Fathers and Sons

Numbers 1:1-4:20

By Daniel M. Jaffe

Published June 03, 2005, issue of June 03, 2005.
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From across the kitchen table, Bobby asks, “You want your firstborn son to die on a battlefield?”

“Don’t be ridiculous.” Phil Gutman shakes his head. “We’re talking registration with the Selective Service, that’s all. You’re 18. It’s the law.”

“I’ll be drafted to Iraq. We already did the Babylonian exile thing a long time ago, Dad.”

“Very funny, mister.” Phil takes a bite of his Sabbath pot roast on rye, savors the familiar flavor of caraway seeds and mayonnaise. You raise your son to be an independent thinker, then you get upset when his independent thoughts differ from yours. He knows that Bobby is simply trying to assert his own ethical system. What more could a father ask from a maturing son? Still, the law’s the law. Phil says, “Don’t give me baloney about being drafted. There is no draft. But you’ve got to register.”

“Maybe there’s no draft, but there’s a principle. Registering with the Selective Service constitutes participation in the war machine.”

“Registering constitutes participation in society.” To hide his smile — doesn’t Bobby sound just like Phil did during the Vietnam War? — Phil stuffs potato chips into his mouth and crunches. Bobby’s always been a good boy. Sure, he’s given Phil and Carol the usual teenager headaches: turning his bedroom into a pigsty, bickering with his younger brother at every opportunity, forgetting to put gas in the car, staying out past midnight and coming home drunk (only once). Nothing serious. Phil’s actually pleased that his son wishes to live according to principles. But, a father must protect his son from the recklessness of youth.

“When you say,” Bobby continues, “that registering means being part of society, you’re implying that war is inherent in society. Haven’t you always taught that being Jewish means loving peace? What about Isaiah’s ideal that one day all nations will beat swords into plowshares?”

“You want to cite Tanakh? Fine. Tell me which Torah portion you were reading today in shul. I was reading Be-Midbar.”

At Bobby’s blush, Phil knows he’s made his point; still, he presses, “Registration for the military goes back to Be-Midbar.”

Bobby picks at his potato chips, says nothing.

“The portion,” Phil continues, “opens with the Lord ordering Moses to record every male, age 20 and older, who’s able to go to war in Israel.”

“I read it, Dad. You’ve made your point.”

“The Hebrews were preparing for war. Be-Midbar even instructs which marching formation the tribes should take.”

“Okay, Dad, enough!”

“Which are the glory days of Jewish history? Remember Joshua and Jericho? How about King David? He was a warrior. And what about Israel today — you’re saying the Israeli military isn’t in keeping with Jewish tradition?” Phil sees his son’s eyes redden and moisten. Such a sensitive boy, struggling to resolve conflicts in his culture, in himself. Maybe Phil has pushed too far.

“Are you saying,” Bobby asks in a low voice, “that war is more central to Jewish culture than peace? Is that what you’re saying?”

“Of course not.” Bobby’s on the verge of manhood, yet his foundation is still shakable by his father. That’s what today’s argument is really about — father and son wrestling for greater authority. Phil feels ashamed, softens his tone. “You’re totally right that peace is a Jewish ideal. It’s precisely because King David was a warrior that the Lord didn’t permit him to build the Temple; only a man of peace, Solomon, deserved to create the Temple. I’m just saying there are times when circumstance demands a military. Maybe if the Jewish people had one in World War II — ” Phil stops, not needing to continue. He reaches across the table to take his son’s hand. “You’re a good boy, Bobby, a good Jewish boy, wanting to live a life of peace. Maybe if the whole world were Jewish, there’d be no war and you wouldn’t need to register with the military.”

Bobby yanks his hand away, “What? Are you saying only Jews want peace? Are you saying no other nation wants peace? I can’t believe you’re so chauvinistic! Gosh, Dad — ”

Oy vey. Phil listens as his son launches a new tirade. He decides that this argument, he’ll let Bobby win. After all, it’s a father’s duty to help his son gain self-confidence. Just as it’s a father’s duty to encourage a son’s independent thinking. But only, of course, to a point.

Daniel M. Jaffe, author of the novel, “The Limits of Pleasure” (Haworth Press, 2001), lives in Santa Barbara, Calif.






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