During the Cuban Missile Crisis of the 1960s, I was taking a philosophy course at Yeshiva University. Students felt that there was real possibility of a nuclear holocaust, and my malaise was deepened when my Philosophy professor ended his Thursday class by saying “See you on Monday if there will be a Monday.” I remember asking one of my Judaic studies teachers what would happen to the Jewish people in such a doomsday scenario. He told me that the Jews might suffer as well as the rest of humanity; but that there would always be a remnant of the people left, for God’s covenant with the Jews was eternal and the Jews would never totally disappear from the world. The only appropriate action we could take now was to do good deeds and pray for peace.
These memories percolated in my mind as I watched War of the Worlds, a story of what might happen if a malevolent extra-terrestrial force were to target the earth for destruction. The film opens as Ray Ferrier, a divorced dad, picks up his children, Robbie and Rachel, from his ex-wife who is going on a weekend vacation with her husband.
Ray has a very small parenting tool box; and while he enjoys spending time with his kids, he has little idea of who they are and what makes them tick. His parenting skills are tested when calamity strikes. Soon after they arrive at his Bayonne, New Jersey home, unseasonably strong winds and lightning set the stage for a Martian invasion of the earth. Martian tripod-killing machines emerge from the bowels of the earth and incinerate everything around them. Ray, in a panic, flees to Boston with his children in one of the only remaining working vehicles, hoping to find sanctuary in the home of his former in-laws where their mother is staying.
Scenes of death and destruction traumatize Rachel; and when they find temporary refuge in a deserted building, she asks her father to sing her a lullaby so she can sleep. Ray doesn’t remember any lullaby, but he manages to sing a song that calms her. Ray realizes that in times of crisis, family comes first. The safety of loved ones trumps all other considerations.
Jewish tradition fosters a similar mind set. It is the family that is the bedrock of stability that enables one to endure the storms of adversity. The Bible emphasizes that when the Jews went down into the iron furnace of Egyptian slavery, they went down as families; for it is within the family unit that people can find safe haven and it is within the family where lifelong values are nurtured.
There is a well established family custom that Jewish parents bless their children regularly. Some do it once a year on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year; others do it every Friday night. It was my own custom to do it once a year, but in recent years I wished I had done it weekly. To look into your child’s eyes once a week, to utter a blessing to your son and daughter, and then to hug and kiss them seems an exquisite pleasure for a parent. Why do it only once a year? Kids leave the home when they grow up, but the memory of an embrace, of a heart to heart moment of love, leaves a bank account of affection that that can draw interest for many years.
My children and I live in different communities now but my children often call me on Friday to ask for by blessing. I cannot hug them from Israel, but I can tell them I love them and that means a lot to me and them.
War of the Worlds reminds us that in times of crisis, family comes first. It is wise to nurture family ties with our young children so that we and they can enjoy the warmth and constancy of our mutual love as we and our children grow older together.