FATHER’S DAY 5774
On this Father’s Day weekend, I want to tell you about another side of fatherhood—a side that, Gd forbid, we should ever have to deal with. What do you do when your child gets into serious trouble? Let me share with you the story of 3 fathers who were tested terribly by what happened to their children, and how each came through.
The hottest story in the news now is of the trade of 5 high-ranking Taliban terrorists for the one remaining American prisoner of war in Afghanistan, Bowe Bergdahl. Many feel strongly that Bergdahl should not have been rescued because he was a traitor who walked off his base without permission, endangering the lives of his buddies by deserting and that attempts to rescue him have cost lives. Some say that the trade made to rescue him was too expensive in that it gave back prisoners who have blood on their hands and who will only come back to strike at us again.
I don’t know any more than you do, but I must say that I’ve been struck by what Bowe Bergdahl’s parents had done during the 5 years he has been in captivity. Did you notice the picture of the parents standing together with the president of the United States as his rescue was announced? If so, you surely noticed the long, unruly beard that Bowe Bergdahl’s father Bob was wearing. What was the 1st thing you thought when you saw that beard? I wondered—as I’m sure many others have—is this some sort of Muslim fanatic? He seem to only confirm those fears as he infuriated many with his use of both the Pashto and Arabic languages to thank Allah in front of the President at the White House.
And then I later learned from his pastor, Phil Proctor, that Bob Bergdahl is a devoted Christian and had taken an oath not to shave again until his son was rescued. He has now shaven after 5 years. Bob also once said in an interview much before the release: “I’m trying to learn a little Pashto so that I can speak to people...[that is, to Bowe’s captors].” He was doing anything he could to help his son: not shaving to draw attention to his son’s plight and learning a few words of Pashto and Arabic to plead with his son’s captors.
I don’t know if Bowe Bergdahl is guilty of anything or not. I don’t know the real facts of this case. None of us do, and none of us will, until an investigation takes place. But this I do know: I am impressed with a father who takes a sacred oath to become a living witness to the captivity of his son until his son is rescued.
For 5 years, Bowe Bergdahl was a hero to the people of the town from which he came; and then, overnight, he’s been turned into a villain. Death threats have been made against his parents. It’s easy to share in your son’s popularity when the whole village in which you live shares your pain and waits with you for your son’s return. It’s so much harder to share in your son’s disgrace, when the people among whom you live believe that he’s a traitor—and that too high a price was paid for his rescue. Whether Bowe Bergdahl ends up being revealed as an innocent captive or a traitor, one thing he will know for sure: he has parents who believed in him, and who stood by him.
It’s easy to kvell and to shep naches and to boast when your child does well. But to work and work and work—against all odds—when all your efforts seem futile, to work without rest trying to save your child, that’s what it means to be a devoted father.
The 2nd example is Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who, like Bowe Bergdahl, spent 5 long, lonely years in captivity. And when he got out, there were some people who grumbled at the number of Hamas terrorists who were traded for his release—over a 1,000! There were even some who said he was somewhat responsible for his own kidnapping and should not have been rescued at such a high price. As he later admitted: “My unit had trained to prevent kidnapping attempts but I did not take the threat seriously…I thought no one could enter the tank and abduct me.”
But all these arguments were irrelevant to his parents. All they knew, all they cared about, was that their child was in captivity. And so they moved heaven and earth on his behalf. They went to Washington to lobby the American administration. They went to the Vatican to try to persuade the Pope to intervene on his behalf. They made the rounds of Europe, speaking to the heads of state. They led a march from their home up North in the Galilee to Jerusalem, in which tens of thousands of other Israelis joined—all in order to call attention to their son’s plight. And they put up a peace tent right outside the home of the Prime Minister of Israel, so that every time he went in and every time he went out, he had to face them. They gave him a daily reminder that their young son was a hostage, and that it was time to bring him home. And eventually, they put so much pressure upon the Israeli government and did so much to arouse world opinion on their son’s behalf that the government gave in and brought their child home.
