and demoralized, the Jews of Eastern Europe had reached a new low. Educational systems had crumbled, communal structures had fallen away, and people were penniless, hopeless and clueless.

This was the state of affairs into which the Baal Shem Tov was born in 1698. He longed to put together the pieces, to restore the Jewish people, but first, he needed to craft a foundation.

The foundation of Jewish life, of a healthy life, is a strong parent-child bond. If you love and respect your parents, you are open to receive, to learn and to grow, secure in the knowledge of who you are and where you belong.

Love between parents and children paves the way for healthy emotional, spiritual and physical connections. A parent can only hope to influence a child when the child loves his parent and feels loved by his parent.

Teaching children to appreciate their parents was the first step the Baal Shem Tov took, and it is the first step we must take as well.

As educators, we often tell children that they cannot be forced to love their parents. They are expected, however, to respect their parents. It’s one of the 10 Commandments, and it’s only decent that we accord deferential treatment to the people who give us so much.

Perhaps the Baal Shem Tov was teaching us that there is more, that we must actively seek out ways to love our parents, to treasure them and to adore them . . .

As I contemplate these thoughts and wonder how to best set them to paper, I suddenly get a message from Brooklyn, where it is an early winter morning. “Tatty is not responding.” Whaaat? Not responding to what? I’m in shock—total and absolute shock.

A few minutes later, I get the second, dreaded message: Baruch Dayan Haemet, “Blessed be the True Judge.” My father, only 61 years old and so full of life, is no longer among the living. It’s unbelievable.

The document still lies open, but I am not going to fill it with words. I need to get on a plane and fly to America. Throughout the whirlwind of funeral plans and shiva, I have one recurring thought: My father had passed away in his sleep several hours before he was found. As I had sat and contemplated how to best express the deep love of a child to his parent, my father’s soul was ascending on high, and our connection was transitioning from the physical to the spiritual.

I am comforted by this thought. Even though I had no idea what was happening on the other side of the world, I was thinking of this special love that exists between a parent and child.

The Chayei Adam, a classic compendium of halachah (Jewish Law), writes as follows:

It is obvious that one must love his parents as his very self, just like we are obligated to love every Jew. However, the love we must have for our parents is compared to the love we must have for G‑d. We must love them with passionate love, just as they love us.

Today, so many of us are aware of what our parents have done wrong. We have all the excuses in the world to resent our parents. They neglected us, they stifled us. They were never present, they never gave us presents. We are very good at identifying their shortcomings and looking down upon them as backward relics of a previous generation.

But the Baal Shem Tov teaches us that the most important foundation is a healthy family dynamic, which begins with loving our parents unconditionally.

Right now, my siblings and I are observing shiva. A constant stream of visitors is coming to our home, each one sharing his or her experience with my father. Through their words, I am learning more about my father, loving him more, admiring him more and appreciating him more.

I always knew that my father took such pride in us, his children. But I never appreciated the extent. Each friend comes in and tells me just how proud my dear father was of me. And each time I hear that, I love him even more.

People focus on my father’s incredible impact on their lives, whether through the hundreds of books on Chassidism he published or through a shidduch he made for them. And I love him more.

I look at my siblings and take such pride in the family my father raised, together with my dear mother. And I love him more.

Please don’t wait until shiva. Follow the example of the Baal Shem Tov. Teach children to appreciate their parents, tell them why you look up to their parents and why they should do the same. A child who loves his parents will have all the emotional strength he needs to grow into a loving parent.

You can craft the next link in the chain of Jewish continuity, and it begins by helping children love their parents. What a gift to a child!

Dedicated in eternal memory of my father, R’ Yona ben R’ Meir Avtzon, of blessed memory.

Originally published here

Rabbi Levi Avtzon
Rabbi Levi Avtzon is the rabbi of the Linksfield Senderwood Hebrew Congregation in Johannesburg, SA.