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Rabbi Richard A. Block Headshot

The Questions I Wish I Had Asked

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A man calls his mother. She answers the phone in a very faint voice, "Hello."

He asks, "Mom, how are you?"

She replies, "Very weak."

"Why are you weak?"

"I haven't eaten in 27 days."

"Why haven't you eaten in 27 days?!"

"I didn't want my mouth to be full when you called."

Expectations differ from parent to parent, but from the time I left home for college in 1965, the Sunday phone call home was a weekly ritual in the Block family. As a parent and now a grandparent myself, I have a much deeper understanding of my parents' need for that regular and direct communication, but at the time, making that call felt more like a duty than a pleasure and, I am ashamed to admit, I regarded it at times as a burden.

My parents died seven years ago. It's hard to believe that much time has passed. We miss them and think of them often, especially when we are blessed to be with one or more of our five grandchildren, the great-grandchildren for whom my mom and dad longed but didn't live to meet. My father, a distinguished CPA, was one of the finest people I've ever known and certainly one of the most orderly. In his later years, he maintained a black loose leaf binder full of vital information -- bank and brokerage accounts, safe deposit boxes, passwords, contacts, and more. When we visited Seattle, Dad would show me where the binder was quasi-concealed, bring it out, and insist on going through it in minute detail, "just in case." He was reasonably good-natured about the difficulty getting my undivided attention during this exercise, but he wouldn't let up. Then "just in case" happened and, thanks to Dad and despite myself, I knew what I needed to do.

Two of the best-known passages in the Passover Haggadah involve parents and children. One is The Four Questions, nowadays recited by the youngest child present. Originally, however, these questions were not posed by children, but the leader of the seder, to engage the kids in the ritual, arouse their curiosity, and stimulate questions of their own.

After The Four Questions comes the parable of "the four sons." The wise child asks lots of questions, seeking to understand every nuance, and the parent responds with a detailed exposition. The wicked child feels no personal connection to the matters at hand and receives a sharp retort intended to cut through his indifference and self-absorption. The simple child's barely articulate question, "What's this?" evokes an answer of corresponding simplicity, appropriate to the child's understanding. The fourth child doesn't know what to ask, so the parent explains patiently, without need of invitation.

Questions and answers and more questions, stories told and retold, whether invited or volunteered -- these are classic Jewish paradigms of parent-child interaction. They are a means by which parents fulfill the commandment, "You shall teach them diligently unto your children" and children observe the corresponding obligation, "Honor your father and your mother."

The Haggadah's portrayal of the four childen reminds us that not everyone has the same mindset, values, or comprehension. These types also epitomize aspects of personality. At one time or another, each of us has been the inquisitive child, eager to learn, the disengaged child, cranky and self-centered, the simple child, struggling to put thoughts into words, and the silent child, overwhelmed and tongue-tied.

As the high holy days approach, so early this year, memories of those I have loved and lost coming flooding to mind: my parents, Bob and Marian; my grandparents, Julia and Hugo, Joe and Sarah; my brother, Steve; and my father-in-law, Victor, who died earlier this year. As the years pass, the emotions remain keen, but the details become harder to recapture.

When my uncle Ken, my father's only brother, died several years ago, I felt deep sadness -- at his death, of course -- but also to realize that I had lost forever the opportunity to ask him questions by which I could have gotten to know my father and paternal grandparents better. How I wish I had not wasted so much time channeling the indifferent, simple, or silent child of the Pesach parable! If only I had summoned the inquisitive child, again and again and again, before it was too late and that door closed forever. Where was the wise child when my parents and grandparents and brother and uncle were alive? Why did I let that child get away with cameos and walk-ons, when he could have played the leading role in a long-running production? And when he did appear, why didn't he pay closer attention and work harder on retaining what he learned?

When our kids and grandchildren were visiting a few summers ago, I opened a box of family memorabilia I had shipped to Cleveland after my parents died, but hadn't explored. Together, we discovered a trove of photographs and keepsakes: photos of my grandparents and great grandparents, and of my parents as toddlers, children, teenagers, newlyweds, and young parents. We found anniversary telegrams from their parents, fathers and mothers day cards sent to each other in my name when I was a baby, and, most movingly of all, beautiful, passionate, elegantly hand-written letters from my father to my mother, including the one he wrote a year before I was born, the day his "relief," his successor as captain of the minesweeper he commanded, arrived, allowing him to receive his discharge papers and, as he wrote my mother he was so eager to do, come home, hold her in his arms, and to start a family.

Sharing these precious mementos engendered questions and wonderment. They enabled earlier generations of our family to come alive in a vibrant manner for the three generations now here and, by providing rare, sweet moments of grace, drew us and our children and grandchildren closer to those who came before us and to each other. Mah nishtanah halailah hazeh? What made that night different? We took the time to nurture and savor the ties that bind and to inform our loving relationships with greater content, context, and texture.

In, "The Fathers Day I Wish For," teacher and psychologist, Linda Nielson wrote, "I wish I had realized that loving my father was not the same as knowing him -- and that loving him was not the same as allowing him to know me ... I wish I had fully embraced my father, rather than simply loving him." And Robert Seyffert, grandson of a well-known portraitist, Leopold Seyffert, said, "I wish I could speak with my grandparents. I have so much more to say to them now than in my 20s. [But] I was in a hurry." Isn't that the case with us, so absorbed in the business of daily life, as if we and the people we love will live forever? Sadly, life and yizkor teach us that is not so.

Each of us possesses a unique, invaluable measure of family history and legacy, stories to tell that, if they go untold, will disappear forever. The time to ask the keepers of our family memories, if we are blessed still to have them, questions that will allow us to know them and they us and, thereby, to know ourselves more deeply, is not tomorrow or the day after, when we have time, get around to it, or have nothing else to do. The time to encourage our children and grandchildren to ask questions and to share our family memories with them is not tomorrow or the day after, when we have time, get around to it or have nothing else to do. It is today.

By the questions we ask and the questions we answer, the stories we are told and the stories we tell, we will bring the past alive, creating new memories that will last a lifetime and be shared from generation to generation. While we're still here and there is still time. Before it's too late. Now. Today.