This week is a hard one for our family: we are taking our daughter to college in New York State. I am writing this post in a coffee shop near the Hudson River, having completed a 1,087-mile family drive from St. Louis. We will help Emma settle into her dorm this weekend and head back home on Sunday.
As any parent knows, the excitement of watching a child reach a developmental milestone is accompanied by feelings of impending loss. The exquisite pain of separation comes as much from knowing that it is ultimately the result of her own good choices.
Our tradition has long recognized the centrality of separation to the development of our people, and the complexity of reasons for leaving. Abraham left his family to establish our people in the land of Canaan, purportedly because he heard God commanding him. In a later Midrash—a story added to fill in the gaps of the “official” record—we learn that Abraham disapproved of his family’s idol worshiping. We thus have three reasons that seem to compel Abraham—his own will to establish a dynasty, the command of God, and finally a principled disagreement on the matter of how to worship.
My daughter is hardly compelled by God to go! Nor is she fleeing from some ideological disagreement with her parents (unless having an obligation to wash dishes and walk the dog constitutes such disagreement). All the same, Emma has multiple reasons to go. There is the excitement of being able to reinvent herself, to learn in a manner that she controls, to broaden her horizons. This is of course accompanied by her profound sense of sadness leaving her loved ones behind. In the midst of this dislocation she has asked, “Dad do I really have to go to college?” The question itself recognizes the pain and multiple pulls involved at this moment of transition, her perseverance evidence of her recognition of the importance of doing so.
These are the musing of those of us fortunate enough to live relatively affluent lives where our separations are most often voluntary and self-directed. The tradition and history of our people are just as often filled with forced dislocation and separation. The “traveling Aramean” of the Passover story is generalizable to the Jew in history and literature, forced to live itinerant lives whether for economic or political reasons. Perhaps because of this Jews since Abraham have recognized our collective obligation to welcoming the stranger, whether our own or others.
Our Federation system was started by the response to this dislocation at the start of the 20th century as over 2 million Jews came to the United States. Our community rose to meet the needs of our people arriving. And even today Federation is at the forefront to ensure that every immigrant, every itinerant Jew, has their basic needs met so that they may live of dignity, purpose and meaning. Even beyond our own, we remain committed to helping all strangers among us.
Back here on the Hudson River new colleagues and acquaintances have extended their warmth and hospitality to our family. We will accept their hospitality in the tradition of strangers in a new land and in some small way help our daughter begin to form her own web of relationships that will sustain her into adulthood.
Not that she needs our help; we do this as much because it helps us to separate from her. Knowing that Emma has some connection here, knowing that she will have some sense of familiarity when we leave, knowing that as a community we are committed to taking care of each other, provides a small sense of comfort to us today. And next week even more so: as we celebrate our first Shabbat back in St Louis with Emma a thousand miles away.