As I get ready for the High Holidays, I go back to my yearly struggle with the popular understanding of reward and punishment. As we will diligently read the prayers of U’Nitaneh Tokef, “On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword, who by beast, who by famine, who by thirst, who by storm, who by plague, who by strangulation, and who by stoning.” By definition, we cannot know the answers to these questions, so I often ask myself, who cares? And even if I did know, I do not feel that this way of thinking is what motivates me to follow Halacha. And even worse than that, if I really assumed that my perception of reward and punishment was supposed to motivate me, I would need to undertake an unbearable theodicy. How else could I interpret the suffering of innocent children? God forbid God be unjust.
So there I am in me yearly quandary, and my wife tells me that she got a lovely call from Yadid’s teacher. Yadid, our eldest child, just started Kindergarten last week. His teacher wanted to tell us that he is a pleasure and a real Mentsch. Whatever we are doing as parents she wanted us to keep it up. But what are we doing as parents?
So the next day as I was walking Yadid to the bus stop I asked him about his day at school. He reports back to me about his class trip to an orchard to go apple picking for Rosh HaShanah. I tell him how happy I am that he is enjoying his new school and how proud I am to have gotten such a nice call from his teacher. I asked him what he thinks he did to make the teacher want to call us. He recalled that the Kippah of one of his classmates had blown off and he had run to retrieve it. I asked, “Why did you do that?”. Yadid responds, “It’s a Mitzvah”. I push, “Why do you do Mitzvot?” Yadid responds, “Because I get treasures”. Evidently his teacher gives out prizes for good behavior. Unsure of what would come next; I asked Yadid, “Why do you think Abba does Mitzvot?”
There was a pregnant pause, during which I ponder sharing with my son my seasonal theological crises. And then I look at my five year old son who is just now on his way to school. His heart and mind are even more open than his eyes curious for me to answer my question. “Yadid, you know that you, your brother, and your sister are my treasures, I do Mitzvot so that I can get you in my life”. And with that I caressed his cheek and he gave me a hug. Was I dishonest to hide from him my issues of reward and punishment? Was saying the “truth” for him or for me? In the end (or at the least at this point in my life) it was a lie. I can only hope that one day Yadid will read this blog that he inspired and see a deeper truth. One day he will become my Philosopher King. Parenting is complex, tiring, and often thankless, but a moment when my son knows that he is treasured is its own “reward”.