Lessons Learned from My Father

I am still in shock. On Tzom Gedaliah, my father, Reb Eleazar Birnbaum, suddenly passed away. Despite being nearly ninety years old and suffering from some health challenges, he was so vibrant and so alive. I and all of his family – his wife, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren – who all so benefited from his insight, wisdom and youthful humor are still reeling from the shock. There is no good time to lose a parent, but when it happens so suddenly, the blow still feels fresh. So many times, I pick up my phone as a matter of instinct to call him before I remember that he is in the Olam Shekulo Tov.

Many people have asked me, “When are you going to write about him?” In truth, I didn’t think, and I still don’t think, that there is any reason to write about him in a public forum. He was not a public figure. Yes, in his field in which he was a professor, he was one of the world-renowned experts. But that was in a highly specialized academic field that only great academics could properly appreciate. His loss is a personal one for his family and close friends – in Toronto and especially at the Agudas Yisroel Shul, where he davened for more than fifty years – who so admired him. I didn’t think that there was any reason to bemoan our own personal loss in a national publication like the Yated and I still don’t.

Still, although I don’t think a formal obituary is in order, there are lessons that my father taught -primarily by example – that are very relevant to our readers, especially those who are parents and grandparents. These lessons are so important to emphasize, especially in our times, for although he would have turned ninety this month, he was remarkably contemporary in his thinking and especially in the area of human relations. His greatness stemmed from his exemplary middos. His humility was perhaps the crowning glory of them all.

Before I enumerate some of those lessons, I think that one more introductory remark is in order. Several years ago, at a Torah Umesorah Convention, Rav Avrohom Chaim Levin zt”l gave a drasha with a message that still rings in my ears. He explained that he had personally witnessed the rebuilding and rejuvenation of Torah on American shores. There were so many reasons for those pioneering roshei yeshiva who had survived the Nazis to become discouraged, but they always focused on the positive. I remember him saying, “Torah can only be built with positivity! Only someone who focuses on the good and the positive can build Torah.”

I think we can extrapolate and say that not only Torah, but a family can only be built properly with positivity as well. This middah of positivity was one that permeated my father’s essence. Children and grandchildren loved being around him and talking to him, because he always exuded profound positivity and good cheer.

Zero Expectations and Endless Hakoras Hatov

My father had no expectations. Most people become upset or disheartened with others because we have expectations that are not met. We feel that perhaps others should have more kovod for us and acknowledge what we did for them. When it comes to a father and grandfather, it is certainly that way. One expects one’s children to do this or that for them and indeed they should. Yes, when we were young, my father did have expectations from us when it came to chinuch obligations. We had to learn, daven, and help in the house, and at times he was firm in his enforcement, but that was because he was tasked by Hashem to be mechanech us. When it came to things that were for himself, he had no expectations whatsoever – not from his children, not from their spouses, and not from his grandchildren.

The flipside was that he was suffused with gratitude and hakoras hatov for even the smallest thing that anyone did for him and took absolutely nothing for granted. Even the most basic thing, like an Erev Shabbos phone call from a child or a grandchild, was welcomed with such remarkable hakoras hatov. “Thanks so much for calling,” he’d say. “I know how busy you are.” This past Pesach, when I picked my parents up from the airport in Newark, my father kept repeating how bad he felt that I spent all that time going to the airport. Here was a Yid, a zokein, close to ninety years old, who was barely able to walk, and he didn’t think it was a given for his son to pick him up from the airport.

Verbalizing Praise and Compliments

Another aspect of his hakoras hatov was that his gratitude was not limited to those who did him very great favors, nor was the fact that they were close family members something that he took for granted.

Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for people to take for granted those who are close to them. With my father, his greatest appreciation was given to my mother for all that she did for him, and to his children and their spouses. Even the smallest favor – a favor that was in their eyes a zechus to do for him, such as bringing him a coffee or serving him a meal – was met with tremendous hakoras hatov and a warm, heartfelt, specific compliment.

He so appreciated every small thing and made sure to verbalize it. Over the course of the last fifteen years or so, he continuously stated how much nachas he had from us. It was an expression of thanks, but also much, much more. As he grew older, he became conscious of his own mortality. He knew that children often feel guilty that they didn’t do enough for their parents and that they may one day feel bad. That is why he constantly and repeatedly made comments such as, “You give us so much nachas,” “You have such wonderful children,” “You have an amazing wife,” “I don’t know what I did to deserve for the Ribbono Shel Olam to bless me with such wonderful children.” In this, he was remarkably ahead of his time. Furthermore, he was so humble that he never attributed any good quality that he saw in his offspring to anything that he did. He didn’t think it had anything to do with him. It was all them.

Even more remarkable was that his own kibbud av v’eim was so outstanding that one might have thought that he would expect the same level of kibbud av v’eim from his children, but he didn’t. His parents moved to Canada to be near their children when they were nearly eighty years old. They lived a block away from us. As children, there was no such thing as coming straight home from shul on Shabbos, both on Friday night and on Shabbos morning, without first stopping in by our grandparents to wish them gut Shabbos. On Friday night, it was a short visit just to say gut Shabbos, but every Shabbos morning my father would spend about an hour and sometimes longer just talking to his parents, making jokes, sharing news, etc. He was mechabed his parents both when they were alive and after their passing in a profound way, yet he didn’t expect or think he was worthy of the same from his own children.