The story of the 3rd father comes out of one of the severe earthquakes (1989) to strike Armenia which is in Eastern Turkey and Azerbaijan—as told by Mark Hansen in his, Chicken Soup for the Soul (p. 273). This earthquake killed over 30,000 people in less than 4 minutes. Let me read you the story:
In the midst of utter devastation and chaos, a father left his wife securely at home and rushed to the school where his son was supposed to be, only to discover that the building was as flat as a pancake.
After the traumatic initial shock, he remembered the promise he had made to his son: “No matter what, I’ll always be there for you!” And tears began to fill his eyes. As he looked at the pile of debris that once was the school, it looked hopeless, but he kept remembering his commitment to his son.
He began to concentrate on where he walked his son to class at school each morning. Remembering his son’s classroom would be in the back right corner of the building, he rushed there and started digging through the rubble.
As he was digging, other forlorn parents arrived, clutching their hearts, saying: “My son!” “My daughter!” Other well-meaning parents tried to pull him off of what was left of the school saying: “It’s too late! They’re dead! You can’t help! Go home! Come on, face reality, there’s nothing you can do! You’re just going to make things worse!”
To each parent he responded with one line: “Are you going to help me now?” And then he proceeded to dig for his son, stone by stone.
The fire chief showed up and tried to pull him off of the school’s debris saying, “Fires are breaking out, explosions are happening everywhere. You’re in danger. We’ll take care of it. Go home.” To which this loving, caring Armenian father asked, “Are you going to help me now?”
The police came and said, “You’re angry, distraught and it’s over. You’re endangering others. Go home. We’ll handle it!’ To which he replied, “Are you going to help me now?” No one helped…
He dug for 8 hours…12 hours…24 hours...36 hours…then, in the 38th hour, he pulled back a boulder and heard his son’s voice. He screamed his son’s name, “ARMAND!” He heard back, “Dad!?! It’s me, Dad! I told the other kids not to worry. I told ‘em that if you were alive, you’d save me and when you saved me, they’d be saved. You promised, ‘No matter what, I’ll always be there for you!’ You did it, Dad!”
“What’s going on in there?” the father asked.
“There are 14 of us left out of 33, Dad. We’re scared, hungry and thirsty...”
“Come on out, boy!”
“No, Dad! Let the other kids out first, cause I know you’ll get me! No matter what, I know you’ll be there for me!”
I think of these 3 fathers today—Bowe Bergdahl’s father, Gilad Shalit’s father and Armand’s father in Armenia—who have each demonstrated what it means to be a father. It’s easy to accept Father’s Day cards, and to do the barbeque tomorrow. It’s easy to say thank you for the shirt or the tie that you receive. But these 3 fathers—each in their own way—have taught us what it means to be a father when your child is in trouble.
Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that children have a blank check to do whatever they want. I’m not saying that parents don’t have the right to feel great pain when their children do things that hurt them. What I am saying is—no matter what they do—our children must know that their parents are in their corner and will stand by them—no matter what.
Tomorrow is Father’s Day and we, as Jews, should embrace it with great enthusiasm as an opportunity to observe the 5th mitzvah of the 10 Commandments: Kabeyd et avicha v’et imecha, “Honor thy father and thy mother.” For those of us still fortunate enough to have their fathers, let Father’s Day be a time for saying thanks to them and to Gd. For those whose fathers are gone, let this be a time for remembering how much we took for granted while they were alive, how they cared for and supported us, how they were, no matter what, there for us.
And for those of us who are fathers, it shouldn’t have to take a kidnapping or an earthquake for our families to know, that no matter what, we’ll be there for them. As a father, let them see in all that you do, that you’re a mentsh, a real man. Hug and kiss your loved ones this Father’s Day and every day. Hold them tight and make each moment with them count, for in the end, that is what really matters. Happy Father’s Day.
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis