Eighteen Years is Plenty

June 14, 2019
Rabbi Elliot J. Cosgrove


Of all the emotions I have experienced these past two weeks as my oldest daughter graduated from high school – pride, nachas, wistful nostalgia, profound gratitude, and overwhelming love – the emotion that I did not count on and have felt most deeply is panic. Panic: the uncontrollable fear or anxiety that a person can feel anytime or anywhere, but most often experiences at times of transition, when one chapter closes and another opens, when the ground shifts from beneath us, when the known is replaced by the unknown. We stare into that unfamiliar future, and we seize up; we look for an escape hatch, we grab for things to hold onto and, like a basketball player sensing the seconds of the game clock winding down, we call for a time-out, desperately searching for some intervention by which we can make the inevitable . . . less inevitable. From the outside, with only a few notable exceptions, these last few weeks appeared to be business as usual. I have clocked into work, attended end-of-year thank-you cocktail parties and community dinners, given a sermon or two, and maybe even forwarded the mission of the Jewish people in my own small way. But on the inside, from senior dinner to graduation to prom to putting my kid on the plane yesterday, I have been an absolute wreck, and at the epicenter of it all is the colossal, pulsating, and relentless sensation of panic.

At risk of baring my soul even further, I want to explore the foundations of my panic, the sources of my angst at the launching of this young woman, this sweet child of mine who, in my eyes and I think in the objective eyes of anyone, is a spectacular combination of brains, beauty, and character, well poised to perform the task of leaving home – which a not insignificant number of people have done successfully before with far fewer arrows in their quiver than she has. Yes, she is my first to leave the nest, but why am I panicked so?

To begin with, I think I am panicked because these last few weeks have been akin to those desperate moments at the end of an exam, once the proctor has called “time” and is hovering over your desk about to snatch your handiwork. You frantically review your math or scribble down the last few sentences, knowing that once that blue book is handed in, the deal is done. In the case of this particular blue book, well, I have been working on it for eighteen years. “Time” has been called; I need to hand it in to that proctor called “the world,” and I know there is still ground yet to cover.

Second, and somewhat related, and here I need to tread lightly – because there is so much about my child about which I am genuinely proud – I am panicked because I am entirely unconvinced that my daughter is prepared for all that awaits her. I watch that kid hand in forms at the last minute, I see the condition she leaves her room, and I am panicked at whether she is game-ready for the world at large. It doesn’t help, mind you, that, as my wife is quick to point out, pretty much every habit of my daughter's that grates on me, she got from me, a sermon no doubt for another day. But that does not mitigate the undeniable fact that she is still very much a work in progress. Multiple times these last months, I have caught myself helicoptering – or, more precisely, diving, kamikaze-like – into the affairs of my child, driven by my certitude that she is not yet ready for that thing called life. Multiple times I have caught myself intervening – sometimes too late – prompted by a tsunami of doubt that this kid, who to this day needs to be reminded to set her alarm clock, will demonstrate the requisite life skills to navigate the world.

Third, and most importantly, I know that this moment of panic is really not about her, but about me. It’s not that I want her to stay home. I have never been moved by reflections on how fast time flies, how kids grow up in the blink of an eye, and how we have to hold on and cherish every second. I think eighteen years is plenty. I do think that my panic is about loss of control. That what I love most, my children, will go out into the world, make decisions for themselves, chart their own paths, fall down, fail, and set boundaries between themselves and the home that shaped their lives. When I think about it, when I really think about it, I think that my panic is rooted in the difficult task of letting go, of allowing for the possibility that my kid will make her own choices, figure things out on her own, and develop into her own person.

One could read the tale of this week’s haftarah – the tale of Samson – as just another chapter in the cyclical history of ancient Israel as told in the book of Judges. One could also choose to see the mighty Samson as a sort of idealized Till Eulenspiegel folk hero. But given that our haftarah focuses not on the exploits of Samson’s life, but on the birth story that brought Samson into this world, I am inclined to believe that the intent of the Rabbis was to direct our attention to the domestic aspects of Samson’s life and character, specifically to his relationship with his father and mother. While at first blush we may think of Samson as some sort of masculine ideal of great strength, long hair, virility, and heroic deeds, upon a closer read (and I encourage you to read these four chapters of the Book of Judges on your own) you will discover Samson to be anything but the Übermensch we would have him be. The story of Samson is actually the story of a failed passing of the intergenerational baton, the failed effort of parent and child to let go of each other, and, to get to the nub of it all, Samson’s failure to launch into the world.

