My father, of blessed memory, was not a frivolous person. He came to America as a young teen fleeing the pogroms of Russia in the early 1900s. He enlisted in the Navy and served honorably. He married relatively late and I wasn’t born until he was over 40. He worked hard as a painting contractor, breathing in lead-based paint before OSHA was around; and he did not have time to play basketball with me. He was busy trying to earn a living. In spite of his burdensome job, there was lots of love in my home. My father spent time with me, counseled me, and set a good example of upright living. Honest and charitable to the core, he devoted his free time to synagogue service and to rearing a growing family.
One of my favorite memories is going to the movies with him. My father rarely went, generally considering such pastimes a waste of time. But we did share an interest in westerns. Once in a very great while, I convinced him to come with me. I still remember the pleasure I had watching Gary Cooper in Springfield Rifle together with my Dad.
I was reminded of this as I watched Wyatt Earp, a 3-hour long epic revisionist western about that great Western hero. My Dad would not have liked the sordid parts of the narrative and the foul language, but he would have admired the beauty of the vast open spaces and the action sequences.
A subtext of the story is Wyatt’s relationship with his father, Nicholas Earp, who gives him critical pieces of advice along his life’s journey. It is notable that Nicholas Earp does not talk much; but when he does, people listen because they respect him and know that he loves them. Moreover, he gives advice to Wyatt at the right moment. Our Sages tell us we have an obligation to rebuke a child, but only when he is ready to listen. If he is not ready, then one should delay the rebuke.
When Wyatt is still a teenager, his father informs him that there are many vicious people who do not obey the law and “when you find yourself in a fight with such viciousness, hit first, and when you do hit, hit to kill.” He gives Wyatt a basic primer on how to deal with bad people who break the law and hurt other people. Show no mercy. To be affable is to be weak in the face of evil.
Later, when Wyatt’s beloved wife dies of typhoid, Wyatt, depressed and angry, immerses himself in drunkenness and theft. After landing in jail, his father comes to rescue him and pointedly tells him: “Do you think you are the first person to lose someone? That’s what life is all about. Loss. But we don’t use it as an excuse to destroy ourselves. We go on.” He imparts to Wyatt the life lesson that although life at times brings pain, life can still continue. Wyatt accepts these two pieces of advice, which guide him throughout his career as a successful lawman.
The task of a father in Jewish law is to teach his child Torah, to teach him a livelihood, and to teach him to swim, which many commentators take to mean to swim through life. Parents are repositories of wisdom and life experience, and too often we don’t take advantage of this. Advice from a person with much life experience who loves you, and who is invested in your successful living is a treasure. Wyatt Earp reminds us of the supreme value of a parent’s counsel.