Over 25 years ago, one of my sons asked me a question regarding Jewish law. I meditated for a moment and gave him an answer that I thought was correct, but about a year later, I discovered that what I told him was incorrect.
I apologized for giving him the wrong answer, and life went on, but my quick response of many years ago still rankles in my mind today. My son came to me because he assumed that I was a source of wisdom upon whom he could rely, like money in the bank; my hasty answer wasn’t fully researched and turned out to be flat-out wrong.
I realized then and know now that, in spite of their sometimes challenging behavior, children intuitively respect and revere parents, and we always have to be conscious of our status as teachers and role models for them, and behave at our very best for them.
This father-son dynamic is tested in “Catch Me If You Can,” an entertaining and thoughtful drama based upon the true life story of Frank Abagnale, Jr., a clever young man who impersonated an airline pilot, a doctor and a lawyer in order to bilk others out of millions of dollars on three continents, and all before age 20.
The narrative begins with a dinner honoring Frank Jr.’s father, who has worked for his local civic organization for many years. Frank Jr. watches his father in admiration as he tells the story of two mice who were in peril of drowning in a vat of milk: One succumbs, and the other keeps on scurrying about until the milk turns into butter and he is saved.
The moral: hard work leads to ultimate success. It is a great lesson for a father to teach his son.
However, Frank’s father is not the confident and wise man he seems. He has money problems, which he denies, and does whatever he can to avoid responsibility. Frank Jr. follows his lead but is more creative than his father, charting an egregious course for himself that gets the attention of the FBI.
When, after many months of crime, Frank Jr. pays a surprise visit to his father, the meeting turns into a painful realization of his father’s failure to parent him in morality. Frank Sr. complains that the government is after him:
“The IRS wants more,” he says. “I gave them cake. They want the crumbs. I’ll make them chase me for the rest of their lives.”
He also reveals that he knows his son has stolen millions of dollars from unsuspecting victims and is being investigated by the FBI. Frank Jr. pointedly asks him: “Why didn’t you ever ask me to stop?”
His love for his father is still there, but he is angry and disappointed that his father never voiced objection to his life of crime.
The Talmud tells us that a father has an obligation to teach his son a trade and that if he doesn’t do this, it is tantamount to teaching his son to be a robber. A parent’s task clearly is not just to provide for a child’s material needs but to give him moral guidance, to teach him how to navigate an ethical life in a world in which morality is tested every day.
The concrete image of this parental role is what transpires on the Passover Seder night, where the father sits at the head of table and conducts an evening of moral instruction for his family. The evening is filled with life lessons, focusing on the interchanges between father and son.
Metaphorically speaking, parents always sit at the head of the table, and it is from that vantage point that we should exercise our parental roles.
By Rabbi Herbert Cohen