You need not go further than Samson’s first line of dialogue to see that he has issues. He notices a Philistine woman and demands of his father and mother: “Get her for me as a wife.” While Samson’s father, Manoah, does lodge an objection, he quickly caves to Samson’s repeated demand: “Get that for me, because she is the one that pleases me.” On so many levels, this is not a healthy dynamic: a coddled child, who, despite being capable of heroic acts, is strangely unable to lift a finger when it comes to his own life. He demands not just that his parents acquire a wife for him, but that they do so from the daughters of Israel’s sworn enemies – a paradox of psychosexual dependence and rebellion that not even Freud could fully explain.

What is clear, as argued convincingly by the Bible scholar Stephen Wilson, is that all of Samson’s deeds – romantic, heroic, and otherwise – occur against the backdrop of Samson’s inability to set out independently in the world and away from his parents. (Journal of Biblical Literature 133:1, 2014) When Samson refuses to reveal the answer to his riddle to the Philistines, his defense is, strangely, how could he – when he has yet to even tell his parents? When he tears an animal asunder, the biblical narrator is quick to inform the reader whether his parents knew about the incident. When Samson scoops honey from the lion for his Timnite bride, an act dripping with sensual overtones, he first goes home to share the honey with his parents – an act akin, in Wilson’s words, “to a young man purchasing roses and chocolates for a romantic rendezvous and then promptly offering them to his parents.” (p. 49) Man-child that he is, Samson’s first marriage unsurprisingly fails, and after he kills thirty Philistine men in a rage, he goes home to mommy and daddy. Even in death, after he has brought the Philistine temple down on himself, Samson remains tethered to his parents; his corpse is significantly placed in his father’s tomb. Samson’s life is a failed maturation process, resulting in an impetuous, obstinate, careless, and heirless figure totally lacking in self-restraint. Samson is anything but his own man, anything but a heroic figure. He is the anti-hero, his story a morality tale for ancient Israel and for all of us in this room on how not to parent, on what not to not do.

Who is to blame? Did Samson’s parents hold on too tightly? Was Samson too much of a “mama’s boy?” It is hard to know where to point the finger. What I do know is that at the foundation of all the misfortunes of the Samson story is the fact that Samson never left home. He failed to take agency for his decisions; he abdicated the promise of his potential; he proved unable to build relationships of meaning with men or women; and he lacked the tools to cope with failure.

If you think about any of our biblical heroes, each one of them – either on terms of their own choosing, or, more often than not, not of their choosing – had to do what Samson failed to do. They had to self-differentiate from their household of origin. Abraham smashed the idols in his father’s workshop. Following his near death on the altar, Isaac charted his own path. Jacob fled Esau. Rebecca left the home of Bethuel. Rachel and Leah broke with the house of Laban. Moses rebelled against the house of Pharaoh in which he grew up. Esther was orphaned before we even met her and then entered into the palace of Ahashverosh. The list goes on and on. You give me a biblical hero, and I will show you where they self-differentiated from their household of origin. You show me someone who never left his or her home – Joseph’s brothers; Lot’s wife, who turned to a pillar salt; or this week’s Samson – and I’ll show you someone to not aspire to be like. From the very beginning, literally as stated in  Genesis chapter 2, to leave your mother and father is the marker of becoming a mature adult.

I am totally panicked at the thought of my child leaving home, and I know that she must do so. She must do so because it is natural to do so. She must do so because ready or not, it is her time to do so. She must do so because when I think of who she is, and I think about all the stupid things I did when I was her age, I know that she is head-and-shoulders above where I was and probably still am. She must do so because I did so once myself, and I know that it has been the combination of my failures and successes, heartaches and joys – which I had to negotiate myself – that made me, and you, and all of us who we are today. Most of all, she must leave home because I want her to be her own person, to become that unique individual that has never before existed in this world, the individual who can only be if I am willing to let go of her and she of me. This world is full of people trying to be people who they are not. It strikes me as a basic minimum of parenting to let our children become the people who they are meant to be.

And so I woke up yesterday at some ungodly hour in order to take that kid to the airport, hoping to squeeze in a final hour before her summer program, before she leaves for a gap year, before she leaves for college. As we pulled up to the terminal, I nuzzled up to the curbside baggage check because I wanted to make absolutely sure her luggage got onto her flight. I gave her a kiss, told her that I love her, and before pulling away, sent her a message saying “Pls text when you get thru security.” About ten minutes into my drive back to the city, a pop-up appeared on my dashboard, and Siri’s voice announced a text received from Lucy Cosgrove: “Through security!” and then, “Would you like to reply to Lucy Cosgrove?” Well, Siri, that’s a silly question. Of course I want to reply. But this time . . . I didn’t. I hope she lands safely, but she’s gotta figure it out for herself. It is hard to give up control; it is hard to let go. But I guess that is what we must do – for ourselves, for our children, and for that hoped-for day when our children will grow up to become the adults they are meant to be.