Returning to the “Empty Nest” after College Drop-off

Rabbi Michael G. Holzman

As I drove into the synagogue today, following my usual route down Broad Street, I entered the annual traffic jam called Temple University Drop Off.   What a mess.  But it reminded me of the excitement, anxiety, joy and sadness this day evokes in many families.  It also reminded me of a Jewish text.

For our children, this moment is a shockingly wide door opening.  The parents drive away and –Boom!–you are on your own!  Of course the cell phone, credit card, and computer tie one to home almost constantly (and if one attends college locally, there’s always the home cooked meal and laundry help).  But at that moment of drop off, a student becomes 99% responsible for his or her own schedule, friends, space, food, health, relationships, body, and (we hope somewhere in there) classes and school work.  The abrupt increase freedom and responsibility are almost whiplash inducing.

This is why things like care packages, mezuzot, and letters (yes, real paper letters) are powerful, tangible reminders of home and values.  They remind a student of who they are and where they come from.

But what about the parents?  What about those two (or one, or three or four) people driving away?  For them this might be a moment of freedom as well (especially if they just dropped off the youngest), but it is also wraught with fear and sadness.

When an individual makes that decision to have children, and God blesses them– with pregnancy, birth, infancy, diapers, toddlerhood, diapers, preschool, diapers, soccer, elementary school, swim team, B’nai Mitzvah, middle school, dating, baseball, drama class, high school, SATs, Confirmation, Israel trips, more dating, ipods, facebook, more baseball, driving, voting–and God responds with all of that, we enter an epic stage in our lives.  Our children take over in so many ways.  At first it’s our time and space and energy (and money), and later its our consciousness and hopes and fears and sense of self (and money).

When those children leave the nest, sometimes we return not just to an empty home, but maybe also an empty sense of self.  I do not know yet, my kids are still in those early soccer and preschool years.  But so much of Judaism is about our identity, and the shift in identity from daily parenting at home, to a more distant relationship in college or afterwards, that shift is a radical one.   How do I teach them?  How do I listen?  Have I done a good job?  Did I remember to teach them about . . . ?  How can I help without making them too dependent?

And what about me?  Who am I now?  Has my life been a success?  What will I do with my time?

These are eternal questions, and Judaism’s eternal answers are almost always found in stories. The following is one of my favorites.  It is from a medieval collection of midrash (ninth century CE) called Pirke de Rabbi Elizer:

Rabbi Eliezer is the youngest son of a man named Hyrkanus.  From his name we can tell that Hyrcanus was quite integrated into Roman culture and not a big supporter of Torah study.  Eliezer leaves the family farm to go and study with Rabbi Yochannan ben Zakkai, the most famous teacher of his day.  His brother are angry and influence their father, Hyrkanus, to go and disinherit their younger brother.

Hyrkanus arrives and Rabbi Yochannan sees him, but Eliezer does not.  Rabbi Yochanan asks Eliezer to expound on Torah, which Eliezer hesitates to do in front of his teacher, but eventually the student relents.  The text teaches that as the young man spoke, Eliezer’s face shined like the sun and his radiance was like Moses coming down Mt. Sinai.  All of the students were overwhelmed and Rabbi Yochanan kissed him on the head and said, “Happy are you,  Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, because this one has come from your offspring.”  Hyrkanus, so overwhelmed by his son’s accomplishments, stands and says, “Happy am I, becasue he comes from my offspring.”  And then he addresses his son and says, “I came here to disinherit you, but seeing your success and the beauty of your teaching, I would give you all of my wealth.”   (Many thanks to my friend Rabbi Craig Axler for turning me onto this text.)

The lesson of this text is clear.  We have no idea what our children will accomplish. We may want to chase after them and force them to come home.  But we know we cannot.  Maybe they will “move mountains,” as Dr. Seuss teaches.  Maybe they will rebel against us. Maybe they will inspire us with their successes and radiance.  Whatever the case may be, something has changed.  In some ways, we have become their students.  And while parents continue to nurture, support and give to their children, they also discover their own paths as newly re-independent adults.

I have little wisdom to offer, but I hope our tradition’s teaching eases the nerves and inspires all of our parents to explore this next phase of life.