On Sunday, as is the custom in my family, I will receive a Yom Kippur blessing from my father. The image of my father gathering me in his tallis, placing his hands on my head and asking God to grant me a good year is one of my fondest childhood memories. My father concludes his blessing with the words a gut yor meyn kind (a good year, my child).
Having grown taller than my father, I now bend my knees so he can place his hands on my head. When I left home to attend yeshiva, I would call home on Erev Yom Kippur to receive his blessing.Even now, when I hear my father’s voice, the wool of his tallis brushing against my face, I am transformed from an independent adult to meyn tate’s yingel (my father’s little boy).
The Yom Kippur blessing is also a time for my father and me to reconcile any disagreements we may have had over the year. A father’s blessing is said out of ahavah (love), my father would say. There can be no blessing if there are arguments to cloud or muddy that love.
When I was growing up, I sensed my father’s inability to praise his children, perhaps a trait he inherited from his authoritarian father. If I came home from school with a 90 on a test, I was asked why I didn’t get 100. Yet I could see the sparkle in his blue eyes that told me he was proud. That same sparkle was there when my father stood with me for a picture at my graduation from UCLA.
Maybe it was the age difference – some 41 years separate us – or perhaps it was because our worlds and world views were so different, but my father always seemed distant when I was younger. I always felt he didn’t understand me. Mark Twain writes that when he was a boy, he thought his father was a fool. But when Twain grew up, he realized how smart his father really was. It was amazing how much he learned in those few years, Twain wrote. I still had problems dealing with him on a daily basis but my father had become my “crisis dad.”
When I felt the world coming down on me, I knew he would understand, or at least listen. From my decision to leave yeshiva and attend college, a move that, for a while, had me ostracized from my insular Lubavitch community, to my breaking up with a woman I thought I was going to marry, it was my father who was there for me. It was in him that I found solace.
For the past few years my father’s pre-Yom Kippur blessing has taken on a new meaning. Three years ago, he suffered a heart attack. Although he is now recovered, thank God, there was a time during the ordeal when we thought we would lose him.
A close friend of mine lost her mother when she was 21. As a result of her mother’s death, life was no longer the same, she says. The therapeutic voice that once soothed her was silenced. Just knowing that her mom would not be present at her wedding or the birth of her children would make those joyous occasions bittersweet. And she could never tell her mom how much she loved her.
After I received the phone call telling me about my father’s illness, I rushed to the hospital. I remember staring at him through the small window on the door of his room. The man who was always so strong suddenly looked so weak. I spent that day with him in the hospital and helped him put on his tefillin; his right hand was strapped down with all the tubes running into his arm.
When I returned home that night and after I dried my tears, I realized that perhaps I was given the chance not just to appreciate my father, but to let him know.
Since then, my father’s Yom Kippur blessing – and just hearing his voice over the phone – has become a reminder of how precious a gift life is and a gauge of my mortality. His words, delivered just moments before the most solemn of days, not only return me to my youth, but help me face the future with hope and gratitude.