The Role of Grandparents in Chinuch

A third pivotal lesson that he taught – and he was well ahead of his time in this regard – was the way that he interacted with his grandchildren and their parents. He never said it or spelled it out, but it was clear in hindsight that he felt that his role was not to be mechanech his grandchildren nor to be mechanech their parents on how to be mechanech their own children. Although I am certain that he had what to say about numerous aspects of their conduct, he never, ever, made a comment.

All he did was praise them and accentuate the positive attributes that he saw in each grandchild. As a person of his age, he had many grandchildren and a very diverse array of grandchildren when it came to both temperament and hashkafah, but he succeeded in only focusing on the positive. He took every maalah that he saw and built each person up, praising them and accentuating their maalos. He accepted each grandchild for what they were and who they were. It is no wonder that each and every one of his many grandchildren felt that they were truly most special to him…because they were.

Often, as parents and grandparents, we feel compelled, lesheim Shomayim, to tell our children or at least their children what they can improve when it comes to chinuch. My father did not ascribe to that. Perhaps he was wise enough to realize that it would be counterproductive either way, or perhaps he had other reasons, but the fact remains that he never offered a word of criticism to grandchildren and certainly not to sons-in-law or daughters-in-law. Only gratitude, hakoras hatov and words of praise.

Interestingly enough, as a result of not offering unsolicited advice, it was not at all uncommon for his children and their spouses to seek out his advice, opinions and unbiased view on any host of chinuch and other issues. He would often be surprised that we were asking his opinion, but with a smile that was as warm as it was gracious, a brain that was as well-read as it was thought out and intuitive, and a heart that was overflowing with care and concern, he would give his full, undivided attention, along with the much sought-after advice.

Not Living Vicariously Through Your Children

His selflessness was remarkable. All he wanted was to do what was right and good for his children, even if it meant sacrificing his very strong and long-held aspirations.

He was raised with the hashkafah of Torah im derech eretz. After learning in the Sunderland Yeshiva, he pursued an academic career. As an academic, he would have wanted his children to pursue some sort of university training and career. Indeed, when my brothers and I were post-high-school bochurim, he very much felt that we should go to college, not only because that was his own experience, but also because he deemed it his responsibility to empower us to acquire the skills to earn a parnassah. Nevertheless, when he realized that the world was changing and full-time learning was what we really, deeply wanted to pursue, he supported us. This was not the way he had been raised, but he saw that it was good for us. I am sure it was very difficult for him for many reasons, but when it came to his children, it was never about him at all, only about us. He did not feel the need to live vicariously through his children.

Today, many of us feel compelled to do anything possible to get our kids into this yeshiva and that seminary to get a name as being “shpitz,” but the problem is that this is usually good for us but not for the child. My father focused on what was good for the child, even at the expense of his own deeply-held values. That takes gadlus and real gevurah.

Brilliance and Temimus Can Co-Exist

My father was a brilliant professor and scholar. He wrote numerous books and perhaps hundreds of research papers. He was considered a pre-eminent world scholar in his field of expertise. Each of his works is copiously footnoted as he brings proof after proof to whatever thesis he was putting forth. That, however, was only in his academic life. When it came to Yiddishkeit, he possessed the temimus of a “shul Yid” from amol, a different era. He married late because he could not find a girl in the academic world who would be willing to cover her hair. Most people would have compromised, but when it came to Yiddishkeit, the mesorah that he received from his own father was not subject to compromise.

He specifically chose to daven in the Agudas Yisroel Shul even though it was nearly a half hour walk from his house and there were other shuls closer. He wanted to raise his family in that milieu. As brilliant as he was, when it came to Yiddishkeit, he didn’t have to understand. He accepted with remarkable temimus the mesorah that he received.

Constant Growth in Shalom Bayis

As good and devoted as he was to us as a father, perhaps he was even more devoted to our mother. The mutual respect, devotion and adoration they had were very special. They had a beautiful marriage. My father made my mother laugh every day right until the last day of his life.

The amazing thing was that their marriage blossomed more and more after the children were married, when they were once again alone. When we were growing up, they were under much more pressure than they were in their last decades. My father was working full-time and raising and having to be mechanech rambunctious children, sometimes with a firm hand. These tasks are never easy or cheap. So, although they always had wonderful shalom bayis, there was more pressure in the home at that time. In their later years, however, I noticed how my parents appreciated one another even more as they got older. They never took each other for granted.

My father consistently injected humor into every situation. Interestingly, even the friends of their grandchildren, after observing them, made comments like, “You have the cutest grandparents.”

The foundation of their shalom bayis, however, was their sense of responsibility to one another and their respect for each other. Yes, they had a beautiful relationship, but a key factor was that it was built on responsibility and obligation, on the thought of “What can I give?” preceding – nay, superseding – any thought of “What can I get?” Everything else stemmed from that.

So, my dear friends, I know I was deeply fortunate to have such a father and tbl”c such a mother, but if any reader will incorporate even some of the lessons that my father embodied by the way he conducted his life, I feel that their lives will be immeasurably enriched, as mine has been.

L’illui nishmas R’ Eleazar ben R’ Shlomo Osher z”l.